Author Max Décharné talks rockabilly
Author Max Décharné‘s new book on the history of rockabilly, A Rocket In My Pocket, was an instant favorite here at Rock Star Journalist headquarters. The book’s take on the rock ‘n’ roll genre precursor focuses just as much on the obscure gents releasing barely-heard singles on local labels as it does the big hits, making for an engrossing and informative read. So, it ges without saying we were thrilled beyond belief when offered an opportunity to interview the man. He was kind enough to take some time to answer our questions regarding his book and career via e-mail.
Were there are any bands you regret omitting from the book?
Good question. Rockabilly is such a huge subject, you could write 50 books and not mention everyone. What I wanted to do was write a book about where the music came from, how it sounded, and the impact it made in the 1950s. This is a book about the music, rather than any one act, although there’s no getting around the huge impact of the five Elvis Sun singles – he was the one everyone wanted to be, pure and simple.
I was mostly trying to write a book telling the story of how rockabilly exploded across the south between 1954 and 1956, when there were literally thousands of performers making records in that style, most of whom never became household names. It’s incredible how much great music was made in such a short space of time. After that, the big companies moved it, watered it down and tried to make it safe, although of course it didn’t quite work out like that.
In particular, I wonder as to why so many of the more recent psychobilly acts were left out?
You could write an entire book about psychobilly. This is 99% a book about rockabilly in the 1950s. I trace things through the next few decades towards the end, but you’d need thousands of pages to cover everyone who’s been inspired by rockabilly in recent years. I love the Cramps, and I played shows with them, but they only get a brief mention. I’ve played in several bands with guys from The Stingrays, but they’re not even in the book. It’s not a comment about them – it’s just not a book about psychobilly.
Do you have a preference for a certain sound of rockabilly? The more country, rocking, or hiccupy styles, for instance?
For me, it’s the rootsy, back-in-the-hills sound – hillbilly boppin’, all the way. I’m a drummer, but most of my favourite rockabilly tracks don’t have drums on them. As long as you’ve got a slappin’ bass, I don’t think you need them. Charlie Feathers will always be the godfather, as far as I’m concerned, although you also can’t beat the Rock’n’Roll trio howling their way through Train kept A Rollin’… And yeah, I’m a sucker for a decent hiccup…
How did your playing in Gallon Drunk and the Flaming Stars influence how you approached the book?
Didn’t really affect it. It’s more the other way around – I’ve been into rockabilly since the early 1970s, which probably explains why I wound up in bands like Gallon Drunk and the Flaming Stars in the first place. Neither of those are rockabilly bands, but both of them have drawn a little bit on that rockabilly spirit, and everyone in each band certainly loved listening to rockabilly at home.
Has the book allowed you to meet any artists you’d not yet spoken with?
Writing it certainly gave me the chance to talk to people like Wanda Jackson and Sonny Burgess. I’d shaken Sonny’s hand back in about 1986 after a gig when he signed my original Sun 45 of We Wanna Boogie, but it was very good to be able to talk to him for a decent stretch of time about his days doing things like gigging with Elvis in 1955. A real gentleman.
Writing the book was an attempt to get the story of 1950s rockabilly into one book, which is an impossible task, but it was a lot of fun trying, and even though I’d been listening to this music for forty years now, I still discovered tracks and artists I’d never heard of. I still can’t believe quite how much phenomenally good music was produced by the rockabilly musicians of the southern states in such a few short years back in the late 1950s. I did a lot of research, certainly, but I was building on the fact that I’d been buying these kinds of records for most of my life. It’s a huge subject – the more you dig into it, the more you find.
You’ve previously written books on film noir and obscure slang, and now, rockabilly. Do you have plans for further excursions into ’50s culture?
I’m sure I will. There’s something about that immediate post-war era when everything seemed so fresh – like it was all up for grabs, and all kinds of wild people came out of the woodwork and managed to get their message across, whether in records, books or films. It’s cliché to say so, but everything these days has a habit of seeming pre-packaged, safe, air-brushed and boring. I like stuff with style, but also with a few rough edges still on it. These days, by the time they’ve finished photoshopping, auto-tuning, polishing, overdubbing and generally burying any spark of originality, what you’re left with doesn’t really interest me. All of which is another way of saying, if Jerry Lee or Gene Vincent came along these days, I doubt very much they’d be allowed to have a mass-market international career like they did in the 50s…