A lot of us will know Them Tornados. They’ve had many of us swing our body parts about at the one or other Cape Town show. Sadly, their sound — rockabilly — has always appeared to be a rather isolated venture in this city. With more and more bands that loosely fall into the psychobilly/rockabilly category surfacing, this could, however, be changing. one small seed investigated. 

Th' Damned Crows - Image by Leon Visser

Th’ Damned Crows – Image by Leon Visser

‘You’ve got to have somethin’ they can tap their foot, or dance to, or to make ‘em feel it,’ were the wise words of Fred Maddox of The Maddox Brothers and Rose. He was one of the first to develop the slap bass technique and his band thus one of the first to create this new sound, which could no longer be categorized as the familiar blues, country or rock ‘n’ roll. It became ‘rockabilly’ – a term that is derived from the words ‘hillbilly’ and ‘rock’. More than 60 years later the carefree feet-stomping honky-tonk spirit is still alive and resurging subtly but significantly in our very own Cape Town. Be it via the routes of reviving ’50s rockabilly, creating modern neo-rockabilly or being a part of the more aggressive subgenre psychobilly, more and more bands are surfacing and kicking it to increasing audiences of tattooed pin-up girl look-alikes and rebellious-looking greaser culture imitators.

While witnessing this nostalgic celebration breed with passion and enthusiasm, some questions arose. Why is it happening now? Has it existed in SA before? And most importantly, what is it about this special time and place — America of the 1950s – that has created such an impact on youth subcultures and fuelled such a worldwide dedicated cult following throughout the years? One way to find out was to consult the makers of the music that surrounds the mythical neo-’50s magic. Three Cape Town bands, Th’ Damned Crows, The Vodun Haunts and The Ratrod Cats, shared their insights on Cape Town as inspiring ‘psycho territory’, the cultural ‘uniform’ and simply creating quality music.

The Vodun Haunts - Image by Stephan Bester

The Vodun Haunts – Image by Stephan Bester

To get things straight up front, here’s an admittedly brief background. Rockabilly’s mainstream popularity culminated in the ’50s, with guys like Eddie Cochran or Gene Vincent. If those names don’t ring a bell the following lyrics will, ‘there ain’t no cure for the summertime blues’ or ‘be-bop-a-lula she’s my baby’. Jiving greasers in leather jackets, swaying girls with spotted dresses, hot rods, muscle cars… you get the gist. This early rebellious rock genre never really died and lived on outside the mainstream up until today. Not only did the music survive, the culture had such a strong legacy that people still gather with likeminded and ‘like-dressed’ people at events such as the Summer Jamboree in Italy or Viva Las Vegas in the US to listen to revived rockabilly or neo-rockabilly. During the ’80s some guys in Europe thought they’d be inventive while keeping the jivey be-bop-a-lula sound and born was ‘psychobilly’ — a more aggressive punk-infused genre that often incorporates dark science fiction themes. Similar to its predecessor, it wants nothing to do with politics. It’s a holiday for the super ego and an opportunity for the subconscious to get out of control and go ‘psycho’, if you will.

Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent - Image by fanpop.com

Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent – Image by fanpop.com

The Meteors - Image by mumblerbeaner.blogspot.com

The Meteors – Image by mumblerbeaner.blogspot.com

Making use of many influences, Th’ Damned Crows are an energetic four piece that fall into the broad ‘-billy’ genre, yet have more appropriately been described as ‘whatever-fuck-a-billy’ due to the versatile musical backgrounds (blues, industrial metal, punk and garage/psychobilly) each member contributes to the sound. Although they’re determined not to be a clichéd psychobilly band, they still manage to bring a devilish dark edge to the fore through lyrical content and lead singer Liam McDevitt’s steadfast vocals. Only having moved down to the scenically inspiring African southlands from Manchester about one and a half years ago, he agrees that there’s an increasing interest and potential for expansion within the psychobilly/rockabilly and broader Cape Town rock ‘n’ roll scene. Already firmly integrated into the network through being one of the organisers and DJs of the Shake Some Action events as well as hosting the sister show on The Assembly radio, he believes that a lot of hard work needs to be done in order to have a sustainable scene. ‘Without the bands there’s no scene, it’s just a whole lot of geeks on the internet,’ he explains when I inquire about possible improvement.

South Africa’s horrendous history included having to battle with ordeals such as political and geographical isolation and thus scanty record distribution. As a result many music fans’ access to psychobilly records when the genre reached one of its peaks in the ’80s was often only through purchasing them overseas — and that was only if you knew the genre existed. Consequently, although local bands like Joburg’s Psycho Reptiles existed, they were scarce. Today, the rise of the digital age has provided a new playground for music buffs and therefore created the seeds for a new scene. Teddy boy hairdos, leather jackets and ‘psychooo’ here we come. There’s more to it though, behind the scenes strategies need to be in place for the flower to blossom. Liam puts it angrily, ‘venues and promoters need to smarten their ideas up’.

Th' Damned Crows by Leon Visser

Th’ Damned Crows – Image by Leon Visser

Th' Damned Crows - Image by Leon Visser

Th’ Damned Crows – Image by Leon Visser

A band needs an audience, an audience needs a venue and a venue wants to make money. These entities need to pull their weight and be coordinated so that things run smoothly. Although, according to Liam, some places are doing it right, gigs often fail to be successful because so called ‘live music venues’ don’t have the appropriate in-house gear or promoters aren’t ‘promoting’ properly. Creating a Facebook event often isn’t enough to ensure coverage of a band’s expenses or — dare one say it — provide a bit of profit. Especially if there’s a door split. “Anywhere else in the world when you book a band, you don’t go, ‘Oh I will give you 40 percent at the door and if nobody comes in, then unlucky but I’m not losing anything,'” he explains while imitating the fictional voice of an exemplary ineffective promoter.

Although Cape Town has to battle with such financial fiascos, the fool’s paradise seems to offer the right environment for ‘horror’ and ‘psycho’ muses to provide inspiration. To stand out from the global mainstream, Th’ Damned Crows pay close attention to combining spooky tales with being proudly South African. The lyrics to ‘The Devil in Me’ are about the legend of Antjie Somers. According to the myth, s/he was a male serial killer back in the 1800s in Cape Town’s city centre, luring her/his victims in through making them believe s/he was a well-meaning prostitute.

Similarly, the six-headed psycho constellation often in zombie disguise, The Vodun Haunts (also not a straightforward psychobilly band because of classically influenced compositions, for example) are bringing SA’s hair-raising horror news stories often found in tabloids, such as ‘muti’ killings, to the fore. ‘We have a lot of dark shit and weird stuff going on in Africa. And we’re trying to tell stories about that,’ lead singer Le Riche Meyer explains. Cami Scoundrel (on the ‘bag of tricks’) adds, ‘psychobilly is supposed to be a non-political movement — more about fun and horror — so we’re taking that and making it our own South African B-grade creepy.’

The Vodun Haunts - Image by Stephan Bester

The Vodun Haunts – Image by Stephan Bester

The Vodun Haunts by Stephan Bester

The Vodun Haunts by Stephan Bester

The Ratrod Cats, a three piece bowling shirt-sporting neo-rockabilly band made up of K.C. Royale, Rickabilly and Double Dave, are less bothered about South African heritage than about rocking a party ‘like it’s 1955′. ‘I know it’s a bit of a cock-up, but it’s about women, it’s about cars, it’s about booze and it’s about the party. If you put those together you’ve got 1955,’ K.C. admits, while a sheepish smirk spreads across his cheeks. That spot on the timeline is, according to the band members, surrounded by such distinct mysticism and beauty because of cult figures such as James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and Buddy Holly that — although they all died at an early age — the impact of their legacy allows one to speak of an art form that goes beyond music. To them it’s about the smell, feel and ideology of rebellious ’50s culture. Rickabilly points out, ‘you don’t get the same appreciation out of modern vehicles for example — they all bloody look the same.’

This is why they take no offence if someone calls them wannabes. “If someone says ‘you sound like Elvis‘ then we say ‘thank you, thank you very much, that’s fantastic,'” K.C. explains. In fact, they believe that it’s important to stay true to the roots, especially in South Africa where a lot of people are still new to the genre. Falsely labelled experiments could cause confusion. ‘If we claim to be rockabilly, then we want to present what people want to hear,’ is a principle the ’50s admirers stick to firmly.

The Ratrod Cats - Image by Diane Styger

The Ratrod Cats – Image by Diane Styger

Another threat to the thriving scene could be what Liam describes as ‘off-the-hanger-psychobilly’ (or rockabilly). All three bands would agree that fashion can be a statement, contribute to entertainment value and thus be a firm component of the budding neo-’50s cultural ‘art form’. Yet awareness of the ever so dangerous manipulative force of the fad is encouraged by all. ‘Appreciation of the MUSIC is central,’ seems to be a collective thought and ambition that all interviewed musicians share. Yet K.C. is not worried that the shallow fashion followers will get in the way of true music devotees and cause the scene to crumble. ‘What’s going to happen is — and what we’re seeing already — rockabilly and psychobilly are reaching a peak now but they’re going to start fading. But the thing is, the people who will be left will really love it.’

So things seem to be looking good for Capetonian rockabilly and psychobilly lovers. This year, for example, Dusty Rebels and the Bombshells is planned for April 6th. Greased-back music fans and the like will be able to gather at the ’50s culture revival festival and tap their feet to musical nostalgia while showing off their most swell ’50s attire. The spirit is alive and will live on — for as long as humanity knows how to dance. K.C. muses with insight, ‘it’s almost built into people’s genes. This is the music you have to move to.’


While you wait for April to come, click here to download Th’ Damned Crows’ first single ‘Blue Eyed Devil’ for free via SoundCloud! They’re also collecting funds to record their debut album. Click here to help ‘em out.

The Vodun Haunts’ self-titled EP is for sale at Mabu Vinyl and Digital, The African Music Store and Revolution Records for R65. Follow their Facebook page for upcoming gigs!

The Ratrod Cats are currently in the studio and are working on getting their debut out by March. Check their Facebook page for updates.

We also sat down with each band for a face to face chit chat about band philosophies, future plans and favourite bands. Click here for Th’ Damned Crows’ interview, here for The Vodun Haunts interview and here for The Ratrod Cats interview.

Words by Christine Hogg
Images by Leon Visser, Stephan Bester, Diane Styger, MUMBLERBEANER.BLOGSPOT.COM, Christine Hogg