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Psychobilly is a fusion genre of rock music that mixes elements of punk rock, rockabilly, and other genres. It is one of several subgenres of rockabilly which also include thrashabilly, trashabilly, punkabilly, surfabilly, and gothabilly. Psychobilly is often characterized by lyrical references to science fiction, horror and exploitation films, violence, lurid sexuality, and other topics generally considered taboo, though often presented in a comedic or tongue-in-cheek fashion. It is often played with an upright double bass instead of the electric bass more common in modern rock music. Psychobilly gained underground popularity in Europe beginning in the early 1980s, but remained largely unknown in the United Statesmarker until the late 1990s. Since then the success of several notable psychobilly bands has led to its mainstream popularity and attracted international attention to the genre.


The evolution of psychobilly as a genre is often described as having occurred in waves. The first wave occurred in Britainmarker in the early 1980s, the second wave took place at the end of that decade and spread through the rest of Europe, and the third crested in the late 1990s with the genre finding international popularity.


the mid- to late 1970s, as punk rock became popular, several rockabilly and garage rock bands appeared who would influence the development of psychobilly. The term "psychobilly" was first used in the lyrics to the country song "One Piece at a Time", written by Wayne Kemp for Johnny Cash, which was a Top 10 hit in the United Statesmarker in 1976. The lyrics describe the construction of a "psychobilly Cadillac." The rock band The Cramps, who formed in Sacramento, Californiamarker in 1972 and relocated to New Yorkmarker in 1975 where they became part of the city's thriving punk movement, appropriated the term from the Cash song and described their music as "psychobilly" and "rockabilly voodoo" on flyers advertising their concerts. The Cramps have since rejected the idea of being a part of a psychobilly subculture, noting that "We weren't even describing the music when we put 'psychobilly' on our old fliers; we were just using carny terms to drum up business. It wasn't meant as a style of music." Nevertheless, The Cramps, along with artists such as Screamin' Jay Hawkins, are considered important precursors to psychobilly. The Cramps' music was heavily informed by the sound and attitude of 1950s American rockabilly, and they recorded numerous covers of songs from the Sun Records catalog. Their 1979 album Songs the Lord Taught Us is considered influential to the formation of the psychobilly genre.

First wave in Britain

The Meteors, formed in South Londonmarker in 1980, are considered the first verifiable psychobilly band. Their albums In Heaven (1981) and Wreckin' Crew (1983) are recognized as landmarks of the early years of the genre. The Meteors blended elements of punk rock, rockabilly, and horror film themes in their music. They also articulated psychobilly's apolitical stance, a reaction to the right- and left-wing political attitudes which divided British youth cultures. Fans of The Meteors, known as "the Crazies", are often attributed with inventing the style of slam dancing known as "wrecking", which became synonymous with the psychobilly movement. The short-lived Sharks, formed in Bristolmarker in 1980, followed closely behind The Meteors with their influential album Phantom Rockers. Another significant British band were the Guana Batz, formed in Felthammarker, Middlesexmarker in 1983. Their first album, 1985's Held Down to Vinyl at Last, has been described by Tiger Army frontman Nick 13 as "the most important release since the Meteors' first two albums."

The Klub Footmarker nightclub, opened in 1982 at the Clarendon Hotel in Hammersmithmarker, served as a center for Britain's emerging psychobilly movement and hosted many bands associated with the style. Johnny Bowler of the Guana Batz describes the club as "the focal point for the whole psychobilly scene. You'd get people from all over at those gigs. It built the scene. Record labels like Nervous were there, signing bands all the time." A live compilation album entitled Stomping at the Klub Foot was released in 1984, documenting the club's scene and the bands who played there. At the same time psychobilly bands were forming elsewhere in Europe, such as Batmobile who emerged in the Netherlandsmarker in 1983, released their debut album in 1985, and soon began headlining at psychobilly festivals and at the Klub Foot.

Second wave in Europe

The second wave of psychobilly is noted as having begun with the 1986 release of British band Demented Are Go's debut album In Sickness & In Health. The genre soon spread throughout Europe, inspiring a number of new acts such as Mad Sin (formed in Germanymarker in 1987) and the Nekromantix (formed in Denmarkmarker in 1989), who released the album Curse of the Coffin in 1991. The Quakes formed in Buffalo, New Yorkmarker in 1986, but had such difficulty building a following in their hometown that they moved to London the following year, where they released the album Voice of America in 1990. Another significant release of this era was the compilation album Rockabilly Psychosis and the Garage Disease, which acknowledged the genre's roots in rockabilly and garage rock.

The second-wave bands broadened the music's scope, with the introduction of new and diverse musical influences into the sound. Record labels such as Nervous and Crazy Love helped the genre to expand, although it still remained largely unnoticed in the United States, where the albums were poorly distributed and most psychobilly bands preferred to play weekenders than to tour. Nick 13 states that while other British youth trends such as scooter riding, the skinhead subculture, and 2 Tone ska crossed over to the United States during the 1980s, psychobilly did not. However, one American act that emulated the style was The Reverend Horton Heat, formed in Dallas, Texasmarker in 1985. Their 1990 single "Psychobilly Freakout" helped introduce American audiences to the genre. The band was heavily inspired by The Cramps, and original Cramps members Lux Interior and Poison Ivy have both identified The Reverend Horton Heat as the latter-day rockabilly/psychobilly band most closely resembling the style and tone of The Cramps.

Third wave internationally

The third wave of psychobilly began in the mid-1990s, with many acts incorporating influences from genres such as: hardcore punk, indie rock, heavy metal, new wave, goth rock, surf rock, country, and ska. Psychobilly became popular in the United States, particularly in southern California, where punk rock had thrived and remained popular since the 1970s. The area's large Latino community, which revered early rock and roll icons, also played a part, as did the popularity of bands like the horror-influenced Misfits and country/rockabilly-inspired Social Distortion, as well as a celebration of hot rod and motorcycle culture.

Tiger Army, formed in San Franciscomarker in 1995, became the dominant American psychobilly act following the release of their 1999 self-titled debut. Their touring in support of the album helped to establish a foothold for psychobilly across the United States. Los Angelesmarker-based Hellcat Records, run by Rancid's Tim Armstrong, became home to many psychobilly acts, including Tiger Army, Devil's Brigade and the Danish groups Nekromantix and HorrorPops, both of whom relocated to southern California in the early 2000s. Guana Batz members Pip Hancox and Johnny Bowler relocated there as well, moving to San Diegomarker where they sometimes perform with Slim Jim Phantom of the Stray Cats under the name Guana Cats. Another notable California psychobilly band formed in the 1990s was The Chop Tops.

The genre remained vital in Europe, where new acts continued to appear. Asmodeus formed in Amsterdammarker in 1992, the same year the Kryptonix emerged in Francemarker, and the Godless Wicked Creeps formed in Denmark the following year. The Sharks re-formed in Britain, releasing the album Recreational Killer.

Battle of Ninjamanz formed in Japanmarker in 1994 and Os Catalepticos formed in Brazilmarker in 1996. Australian act The Living End formed in 1994 and scored a hit with the double single "Second Solution"/"Prisoner of Society" in 1998. It peaked for several weeks at #4 on the Australian charts and became the country's highest selling single of the decade. The Living End generally describe their style as "punkabilly" rather than psychobilly because they do not share the genre's fascination with horror imagery, though they do blend punk rock and rockabilly at fast tempos, use a double bass and share much the same fanbase as psychobilly.

Musical style

Musically, psychobilly is rooted primarily in two genres: late 1970s punk rock and 1950s American rockabilly. Tiger Army frontman Nick 13 explains: "The number-one misconception people have is that psychobilly is the same thing as rockabilly. Rockabilly is on the family tree, but it's a totally different sound and attitude." Psychobilly progenitors The Cramps acknowledge their music's deep roots in American blues, rhythm and blues, and traditional rock and roll. Alternative Press writer Ryan Downey notes that contemporary psychobilly also draws from other rock genres and subgenres: "Driven by the rhythmic pounding of a stand-up bass, the music swings with the snarl of punk rock while sometimes thrashing alongside speed metal or crashing headlong into country icon Hank Williams." Downey acknowledges that contemporary psychobilly's roots extend into 2 Tone ska, garage rock, hardcore punk, street punk and Oi!. Hilary Okun, publicist for Epitaph and Hellcat Records, notes: "The music appeals to fans of punk, indie, metal, new wave, goth, rockabilly, surf, [and] country." The influence of heavy metal on the psychobilly style resulted in the Nekromantix's 1994 album Brought Back to Life being nominated for a Grammy Award in the category of "Best Heavy Metal Album."

Psychobilly is commonly played with a simple guitar/bass/drum/vocal arrangement, with many bands consisting of only three members. Often the guitarist or bassist will be the lead vocalist, with few acts having a dedicated singer. An upright double bass is often used instead of the electric bass found in most rock bands. The use of the upright bass is influenced by 1950s rockabilly and rock and roll musicians. The bass is often played in the slap style, in which the player snaps the string by pulling it until it hits the fingerboard, or hits the strings against the fingerboard, which adds a high-pitched percussive "clack" or "slap" sound to the low-pitched notes.
Some acts have made their upright bass the centerpiece of their stage shows; some psychobilly musicians elaborately decorate their upright bass, such as Nekromantix frontman Kim Nekroman, whose "coffinbass" is in the shape of a coffin, with a headstock in the shape of a cross. Nekroman created his original "coffinbass" from an actual child-sized coffin, and has since designed new models to achieve better acoustics, as well as collapsibility for easier transportation. Another notable act to use a coffin-shaped bass is the Brazilianmarker psychobilly band Os Catalepticos. HorrorPops frontwoman Patricia Day also uses an elaborately painted and decorated double bass.

The Cramps performed without a bass player in their early career, using two guitars instead. They did not add a bass guitar to their arrangement until 1986, and have used an electric bass since that time. Cramps guitarist/bassist Poison Ivy sees this as one of the distinctions that separate the band from the psychobilly movement: "I think psychobilly has evolved into a gamut of things... It seems to involve upright bass and playing songs extremely fast. That's certainly not what we do."

Lyrical style

Lyrically, psychobilly bands tend to favor topics and imagery drawn from horror and exploitation films, violence, lurid sexuality, and other taboo topics, usually presented in a comedic or tongue-in-cheek fashion reminiscent of the camp aesthetic. Most acts avoid "serious" subjects such as politics. Original psychobilly act The Meteors articulated a very apolitical stance to the scene, a reaction to the right- and left-wing political attitudes dividing British youth cultures of the late 1970s and early 1980s. This attitude has carried through later generations of psychobilly. Nekromantix frontman Kim Nekroman describes: "We are all different people and have different political views. Psychobilly is all about having fun. Politics is not fun and therefore has nothing to do with psychobilly!"


Psychobilly musicians and fans often dress in styles that borrow from 1950s rockabilly and rock and roll, as well as 1970s punk fashions. Other aesthetic influences include the scooterboy and skinhead subcultures, although not all performers or fans choose to dress in these styles. Men often wear brothel creepers or Dr. Martens boots and shave their heads into high wedge-shaped pompadours or quiffs, military-style crops, or mohawks. The Sharks song "Take a Razor to Your Head" articulated the early psychobilly scene's code of dress, which was a reaction to the earlier British Teddy Boy movement: "When your Mom says you look really nice / When you're dressed up like a Ted / It's time to follow this cat's advice / Take a razor to your head". Women of the psychobilly subculture frequently model their fashions after B-grade horror films and hot rod culture. Tattoos are common among both sexes.

See also



  1. Downey, 77.
  2. Downey, 78.
  3. Downey, 80.
  4. Downey, 81.
  5. Downey, 79.
  6. Downey, 82.

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