Tuesday, 15 July 2014

The Obscuritones - rockabilly rebels

In this article, which originally appeared in Britain's coolest car mag, Classic American, I meet London's rowdiest rockabilly rebels, The Obscuritones, and hear all about their modern music and vintage style.

Purist or customiser? Do you want a fifties ride that looks and sounds like it did when it left the factory? Or would you prefer it chopped, lowered, rodded and given your own zany contemporary twist?

Just as it is for car restorers, the world of vintage clothes and vintage music is similarly split between authenticity and originality. Rockabilly rebels the Obscuritones are proudly in the latter camp, with joint lead vocalist Joey Hill happy to describe the six-piece as “the black sheep of the rock’n’roll scene.”

Distinguished by the harmony vocals of Hill and Jane Dobson, and the lead guitar of the group’s third female member, Sam Kidman, the group define their hot and smoking sound as “The Andrew Sisters singing with the Stray Cats after a night out with the Cramps!”

“It’s not our mission to be authentic,” Hill continues. “We love the music of the 50s but we also bring in all the music we’ve grown up with. So spy, surf, garage and ska... it all goes into the Obscuritones machine and hopefully something good comes out the other side.”

The Obscuritones was founded by Australian-born Kidman who recruited the other members via free-ad website Gumtree.

“My boyfriend’s a DJ and he got me into rock’n’roll,” says Kidman. “I wanted to start a band that incorporated all the music that I like - rock’n’roll, rockabilly, 60s garage and ska - but it’s ended up more rockabilly and rock’n’roll.”

Hill came from a rock’n’roll family. Her dad Brian Hill is the guitarist in Mike and the Rhythm Stars, and she recalls, “There was always a lot of Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison being played in the house when I was growing up.”

But despite her rock’n’roll roots, Hill came to the Obscuritones from punk band The Lost Cherrees with whom she played her very first gig at legendary venue CBGB in New York.

This article as it originally appeared
in Classic American
“It was a baptism of fire and a crash course in rock’n’roll,” Hill enthuses. “The club was exactly as I imagined it - a real dive, covered in graffiti. I’m a massive Blondie fan and it was really exciting to be on stage thinking Debbie Harry trod these boards!”

The Obscuritones have travelled all over Europe and released their first vinyl single, Angel Eyes, on French label Rydell Records. There’s an explosive video for the song on YouTube, but an impromptu live video of the band performing Rockabilly Boogie at the Castle pub in Southend has proved to be an even bigger internet hit. Opening with shots of American hotrods parked on the prom outside, the clip perfectly captures the gritty spirit of the British rockabilly scene, although Hill says it wasn’t planned like that - or, indeed, planned at all.

“A friend of my dad’s came over from Italy to film my dad’s Vincent motorbikes. He decided to film our gig and we weren’t prepared at all.” In fact, Hill admits with a giggle, “It was probably one of the worst gigs we’ve ever played! So when the video went past 100,000 views we were completely shocked. Now it’s past 700,000.”

Both of the above songs can also be found on the band’s self-named debut CD, The Obscuritones, which is released on their own label, Brockwell Records. The disc includes a surfing instrumental, Brockwell Beach, penned by Kidman - so is that a real place, perhaps in her native Australia?

“It’s actually named after Brockwell Park in London,” says Kidman, who lives across the road from that green space. “So it’s not exactly a beach - although it used to have a paddling pool!”

Other original songs on the album include Bad Mood, which Hill admits is a tad autobiographical. “I can be a bit of a brat on stage... and a bit of a brat in real life! So that song’s kind of: I’ve got the hump and you’re gonna pay for it!”

Rockabilly fashion has always been part of the subculture’s allure, and Hill admits she got into the clothes before the music.

The Obscuritones on stage at the Blues Kitchen
“The quiff and leather jacket for the guys, red lipstick and victory rolls for the girls... it’s instant glamour - exciting and a bit naughty at times.”

On stage, Hill and Dobson favour reproduction 50s clothes from Hell Bunny, Vivien of Holloway and Collectif.

“I’m too lazy to rummage around for proper vintage,” Hill admits and, with such a strong vintage influence on current high street fashion, she adds, “Some of my favourite dresses are from H&M.”

Double bass player Andy Bavington wears Freddies of Pinewood jeans and Mr Ducktail t-shirts - Mr Ducktail being the rockabilly barber of Carnaby Street, famed for his switch-blade haircuts and own brand hair grease.

Kidman is more of a rummager, scouring the vintage shops around Camden market for colourful country and western shirts and bowling shirts. Glancing through her wardrobe, she says, “Some of them are repro shirts from the 80s. I’m not fussy if something’s original. If I like it and it looks cool, I’ll buy it.”

For their hair, Hill says, “I’ve been to Mr Ducktail’s for some cuts and styles, but generally we do it ourselves. There are so many hair and make-up tutorials on YouTube. You just need a bit of trial and error - lots of hairspray and pins.”

The Obscuritones play regularly at London’s Blues Kitchen and Hill says the capital’s rockabilly scene is booming. “You could catch a rockabilly band every night of the week if you wanted to. It’s an exciting time to be playing this type of music and long may it reign.”

As to why rockabilly seems to get rediscovered by every generation, Hill says, “It’s just absolutely timeless. It’s about wild abandonment, passion, excitement, rebellion... and I don’t think those things go out of fashion. At the Blues Kitchen it’s a young audience, a lot of students who go there to let their hair down and have a good dance - and that’s what we try to give them. It’s just one of those genres that everyone wants to dance to.”

Buy Polka Dot Dreams
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Natty Smalls!
So that's the Obscuritones. But what of Duke and the Bop Tones? Never heard of them? They're the rockabilly band that help to make Natty Smalls a singing sensation, along with her shady manager, the Scottish Teddy Boy Cameron Swoon, in my novel set in the vintage clothes and music scene, Polka Dot Dreams. Click here to read the five star customer reviews on Amazon.

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