Music News

Punk Debunked

"This ain't no history lesson," snarls the opening line to the liner notes of Rockin' Bones: 1950s Punk & Rockabilly (Rhino/Wea), an excellent four-CD boxed set. "It's about attitude! This is where punk rock began!"

To me, the first and last of those bold declarations are exactly wrong. Rockin' Bones is, in fact, a great history lesson, but I'm not sold on the idea that punk sprang from rockabilly.

First, the history. This is a fantastic introduction to rockabilly — not only do you get the transcendent Memphis legends like Elvis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis, and other leading lights like Gene Vincent, Wanda Jackson and Eddie Cochran, but you also get the lesser-known but equally talented cats like Houston's Sonny Fisher, Dallas' Ronnie Dawson, Charlie Feathers, Johnny Burnette and Dale Hawkins. Not to mention the freaks — West Virginia wild man Hasil Adkins' "Chicken Walk" is on here, and it isn't even the weirdest poultry-themed tune in the set. (That honor goes to the mystery man Fat Daddy Holmes, whose instrumental "Chicken Rock" is the next tune on the same disc.) And John and Jackie's "Little Girl" is completely bizarre — "John" croons along stoically in Bing Crosby mode utterly oblivious to "Jackie," who thrashes about in an orgasmic ecstasy that would make even Lil' Kim blush. Did anybody really think a song like that would be allowed on the airwaves in 1958? And what's John's deal?

Which brings up the rockabilly-as-pre-punk idea. I don't buy it, and sex is one reason I don't. Rockabilly was perhaps the most sexually charged music American white people have ever made. It was full of supple, slap-bass-driven rhythms, and while it was as manic as two high school kids having a quick one while their parents were away, it still swung, and swing is a sexual rhythm.

Punk, on the other hand, has always been a singularly sexless music — they got "Too Drunk to Fuck" and they liked it that way. The guitars were distorted, and the rhythms were static and straight-ahead.

And hell, in much of America, and especially in the South, the earliest punks were reacting precisely against aging rockabilly artists and the people who loved them, just as the hippies had reacted against their Greatest Generation parents 10 years before. In the mid-'70s, the bloated behemoth that was once Elvis was well on his way to his date with destiny on a gilded Graceland commode, Carl Perkins was cavorting around in some of the most ridiculous curly toupees you ever saw, and even Johnny Cash had precious few young fans. As for Jerry Lee Lewis, he just scared the shit out of everybody.

And all of those guys were part of the problem to the people in bands like Black Flag, Dead Kennedys, and The Descendents — hicks, hillbillies, Nixon-loving rednecks. Of course, The Cramps would come along and change some of that, but certainly not all.

Today, the punks and rockabillies are two distinct tribes. Sure, there were some commonalities between rockabilly and punk. The practitioners shared a taste for uppers, for one thing, and both groups were loud, fast, and terrifying to their elders. And they each had that independent, do-it-yourself work ethic. But this boxed set seems to be trying to say that you can draw a straight line from Charlie Feathers to Good Charlotte, and I don't think you can. You won't find too many Horton Heat fans at a Warped Tour show. I'll buy the idea that rockabilly musicians were punk, but I can't agree with the idea that rockabilly had much to do with most punk music.

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John Nova Lomax
Contact: John Nova Lomax