For all the countless repackaging that we are constantly drowning in, sometimes the major labels throw us a bone with brilliant anthologies. Being a fan of garage rock, the pinnacle for me might be the original Nuggets collection, although I’m certainly not sneezing at the various label series that have followed in those caveman footprints to issue regional and chronological; collections of little-known garage and punk singles.
Rhino and Sony Legacy have really stood out in this regard (although in fairness to other labels, their access to the entire Columbia and Warner Brothers libraries is a hell of a head start). When these efforts are done right, you get a great cross-section of material in its best available sonic condition combined with some entertaining and/or authoritative liner notes written with care. If there’s one major drawback to the digital download medium – and there are several – the loss of liner notes might be the leading contender.
I didn’t grow up an Elvis or rockabilly fan, but I did grow up loving rock’n’roll, and chasing the roots of an art form is a worthwhile exercise for any devotee. These collections are far from complete but are an excellent primer for someone wanting to know what the fuss was all about.
When I saw that Whistle Bait is on sale at Amazon for $6.99, I figured I should pay props to these killer anthologies once again. Here’s my original review from 2000 as it ran in PopMatters…
Fifty—count ‘em—50 snips of rockabilly, America’s original punk rock music, collected on two CDs to awaken your latent juvenile delinquent tendencies. Rockabilly was the cross-cultural spawn of hillbilly country, southern R&B, urban blues and rock’n’roll (which, of course, was itself a hybrid of the previous three). If you think the ‘50s were all about American Graffiti and Happy Days, you’re as wrong as the people who think Pat Boone butchering “Tutti Fruitti” was the cat’s meow. This was rebel music, parent-scaring yelps from garages and small towns across America. In your town, it was that kid down the block who chain-smoked and had a pompadour seemingly held in place by 30-weight motor oil. Thirty miles away, some kid with a buzzcut and an attitude was making the “bad girls” swoon.
Whistle Bait and Ain’t I’m a Dog strip-mine the vaults of Columbia Records—who, through their strong country music associations had a leg up on these things—and their associated labels. Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash, in their post-Sun era, are just two of the stellar names among The Collins Kids, Johnny Horton, Link Wray and Marty Robbins. Perkins checks in with some pre-requisite sharp clothing titles like “Pink Pedal Pushers” and “Pointed Toe Shoes”, but cuts like “Jive After Five” prove who Dave Alvin spent a lot of hours listening to. Billy Crash Craddock might not have been the star that Elvis was, but “Ah Poor Little Baby” could fool many people in a blind taste test. For me, the revelations were Ronnie Self and The Collins Kids—it’s no accident that the first track on each volume comes from their catalogue.
Hard not to learn a few things along the way, too. I never knew that Ronnie Dawson cut tracks under the unlikely moniker of “Commonwealth Jones”, nor did I realize that Webb Pierce had a hand in writing both “Bop-A-Lena” and “Bo Bo Ska Diddle Daddle” (although now that I look at those titles side by side, I know why Mensa passed on my application!). Then there are the classic monikers like Ornie Wheeler, Ersel Hickey and Werly Fairburn; three names impossible to pronounce without a little twang in your thang. Many of these acts had one or two records and then disappeared; some (Cash, Perkins, Dawson) had long careers, and some wound up in unexpected places (how the hell did Larry Collins cut tracks like these and then later pen schlock like “Delta Dawn”?). Although the genre primarily existed for but a few years (the tracks here range from 1955-1961), there sure were a hell of a lot of great records, and you know there are plenty more where these came from. File these two right alongside Nuggets when not playing loud.
Listen to clips from Whistle Bait
Listen to clips from Ain’t I’m a Dog