As long as I can remember, I have loved horror, not just the genre, or the films, but the vibe of the entire spectrum of spooktasia. I can’t recall the exact moments that I took my first step onto the road to Horror City, though I can recall it was in my youth. I remember the feeling of Halloween; more than just a holiday, there was a sensation that would overtake my body when October came around; I could feel it in the air. This dizzying thought that there were things lurking in the shadows, so close that you could almost touch it, though just out of reach in the darkness, those thoughts intoxicated my imagination.
I loved ghost stories, costumes, haunted houses and of course horror movies. I am thankful to have grown up in the eighties. Perusing the aisles of the horror section of our local Mom and Pop video store. The elaborate covers of the VHS tapes would enthrall my brain. For a lifetime it seems, I have searched for something to tie it all together. I eventually found myself acting in haunted attractions, and one notable autumn I created a character that I affectionately named Psycho Cid. The name was a play on the professional wrestler, but the look of the character was based on the singer Mark “Sparky” Phillips, of the band Demented Are Go.
Cid is an undead ghoul from the depths of hell, who loves rockabilly music, hot rod cars, and having a good time. A leather clad demon who if he can’t kill you, will be just as satisfied to make you laugh. What I didn’t realize at the time is that Cid was a full-fledged living dead metaphor for psychobilly music. Also unknown to me at the time was that Demented Are Go, the very inspiration for the character are a psychobilly band. It is psychobilly music that brought everything together for me, it all just fell into place—Years of Halloweens, horror movies and a subconscious love for the styles of the fifties.
I can’t place the exact moment when it happened, perhaps it was a series of events, but somewhere along the way Cid and I blended into one. As if I voluntarily allowed myself to become possessed by my very own psychobilly demon. The transition took a few years, but I found myself coming back to him every season and eventually he was a part of me all the time.
From my hair, to my clothes, and of course the music, I can’t seem to get enough. I find myself listening to psychobilly every free moment that I have, at work, in my car, at home. I’ve even discovered an online radio station, the Doghouse Crew, that over the past couple of years has provided the soundtrack to my life. What has been difficult for me is having to cram forty years of psychobilly music into a very short amount of time. I’ve began to collect t-shirts and vinyl records, not to mention shoes, clothing, and of course, combs and pomade. I feel that in a lot of ways, psychobilly has always been with me, just lurking behind me in the shadows, waiting for the opportunity to transform me like an ancient vampire.
Neil Gaiman once wrote, “If literature is the world, then fantasy and horror are twin cities, divided by a river of black water.” I’ve always liked this analogy as it conjures up fantastic pictures in my head, because let’s face it, as much as we all love horror, it’s always been the imagery that has become iconic.
If Horror City was a place, imagine that town on a Saturday night. There would be undead greasers drag racing hot rod hearses; ghoulish waitresses on skates would deliver brain burgers and shakes to wicked cats in devilish cars at the Apocalyptic Drive-In; Christine, Dragula and that righteous 1955 Chevy 150 from Sometimes They Come Back parked in the front, while Bella Lugosi flickers on the big screen. And those spooky, wicked grooves creeping from the car speakers? That sound is psychobilly.
Psychobilly is the bastard, demon baby from the unholy union of rockabilly and punk. Spawned in the United Kingdom around the late seventies, it has a distinctive look, a distinctive style, and a distinctive sound.
Borrowing heavily from early American Rock and Roll both in look and style, bands usually consist of three musicians: drummer, guitarist and the mandatory stand-up bass. The music blends vocal styles and guitar chords from early rockabilly with a faster punk sound and littered with B-movie horror images and lyrics with themes about death, zombies, serial killers, and monsters.
The sound is raw, fast, and equally frightening and humorous. Though the genre has existed far from the mainstream, it is clearly still kicking, or we wouldn’t be talking about it in 2020. The earliest roots of psychobilly can be traced to two bands: English group The Meteors, who debuted in 1980, and American group The Cramps, who formed in 1976. Though the latter can’t be considered true psychobilly, their distinctive sound and lyrics created the foundation of the subgenre. It is the former who built the fundamentals of every psycho band that would follow.
P. Paul Fenech founded The Meteors with Nigel Lewis and Mark Robertson. Fenech and Lewis had played in rockabilly bands before, but Fenech wanted to write lyrics about the horror and science fiction films that he loved. He and Lewis combined those themes with a faster punk rock sound and true psychobilly was born. The Meteors began to play the same rockabilly clubs that they had played for years and even though their unique style and sound gained a following, their horror imagery and Fenech’s habit of spitting chicken blood at the audiences didn’t mesh with the traditional “Teddy Boy” crowds.
The band graduated to playing punk clubs with such notable acts as The Damned and The Clash. As the Meteor’s notoriety grew, so did their cult following, and other similar acts began to sprout up around Britain. By 1983, psychobilly was a full scene, complete with its own headquarters at the Klub Foot in London’s Hammerstein District.
Fans of the subgenre, known as Psychos, had their own distinctive style, a cross between rockabilly and punk. The look included a hairstyle known as the Psychobilly Quiff, similar to the pompadour on top, but with close shaved sides like a mohawk, clothing mimicked fifties styles, tight jeans with rolled cuffs, motorcycle jackets and Doc Martin’s or Creepers. The hairstyle was even memorialized in The Sharks 1983 song “Take A Razor to Your Head.” Psychos had even developed their own brand of dancing called wrecking.
The second and third waves of psychobilly created such notable acts as the American group The Brains, Germany’s Mad Sin, Denmark’s The Nekromantix, and even such modern acts as Tiger Army, The Koffin Kats, The Creepshow, and The Horror Pops. And of course, my personal favorite, the Welsh band Demented Are Go, whose lead singer Mark “Sparky” Phillips embodies the look and style of psychobilly. Sparky has a voice like a whiskey drenched, chain-smoking angel from hell. He has a very colorful style and a notorious personality to compliment it.
For Cid and me, psychobilly music has become the final brush stroke for my dark soul. As a professional Chef, I’ve always considered myself an artist, though truly getting to know myself has taken a lifetime. I hope that in the near future, somewhere on the other side of this pandemic, to combine all my passions: Food, horror, haunted houses, and psychobilly music into my own metaphorical version of the psychobilly Cadillac from Johnny Cash’s “One Piece At A Time,” the song from which this wickedly wonderful musical genre gets its name.