The last time I saw The Sharks, I vividly remember bassist Steve Whitehouse and guitarist Alan Wilson surfing through the crowd lying on top of inflatable dinghies. It was a fantastic night of great music at the Psychobilly Meeting in Spain: Guitar Slingers, Gorilla, and The Surf Rats effectively revved up the crowd in anticipation of The Sharks’ last show there. And this Saturday, November 21, 2015, The Sharks will play the last gig of their career in Long Beach at the SeaPort Marina Hotel. For more information on the show, presented by Von Badsville Entertainment, and to pre-purchase tickets, click here.
When asked why this British band decided on Southern California rather than their mother country for this historic performance, drummer Paul “Hodge” Hodges replied, “our shows in America are just great. It would make sense to do it in England, but people don’t really come out for shows there.” Alan agreed: “When we play in L.A., the young Latino audience is the coolest. When we played Ink ‘N’ Iron two years ago, the crowd was going crazy. They were so into it. And then we came back and played Bedlam, the biggest gig in England for psychobilly, and there was like nothing coming back from the audience. The difference is incredible. I love playing in America.”
The Beginning of “Psychobilly” (or whatever it was), The Meteors, and Pi$$ing Off the Teds:
As much as they love it, this is going to be our last chance to catch them as The Sharks, our last chance to witness one of the groundbreaking bands that has been around since the beginning of psychobilly … or whatever you want to call it. None of them particularly feel like the label necessarily fits them well, especially in terms of how people tend to define the genre today. Steve pointed out, “what was thought of as psychobilly in the early ‘80s, by today’s standards is kind of mild. Now it can mean something quite extreme, but that hadn’t even been invented yet then.” In fact, back in 1981, when The Meteors released some innovative music that combined rockabilly and punk, there wasn’t a name for the unique and rebellious new style. Alan found the first Meteors album catalogued as rockabilly in the record store since there wasn’t yet a psychobilly section. Steve remembers that the press toyed around with “punkabilly,” but he preferred to think of it as something more akin to neo-rockabilly. In the end, the band agrees that “The Sharks were just The Sharks. We weren’t really calling ourselves anything.”
What Alan, Steve, and Hodge all had in common was a fascination with the new music being released by The Meteors. For Hodge, who had been into punk and ska before joining The Sharks, The Meteors had something he liked that was missing from the neo-rockabilly that his classmate Steve played for him, like The Polecats and The Blue Cats: “As soon as I heard The Meteors it was, like—yeah, I’m definitely into this. I liked Mark Robertson’s punk aspect combined with Nigel’s and Paul’s rockabilly background. It was just different than that rockabilly thing. It was more than singing about pink pegs [trousers] and Cadillacs. I liked the aggression of it and I thought, well, this, I can get into this, and that was pretty much what did it.”
Alan remembers hearing the first Meteors single at a Flying Saucers show while he was still in a rockabilly band called The Dixie Rebels: “The DJ played a record and the dance floor just emptied except for about three people. I thought they were fighting. Then I realized they weren’t fighting; this was actually part of their kind of dance thing they were doing. They were on the floor rolling about. It wasn’t called wrecking or anything then. Then I thought, “I really like this record!” So I went to the DJ and said, “What was that record you just played,” and he said, “Oh, it’s this band called the Meteors.” So I went out the next day and bought it. It was some weird new thing, and I found that really exciting and really good. Every time the Meteors put out a new single, I’d buy it. And then the first album came out. And to this day I can still remember going into the record shop – in those days, they would actually play you a track and then you’d go, “Yeah, I want it or I don’t” – and he put it on and you get that little chant thing at the beginning, and literally two bars in, I said, “I’ll have it.” And that first Meteors album, for me, that just opened up a whole new world.”
That whole new world provided a much-needed opportunity for bands to sing about something other than “Saturday nights and petticoats and poodle skirts and drive-ins,” says Wilson. In his rockabilly band, he was trying to write lyrics about American topics that he didn’t know anything about. He laughed as he remembered a song he had written about a shark swimming off the coast of Tennessee: “I’d heard of Tennessee when I was a kid, and I knew that’s where a lot of the rockabilly music was from, so I thought, “That would be a cool place for a shark to live.” I didn’t realize it was landlocked!” But now he could write about anything – from kids like “Charlie” being pushed to a murderous rage, to taking a razor to your head to achieve the psychobilly quiff, to a posh rich kid who turns his back on the aristocracy and starts listening to Demented Are Go. Wilson also liked how different it was from both the Teddy Boy rocker scene and the rockabilly revivalists: “I liked the fact that only three people liked it and everyone else hated it. And I could see that it kind of pi$$ed off the Teds, so that made it more attractive to me. I remember going to rockabilly gigs and I’d dyed my hair pink at a time when no one did that. I was like 16, 17 years old and I only did it to pi$$ everyone off, you know? And it did. People that used to speak to me suddenly didn’t want to now.”
Steve had a similar interest in moving away from the rocker scene: “I was really pissed off with the same f@*ing rock and roll covers. Over and over and over. You’d go to the shows, there’d be “Tear It Up” and “Be-Bop-a-Lula.” You had to sound just like Gene Vincent. You had to sound just like Bill Haley, Elvis Presley. It’s been done so many times, and the reason that psychobilly and neo-rockabilly came to pass is because people wanted to smash that mold. They really did. And when that started to happen, there was real friction between the teds and the hep cats, as we were called back then.”
Partly because of that tension and partly because this new wild version of rockabilly was so different than anything else before it, The Sharks didn’t have very good turn-outs at their first shows. Paul recalls it being hard to get gigs because they were writing their own songs instead of playing classic rock’n’roll covers: “We were in a no man’s land because rockabillies didn’t like this new thing that was happening. And the rock & roll gigs, like the Teddy Boys and that, they hated anything to do with it, and so you’d just get gigs and hope someone would come. My memory of the early Sharks gigs was that no one liked us.”
Alan has a similar memory of that transitional time, when the tension between subcultures led to riots: “We didn’t have an audience, to be honest. Everyone hated us because there was no psychobilly scene really yet and the rockabillies didn’t like us. We were just desperate for gigs, so we’d do a gig at a rockabilly club and we’d get booed off. At one gig at a rock & roll club, they hated us so much, they actually switched the power off halfway through our set. The sound guy was telling us “Stop! Stop playing,” and we didn’t. So they pulled the plug on us. And there were probably 200 people in that club, and 195 in the rock & roll or Teddy Boy types and there were about five what we would now call psychobillies. And when they pulled the plug, there was a massive riot and these five kids smashed the place to pieces. They went into the toilets and pulled the sinks off the walls, so there was water squirting everywhere. Then they came out into the dance floor with the sinks, and threw them at the Teds. They went mad, ‘cause they really didn’t like each other those days. And we just stood on stage thinking, “Oh f@*k, what do we do?” And it was just crazy, so we had to leave there pretty quick.”
The Split, Gary Day, and Reconciliation:
For about 2 years, The Sharks tried to stake out their own identity in the budding psychobilly scene and they released their iconic Phantom Rockers album on Nervous Records (1983). But the tension between the Teds, the hepcats, and the punks was not the only strain the band faced. Tempers flared and The Sharks took a 10 year hiatus while Steve focused on Frenzy and Alan concentrated on his Western Star Studio and Recording Company.
In 1993, Alan was producing the Frantic Flintstones’ Jamboree album, featuring Gary Day on bass, who had already played with Morrissey. He was a fan of the work The Sharks had released in the early ‘80s, and suggested they reform the band with him on bass. The new outfit released Recreational Killer (1993) which included tracks like “Schizoid Man” and the first song I ever heard by The Sharks, “Scratchin’ My Way Out.” When Gary got the call to rejoin Morrissey’s band, Alan and Hodge had to decide whether they’d cancel an upcoming European tour. They reached out to Steve, who agreed to join again, and thus the original line-up was restored for the tour and the Colour My Flesh album (1996).
Comeback and Thoughts on the Scene Today:
After a 15-year break from playing live, The Sharks returned to gigging a few years ago around the release of Infamy (2013). They were pleasantly surprised at some of the ways the psychobilly scene had changed since the ’90s, a period which Steve remembers as “the dark years” when a lot of the “billy” was replaced with a heavier, grungier sound because bands were closely imitating one or two bands from the ‘80s. He noticed a change around the start of the 21st century and he cites The Living End as a catalyst: “They took the good elements of the ‘80s scene and vamped it in a way that I always thought was the best way, which is directionless. I think other bands started to realize it was about playing and songwriting again – good choruses, good hooks, sing-along stuff – and not just imitating. It’s been growing ever since and there are some amazing players now.” He mentions Long Tall Texans, Mad Sin, Batmobile, Magnetix, Stressor, The Test Pilots, The Zipheads, and Basementones as some of his favorites. Hodge agreed that the quality has improved dramatically: “We’ve met some really good bands, like Gamblers Mark. The musicianship is right up there now.”
Alan also noted that touring now is so much better than it was: “The scene was quite shambolic. You could go off on tour and when you got to the venue, it had closed down two weeks ago and there’s all this rubbish. And you soon get tired of that. Now, the gigs have gotten more organized, the sound systems are better, you get picked up at the airport so there’s none of this getting lost in the van. I’ve really enjoyed the last three years. We’ve played all over the world and my favorite thing would be meeting so many brilliant people. You can walk into a psychobilly event anywhere and everyone’s friendly, everyone knows each other. I could go to a gig in LA and within seconds, “Oh, there’s Dave and Danny from Gamblers Mark.” You feel like part of a big family. If you see someone you don’t know, you’ll probably know who they’re with and you’ll get introduced. It never used to be like that really and I think that’s probably my favorite thing about the scene now.”
Future Endeavors and Advice for Psychobillies:
Despite enjoying touring much more, the members have decided to focus again on other projects. Alan’s Western Star studio is so booked ahead of time that he can’t even record his own band there. Inspired by movers-and-shakers like Rockin’ Ronnie Weiser and Nervous Records’ Roy Williams, he enjoys helping bands hone their own sound: “I love helping them to achieve some kind of potential. I like to sort of listen to what they were like and what they ended up being like and thinking I actually made a difference.” Hodge is interested in playing with The Go Go Cult, a band he really admires from the Western Star label. And in addition to Frenzy, Steve keeps busy with The Blue Cats, neo-rockabilly heroes of his when he was still in high school and sticking pictures of them on his schoolbooks. “All the time, I just thought, “Wow, these guys are the balls.” So when they asked me to join the band, it was great for me. It takes me a little bit more into rockabilly than Frenzy does.” A self-proclaimed “nostalgia freak,” he also obsessively collects anything art deco, as well as WWII deactivated weaponry, vehicles, uniforms, and paraphernalia. Plus, he runs a business restoring military vehicles and jukeboxes. These are some of the most dedicated, hardest-working guys in the business and I honestly don’t know how they manage to do everything they do.
They care about the future of the scene and want to remind fans to remember that psychobilly rebelled against imitation and narrow categorization in the first place. As Paul puts it, “we were doing it totally to rebel against Teddy Boy style and idea that there was just one kind of rockabilly.” He’s noticed that some fans have become quite narrow-minded about what “counts” as psychobilly and he wants them to remember that psychobilly pulled from diverse influences when it first developed. Steve points out that even rockabilly itself was a rebellion against what was happening in the ‘50s. And then in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, the neo-rockabillies and psychobillies had to rebel against those who treated classic rockabilly as the holy grail. When he meets people who want to strictly listen to only a particular kind of psychobilly, he reminds them, “we were always pushing the envelope. We wanted to rebel and still should.” He notes that having punk icons The Toy Dolls headline the Psychobilly Meeting was great: “All the psychobillies were into it. I looked in the front and there were like three punks, three psychobillies. They’re all singing the lyrics.” The Sharks were around when the Teds and the rockabilly revivalists aggressively held onto a narrow definition of music and style, each in their own way, and they warn against that same mentality permeating the psychobilly scene. So keep your eyes and ears open, and explore, as they did initially.
Many thanks to Alan Wilson, Steve Whitehouse, and Paul “Hodge” Hodges for taking time out from a busy and fun-filled Psychobilly Meeting this past summer to be interviewed!