Author: Zoë Radas
Despite the fact their crepe soles were planted across three continents, rockabilly allstars The Barnestormers managed to slay the tyranny of distance with the power of finger-poppin’ grooves! (And some deft production work…)
We put a couple of questions each to this band of bros, comprising UK music legend and boogie-boogie
specialist Jools Holland; Gretch-slingin’ frontman of The Living End, Chris Cheney; stand-up sticksman for NYC’s seminal Stray Cats, Slim Jim Phantom; double bassman and producer to the superstars Kevin ”Caveman” Shirley; and on the mic, the thundering pipes of our boy Jimmy Barnes.
PIANO: JOOLS HOLLAND
When playing in rockabilly style, do you tend to thrash the keys more because the piano doesn’t have its own amp (and probably wouldn’t be mic’d up in a bar room situation)? To put it another way: does the live tradition of how rockabilly piano is played mean the technique is necessarily very different to (and maybe even less ’precise’ than) other styles?
Thank you for this interesting technical question. Rockabilly, like the blues, was in there at the birth of rock ’n’ roll and amplified music. It was at a time when the piano went from being one of the loudest instruments on stage to the least audible.
The piano players of the day not only had this challenge, but also the places where the gigs were being played, and the music was being recorded had inconsistent, and sometimes useless, pianos. It was a challenge that was met wonderfully by people like Floyd Cramer and Jerry Lee Lewis.
My understanding is that when records were cut at this time, the musicians were all playing quite quietly. The challenges of making The Barnestormers record and playing rockabilly today have been different. The two enormous hurdles that we had to get over were the global pandemic and the fact that members of the group were all on different continents. This is where genius producer Kevin Shirley came into his own, and managed, somehow, to pull it all together.
At my end, in London, I was delighted to be able to deploy my 1949 Wurlitzer spinet piano, which is identical to the one originally used in Sun Studios. This responds well to both taking a hammering and more light-fingered work.
I don’t think my technique’s any different for rockabilly, but I think my styling might be more influenced by Jerry Lee and Floyd.
For brand new fans of The Barnestormers’ sound, which pianists should they investigate to learn about the style?
Further to the above, the genius singer-songwriter Charlie Rich has a lovely touch. Much of the rockabilly style comes from western swing, so someone like Moon Mullican is worth checking out. As is Merill E. Moore, whose boogie woogie piano coupled with lap steel guitar created a unique and magical sound.
I have to say also at the back of my mind while I’ve been making this record has been my dear old friend, Fats Domino.
GUITAR: CHRIS CHENEY
When you’re playing a rock ‘n’ roll classic like the cuts on this new album, how do you know which pockets are yours to play around in with improvisation, and where to remain loyal to the original guitar part?
It was important for me on this record to find the right balance of referencing the original parts that are identifiable and also bringing my own touch to them. No one needs another straight-up covers record. You gotta bring something new to it, or why bother?
This music is the foundation of The Living End, so I’m kind of accustomed to taking an old idea and then injecting something fresh into it. I’m really proud of how this record turned out. Everyone brought the goods.
Which guitarists should brand new fans of The Barnestormers explore?
Here’s the essentials.
Cliff Gallup, who played on all Gene Vincent classics. A man who effortlessly played fast, flashy be-bop lines intertwined with jazzy octave runs. Race With the Devil and Be-Bop-a-Lula are still two of the all-time best guitar solos ever performed.
Paul Burlison, from Johnny Burnette’s rock’n’roll trio. Train Kept A-Rollin’ and Lonesome Train still sound fresh and punchy.
Danny Gatton, the Tele master and one of the greatest all-time players. Huge influence on me, as he really could do it all. He would run through an encyclopedia of licks in one single solo. Fire and skill.
Brian Setzer, who blended country, rock’n’roll, blues, and jazz into his own style. One of the best and coolest ever.
BASS: KEVIN ‘CAVEMAN’ SHIRLEY
When you’re going hammer and tongs on the bass, such as in Crazy Crazy Lovin’, we can hear the tick of the strings hitting the fingerboard with the force of your plucking. Do you think of this sound as part of the instrument’s sound, in a percussive sense? How much do you notice/control it?
Oh, the tickety-tick is key to the sound of the bass! (Otherwise, you’d just use a normal electric bass – that would be so much easier.) But the muted acoustic bass sound, and all that gorgeous fingerboard percussion, is the driving force of rockabilly, baby!
If listeners want to investigate rockabilly style slap bass, which players should they take a look at?
Thomas Lorioux! Boom! (Mic drop).
VOCALS: JIMMY BARNES
The repeated title phrase in Sweet Nothin’s sounds so good in your voice because the vowels it contains are particularly distinct to you. Do you look for songs to cover which are heavy on a particular word/vowel sound, because you know it’ll come out especially ’Barnesy’?
Not really, there are sounds that sound good at the end of phrases, and some that some good in the middle, but more than anything it’s about the timing and the tone I go for. I’m sure there are some go-to ones, but it’s not a conscious choice. Most vowel sounds can be made to sound good. Sweet Nothin’s is just one of those great songs that’s a lot of fun to sing. I like the Brenda Lee version a lot, but I wanted
to approach it like Little Richard when I sang it, the way I pushed it. I wanted the microphone to distort.
Which singers should brand new fans of The Barnestormers’ sound look in to?
There are so many great rockabilly and rock ’n’ roll singers to listen to. When I say rock n’ roll, I tend to be talking Little Richard more than Guns N’ Roses – nothing wrong with them, but it’s more about that time period.
It’s very hard to go past early Elvis records. He was one of the best. The way he sang in 1956 was out of this world. Then you have singers like Jerry Lee Lewis and Billy Lee Riley (it helps if you have three names). Buddy Holly was incredible. Little Richard, Johnny Burnette, Eddie Cochran. Listen to The Stray Cats – those guys introduced a whole new audience to rockabilly.
It’s a long list. If you haven’t looked at rockabilly music before, you have a great journey in front of you.
DRUMS: SLIM JIM PHANTOM
On Lonesome Train, we get to hear your rhythms go extra-clickety. Is there a ’healthy’ way to play on the rims, so you’re not ruining your sticks?
Yes, on Lonesome Train I play on the rims of the snare drum. There are a few things to watch out for when you play this style. As you said, you can wear out sticks and shed a few splinters – a few divots in the sticks can also occur. Luckily, I have an endorsement deal with Vic Firth sticks and get a few complimentary pairs.
This style can also wreak havoc on the rims; warping and denting can occur, so a lighter touch is suggested.
The main thing to be wary of is the damage to your wrists and elbows, from the hard stick on hard surface of the rims – prolonged use of this style can definitely result in bone spurs, a sprained wrist, and
sore elbows. I feel these are occupational hazards, so get tough and plough through – if it’s the right Sound for the right song, you gotta go for it!
For new fans of The Barnestormers’ sound, which drummers should they go searching for?
A few of the countless drummers that I’d suggest listening to, if you dig my style on The Barnestormers’ record and the rockabilly style in general, would be Dickie ”Be-Bop” Harrell, (Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps), D.J. Fontana (Elvis Presley), Charlie Connor (Little Richard), Jerry Allison (Buddy Holly), Jim Van Eaton (Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Sun Records house drummer), Freddie Below (Chuck Berry), Ringo Starr, Earl Palmer (Eddie Cochran), Charlie Watts, W.S. ”Fluke” Holland (Sun Records session drummer),
and Willie ”Big Eyes” Smith (Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf).
The Barnestormers’ caricatures and album artwork were created by lowbrow pop artist and trashcomic icon Vince Ray.
The Barnestormers by The Barnestormers is out May 26 via Bloodlines.
The Barnestormers – The Barnestormers
Author: Jeff Jenkins
Jimmy Barnes. The Living End’s Chris Cheney. Stray Cats’ Slim Jim Phantom. Squeeze’s Jools Holland, and producer Kevin ‘Caveman’ Shirley. Five legends spread over three continents.
Supergroups don’t always work, but The Barnestormers’ self-titled debut is a success from start to finish because the aim is simple: having fun.
They’ve delivered a riotous rockabilly rave-up, with songs celebrating the origins of rock ’n’ roll. Remarkably, all the band members had not even met before embarking on this record. But it sounds like they’re all in the same room, ripping through classics by Chuck Berry, Roy Orbison, Bill Haley, Johnny Burnette, and Brenda Lee.
The songs range in subject matter from wanting a new car (Chuck Berry’s Dear Dad) to the working man’s tale of woe (Roy Orbison’s Working for the Man) and the wonderfully absurd Thirteen Women (And Only One Man), where it’s the end of the world and the singer is the only man left on earth.
They also revisit Johnny O’Keefe’s Wild One (using its American title, Real Wild Child), as well as Don Walker’s solo gem Johnny’s Gone, and a recent Cold Chisel cut, Land of Hope and Glory. And Cheney contributes a new track, 25 to Life, which sits comfortably alongside the classics.
The Barnestormers is one of 2023’s great party records. Drop the needle and turn it up loud.
The Barnestormers by The Barnestormers drops via Bloodlines.