Sunday, April 25, 2010

New Wave for the New Week #63

The RockatsThe Rockats via

I recently picked up a copy Robert Gordon & Link Wray's 1978 album Fresh Fish Special. After falling out of CBGB's mainstays The Tuff Darts, Gordon hooked up with the legendary Wray to do two albums of straightforward by-the-numbers Rockabilly. Special was the second of the two, and is highly recommended.

Listening to that record inspired me to pull out some of the other stuff in my collection that fell under what would come to be known as the Neo-Rockabilly sound. You had The Cramps turning up the crazy and turning the genre into Psychobilly, you had The Blasters and Roy Loney & The Phantom Movers and Tex Rubinowitz putting out records that would have you believe 1960s psychedelia and 1970s disco had never happened, and you had the highly stylized New Wave Rockabilly "cats" (The Stray Cats, The Polecats, The Bopcats) cross-breeding '50s sounds and '80s visuals. And then you had this week's NW4NW featured band, The Rockats, who may have been the unheralded best of the bunch.

They started out as Levi & The Rockats, with frontman Levi Dexter and bassist Smutty Smiff as the heart and soul of the band. Unapologetically worshiping at the shrines of Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran, Levi & The Rockats found a surprisingly sympathetic audience in the late-'70s UK Punk scene. Playing a mixture of obscure covers and originals so faithful as to be indistinguishable from the vintage material, and doing so with the high energy buzzsaw sonic attack and callous sneer of the punks around them, the band soon had supporters like Johnny Thunders and Debbie Harry singing their praises. They came to America in 1979 and played shows with The Cramps. They made TV appearances on The Midnight Special and The Merv Griffin Show, even though they not only had no record yet to promote, but they had yet to even be signed by a label. They bopped and honky-tonked and pompadoured their way across the States, and on the night of their last show of the year on December 16th, from the stage of LA's Whisky-A-Go-Go, Levi Dexter announced the band was done. The only vinyl record of the Levi & The Rockats days was At The Louisianna Hayride, a live recording released two years later.

Dexter went off to to form Levi Dexter & The Ripchords, and later LEVI. Smutty Smiff and the rest of The Rockats, however, didn't actually want to break up the band. Guitarist Dibbs Preston took over vocals, and a new guitarist, Tim Scott, joined the band briefly. Scott would go on to have a minor solo hit, "Swear," (later covered by - of all people - Sheena Easton!) and fill in for an injured Charlotte Caffey on one of The Go-Go's final tours - making him the only male Go-Go ever (trivia buffs take note). Scott's stay in The Rockats lasted only through their debut album, Live At The Ritz (1981).

In 1983, The Rockats would have their closest thing to a hit record, the awesome title track to the Make That Move ep. "Make That Move" was the culmination of everything the Neo-Rockabilly scene of the time wanted to be. Simultaneously true to the genre's roots and modern enough for MTV to put the video into rotation, decked out in Brylcreem and twangy guitars and Jerry Lee Lewis piano pounding, "Make That Move" caught everyone's attention for a moment.

It would turn out to be The Rockats' swansong. It's a shame there wasn't more recorded of their six-year journey from the Levi & The Rockats days to "Make That Move," but they always had been a band more focused on live performance. (That two of their three slabs of vinyl were live recordings should not go unnoticed.) Preston continues to lead revived versions of the band on occasional reunion tours, although he is the only original member, and occasional releases appear under The Rockats' name, but the spark of the original band is gone. Happily, the clip for "Make That Move" survives, and is presented here as this week's NW4NW entry. Enjoy!

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