Twangs for the memories

The rockabilly scene in Hong Kong might be small but expect big things when bands from around Asia converge at the Fringe Club, writes Richard Lord

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 July, 2013, 10:34pm

IT MIGHT BE SOMETHING of a niche musical preference these days, but rockabilly is one of the most influential genres in the development of modern music. It's also an awful lot of fun to see live - as local fans of twangy, country-influenced retro 1950s rock will soon have a chance to find out for themselves.

The Dirty Boogie Rockabilly Festival, which takes place at the Fringe Club on July 20, brings together a collection of Asia's quiffiest, most sharp-suited rockers for a celebration of the style of music that dominated the early days of rock 'n' roll: The Bembol Rockers from The Philippines; Sugar Lady from Taiwan; and Hong Kong's very own The Boogie Playboys. With The Bembol Rockers' DJ Marc Steady also spinning, and a retro dress code emphasising a distinctly dapper '50s look, along with live tattooing and hairdressing, it should be quite a party. Steady says he and his band have visited Hong Kong four or five times during the five years since they formed, and "compared to when we started playing there, the crowd right now is getting much bigger. It's a very nice crowd in Hong Kong - a real party crowd."

But then rockabilly has always been party music. It emerged in the early 1950s, mostly in the American South, as a fast, rhythm-driven, danceable form of popular music that drew on many traditions; its name is a portmanteau of "rock" and "hillbilly", the latter a common name for country music at the time. It was then that it developed its characteristic sound, still intact today: a propulsive, stomping blend of classic three-chord rock guitar sequences and a pitch-bending country twang, with a hefty dollop of echo and reverb.

That sound has a good case for being the most important and influential genre in the formation of modern music. Its emergence was a pivotal moment in mid-20th-century musical history, laying the path for rock 'n' roll and all that followed. Specifically, it was the point where "white" country and bluegrass met "black" blues, R&B and jazz.

It was the bedrock of the music produced by many of the greats of early rock 'n' roll: Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Gene Vincent, Bill Haley, Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, Eddie Cochran - all made rockabilly music.As well as bands that faithfully follow the '50s template, many other musicians have been influenced by the genre, from The Beatles to the Rolling Stones to The Who to Led Zeppelin; even Morrissey dabbled in the 1990s. Plus there's a Rockabilly Hall of Fame, launched in 1997, with Gene Vincent the first inductee - predictably, it's in Nashville.

As well as "pure" rockabilly bands with an authentic, retro, '50s sound, the genre has also proved most adept at drawing in other influences. During the late '70s and early '80s, at the same time as the '50s-revivalist Stray Cats were sweeping all before them, rockabilly also got spiked with everything from punk to metal to goth, in the process creating edgier, campier, horror-influenced work such as that of The Cramps and The Meteors - the latter the standard bearers for the combative sub-genre known as psychobilly. Other rockabilly hits of that era ran the gamut from the infectiously catchy (Queen's Crazy Little Thing Called Love) to the monstrously cheesy (the entire output of Shakin' Stevens).

However, it remains a minority genre in most places, and particularly in Asia. Bluesman Chan Sze-chai, co-organiser of the Dirty Boogie Rockabilly Festival along with street-art collective Start From Zero, and himself a member of The Boogie Playboys, says a similar event last year drew a crowd of about 300. In fact, he says, he suspects that his band, formed in 2009, is Hong Kong's only pure rockabilly outfit. "I don't think we have a scene when it comes to musicians; we don't really have that many people who play this kind of music here."

The same is true throughout Asia; the only place with anything approaching a scene is, inevitably, Tokyo. "When we talk to different bands, they all say there's no real rockabilly scene in their cities - there are just one or two bands in each place," says Chan, while Steady confirms his band are the only ones playing pure rockabilly in Manila. "There's not much money in this," he says. "We do it for love."

Hong Kong does, however, have plenty of people, most of them in their 20s and 30s, who are interested in the music - and in everything that goes with it.

"It's not only about the music," says Chan. "Real rockabilly is connected to the fashion, the attitude, the lifestyle. The audience seems to really like coming to the festival. Most of them are gweilo - most locals don't really know what rockabilly is about." Despite that, he adds, "everyone tries really hard" when it comes to getting into the spirit; in particular, he says, a number of women try to emulate the '50s pin-up style that the organisers also use on their promotional posters.

With so few bands to choose from, the festival's organisers can't afford to be overly purist when it comes to the line-up. "We welcome all different kinds of new and old rockabilly," says Chan, who by day is a merchandiser for a fashion company. "We prefer to have pure rockabilly as the core of the concert, but then all three bands play different styles. The Bembol Rockers have quite a pure '50s sound, a lot of swing and jump blues, and they do a cappella very well too. Sugar Lady are quite modern - they have a bass guitar instead of a double bass - and they're seriously influenced by Brian Setzer [a former Stray Cats member, latterly successful with his own swing-influenced Brian Setzer Orchestra]; their live performances are great - they have a really nice energy."

Then there's his own band. "We try to sound as traditional as possible," he says, adding modestly, "but we're not as good at it as bands like The Bembol Rockers". Their other point of difference, he adds, is that they're probably the only rockabilly band in the world to sing in Cantonese - although the genre that from now will be known as Cantobilly was presaged in the '70s, thanks to Cantopop legend Sam Hui's well-known idolisation of Elvis Presley, which led the God of Songs to cover The King on many occasions.

Chan says he's liked rockabilly: "since I first started listening to rock and pop music. I heard about this type of traditional rock 'n' roll, but I didn't necessarily know what this music was called". His personal eureka moment came in unusual circumstances - when he was watching a VCD of the Woodstock 1999 festival. "I saw the Brian Setzer Orchestra, and I just thought: 'That's so cool.' That big-band swing sound was amazing." He formed his first band in 2000, although in a slightly different genre: heavy metal. Over time, however, he says his love of various different types of retro sound led him in the direction of rockabilly.

He, along with hundreds of others, will get a rare chance to indulge his passion on July 20 - and a passion is definitely what this is. "It's very fresh, very pure music," says Steady. "It's coming from the heart. It's something that you do because you love it."


Dirty Boogie Rockabilly Festival, July 20, 8pm, Fringe Club, 2 Lower Albert Rd, Central, HK$200 (advance), HK$220 (door). Inquiries: 2521 7251