Tag Archives: rockabilly

A Stray Cat Struts: My Life as a Rockabilly Rebel by Slim Jim Phantom

A Stray Cat Struts by Slim Jim PhantomWhen I look at musical biographies I’ve read in the past, from Laura Jane Grace to Tony Iommi to Ginger Wildheart to Frank Turner amongst others, it’s fairly obvious that most have focussed on frontmen or band leaders.

This seems to be a fairly standard trend so, coming to the autobiography of Slim Jim Phantom, most famously the drummer from The Stray Cats, I expected something a bit different, and that’s just what I got.

From the start Phantom makes it clear that his book won’t be a mudslinging ‘needless to say I got the last laugh’ type affair but a look at the positives that his life as a rockabilly musician of note has brought him.

That isn’t to say that it’s all saccharine sweet though as he and his various band members go through their share of problems but, for the most part, Slim Jim finds the good in all the situations, one way or another.

With this approach he makes it clear early on that he won’t engage with the potential fallout of the split of The Stray Cats, so when that comes it’s not a surprise (though later he sheds a little light on the relationships between himself and fellow Cats, Brian Setzer and Lee Rocker).

The Stray Cats

The Stray Cats

Up to the split of that band the book moves in, largely, chronological order tracing Phantom’s life from Massapequa, Long Island, New York to London where the Cats first found fame, through meetings and tours with The Rolling Stones and the kind of encounters and happenings that are genuinely amazing to hear given the speed with which they occur following the trio’s arrival in the UK.

In this we begin to meet some of Slim Jim’s ‘true pals’ who become a major feature of many of the stories and many are household names from the world of rock ‘n’ roll. While this could easily feel like name dropping par excellence, it actually comes across as if our humble narrator is as surprised by many of these encounters and friendships as we might be, including his marriage in the mid-1980s to Britt Ekland!

As the book goes on the stories focus more on specific subjects so there are chapters on Lemmy, ‘The Killer’ Jerry Lee Lewis, George Harrison and other rock ‘n’ roll heroes as well as Phantom’s endeavours in film acting, nightclub ownership and life on and around the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles.

HeadCat and Jerry Lee Lewis

HeadCat and Jerry Lee Lewis

Through all of these what makes the book so engaging is the manner in which Phantom writes. It’s as if he is telling you these stories one-to-one, and his enthusiasm for his music and extraordinary comes through strongly in every passage regardless of what he’s recounting.

As the book goes on he becomes more reflective as his hard partying days subside to watching game shows while on the phone with Harry Dean Stanton, spending time with his, evidently equally rock ‘n’ roll, son TJ and later charity mountaineering trips to Kilimanjaro and Everest.

Rockabilly music is never far away though and it’s clear this remains what makes his heart beat and its worth having YouTube handy to look up some of the Stray Cats performances he mentions just to revel in the same things he is.

Slim Jim Phantom up Kilimanjaro

Slim Jim Phantom up Kilimanjaro

What I think this accessibility and enthusiasm stems from is something he highlights and I’ve noticed in my own life that, in a majority of cases, drummers are the members of the band most happy to let down the facade of rock ‘n’ roll life, connect with others and generally are more open and sharing.

Using this Slim Jim lets us into his world in a far less self-conscious way than many other musicians making for a fascinating and easy read that may have a few rough edges tidied but feels honest and true in the way that the best things in rock ‘n’ roll should be.

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The Silverados – The Vault – 24/02/17

The Silverados

The Silverados

While I usually focus on bands playing original music in Guernsey, the island also has another side to its music scene, like most towns, with a vibrant set of cover bands playing in the pubs around the island.

These range from the likes of Stuck to the Ceiling and Day Release who emphasise the rock in their pop to Element 6 who are upbeat pop hits through and through and The Laird’s Chair who do their own traditional folk thing in the same spaces. Within this scene, comparatively recently formed four-piece The Silverados, have created their own rock ‘n’ roll flavoured niche.

Made up of four well-known faces from past bands, The Silverados are Susann Hatcher (vocals), Monty McMonagle (guitar), Dave Hatcher (bass and vocals) and Darran James (drums), so even before they started there was a certain expectation for those who know King Rat & The Soul Cats, The Johndoes, Nemesis and others.

Monty McMonagle of The Silverados

Monty McMonagle

Launching into a spot on version of Dick Dale’s Misirlou (or ‘the theme song to Pulp Fiction‘ to many) set the tone well as they delivered two hours of tunes with a strong rock ‘n’ roll and rockabilly vibe to them.

A couple of Stray Cats numbers followed before things diverted and we were treated to covers as varied as Snow Patrol, Elle King and Soft Cell but all with the same rockabilly twang and rhythm shaking their way through.

Although The Vault wasn’t that busy a few made it onto the dancefloor and it was clear that though many present hadn’t seen the band before (myself included) we were all highly impressed.

As anyone who’s knows them might expect while all four members of the band put on a good show it was Monty’s guitar work that was the highlight. He absolutely nailed the rockabilly riffs of Brian Setzer and Dick Dale on his Gretsch guitar and expertly converted the sounds of the poppier tracks into swinging blues and rock ‘n’ roll tones that made them sound like they’d always been played that way.

The Silverados

The Silverados

After a short break The Silverados second set took a similar format, this time starting with The Surfaris’ Wipeout before a few more Stray Cats tracks. This set had something of a looser feel to it as we got versions of Aerosmith, The Eurythmics and The Beastie Boys songs amongst others.

Closing on a reprise of Misirlou ended things on a high and, while this band certainly deserve a bigger and more energetic audience than the one they had tonight, they bring something different to Guernsey’s cover band scene that has potential to do that now rare thing of crossing over with some of the bands playing their own stuff on the island – and this will only be developed when Dave gets into the swing on his double bass!

Silverados press clipping 04-03-17

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Tiger Army and Nervous Twitch – Sound Control, Manchester – 19/11/16

Tiger Army at Sound Control

Tiger Army

Heading to a new venue is always interesting and Sound Control in Manchester is one I had no prior knowledge of before heading north. From the outside it looked suitably like many other venues; dark, with a group of rocker looking types heading inside and somehow off the beaten path despite being right next to a main street.

Inside things continued well with a main live room upstairs with room for around 300 people all of whom must have had at least a decent view and a stage big enough to be something but without creating too much separation between the crowd and the band – spot on for a gig like this.

Before the night’s headliners hit the stage a last-minute addition to the bill came in the form of Leed’s trio Nervous Twitch. Made up of Erin Van Rumble (bass and vocals), Jay Churchley (guitar) and Ashley Goodall (drums and backing vocals) they set the tone right away with a mix of poppy punk with surfy guitars and hints of bubblegum and 60s pop echoing The Runaways, The Ramones and The Undertones with suggestions of The B-52s thrown in.

Erin Van Rumble of Nervous Twitch

Erin Van Rumble

While they came across as a bit nervous at first Van Rumble was soon throwing shapes with her Danelectro Longhorn bass while Churchley’s understated stage presence was more than made up for by some top-notch, reverb heavy, guitar work.

A highlight came with an instrumental surfy number, though elsewhere Van Rumble’s vocals were excellently balanced between sweet pop and biting punk. With this Nervous Twitch more than held the crowd’s attention and I’m sure won over some new fans – at the very least two in the form of me and my gig-going friend.

As a fine selection of choice rock ’n’ roll, rockabilly, psychobilly and garage weirdness (including songs from The Cramps and Screaming Lord Sutch) played through the in-house sound system there was a clear sense of anticipation for Tiger Army. Having not toured the UK in nearly a decade this was unsurprising and, despite having seen their 2015 Octoberflame show, I was equally as swept along, so, as the strains of Hank William’s Angel of Death emerged from the PA the mood was high, despite the melancholy tone of the intro tape.

Tiger Army at Sound Control

Tiger Army

After a customary live intro the band launched into Firefall from new album V… and never really looked back delivering a set spanning their entire career, quite impressively going right back to their first EP with Jungle Cat and their take on Eddie Cochran’s 20 Flight Rock which really getting the crowd going.

While the whole set was well delivered it was clear that there are some songs which the audience really connected with, so the likes of Ghostfire, Cupid’s Victim, Pain and FTW were instant highlights (a nice touch was Nick 13’s subtle but telling intro to FTW).

As band leader Nick 13 (guitar and lead vocals) is a mesmerising presence; energetic and open throughout, connecting with the audience through an amazing pair of eyes and with a voice that has an immense power while rarely resorting to shouting, except when appropriate. With him drummer Mike Fasano was a dynamic powerhouse getting the spirit of punk rock mixed with rockabilly to a tee while Djordje Stijepovic’s upright bass work was truly excellent and the band as a whole gelled very well, particularly considering Tiger Army has often been a rotating cast around 13 they still felt like a cohesive unit.

Nick 13 of Tiger Army

Nick 13

While the ‘big songs’ went down well there were moments where the energy dipped, particularly on the slower tracks from V… but 13 worked the crowd excellently to overcome this as much as possible. The band’s sound has changed so much since their youthful rage fuelled songs the dynamic conflict was inevitable and, in a way, made the show allowing different aspects of all three members playing and personality to come out.

Rounding the main part of the set off on their anthem, Never Die, quickly had the audience calling them back up for an encore that culminated in an extended Sea Of Fire to a rapturous reception and closing out a show that, while not as instantly powerful as Octoberflame (how could it be?) was still excellent and a fine example of a band working together and with the audience to create something special and memorable.

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Tiger Army – Prisoner of the Night

Tiger Army - Prisoner of the NightAs they approach their 20th anniversary, it could be said Tiger Army haven’t ever rushed at releasing new material with just four full-length albums in that time and their last, Music From Regions Beyond, coming in 2007. Since then the band have been quiet with occasional live shows and leader Nick 13 concentrating on his solo, country and western, side project.

Over Halloween weekend 2015 though the band, currently comprising 13 (guitar and vocals), James Meza (drums) and Djordje Stijepovic (bull fiddle/upright bass), made a live return with their Octoberflame VII shows including new song Prisoner of the Night and the announcement that a new album would be following in the New Year.

Stemming from the punk rock scene of California in the mid-90s the band have, over the years, worn their influences on their sleeve combining aspects of punk, rock ‘n’ roll, rockabilly, goth pop and country to create (amidst some debate) their own form of psychobilly and Prisoner of the Night continues this trend.

With their trademark dark hued, but never miserablist, vibe clearly evident from the start the first thing that really strikes here is the addition to the mix of a piano/organ and trumpet that gives the song a bit more of a leaning towards the frontman’s country and early rock ‘n’ roll influences.

Nick 13 of Tiger Army (photo by Casey Curry)

Nick 13 of Tiger Army (photo by Casey Curry)

With this though 13’s Gretsch guitar maintains a suitable overdriven tone beneath and, while his Davey Havok like vocals seem long banished to the past, the more tuneful, reverb drenched voice gives the song a haunting quality.

A big part of the sound of psychobilly, and what really makes the argument for Tiger Army’s inclusion in the genre, comes from the rhythm section, and Meza and Stijepovic deliver in great fashion. Though somewhat muted in the retro-styled recording, Meza’s drums have the appropriate snap to keep the beat insistent and penetrating while the classic rockabilly slap of the Bull Fiddle Cat himself complete the package.

The chorus, as evidenced on its live debut, provides some great sing-along material while the remainder of the lyrics paint a particularly evocative picture that has a tone of film noir and vintage mystery to it, giving Prisoner of the Night an enigmatic quality that sums up a lot of the band’s spirit.

This all suggests that they have continued in the directions hinted at by Music From Regions Beyond and that not rushing into new material for the sake of it may have served them very well and bodes well for the upcoming fifth album to be released through their own LunaTone Records and Rise Records.

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Bright_Lights and Ray & The Guns

Ray & The GunsOn Friday 7th December I went to a weekend gig at The White Hart in Guernsey for the first time in a long time to see dance rockers Bright_Lights and rock ‘n’ roll band Ray & The Guns.

While the pub being packed with a lot of people doing their utmost to ignore the bands didn’t help make it the best live music experience ever the sounds on offer were still worth a listen, with Ray & The Guns in particular putting on a great show.

You can see my photos from the gig over on the BBC Introducing Guernsey Facebook page either by clicking here or on the photo to the right.

My reivew of the night was published in The Guernsey Press on Saturday 15th December and is probably online somewhere on their website, or here:

Bright_Lights and Ray & The Guns scan - 15:12:12

While I didn’t get any videos of the night, here are a couple of two of Ray & The Guns covers that really stood out, just to give a flavour of the sort of thing that was going on:

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Demented Are Go – Welcome Back To Insanity Hall

Psychobilly veterans show they still have it 30 years on.

I have, for as long as I’ve been into rock, punk and metal music, had a bit of a thing for the more horror inspired elements.

From The Misfits and The Cramps to Alice Cooper, Murderdolls and psychobilly acts like Nekromantix, Tiger Army and The Horrorpops, something about it connects to me more than some other subgenres – so I’m surprised at myself for not having looked into Demented Are Go sooner.

With 30 years under their belt this band came out of the first wave of psycho bands, which grew from the rockabilly revival and punk movements of the late 1970s – and, by the sounds of Welcome Back To Insanity Hall (released through People Like You Records), they are still plowing the same furrow set out in the 1980s.

While for some bands this would be a problem Welcome Back To Insanity Hall sounds like a band who know exactly what they are doing and exactly how to do, rather like Motörhead or AC/DC could easily be described as having done the same the thing for years, it doesn’t matter when you do it well and these crazed chaps certainly do it well.

While I doubt an album like this is going to win over any new fans to the band, except for those like myself who already have a love of psychobilly, that doesn’t really matter as it’s a cracking listen if you like gore, hotrods and punk rock all backed up with the infectious rhythms of an upright bass being slapped within an inch of its life.

Welcome Back To Insanity Hall hits all the markers you’d expect, and the song titles sum it up.

The likes of Bodies In The Basement and Heads On Poles are full on horror infused punkabilly, Engine Trouble brings in the hotrods and greaser element and Retard Whore just sums up the anti-everything punk element brilliantly.

In the end though it is one of the bands own lyrics that I think sums up this fine slice of psychobilly better than anything: “Zombie, zombie, zombie. Zombie, zombie, living dead. Zombie, zombie, zombie. Kill ‘em all, cut off their heads!”

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The Bonneville Barons – The Guitar and Bull Fiddle of… and Cures What Ails You

The Anglo-French duo present a view through a rock ‘n’ roll time warp on this pair of albums.

In April 2011 I was lucky enough to catch two-man band The Bonneville Barons at The Fermain Tavern in Guernsey and I can safely say I enjoyed the show very much.

Charismatic as they were on stage I was unsure how their fairly minimal sound would translate on record, away from the energy of the live venue, but across these two records I wasn’t disappointed.

The Guitar and Bull Fiddle of… is a fine title as the record is purely made up of the two-piece doing what they do best – playing skiffle, country and rockabilly inspired sounds which combine the sweet tones of Chris Wilkinson’s hollow body guitar (with some dirt thrown in to mix things up from time to time), with the upbeat slapping rhythms of Yann Mahdjoub’s ‘bull fiddle’ (or double bass as its more commonly known).

While this two-piece sound has its occasional moments of sparseness it is clear that the band know how to use this to their benefit by adding texture to their sound.

In all, this combines to create something that brought to mind a mixture of The Stray Cats and a cabaret act playing the part of two dapper gents from the just pre-ted and pre-teenage era of the 1950s.

By the time they get to Cures What Ails You its clear Chris and Yann have developed their sound in some ways, while at the same time keeping true to what made the first album, and the live experience, something unique and special.

Here the band are joined at different points by extra strings and brass adding an extra depth to their sound, but never making it so full as to lose the occasional sparseness that marked the Baron’s sound on their first record.

Both albums also come with a sense that, while the music and image are serious, Chris and Yann are out to have fun as well and with somewhat anachronistic takes on modern ‘phenomena’ (such as in Whale Tail) this brings the albums the sense of charm that the band have when playing live.

For a modern reference point musically and stylistically, I would suggest Imelda May who similarly combines 50’s rockabilly sounds with modern concerns, and I think a live show of the Barons supporting the Irish songstress would make for a great show.

If you like the sounds of 50’s skiffle, rockabilly and country but are looking for something new, then you could definitely do worse than picking up some of the tunes of The Bonneville Barons.

Take a look at some photos from The Bonneville Barons appearance in Guernsey by Andrew Le Poidevin at TallPictures.

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The Risk – Invitation To The Blues

The latest reissue from longstanding mod-powerpop band The Risk shows them at the top of their game.

The Risk made it into the national papers at the end of 2011 as one of the groups put together on TV ‘talent’ show The X-Factor took on the same name and the original band decided to fight for the right to be identified as The Risk.

This may have got the band more recognition than they had received since their heyday in the 1980s (and possibly even more than they had back then) but listening to the well-timed reissue of their second full length album, Invitation To The Blues, (through Paisley Archive) it was clear to see why this band are so revered within the mod and powerpop scene.

It’s clear from the off that this is a much more developed and mature effort than the band’s debut Loud Shirts and Stripes as, while it starts off in the same powerpop vein as the previous record, by second track Little Miss Fortune The Risk have headed off into very much more traditional rock ‘n’ roll territory.

This shifting of styles remains present across the album as the band switch from classic mod style sounds, to powerpop, to rock ‘n’ roll (with, at times, an almost Stray Cats like rockabilly feel) to something reminiscent of an overdriven version of 80’s style indie but at the same retaining a strong sense of themselves with a vague punk like sneer present in the background.

This variety, both of sound and subject, demonstrates a band that have taken on board all the trials and tribulations they experienced between records and have distilled this (through their musical filter) into the songs which range from talking about life at home (Work), to the fame game (Carrie-Ann), to songs about songs (Only Cry The Lonely) all packed with personal feeling.

Though all the songs on the record are good in their own right, the real stand outs for me are the aforementioned Little Miss Fortune and Work, along with Just Like Norma Jean and the track that was released as a single to accompany the reissue Good Times, and it’s clear to see why many of these songs still find their way into the band’s live set today.

On top of the more mature songs, the production work is also clearly more developed, and while it still has something of its era to it, it makes for a much less dated record than their previous output.

As someone who had previously heard many of these songs live, but not on record, it was a pleasant surprise to find them sounding so immediate and fresh here and the little surprises of the new (to me) songs that the band no longer play live are an added bonus.

Invitation to the Blues comes across as a record packed with diversity which should appeal to anyone with a love of the many strands of rock ‘n’ roll music that have developed since the genre first began and at once has something to say but through a medium of great danceable tunes.

A Facebook group has been set up to support The Risk in their ongoing battle to retain rights to using the name and can be found here.

My feature on the history of The Risk from BBC Guernsey written in 2010.

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