The IASPM-US Commercial Music Graphic series is offered in tribute to the late Archie Green. Folklorist, labor historian, activist, and pioneering popular music scholar, Green wrote his “Commercial Music Graphic” column for the John Edwards Memorial Foundation Newsletter, a groundbreaking vehicle for scholarship on US vernacular music of the early twentieth century.
I went to my first psychobilly show a couple weeks before Halloween. I thought maybe the coffin-shaped upright bass, the songs about gargoyles taking over Copenhagen, and the go-go dancers’ skeleton costumes were a gimmick for the holiday. But soon I realized that this tongue-in-cheek celebration of the macabre was a 24/7 feature of this vivid genre of so-called “mutant rockabilly.” Zombie girlfriends, bats and skulls, Frankenstein and his Bride, and Freddy Krueger are just some of the common topics of psychobilly songs. In honor of Halloween, let’s take a look at some of the ways in which the idea of re-animation runs through most everything that defines the psychobilly subculture, particularly in respect to zombies. This blog features photos I’ve taken over my five years of research within the psychobilly subculture, as well as some of the fantastic examples of poster art I’ve collected over the years.
At its core, psychobilly is a musical hybrid of rockabilly and punk – two genres that are kept alive (albeit in a twisted and unique way) by this subculture. It may be no surprise, then, that themes of revival and reanimation permeate this subculture. Along with preserving rockabilly and punk, psychobillies also resurrect vintage cars, fashion styles, consumer goods, pin-up culture, and musicians who have languished in obscurity for decades. As one musician told me, “psychobilly is a culture of survival.” Psychobillies’ obsession with bringing aspects of the past back to life is part of a strategy for reversing the death, decay, destruction, and disillusionment they associate with the world today. If they cannot help losing their jobs or their friends and family in today’s unstable economic and militaristic climate, at least they can prevent other things they love from disappearing, and even fantasize about bringing the dead back to life… as free-wheelin’, rock-n-rollin’ zombies.
You’ll notice that the zombies in psychobilly media, whether scary or completely non-threatening, are having the time of their lives – or rather, the time of their undeaths. In the image above, from a flyer for a psychobilly event which celebrated the birthday of the singer/guitarist from The Rocketz, an undead rock star lives out a stereotypical fantasy of fame and desirability, surrounded by sexy vixens from the world of the dead. This image goes hand-in-rotting-hand with a common theme in psychobilly songs: the pleasure of sex with/as the undead. Check out “I Fucked a Zombie” by San Francisco-based band Mutilators:
The sexy stench of rotting flesh
The grinding sounds as our bodies meshed
I came so quick but had to have another taste
When I saw the look of lust on what was left of her face
Having experienced the best sex he’s ever had, the protagonist chooses to settle down with his undead girlfriend “and start a zombie family.” In my dissertation, I explore how these tongue-in-cheek fantasies about a hedonistic afterlife represent how psychobillies embrace carnivalesque experiences – especially ones not typically accepted in mainstream society – while fantasizing about something that takes them out of their day-to-day reality and into an alternate space of jouissance and evasive pleasure. Every psychobilly I’ve asked admits that he or she wouldn’t really want to have sex with a zombie, but it’s fun and entertaining to imagine this rebellious and transcendent fantasy.
Zombies have experienced a revival in popularity in today’s culture. But for the most part, people fantasize about killing zombies. They derive satisfaction from imbuing zombies with everything that is scary, threatening, and dangerous about our world today, and then shooting out their brains. It’s the victory narrative that most people seem to like – the imperative of human survival.
Not so in the psychobilly world. Psychobillies want to be zombies. They dress up like them regularly for zombie-themed psychobilly shows. Songs romanticize the responsibility-free advantages of the zombie afterlife. The zombies portrayed in concert flyers dance, drink, drive vintage cars, rock out on musical instruments, and even enjoy romantic vacations (see below). Psychobillies identify with these perks, expressing desire for a lifestyle that rejects normative conventions and expectations. They embrace a fantastical alternative. As Joe Normal from psychobilly band Cold Blue Rebels told me, “Zombies are bad ass! They are like punk rockers from hell, or rock ‘n’ rollers from the grave! I think we all want to live out that fantasy.”
Psychobillies identify with zombies in more ways than one. Zombies frighten and repulse people; rockabilly greasers, punks, and psychobillies have rejected normalcy and have been perceived as gross, dirty, scary, and off-center by the mainstream. Furthermore, as many authors have pointed out, zombies are “working-class” monsters – the mob of the proletariat, not featuring any particularly attractive qualities or supernatural abilities. Psychobillies often embody and perform this identification with zombies by dressing up like them at concerts and events:
Although there are numerous other ways in which we can interpret psychobillies’ fascination with these creatures of the undead, this blog simply touches on the ways in which zombies are represented within the scene visually. Psychobillies have invented a fantasy about the pleasures of a carefree and rebellious zombie afterlife – they party down, drink, have amazing sex, and always rock’n’roll to the fullest – momentarily escaping the reality of today’s hardship.
Kim Kattari received her doctorate in ethnomusicology from the University of Texas at Austin in 2011. Her dissertation explores how participation in the psychobilly culture offers multiple strategies for relieving certain social and economic pressures and hardships. She is currently teaching at Texas A&M University, and enjoys teaching courses on Western music history, History of Rock, and Music of the Americas. She’s happy that a group of students has been practicing the dance for Michael Jackson’s Thriller outside of her office every day for the last week. She’s not sure what her Halloween costume will be this year, but maybe zombie?