FOR SOME Scottish rockabillies, their love affair with all things 1950s doesn’t end with memorabilia and music – they are recreating the era, finds Peter Ross.
Saturday night. Edinburgh. Tojo, a stocky, kindly-eyed 49-year-old Fifer wearing vintage peg-trousers, an Argyle shirt and a Jay Gatsby cap, reaches into his box of seven-inch singles and places a record, reverently but without hesitation, on the turntable, a diamond horseshoe ring on his left pinky sparkling in the dim, buttery light of the basement bar. The needle, the scratch and hiss, and then – bliss. Sh-Boom by The Chords.
Tojo looks up, out at the dancefloor, and smiles at the women dancing, in 2013, to this great song from 1954. He turns back to his box of vinyl, flicking through the handwritten cardboard dividers – R&B Jivers, Doo Wop Jivers, Modern Rockin’, Rockabilly Boppers – choosing which song to play next. And as he flicks, and the drums click, and the dancers move to each sax lick, the DJ sings quietly to himself, “Life could be a dream, sweetheart.”
The Web, which takes place downstairs in the Spider’s Web pub on Morrison Street, near Haymarket station, is the longest-running rockabilly night in Scotland. It is thought to be around 30 years old. The 100 or so faithful who attend, on the last Saturday of each month, are devoted to the look, sound and culture of America – and to a lesser extent Britain – during the 1950s.
There is a feeling of having somehow slipped back through time, as jiving shadows flit across the low, red ceiling, steep quiffs rise like the Salisbury Crags from glistening foreheads, and the dark parallel seams of dozens of pairs stockings twist and spin around the dancefloor, performing a kind of urgent, erotic geometry. “What you see here is the real deal,” says Gus Winton, a hulking 50-year-old with a cheroot dangling from thick lips. “This is our life. Cars, clothes, music – the lot.”
Edinburgh is the epicentre of what most devotees call “the rockin’ scene” but there are plenty of ardent rockabillies elsewhere around Scotland, and many travel to the frequent rock ’n’ roll weekenders down south, in particular Hemsby in Norfolk, which attracts a couple of thousand people each May. Scottish rockabillies are migratory – rather like the swallows tattooed on their arms – and will also travel abroad, the annual Viva Las Vegas festival being an especially sacred pilgrimage, as it offers the opportunity to see the surviving hollering prophets of rock ’n’ roll perform live. This year: Little Richard.
“It’s a worldwide scene, but it’s small, and we all know everybody in it,” says Stuart Hepcat, a 44-year-old tattoo artist who runs Hepcat Tattoos in Glasgow. His elder brother, Roy, does the piercings and both have the word ‘rockabilly’ tattooed on their necks. “I could go to a rockabilly gig anywhere in the world any day of the week and I will know at least two people, absolutely guaranteed. Russia’s got a big scene. Vegas. Japan. Hungary. Sharpest cats in the world, the Japanese. They’re dripping with pristine vintage.”
The clothes are important. Everyone is at pains to point out that they dress like this all the time. It’s not a costume. Not a passing fashion, although a watered-down version of the look does happen to be rather fashionable at the moment. It’s a way of life. That’s what you hear all the time. A way of life made manifest in Lurex and lamé and vintage jeans turned up just so. “I couldn’t give a shit what the public think,” says Willie Ramsay, a 47-year-old storeman with a vertiginous quiff.
“This is me. They are the ones that look odd. They might as well have walked off a conveyer belt. As soon as we walk out of the house we are a target right away for somebody taking the piss or wanting to have a go. You either learn to take care of yourself or you put up with a lot of shit, and I don’t want to put up with a lot of shit.”
No doubt. Ramsay’s right hand bristles with big silver rings, including a fearsome-looking five-pointed star he calls his ‘ned spikes’.
“I’m a massive vintage hoarder,” says Cecilia Laneres, a 25-year-old Glaswegian vision in angora with Cupid’s bow lips and blonde bombshell hair. “I spend hours searching for vintage clothes and spend a lot of money on them. I have eBay and Etsy on my phone and I’ll check them a million times a day. You’ll scrimp and save to buy this $300 dress on eBay; it needs work to salvage it, and it smells a bit, but, God, you love it.”
Laneres, who works for a domestic abuse advocacy service, does some pin-up modelling – posing in vintage outfits for the sort of glamour shots that hark back to Marilyn Monroe and Mamie Van Doren. The difference, she says, between then and now is that these photographs are taken not for the titillation of men but for her own pleasure. “It annoys me when people say I was born in the wrong era,” she explains.
“I really wouldn’t have wanted to live in the 1950s. Women weren’t liberated then. I am a feminist. My work and what I do is very female-orientated. I like that I have the choice to wear the things that my icons wore, but I don’t have to follow the rules of an oppressive time.”
Others on the rockin’ scene seem less satisfied with modern life. “You look back at a time when things were so simple,” says Archie Paterson, a 50-year-old Glaswegian woodwork teacher who DJs at the Web. “Women were in the house, guys were out working, you came home, the dinner was ready. I don’t like the digital age, I don’t like the rushing about, the rat race. I don’t want to fit in with society. Give me the nice, simple things. Forget the internet, just leave me alone – me and my records and my cars.”
Mary Moyes, 48, from Dunfermline, values the social attitudes of the rock ’n’ roll era as much as the clothes and music. People of her age are well placed, she says, because they were born in the mid-1960s; old enough to be familiar with the texture of the 1950s, but still young enough to embrace the technology – online shopping, social media – which allows them to enjoy the aesthetic pleasures of the post-war boom. “I like the innocence of that period,” she says. “I like the respect that people had for each other then. I feel that today that is gone. People appreciated what they had a lot more. They were prepared to work hard to get the things they really wanted.”
And what they want now is authenticity. Reproduction clothes may look the same, but they were not worn during the 1950s, they did not rest and rub on skin during that hallowed era, and therefore – no matter how well-tailored – they lack the warp and weft of history. And this can have lamentable consequences. “We used to go to this shop in Newcastle and buy all the cheapest stuff,” says John Maddison, 42, drummer in rockabilly band The Neutronz, “so we ended up looking like more like Ted Bovis from Hi-de-Hi! than Elvis Presley.”
This concern with authenticity extends beyond clothing. The men and women of the rockin’ scene often furnish their homes with mid-century furniture, and they like to get around in vehicles of the same period. Keith Turner, 50, a carer who fronts Edinburgh-based rockabilly group The FretTones, drives a bright red 1956 Ford F100 truck, which sits in the drive of his suburban semi like some great growling beast. He and his wife Lynn, who books the bands at the Web, have remodelled their kitchen as an American diner and have built a Tiki cocktail bar in the garden.
Seven-inch singles, or 45s, as they are known on the scene, can be the subject of intense obsession. They are prized for their rarity and for their tangible connection to the era. Someone in California or Colorado or Kansas bought that record and loved it, played it to death, and now here it is in Colinton, Clermiston or Currie. “Vinyl at the moment, gram for gram, is more expensive than gold,” says Tojo. “You can pay anything from £10 to £10,000. There are people who will pay that for a rockabilly 45.”
And would he? “Yes, definitely. I’ve got the five Elvis 45s on Sun, which is the crème de la crème of seven-inch Elvis.”
Tojo’s obsession with vinyl borders on the fetishistic. He owns around 7,000 singles and has visited the pressing plants in Memphis where some of the great 45s were made. He runs his own plumbing and heating company in Dunfermline, but is also in demand as a DJ around the world. Every record he owns, no matter how expensive, is for playing. Those wee black discs are not inert artefacts, there’s life in the grooves.
In the Web, as each new song twangs and clangs, 57-year-old Robbie Robertson – school janitor by day, Teddy Boy by night – is up dancing; drape coat flapping, feet tapping, all elbows and knees and acute angles, lanky as you like, with love and hate inked across his knuckles. It’s hard to know whether to applaud his moves or measure him with a protractor. He’s so tall, and the room so low, that his proud silver quiff almost brushes the peeling, pitted ceiling.
The Teds are a subculture within a subculture. Not for them the jeans and gabardine jackets. They favour bespoke three-piece suits in sombre colours, velvet cuffs and half-velvet collars, brothel-creepers and half-moon pockets. They tend to be a little older than others on the scene, and their musical taste runs to British acts that some rockabillies consider twee – Vince Eager, Dickie Pride, early Cliff.
Back in the 1970s and 80s, fights between rockabillies and Teds were common, but these days the scene is so small, and the scenesters so mature in years, that peace has broken out. “We don’t carry coshes or knuckle-dusters any more. I’ve got them in the house,” says Robertson, sipping from a bottle of Newcastle Brown Ale.
“Oh, when I was young – knuckle-dusters, flick-knives, the lot. We were wild guys. That was life then. You had to look after yourselves. But we don’t fight anybody now. Skinheads, mods, we’re all pals. We gave up on all that. It hurts.”
What was his way into the scene in the first place? “I got beat up by a couple of Teddy Boys one day and I thought, ‘Hey, they’re cool.’ So I ended up becoming one.
“We’re a different breed. It’s a way of life. The style, the music, the pals, the people – it’s better than your normal run-of-the-mill crap. You put your suit on and you feel good.”
How good? “Do you remember your first orgasm? Like that. You cannae wait to go out and have a beer and go rock ’n’ roll.”
The rockin’ scene in Scotland is middle-aged. There are only a few young people, often the children of parents who are themselves obsessed with the 1950s, and a few veterans of the original era itself. One man here tonight, Stewart Campbell, 73, recalls that on 3 February 1959, he and his pals left the Fountainbridge Palais and were confronted with newspaper headlines informing them that the Big Bopper, to whose music they had been dancing just moments before, had died in a plane crash. “It was scary, a horrible feeling. Girls were crying.”
Campbell remembers how alien and electrifying this music sounded when it first arrived in Scotland. Blackberry Boogie by Tennessee Ernie Ford, released in 1952 on 78, made the jukebox in a Leith café shake. Heartbreak Hotel he first heard in the Cowgate; it was a song you felt with your whole body.
Those who experienced and fell in love with rock ’n’ roll first time around are held in high regard within the scene as apostles. Turner and his wife Lynn both work as carers for the elderly. “Some of the stories that I’ve heard from these old guys are amazing,” he says. “One chap, Old Walter, he’s 93, and I saw a picture of him on his mantelpiece as a young man, playing the saxophone. Well, it turned out he’d played with Satchmo [Louis Armstrong]. I could not believe it. He’s blind now, but you want to hear him on the piano.”
For most folk on the scene, growing up in the mid-1970s, their way in was through the chance hearing of a particular record, maybe something their parents owned – a Buddy Holly best-of bought from Woolworths; K-Tel’s 20 Rock & Roll Greats – or some old black and white footage, all ghosts and static, glimpsed on a wet Sunday teatime in Paisley and never forgotten.
What’s interesting is that for certain Scots within that generation, the sound of the 1950s seemed as heart-seizingly thrilling and new as it had for those who had been teenagers during the rock ’n’ roll boom. It was the shock of the old, and its tremors can be seen, even now, in every jiving, bopping leg in the Web.
Some people, though, are born into it. MaryJean Lewis is a Louisianan singer and the niece of Jerry Lee Lewis. She lives in Wishaw, where she runs a diner, MJ’s, having met her Scottish husband, Gary, a Teddy Boy, at a weekender in Blackpool. She is a lovely, talented woman, an artist in her own right, and she bakes a mean apple cake. Still, it is worth saying again: Jerry Lee Lewis’s niece lives in Wishaw.
MJ’s hosts live music once a month. Lewis herself fronts a band, the Starlight Boys, playing 1950s-style originals and covers. She started singing in honky-tonk bars at the age of 12; before that she was singing in church – the classic rock ’n’ roll upbringing: jive and Jesus. She remembers sharing a Nashville dressing room with her uncle, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash. All of this seemed quite natural. “Rock ’n’ roll is my roots,” she says in an accent that is part southern belle, part North Lanarkshire.
“It’s what I grew up with. I used to sit and listen to Uncle Jerry’s records with my mom, and I would listen to all the Sun artists. I’ve always appreciated the fact that these songs are not trying to be clever. It’s honest music. It’s about your most primitive feelings.”
Lewis has had some dark times. A previous relationship was abusive. Has music helped her get through? “Absolutely. Music has been almost like therapy for me. When things are very hard, you can throw yourself into it. There’s a song for every mood, but I find that Uncle Jerry’s records help me because that’s part of my legacy. There’s a sense of pride and joy that comes with being connected to that. He helped create that music. He helped shape and style it. So I feel a personal connection with it. I love Wild Child, and End of the Road, and High School Confidential. Does it get any better than that?”
Well, does it? Maybe not. Back in the Web, after midnight, after one too many, the scene is peaking. A whirl and blur of scarlet lips, tattooed ships, leopard print and diamanté, booze breath, perfume and sweat; Tracey O’Neill, a Weegie in her 40s, dances the sole off one of her vintage shoes to Sonny Boy Williamson and carries on in bare feet, red nail polish flashing on the floor. The night ends, as it surely must, with Gene Vincent singing sweetly of loneliness and dreams.
“Thanks to the whole world,” says Tojo into the microphone, overcome and sincere, “for having rock ’n’ roll in it.”
• MaryJean Lewis and the FretTones, plus DJs Tojo and Archie, will perform at the Voodoo Rooms, Edinburgh, on 16 March as part of a charity rock ’n’ roll jamboree. The next rockabilly night at the Spider’s Web, 258 Morrison Street, is on 30 March. Hepcat Tattoos is at 21 High Street, Glasgow. MJ’s Diner is at 38 Kirk Road, Wishaw