September 6-12, 2006

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Elvis Presley

Get Ready to Rumble

New box set raves the praise of '50s punk and rockabilly

By Greg Cahill

Rockabilly planted its rebel roots in the fertile soil of mainstream country music, sprouting such rock-ready radio acts as Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis. Yet in its unadulterated form, this amped up hillbilly hybrid lingered in the musical underground, emerging only periodically over the years on covers by the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Aerosmith or under the guise of such rockabilly revivalist acts as Robert Gordon and the Stray Cats.

Rockin' Bones: 1950s Punk & Rockabilly--a new four-CD, 101-track set on the Rhino label, and packaged like a hardcover pulp novel--revels in the trash and twang that shook complacent Eisenhower-era America and helped blaze the trail for the teen revolution of the '60s.

All the big names are here: Elvis, Jerry Lee, Orbison, Johnny Cash, pre-pop Buddy Holly, Link Wray, Ricky Nelson, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, Wanda Jackson, Carl Perkins, and Dale Hawkins, among others. So are the lesser known cult heroes: Joe Clay, Johnny Burnette, Charlie Feathers, Ronnie Hawkins, Hasil Atkins and Gene Summers, to name a few.

There are surreptitious appearances by such country artists as George Jones (aka Thumper Jones) and Buck Owens (aka Corky Jones).

Missing in action: Bill Haley and the Comets, whose breakthrough 1955 hit "Rock Around the Clock" marked the first time a rockabilly record topped the charts--Elvis had yet to chart at that point in time.

A 64-page booklet traces the history of this high-octane sound with its lyrical message of sex and rebellion. It was music by, for and about teenagers. But as producer James Austin points out in his lively liner notes, this ain't no history lesson--it's about attitude.

And he captures that in his pulp-fueled prose. "This stuff's for the back alley," he writes, "where juvenile delinquents wore Levi's and peggers (pegged pants in a variety of colors) and flicked switchblades bought in Tijuana."

He makes a case for rockabilly being the first music that left parents feeling threatened about the sanctity of their moral values--rockabilly was the devil's music, the perfect soundtrack for sending those 2.5 child households into the grasp of sin.

Rockabilly revivalist Deke Dickerson delivers a five-page essay on the history of rockabilly guitar, and writer Colin Escott provides a track-by-track commentary.

This remains vibrant music that gave rise to the UK-based skiffle craze that enthralled the Beatles and other British Invasion bands (who would re-export it back to the land of its origin) and has informed the likes of the Clash and the Ramones and the Donnas. Until now, you may never have heard of Peanuts Wilson or Tom Tall or Johnny Powers, but anyone worth their rock 'n' roll shoes owes them all a debt of gratitude.

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