Sunday, May 8, 2022

Now Playing: Psychobilly (Better Late Than Never)

According to, "rockabilly is a genre of music originating from the south and mixing elements of rock, blues, country, hillbilly boogie and bluegrass music while psychobilly is a genre of popular music, blending rockabilly with punk rock, that has grotesque or humorous lyrics which often draw heavily on the imagery of 1950s science fiction and horror films."  But I'll get back to this.

I grew up in a house where Big Band music was ubiquitous.  My dad would listen to it while he worked out in the basement.  So we'd hear his clanking weights and the giant music of Glenn Miller, Count Basie, Woody Herman, and Duke Ellington every week.  He would tell us funny stories about how Count Basie's 1937 track "One O'Clock Jump" was initially called the radio-unfriendly title of "Blue Balls."  He could name any Big Band tune you could throw at him.  The downside of this was when my brother and I were learning to play the clarinet and saxophone, respectively, and he made us sit on the couch with our woodwinds as he played his records.  He wanted us to have a jam session, with improvised solos to his precious records.  My dad was a semi-scary guy, and he'd yell "PLAY!" and I remember having no clue how to "jam"... beings I hadn't memorized the notes yet (beings we were a week into owning these instruments).

Still have my old Alto Saxophone.

Now you'd think that would make you run in the opposite direction of music that fell outside of your time zone.  It didn't.  I truly love the stuff, and I'm very grateful my dad was playing this music for most of my youth.  It was definitely a gift from my old man.  And I found that I loved the older stuff more than any of the current music that was more appropriate or common for my age group as I was growing up.

Enter Stray Cats.  

So it's 1981, and I'm at a grade school dance in the basement cafeteria of the school (I was a shy kid and I'm sure I was forced to go to this dance).  So it's packs of immature boys being boys on one side of the room, and a ton of mature rational girls on the other side of the room.  Those two worlds rarely collided back then.  If they did, it was usually by accident.

The music playing at the time was the usual 80's stuff:  Hall & Oats, Men at Work, Duran Duran, and the Go-Go's.  And then there was the occasional slow song (typically stuff by Journey, Air Supply, and that dreadful duet by Diana Ross & Lionel Richie).  The slow song, and the SLOW DANCE:  that painful, scary moment where you realized who among the boys was progressing according to established norms.  The rest of us pretended not to care.

When those slow songs ended and you got your friends back from their lapses of reason, I guess we just goofed off, ate chips or pretzels, and drank LOTS of soda.  I remember running.  Running in the cafeteria-turned-dance-hall.  There wasn't much dancing on behalf of the males in that basement.  Looking back, that's kind of weird.  And a little embarrassing.  Like why not?  Have fun.  Be stupid.  

I'm probably drinking soda, eating a pretzel, or running when something happens:  a song starts that is unlike any song I had ever heard.  The only comparison I could think of at the time was the old stuff my dad would listen to back home in the basement.  But this thing was cooler.  More exciting.  Felt younger.  But it also felt like it was from the fifties.  It was confusing.  But it was fantastic.  It was the Stray Cat's Rock This Town.  And being deliberately vague - I danced.  And I [think] I made a fool of myself (nah, I actually DID make a fool of myself).  And looking back, I don't really care.  Whatever that song was, it was incredible, and it made me break out of a shell from which I rarely even peered.  Turns out the song and group were of the rockabilly variety.  And I liked it.  A lot.

So you grow up, you find your way through music, TV, movies, books and anything that makes you feel satisfied and more complete.  Stuff that makes life bearable (and fun).  When I was very young, it was old Hammer horror or Godzilla films that my grandmother would let us watch on Saturdays when she visited, or when we visited her.  It was drawing monsters, flipping through horror magazines, and playing with plastic bugs and rubber snakes.  

Me and my rubber snake.

But then when you get older, you start to realize that not everyone is into this darker stuff.  And, worse, it's dismissed by most of the people in your life.  Our cool and amazing grandmother who introduced us to rubber monsters and Peter Cushing passed away when we were young.  My parents didn't watch Horror or Science Fiction, and definitely didn't encourage that stuff.  And my sister, well, she was a social warden - making sure you felt stupid for anything you liked that happened to meet her definition of weird.  And worse:  you find out your dad isn't on the same page with you in any small way in regards to Vampira or Elvira.

In grade school, and then later in high school, you start to figure out who has similar interests, who likes sports, who doesn't.  Who is into horror, or heavy metal...  and who are the "bad kids."  That must be a crappy label.  But that's what we called them, and how we thought of them.  I recall seeing a small sticker back then, on someone's book, sitting on a desk - one of the bad kids' desks, of course.  The sticker was of a small grinning reaper type thing.  A ghost, maybe.  A skull?

It's pretty cool still.  Iconic and unforgettable.  And spooky.  I'm not sure how long it took me to figure out what it was, as this was pre-internet, and I certainly wasn't gonna ask one of those kids.  Turns out it's the Crimson Ghost, an image from a 1940's film serial.  A punk rock band began using this Ghost as their logo way back in 1979, which explains why this image feels like it's always been around, lurking in my life.  It seemed to be everywhere:  stickers, t-shirts, iron-on patches, (on books at school).  That punk rock band, of course, was the Misfits, and they're credited with starting the subgenre of horror punk.  Which sounds complicated, as I wasn't familiar with punk rock music in the least, and now there's a subgenre with an interesting descriptor like "horror" attached to it?  

Strangely, I didn't bite.  I stayed away.  In fact, I avoided it, and that sticker, like some kind of literal warning label.  Despite the "horror" word.  Despite being into darker things.  Despite being a Halloween guy.  I felt like it wasn't my domain for some reason.  And I'm sure my family unknowingly approved.  

So psychobilly... that fusion of rockabilly and punk rock, loaded with horror and Halloween lyrics?  That too was avoided.  Ignored.  And it rarely came up in my Halloween musical travels.  As a huge fan of the guys at Halloween at High Noon, some of their instrumental stuff had a specific sound that I assumed MIGHT have been a form of psychobilly, but I was never sure.  Willful ignorance I guess?  I honestly have no clue.  

Better late than never.

Many many years later (and a couple of months ago), Wren and I were talking about music and she jokingly commented "I thought you only listened to apocalyptic space drone and synthwave soundtracks."  This, while pretty accurate, brought up the topic of punk and rockabilly and psychobilly.  And I confessed my sins to her.  She forgave them.  And I got a playlist out of the deal.  A crash course introduction.

And now I'm going to pay it forward (even though I am assuming I might be preaching to the choir)...  Turns out this music is terrific.  And, more importantly, it's fun (and I wasn't expecting that part).  Psychobilly feels like it was specifically written for the Halloween community.  The music is loaded with spooky lyrics and they're usually sung by people dressed in spooky attire, like fictional theatrical gothic characters.  It's like stuff you'd hear and see at a massive Halloween party.  

Since The Cramps were there at the beginning of this genre of psychobilly, I wanted to feature two of their tracks to kick this off.  

Click below for their cover of Goo Goo Muck, which has become a Cramps anthem of sorts:

And click below for my current Cramps favorite - I Was A Teenage Werewolf:

The Meteors were pretty influential in the genre, and where the Cramps were the first to coin the term psychobilly, the Meteors were the first to embrace it.  They were actually the first band to use the word to describe their music.  So they're up next with a really great song that, to me, is leaning way into its rockabilly side (and I love it):

The Reverand Horton Heat's Psychobilly Freakout is one of the staples of the genre:

And click below for Bodies in the Basement by Demented Are Go:

Psychobilly was pretty much underground in the U.S. until the 90's.  Bands like Nekromantix, Tiger Army, and The Living End helped make it mainstream here.  These later bands were a lot more horror-themed and, to me, often seemed to have a tongue-in-cheek approach to the subject matter.  

A great example of this would be Trick or Treat by Nekromantix:

Tiger Army is definitely a favorite after pouring through a bunch of the required Giants on Wren's list.  Click below for Dark and Lonely Night:

Zombie Ghost Train's R.I.P. is a wonderful song with a perfect video:

Other groups that would be at home on any Halloween party playlist include The Koffin Kats, Horrorpops, Rezurex, The Creepshow, and Zombina and the Skeletons.

And, of course, their sticker was mentioned earlier, so I have to include Halloween by The Misfits:

This blog post is going to end where it sorta began...  The Stray Cats.  Since psychobilly came from rockabilly, it's fitting that a fun conversation with Wren made me think back on a song played at that grade school dance.  I used to get an embarrassing chill when my brain drifted to that night...  drifted to my uncoordinated antics to a rockabilly band's unconventional song.  It's no exaggeration to state that Rock This Town was something of a bad memory trigger.  So I can't say I've listened to a lot of the Stray Cats since the 80's.

But since that conversation, and since she included the Stray Cats as part of my required rockabilly reading, I've been listening to all of these groups pretty regularly.  Especially the Stray Cats.  One song in particular has been played more times than I dare say - Runaway Boys:

And the last song on this long blog entry will be a cover they did of Twenty Flight Rock.  The song is insane:

Again, I realize that I'm incredibly late to this party, and most people who read this Halloween blog are probably well aware of these groups and this music, but I would have loved to have stumbled upon something like this back when I saw that spooky sticker on that kid's book.  

This whole experience made me think about all the strange things we like and follow...  it's all fringe stuff.  I'm willing to bet most of the people in your life don't like this music, or horror films, or Halloween for that matter.  In fact, thinking back to all the years I've been working, I never knew any coworker, not even one, who loved horror films.  We're fringe people.  We're outliers.  Rockabilly, punk, horror punk, and psychobilly is music that knows it's not for everyone.  Music made by groups that totally get being on the fringe.  And you can tell they love that fact.  And I guess that's the entire point of this blog post (and my blog, actually).  This stuff ain't for everyone.  But the people who get it GET it.  And I'm extremely grateful to those people; to you guys reading this right now.  

I'm particularly grateful to Wren.  My crash course put me on the right path (assumption).   And it got rid of my old demon hiding in a grade school basement.  As I mentioned earlier,  all the things we like make life more bearable, and hopefully more than that...  hopefully it makes life fun.

And I've been having fun lately.


Samhain said...

So happy to be seeing my pumpkins sprout up while I sit with coffee and read this excellent story! Thankyou Wren! For bringing the gospel that is a playlist to Rot! Who sat on the fence for so long! The fact that Brian Seltzer evolved right into what your dad was preaching all those years ago is a full circle moment!(his orchestra) i too thought those "bad kids" (we called them Hoods!) Couldn't possibly know good music! Then skateboards and skatepunks pulled me in, and so much of that music became the soundtrack to my youth! Dead Kennedy's,Black Flag, Circle Jerks, The Damned, Exploited, but it was The Cramps, and The Misfits that really made me excited! The horror element was so great! They also opened my eyes to all those cheesy and wonderful Sci-Fi/Horror films that I never knew of! Lux Interior (RIP) and Poison Ivy from the Cramps have the best stage presence! Watch their Live at Napa State Mental Hospital from 1978! My full circle moment came when I got to work on a film, called The Animal Room! I got to meet my hero Jerry Only who was so kind and down to earth! That's what I've found with all the fringe,outcasts, metalheads, "hoods", and "Bad Kids", it's they're some if the nicest people around! When The Misfits got back together with Glenn Danzig, my uncle, was a truck driver for the show! He hauled the giant Jack-o'-lanterns and stage props. They got to talking about that film and Jerry remembered me and allowed my uncle to stay on his property in Jersey. He even sent me two signed posters from that reunion tour! Thanks Wren for breaking the ice! And thanks Rot, for this run of nostalgia you've brought the past few posts! This was a great read! (Maybe you'll post that DK song, Halloween now!!!? Those lyrics are you, and most of us in a nutshell!)

Rot said...

Haha, so funny about the DK song! Thanks for sharing all of that! That is really impressive stuff.

Samhain said...

Really enjoy your stories of what got you into Halloween and music! And sharing your past! Let us know when you pick up that sax again, and go on tour with your psychobilly band! "The Rots"??? "The Pumpkinrots"??? I'll be in the mosh pit!!! The T-shirts and patches/stickers, will be sick!!

Rot said...


I'll have to come up with a good name. I shall think on it.

Willow Cove said...

What a fun read! It's funny how we develop our tastes as kids. I am definitely new to all this fringe music. I saw the same stickers and shirts as a kid and didn't get it. I was a stray Cats fan since day one. But I definitely didn't have the courage to shake it up at the dance. Ha! I started getting into soundtracks of sci_fi and fantasy tunes in the teens. Thought I was the only one into Vangelis and Tangerine Dream. I am definitely gonna listen to all the recommendations.

You better start practicing how to play the sax thru a Michael Meyers mask. Or a pumpkin on your head!

Brent Wilson said...

Great post. Punk rock literally saved my life in the 1980’s. It grounded me as a weirdo monster kid and introduced me to like-minded people. I honestly don’t think I would have survived teenage suburbia in Florida without it. I am old enough and lucky enough to have seen many of the great punk bands live. In the early ‘80’s, the Misfits “Walk Among Us” LP blew me away. The early incarnation of that band (with Glenn) is friggin’ amazing. I have so much love for those songs. They’ve been my favorite band ever since….and of course the Cramps are a monster kid’s wet dream.

In the 1990’s I used to see a psycho-surf band live frequently called “Man or Astro-Man?” I loved their retro-schlock sci-fi schtick. Worth checking out if you are not already a fan.

Revenant Manor said...

That was an awesome read, and has a lot of stray (cats) thoughts and neurons firing in my cranium...I suspect I'll go back and read the whole post again and have more thoughts, but a couple of things popped right out:

Out of the gate, the first part of the post could basically have been my childhood (all of the classic horror, rubber monster movies, school dance, and associated music included).

Right up until the fork in the road; the part where the spooky skull image appeared on a book and you "didn't bite".

Well, I did bite. Hard. :)

The moment I saw the cover for the Cramps' 'Bad Music for Bad People' I was all in.

That Misfits skull? Had to hear it.

That art grabbed and didn't let go. The art was a gateway to the music, and once I had the tunes, there was so much other lifestyle stuff that followed.

Zorlac skateboard with Pushead (Brian Schroeder) graphics? Yeah, I'm riding.

I guess it just struck me how similar everything seemed right up until that choice not to pursue that skull image and the associated music. It's interesting to think about what I would have listened to or how I would have spend the ensuing days / years if I'd made a different choice.

The other thing that jumped out was the Stray Cats allowing you to actually cut loose and dance. I wasn't that lucky then, and haven't been to date. That was neat.

Oh, and good job on Wren for providing the gateway...definitely better late than never.

And, since I'm rambling now anyway, below is a link to Steve Blickenstaff discussing how his iconic cover for 'Bad Music for Bad People' came to be, and in which he periodically plays the theremin for some reason:

Wren said...

Thanks, guys! So cool to see so many shared experiences around this music. It’s the best :)

Samhain, loved hearing about your Misfits encounters! One of my favorite bands, but never got to see them with Danzig (before my time).

Great write up, Rot! Stay sick ;)

Rot said...

Thanks for all these great comments! I had a feeling there would be stories. Feel free to share links to your favorite songs or groups.

The Jones Gorgonization said...

LOVE the cramps. Have dabbled w/ rev horton heat. I'll check out the others (w/ the exception of the misfits, which I like in small doses, but never fully was able to connect with).

There are so, so many songs by (largely) non-horror artists that evoke a Halloween vibe for me; 01 Ghosts I (NIN), Will o' the Wisp (Miles Davis), Autumn Leaves (Cannonball Adderly), Natural Mystic (Bob Marley), Where I End and You Begin (Radiohead), to name a few. I find a lot of jazz, especially, to be suitable for Halloween listening.

Great to hear your story, Rot.

Mike V. said...

Oh man what a great post. You are in my wheelhouse big time. You are going to love some of these suggestions. The Cramps are incredible. Bad Music for Bad People was the album that turned me on to them when an old girlfriend heard me playing the HooDoo Gurus song "Dig It Up" off of their first album Stoneage Romeos. She suggested TV Set by the Cramps and instantly I became a huge fan. Lux and Ivy were big fans of crazy Rockabilly one hit wonder types of artists. Check out the original version of Goo Goo Muck by Ronnie Cook and the Gaylads. The Cramps also put out several compilation albums called the Cramps Jukebox with many volumes and tons of original rockabilly songs. Spotify has most of them. Check out the original version of "Love Me" by the Phantom. The song opens with a classic scream. I always loved the Stray Cats as well. I used to be in an original rock band in my previous life ages ago before I became an office loser and we would do alot of crazy covers as well as originals. I also love 1960's strip club and sleazy lounge tunes. There is so much great stuff out there to discover. Rhino records has some great compilations as well. Jump Blues and a 4 disc box set called Rockin' Bones: 1950s Punk & Rockabilly.

Mike V. said...

Here are some songs that you may enjoy. More to come when I have more free time to remember them lol.

The Damned  "Nasty"The Screaming Tribesmen  " Date with A Vampyre Girl"Ben Vaughn  "She's A Real Scream"Bauhaus  "Bela Lugosi's Dead"Siouxsie and the Banshees  "Halloween"The Dickies  "Killer Klowns from Outer Space"HooDoo Gurus "Dig It Up"Johnny Cash  "Delia's Gone"The Cramps  "Aloha from Hell"The Supersuckers "Born With A Tail"Lana Del Ray  "Season of the Witch"The Cult "The Witch"Burn the Witch by Queens of the Stoneage
19 Witches by Monster Magnet
Dope Hat by Marilyn Manson
The Creeper by Southern Culture on the Skids
Midnight Creeper by The Eagles of Death Metal
The Cramps " Garbageman"Kip Tyler  "She's My Witch"Southern Culture on the Skids  "Skull Bucket"The Revels "Midnight Stroll"CompilationsScar Stuff Blog compilation CD's Ghoul O Rama and Spook PartyScar Stuff – Vintage Children’s Halloween Records – Website | Jason Willis
Just Can't Get Enough: New Wave Halloween

Rot said...

Wow. So many recommendations/suggestions! I really appreciate it!

K.O. said...

I absolutely LOVE these anecdotal essay-type posts you've been doing since your blog's return!!! They're wildly entertaining to read! So fun to hear your reflections on memories, ideas, and stuff you discover.
Love the music you mentioned too, but haven't heard of a few of those Psychobilly bands before. I saw Rev. Horton H live a few times in Austin when I was in college, and they absolutely rock on stage! (Not a Halloween song, but I always liked the tongue-in-cheek "Bales of Cocaine," and I recall it whenever I see bales on farms here in Texas.)

Rot said...

Wow. I love that you saw the reverend. I will definitely check out that song.

And thanks! Glad you've been enjoying my rambling musings!

Rot said...

Posting a comment for Rob from Boston:

Hey Rot,

I’ve been reading your blog for years at this point and have never commented before. I don’t have a blogger account and found myself wanting to say a little more than what a comment would allow, so here we are. I’ve been listening to punk rock and all its sub-genres for over 30 years now. I have never gotten over it. Somewhere along that journey I discovered psychobilly, and because of my love for horror and Halloween, it made me fall in love with punk even more. I’ve always been surprised you haven’t made any mention of it over the years, and even wondered if you knew about the crossover that punk and horror share. So when you made this post, it lit a fire and I had to speak up and share a few things. You definitely hit the nail on the head with those psychobilly bands, all longtime favorites of mine.

I’ll get back to punk in a sec, but one thing I want to point out is that I’m a huge music geek and it's because of you and your blog that I discovered something new – Synthwave. I never heard of it before util reading your blog years ago. The idea that people were creating synth-heavy music inspired by the sounds of horror and other 80’s movie soundtracks blew me away. Your posts on artists like Umberto, Espectrostatic, and Protector 101, opened the doors for me. Once I figured this out, I quickly went down the rabbit hole of trying to discover each artist, what the record labels were, and what else I could find. When you did your post a while back about seeing Das Mortal, you admitted you haven’t heard of him before. Its so funny to me because I’ve been a fan of his for years now, and its all because of your blog. So, for that I thank you.

Getting back to the punk thing, I wanted to make a few recommendations. First and foremost, if you haven’t already, you need to get your hands on the Return of the Living Dead soundtrack. Horror aspect aside, this is a very beloved album by the punk community in general. The Cramps are on there, along with other horror greats like the Flesheaters, 45 Grave, and TSOL. The original version of the soundtrack, very hard to find, includes a rare and very creepy song from the Damned. Plus, the main theme song on that album would inspire Synthwave artists for years to come. You may also want to dive in on a subgenre of punk called Deathrock. It existed mostly in California in the 80’s and includes the bands I mention above. Other greats in this genre are Secret Hate, Red Scare, Peace Corpse, Christian Death and Adolescents. Though these bands may not necessarily sing about horror specifically (some do), there is this creepy, dark, and almost ominous element they all share. TSOL’s album Dance with Me is a must listen. Aside from cover art that you’ll love, its packed with fast, but dark, punk rippers and tons of shock value. Also check out the album Mommy’s Little Monster from Social Distortion. After that record they would evolve into a more rockabilly sounding band, but their early stuff definitely had horror punk undertones. A more modern band to check out is the Murder City Devils. Start with the album “In Name and Blood”, by far their best, and move on to their self-titled release and “Empty Bottles Broken Hearts”. They’re known for their use of synth in their songs, which sounds like a creepy organ, and the singer is known for his werewolf-like howl that you hear in certain tracks (and during live shows). Great stuff, and a must for any Halloween playlist.

PART II in next comment...

Rot said...

Finally, one last thing I’d like to recommend is on the synthwave topic. I know you’re familiar with the Italian horror/mystery movies of the 70’s (Giallo films). I know you’re aware of Goblin, and hopefully Fabio Frizzi as well, who have cultivated a whole genre of music around these films. I’ve been lucky enough to see both play live. However, many of the synthwave artists I’ve come to love are typically inspired by these films as well. One standout I’d like to recommend is Giallo Disco Records. Their bandcamp catalog is packed with tons of creepy, yet strangely “dancy” (my wife says that’s a word), anthems. When listening, you can almost see the evil doll from Deep Red running out of any nearby closet.

Anyway, sorry this was a bit long, but I hope it finds you well. So glad you’re back and keep up the amazing work inspiring us all!

-Rob from Boston

Rot said...

Thanks, Rob. I really appreciate this comment a lot. And I had never heard of Giallo Disco Records before and am currently in a really nice rabbit hole. haha

Thanks for all the recommendations!

The Gill-Man said...

I'm a huge fan of horror punk & psychobilly (especially The Misfits, Koffin Kats, and The Creepshow). I also highly recommend Cold Blue Rebels, Kitty In a Casket, Calabrese, and Wednesday 13/The Murderdolls. Wednesday 13's stuff, both solo and with the Murderdolls, is a bit more on the heavy metal side, but with a VERY campy feel. Oh, and I cannot forget Ghoultown...a band that sounds like if Johnny Cash had written tunes for the Misfits (full disclosure, my buddy Lyle Blackburn is the lead singer and primary songwriter for Ghoultown, but I got to know him because I was a fan of his music, as well as his cryptid books. I'm not just pimping a friend's band!). Also check out Blitzkid, Southern Culture On the Skids, The Ghastly Ones, The Long Losts, and Stellar Corpses. I could go on and on about all these great bands!!

Ashy Slashy said...

Glad you have discovered such a wonderful niche of the Punk/Rockabilly/Rock/Metal world of music! It's not music that's just for teenage kids full of angst! I'm in my mid forties and listen to all this stuff regularly. Couldn't agree more The Gill-Man! All great recommendations, for me personally Blitzkid are some of the best when it comes to giving you a great story in a song. Being the Meyers fan you are Meyers 10/31 from the 'Let Flowers Die' albumn is a must hear. The whole album is really horror movie themed. An additional suggestion would be Argyle Goolsby, the bassist/ songwriter/ other vocalist from Blitzkid, he does a fantastic job telling stories. To recommend a few of his songs I would go with The Being, Washer at the ford and Mister Babadook. All great fun!

Ashy Slashy said...

Oh yeah! And can't forget about The Brains! Canadian pyschobilly at it's finest!

Rot said...

Thanks for all of the recommendations!