Brighton’s Rockabilly Scene

As Blur announced when they invented Britpop, “Modern life is rubbish.” Clean-cut manufactured pop, dress-down Fridays, West Street louts and binge- drinking girls… It’s enough to make you run to the past, to a time when music was raw, girls were lady-like and men, well, men looked dangerous but were gentlemen. Before rock‘n’roll there was rockabilly. Coming out of country and rhythm’n’blues, it was visceral, straight-down-the-line music about the things that matter.

Where its younger brother rock’n’roll talked about holding hands and being in love from afar, rockabilly took the girl round the back of the youth club to feel her up. Cars, drinking and sex – extreme stuff for the 50s and, for this small pocket of young Brighton, it has just never got any better… You can tell a rockin’ guy in an instant. A sharp quiff makes him stand out in a crowd, especially in vintage indigo denim and a colourful retro shirt. As those homogenisers of trite style Trinny and Susannah might say, it’s so a good look. And for many rockabillies it’s the way into the scene.

“I saw this teddy boy walking down the street one day with a leather jacket, a huge quiff and motorcycle boots,” explains local DJ Andy, remembering his conversion. “He stood outside this window where I lived in Salisbury and did his hair. It was a hot summer’s day and the light shone on his quiff and he just looked sharp. Like he could walk through the Red Sea and it would part.”

When Andy talks about rockabilly – and if you ask him, he will, with pride and pleasure – he speaks like a born again Christian. Words like “religious” and “evangelism” pop up and he’ll admit that, although he’s delighted when people start to feel the scene, if you don’t get it, he’s not bothered.

“The average person in the street sees the look first but doesn’t see past it,” he says. “But we don’t care, we’re happy and we do what we want.” It seems that all rockabillies thrive on the confusion and the mystery, laughing off preconceptions about their archaeological culture.
“People think that because you’re into 50s music, somehow you’re living in the 50s, like you have powdered eggs and Spam in your cupboards,” laughs Lucky Phil, promoter and DJ at the Brighton Rumble. “Although you’re into the music and the furniture and that, you’re still living in the modern world.”
“Sometimes I get asked if I have a telephone,” says sassy rockin’ minx Juliette incredulously.

Unfortunately for outsiders, usually the times when the culture pops its head over the parapet contain all the elements that true rockabillies hate. Heaven forbid that you turn up to one of the scene’s important weekenders with a “sausage roll quiff” and brothel-creepers, looking like a member of The Stray Cats or, worse still, one of the cast of Grease (“That’s naff to us,” says Andy without a scowl). This look is sharper, more understated, more authentic. There are parallels with the mod scene, where attention to detail is paramount, as is making an effort.

“It’s nice to take pride in dressing up to go out with your girl,” says the endearingly old-school Phil. “You don’t really get that any more, do you? People just go out in a t-shirt. But at the weekenders people make a real effort on a Saturday night, put on their best shirt, the one they know no-one else will have.” And Phil would know about expensive shirts – his wardrobe of brightly-coloured Hawaiians and gab jackets is near priceless. “They never date, so if you look after them, you can wear them for years. They might not be in fashion but they always look cool.”

Thanks to the burlesque revival, 50s-styled women are catching the eye of mainstream men more than ever. But if you like your girls tattooed and polka-dotted, don’t bowl in with a spiky haircut. “If it hasn’t got a quiff, it can keep walking,” Juliette grins, “If the pillow next to mine hasn’t got a pool of pomade upon it the next morning, he’s not the man for me.”

The Most Powerful Girl In The World (more on this later) has had a quartet of rockin’ boyfriends – and, while obviously very different people, they were all traditional, something backed up by Andy and Phil, when they talk of wanting a return to some of the old values of respect. “Two of my rockabilly boyfriends insisted on always paying when we went out,” recalls the author of The Spotter’s Guide To The Male Species, “which I liked. One of them drove me everywhere, which I liked too. I seem to only be attracted to men who were born with guitars slung around their necks. Although it has to be said, rockabilly bands never have any money – that’s the down side.”

“A lot of rockin’ guys are hard blokes but they are gentlemen,” says Andy. “They ask girls to dance, it’s very traditional. It’s nice to preserve those values of common decency that perhaps disappeared many years ago.” There might be politeness and respect – and sharp clothes – but the tattoos aren’t the only dangerous thing left in rockabilly. It’s still a hard-drinking scene (“It’s a well-known fact that three hundred rockin’ guys and girls can drink a bar dry,” says Andy with a smile) but there’s no trouble. You don’t prove your worth by fighting, you prove it by dressing right and knowing your music.

And that’s the important part: the music. There might not be much brand new music made, while nights and bands concentrate on sounds from the golden era of 1955–1959, however that doesn’t mean that the tunes are tired.

“When you go to a normal night club, you might dance but then never hear that music again,” explains musical scholar Andy. “With rockabilly it grows on you – I’ve heard the same tunes over and over but I never get tired of them. It gets in your blood, like vinyl heroin.” After 24 years in the scene it seems there’s nothing that Andy doesn’t know about rockabilly music, explaining the defining upright bass, the beat, the jungle, primaeval rhythm, explaining that it’s like Bo Diddley mixed with Eddie Cochran. But it’s Juliette who comes up with the killer soundbite, saying rockabilly took elements of country and blues, “blended it with raw talent and stuck a dirty great rocket up its backside.”

The way that they talk about the music says a lot about how the personalities behind the image are very different. We met Juliette, owner of rockabilly clothing store, down at Phil’s Hot Rod Rumble record hop at the Albert. During the interview, we somehow challenged her that if she could get the cute barman to kiss her feet, then she’d be the most powerful girl in the world – and we’d recognise it in this article. Needless to say, she managed it in seconds, warming up with a random stranger first. She seems to like her Bettie Page look and quiffed’n’tattooed boyfriends catching the world’s eye.

There’s one contradiction that we didn’t expect in a modern girl like Juliette though: Talking about her love of such a romantic era, she says she’d happily go back to the days of imposed gender roles – even chaining herself to the kitchen sink, albeit with a bottle of gin to ease the oppression.

Andy, meanwhile, talks with authority, calm and with great knowledge, pleased to share what he’s learned with interested ears. He might not look like a teacher but that’s exactly what he is – and the kids at his school love the fact that he’s different. He says being a bit wilder than his colleagues has helped his work.

Our cover star Phil is the calmest, most unassuming of the trio, though down-to-earth and easy going, as shown by his description of the music that dominates his life: “It’s good-time party music. It’s just about girls, drinking, cars and having a real party, a good time. People might not think that, because it’s from the 50s but honestly some of it’s just nuts, man.”

Rockabilly is still the ultimate pure scene. As Phil says, it just isn’t in the public consciousness. Morrissey dabbles, Andy Weatherall sings the genre’s praises and burlesque is bringing back the fashion. But although it’s undoubtedly due a revival, it’s one the original crew hopes will pass without too much fuss.

Features 11 years old

James Kendall

James Kendall is the co-owner and editor of SOURCE. He’s been a music journalist since 1992 and spent over a decade travelling the globe covering dance music for DJmag. He’s interviewed a range of subjects from Bat For Lashes, Foals and James ‘LCD Soundsystem’ Murphy to Katie Price and the Sugababes. He’s a keen photographer and has work featured in The Guardian.

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