Psychobilly, Creeping Into The Culture
The Genre Exalts The Macabre. So Why Are Its Fans In Good Spirits?
Sunday, December 20, 1998 


They call themselves psychos. A rare breed of rockers, psychos listen to music they call psychobilly, a distorted version of '50s rockabilly that is a little more evil--and a lot funnier. Take an average rockabilly song about falling in love, muss up the sound with distortion and growling vocals, and add a verse about how that same girlfriend happens to be undead. That's psychobilly. 

Last month legions of psychos descended on a trailer park in Great Yarmouth, England, for the 11th Annual Big Rumble, a 20-band event that transformed the Vauxhall Holiday Park into a punky retro party. 

Most of the psychos were in their twenties and thirties. The women wore leopard prints; the men wore letter jackets. Everyone had biker boots and big hair. They came to see the bands, drink lots of lager and get tattooed. 

"Go find a bad girl and do bad things with her," Blue Devils singer Phil Ross told the crowd during his band's set. "If you can't, find a good girl and make her bad. And if you can't find a good girl, find a good boy and make him bad." 

When the music started, the arms started flying and the hips started shaking. And as always, the stiff wedges of dyed psychobilly hair--called "quiffs"--threatened to poke somebody's eye out. Psycho dancing is known as wrecking. It's a sort of bopping mosh that makes use of limp arms and a writhing torso--more of a friendly sparring than a conscious effort to annihilate one's neighbors. Psychos tend to be very good-natured (albeit drunk). 

The most popular band that played at the event was the Klingonz, a psychobilly quartet whose members seemed to have forgotten their pants. They wore alien masks and studded leather G-strings. 

The dark comedy of an earlier era comes back to life in psychobilly, a genre whose followers worship "The Munsters." Sheffield's Blue Devils do a cover version of the old television show's them song. The official band T-shirts for Wales's Pretty Grim have an image of Mrs. Munster on the front. 

"Charlie" by the Sharks, which also played at the Big Rumble, is a classic of the psychobilly genre: The song is characterized by cheerful, familiar chord progressions and walking bass. Its lyrics are about a chain-saw-toting 12-year-old who escapes discipline by killing everyone. 

He ran back to the classroom, "I'll get you all, " he said/ The teacher tried to stop him, but he sliced off half his head/ He butchered all his classmates and just to make his day/ He smeared blood on the blackboard saying "Charlie rules okay!"

Most psycho songs have creepy titles: Hot Boogie Chillin's "I Wanna Hear You Scream," for example, or Demeted Are Go's "Who Put Grandma Under the Stairs?" Some psycho bands have creepy names, too. Check out Denmark's Nekromantix or England's Jack and the Rippers. 

A few psycho acts, most notably the Reverend Horton Heat, have broken out of the psycho subculture. His Texas band tours frequently and draws reasonably large crowds (when in Washington, the Reverend plays the 9:30 club). But some psycho purist deny the Reverend membership in their club, ignoring his song "Psychobilly Freakout" and the word "psycho" that's written across his band's string bass. 

Psychobilly exists all over the world, but in very small pockets. Rumble attendee Ruud Van Beekveld, 32, a tombstone maker from Holland, says that although his country hosted a psycho festival last year, there are probably only 30 psychos living there. Yuko Morinaga, 22, estimates about 100 in Japan. 

At European weekenders, the crowds are usually a mixture of nationalities. Fans like Sarah Taylor and Louise Stephens, who sum up the scene in their town Bradford, England, in one word--"nil"--traveled for hours to attend the Rumble. It took Paul Nevin of Pretty Grim and Billy Morgan of No Comply seven hours to drive down from Wales--and their bands weren't even playing. 

Many psychos have made use of the Internet to create a community of like-minded fans in cyberspace. Two years ago, an Austrailian psycho started a psychobilly mailing list open to anyone who could speak English and access a computer. The list alerts members about upcoming shows, and members use it to discuss favorite bands and argue about what is psycho and what isn't. 

In America there appears to be an emerging scene in California. The relatively new band Hayride to Hell hails from San Jose. The band's drummer, Joey Myers, says that the San Francisco Bay Area's scene is fairly established and possibly the strongest in the United States. Los Angeles is alos reported to hold a significant number of psyhcobillies. And there was a psychofest in Denver last year. 

But Washington remains practically devoid of local psycho. There is one band, Ubangis, that might be psycho (the bassist says yes, the singer says no). Black Cat club owner Dante Ferrando says that Ubangis is the closest thing to psycho this town has to offer. Nearby Richmond boasts a psycho band, Chrome Daddy Disco. Occasioally, the more commercially successful American bands, like the Reverend Horton Heat or the Cramps, will play here on tour. 

Mostly, though, Washington psychos must go to great lengths for musical sustenance. They can either travel, or make do with the few migrating bands that grace the city with their fiendish presence. Fiendish pants optional. 

Copyright 1998, The Washington Post

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