Alright, I know what you want to ask, and yes, this is about rockabilly. I know it’s a super-popular genre of music, right up there with your Katy Perry and Justin-ever loving-Bieber. I’m sure everybody’s familiar with it, but that’s not going to stop me from talking about it.
A bit of clarification first and foremost: I don’t dislike the Stray Cats. Hell, Brian Setzer alone warrants mention for his guitar chops alone. And that some-might-call-it-crazy Swing revival back in the mid-90’s (Of all the musical genres to have a rebirth, Swing was not on my short-list). So again, the Stray Cats are great. Totally keen, daddio, and all that.
But – and I can’t be alone in this – if you’d said the word, “Rockabilly” to me a few years ago, the Stray Cats would have been the only act that popped into my head, maybe Buddy Holly. If you really like the music and are of a certain age, Sonny Curtis might come to mind too. And that’s something of a shame, because there are a lot of great bands out there rocking pompadours and stand-up basses.
Henry Rollins and the Blasters-A History Lesson (Beg your pardon?)
This (finally) brings me to the point of all the hemming and hawing: the Blasters. Henry Rollins said of the Blasters in his 1994 book Get in the Van: On the Road with Black Flag, ” In my mind, they were a great band that not enough people heard about “. And we should all listen to Henry Rollins, because – and let’s be honest here – the man is terrifying. He’s also right, but seriously, the fear sort of overrides the importance of being right. Anyway, the Blasters emerged in 1979, put out four albums in six years, and then promptly fell apart. A great band that barely was, but in that time they put out some truly incredible music and displayed a talent
The Blasters came out of Downey, California, the product of a pair of brothers’ misspent youth involving nights sneaking into bars, clubs and juke joints to see master bluesmen play. The saw the likes of T-Bone Walker , Big Joe Turner , and Lee Allen play (I know, I know, these names don’t mean much in this day and age, and even back in 1979 they were in the waning days of their popularity, but these men were legends in their own right, trust me).
After some shuffling, the lineup of the band ended up being: brothers Phil and Dave Alvin on rhythm and lead guitar, respectively, with Phil singing; Bill Bateman on drums; and John Bazz on bass. The first album that the band released, American Music, was put out by a small record label called “Rolling Rock”, recorded in a garage studio with only a few thousand albums printed, but they sold well, considering that fact.
The band was good; even on that first fledgling album you can tell that there’s something special there, but something was missing. The skill was there, but the sound was…incomplete. That changed with their second album (half-way to the end of the road, remember?). The second album (and first major label recording), simply titled, The Blasters, would see some key additions made to the line-up. Gene Taylor, a boogie-woogie piano player who had played with the aforementioned T-Bone Walker and Big Joe Turner, and would later play with the Fabulous Thunderbirds for 14 years, was added, along with Steve Berlin, later of Los Lobos on bass sax. The final addition was the Alvin brothers’ friend, mentor, and sax legend, Lee Allen (you know, one of those blues legends I’ve been harping on about).
The Blasters and Queen (Alright, now I know your joking)
There was a lot of talent in that line-up, and it was reflected in the sound. That second album was their true arrival, and it’s here that they started to takeoff. You’ve got to remember, this was L.A. in the early 80s, during the big punk explosion, and they were running around playing with the likes of Black Flag and X. It paints an oddly awesome, if discordant, picture, this blues/rockabilly outfit playing with some hardcore punk bands of the time. Of course, that weirdness pales in comparison to the utterly bewildering fact that Queen asked them to open for them during one of their tours. Apparently they were pretty big fans, go figure. Reportedly, the audiences on tour didn’t exactly welcome them with open arms at first (surprise, surprise…those two bands aren’t exactly in the same wheelhouse, you know), but the tour helped their exposure, and by the end the audiences weren’t quite so venomous to them.
Rockabilly? Roots Rock? It’s All American Music
Okay, now I have a minor confession to make: I kind of lied back at the beginning of all this, that part about calling the Blasters rockabilly. Admittedly, it was convenient for the uninspired joke about the Stray Cats back at the beginning (c’mon, give a guy a break), but it’s a bit of a…let’s say “narrow” definition. Phil Alvin has always personally called what they played, “American Music”, a term meant to encompass most of their influences like the blues, country, boogie-woogie, etc. Heck, just listen to the songs. Undoubtedly, most of the hits that they had could be filed under rockabilly in your personal musical catalogue. Songs like, ” Marie, Marie “, ” Blue Shadow “, and ” One Bad Stud ” definitely fit the mold. However, there’s also other, more diverse music in their repertoire; ” Just Another Sunday ” is a country-western crooner, and ” Hey, Girl ” is out and out Louisiana zydeco, just to name two.
Nothing Good Ever Lasts…
To keep a long story from getting longer, Dave Alvin, the band’s key songwriter, had grown frustrated with the direction of the band, or lack of one, by 1986. His brother figured it was best not to screw with what was already working, while Dave wanted to move in a more singer-songwriter direction. Their third album, Non-Fiction, was possibly the final refinement of their sound as a roots rock band, but The Blasters’ last album, Hard Line, is more telling of the rift developing between Dave and his brother.
That album sees the band attempting to develop a sound that was more readily marketable, while the songs themselves, those written by Dave Alvin at least, began to develop a darker, more serious edge. The change in sound was a straightforward, unabashed attempt to hit the mainstream, while the songwriting is indicative of the direction Dave wanted to go.
He broke from the band after a particularly poor gig in ’86, and for all intents and purposes, never looked back. He played in X for a while before embarking on a Grammy-winning solo career (2000, Public Domain – Songs from the Wild Land), though the Blasters were never really able to recover from the loss. They still tour, and only recently (as in last July) put out an album of all-new material, Fun on Saturday Night. That’s a twenty-six year wait, for those counting at home.
As a side note, Dave Alvin is worth checking out. That singer-songwriter desire emerged in full force after he left. His singing is more soulful, and his style now leans more towards the blues, with a healthy southwestern twang. To the point about him being the songwriter and the direction he wanted to go: if you listen to some of the songs, the lyrics definitely don’t match the upbeat tempo of the Blasters’ music. The song “Border Radio” is a prime example, being about a woman requesting a song for her husband, gone from home, from one of the border blaster radio stations that used to broadcast from Mexico. She laments the fact that he has to go, and that he won’t see their son grow up. This song is almost hypocritically upbeat. If you listen to Dave Alvin’s solo version, it’s a completely different song, the tone actually fitting the lyrics.
The Silver Lining (Sort of)
ANYWHO, the Blasters still tour and play, though Gene Taylor, and Steve Berlin left shortly after Dave. Sadly, Lee Allen, after seeing a minor career rebirth due to the Blasters, died in 1994. The Alvin brothers mended fences long ago, however, and occasionally the remaining original members reunite for a show or two to play. There’s a DVD out there of a live concert from a few years back where they got back together, and the magic is undoubtedly still there. It is something of a shame though, as, to quote Dave Alvin about playing with the Blasters now. “It’s like going home for Thanksgiving and Christmas. You don’t want to live there, but it’s still a gas while you’re there.” Needless to say, its not likely there will ever be a full-fledged reunion, though the new album has all the original members participating, save Dave himself, who is replaced by Keith Wyatt on guitar, so a rebirth of some sort may be on the horizon. You never know.
Now, this hasn’t really been a review, but if any of this has sparked an interest, I do have a suggestion to make. You can skip hunting down each of the four original albums and look for the one titled, Testament: the Complete Slash Recordings. It is, for all intents and purposes, all four compiled into one release. It’s an excellent chance to hear the entire life story of a band that didn’t get nearly the recognition that they deserved.