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V/A - Dr. Boogie presents 26 Deranged and Smokin’ Cool Cats

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Artist: V/A

Album: Dr. Boogie presents 26 Deranged and Smokin’ Cool Cats

Label: Sub Rosa

Review date: Jun. 10, 2009

Rockabilly was both a sound and a moment. If the sound is hard to disentangle from early rock ‘n’ roll, the moment isn’t: southern guys stepping up to the mic in the wake of Elvis, hoping to share some of the fame, or at least some the females. The moment is easy to define ‘cause there’s a clear endpoint in the late 1950s. Johnny Burnett, Carl Perkins, Gene Vincent and others – poised to carry on the rough Memphis sound – had their careers stall in a series of car accidents and band breakups, just as their predecessors who’d made inroads on the pop charts went down in the infamous plane crash, cousin seduction and Army deployment.

The first rockabilly revival started a scant 10 years later, when early Texan rocker Ray Campi got national recognition at the start of the 1970s. That’s when the sound was codified into upright bass, hollow-body guitar and snare. The original stuff is not as standardized – the playing often jazzier or cruder, and the recording as pristine as a Blue Note side or completely fuzzed out with distortion.

The twanged-out R&B feel was already in place when Sun Studio broke. Hillbilly boogie dates back to the 1940s, though the players were more settled in both sound and appearance. What distinguishes “rockabilly” is a sort of irrational exuberance, in both the literal and the economic sense. The playing can be sloppy, the singing embarrassingly horny. Many songs were cobbled together from contemporary hits, hasty attempts to cash in on a fad. On Dr. Boogie presents 26 Deranged and Smokin’ Cool Cats , Harvey Hunt’s "Big Dog, Little Dog" mashes the verse of "Hound Dog" with the chorus and idea of Hank Williams’ "Move it on Over.” At the time, it’s stunning unoriginality may have doomed it to obscurity. But it’s aged well, stealing from the very best, with a wound-tight guitar spilling out over a fast walking bassline.

More likely though, the song was doomed because it never circulated outside of Hunt’s hometown, wherever that was. Dr. Boogie, a Belgian collector, put this compilation together, and most of these tracks have never been anthologized before – which is saying something given how well the genre has been explored. And unlike a lot of similar anthologies, there’s no liner notes beyond the admission that he couldn’t dig up much. One of the tracks I’d heard before is Johnny Knight’s "Rock ‘n’ Roll Guitars,” which made it’s way onto the semi-bootleg Sin Alley series. Those were assembled anonymously not to duck royalties, but because they couldn’t track down the artists either. Fifteen years of the web hasn’t made it any easier. Still, for the rock musicologist or fetishist (as if they’re distinct habits), it would have been cool to include whatever info was on the 45s. It’s safe to assume most of these date closer to 1960 than 1954. Everything has been remastered nice and hot. Even if the vocals are muddy, the guitars snap hard.

If rockabilly was a sound and a moment, there’s also a temptation to call it a movement, especially with a record like this that’s full of self-released sides. But that argument doesn’t hold together. On 1960s garage rock comps, any given frug might be colored by pisspoor Dylanisms, headtrip visions or a sitar riff. It may be trashy, but there’s still the feel of a youth movement, of kids coming together and breaking out.

Rockabilly at this DIY level was a lot closer to the hardcore punk that shows up on Killed By Death compilations – the tempo is always accelerated, and the voice inarticulate. Nothing is as ambitious as it is eager. On a charmer by Ronnie Allen called "Juvenile Delinquent,” the singer isn’t clear on how to pronounce "delinquent.” And it’s hard to read this scene: “My mommy had a date / While my dad was off to work / I went and told my daddy / So he shot that dirty jerk." Allen’s positively chipper ‘til he gets to that last line, where he spits some serious venom. Then he lifts a "great golly Molly" from Little Richard for the chorus.

Watching a late night ad for a Time/Life oldies collection, as the variety show kinescopes roll by, you’d never guess that early rock ‘n’ roll was accompanied by early indie rock. But the one-off labels, guitar worship and tossed-off glee was all there, as documented on Dr. Boogie. All it lacked was the self-consciousness.

By Ben Donnelly

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