There is some discussion about what comprises a 'billy song - rockabilly, psychobilly, punkabilly, etc. etc. It's not strictly the subject matter - Buddy Holly never sang a single tune about hot rods, for example. It sure isn't the look - while pompadours and cuffed blue jeans prevail, there are plenty of Nudie suits and rhinestone cowboy shirts in the scene, just as many pointed toe boots as crepe soled tu-tone slip-ons. It's not one particular vocal style - compare Elvis' butter smooth round tones to Carl Perkins' nasal hillbilly twang to Paul Fenech's flat Cockney growl. Dying young is no requirement, although plenty of them did. It's not even the guitar sound - Cochran rocked that big ol' Gretsch, and so does Setzer, but there were plenty of Jazzmasters and Telecasters and Les Paul Gibsons, warm tones and tight tones and wet ones and distorted ones. And even though it causes me actual physical pain to say it, it's not the click of a slapped upright bass - there are some definitive bands that never laid hands on a doghouse. Case in point? The Cramps.
Tell me with a straight face that that isn't rockabilly. Go ahead. But that clicky? Is the drummer playing the rims.
I'm thinking about the Cramps because Lux Interior died today. He wasn't exactly young anymore - he made it to 60 - but he was still writhing and wailing and deepthroating microphones with the best of them. He HATED the term psychobilly, and maintained until the bitter end that that was not what the Cramps played (although most people agree he himself coined the term), and would rather have lumped them in with the Stooges and the Ramones and probably Richard Hell and all those coked-up performance artists that shared the stage at CBGB in the Village. I can kind of see it; Lux and Iggy both had a propensity for stripping down to their pleather underthings, flaunting their emaciation, unabashedly fondling themselves, their bandmates, the audience... But that SOUND. That sound is undeniable.
The Cramps helped save American music, them and the Ramones. They reached back into history and found the still thumping heart of rock and roll and devoured it whole, infusing a scene that was becoming mired in its own cleverness with lust and nostalgia. Go listen to Stay Sick and hear the humor and passion and allegiance to the past that most 'billy bands now strive for. You might want to grab a pair of pleather hotpants or gold lame leggings, though. Just to honor a man who dressed like a woman and dated men but was married to a woman and who had more rock and roll in his left thumb than is contained in the entire combined body mass of this week's Billboard Top 40.