Them Tornadoes at Speedway Cafe 105 - 12 September
A quasi-informative, largely unhinged spiel about psychobilly, angry ramblinís, and a review of Them Tornadoes.
Today I almost bought a pair of plastic biker goggles. As far as actual goggles go, they’re pretty useless. They are plastic and the padding around it is covered in that cheap plastic leather which I know will flake and peel off like a gingerkid’s sunburn in no time, and if I ever tried to use them to protect my eyeballs from tearing out while riding a motorbike, I’d probably go home with the retinal cancers because the tinted plastic isn’t UV-protective. Nor do I even own a motorbike. So I now yearn for these totally useless goggles which serve absolutely no practical purpose and are frankly not a very extreme accessory – it’s not even about “having guts” to wear them outdoors, I just feel like everybody would see what a fucking douche I am, and I am fairly convinced that “fucking douche” would be the scroll text running across my mind like a screensaver if I saw somebody else wear those in the streets. In fact, I’d probably make eye contact and say it out loud. In one secure corner of my mind, however, I know that there is a small element of enviousness that has now been stamped out by this hypothetical situation – fucking douche or not, that person owns a pair of plastic biker goggles and I don’t.
So on Saturday I saw Them Tornadoes! They did NOT play at the Purple Turtle, a pub which I feel owes me a biscuit based purely on built-up enthusiasm I’ve saved up for it over the past eight months, only for it to dissolve my giddiness like drain cleaner unclogs a stubborn hairball. They were SUPPOSED to play there, a week ago, and cancelled on the day, stating simply that the Turtle was not yet ready for live music. At this point, until I have been suitably impressed, I will cease to harp on about the place, and will instead find a stick and just carry on beating a dead horse.
So we arrived at Speedways Café 105 at 9:00 PM., to discover that the venue seemed a lot busier than a small underground rockabilly movement with minimal advertising would typically churn out. My two companions then suddenly rear back like spooked horses and throw their heads back, emitting terrified whinnies – the parkade is crawling with teenagers in red skinny jeans and checkered ties with slogan t-shirts. The air is thick with prepubescence.
A doorperson approaches us with a stamp, smiling. “Here for the Dirty Skirts and The Plastics?”
My companions are at my throat like angry dogs.
“…Or are you here for the other guys?”
Amidst the fluctuating falsetto-baritone shrieks of laughter and games of hopscotch, I fend off the gnashing bites and stinging blows from my familiars and grasp at a desperate straw:
“You mean Them Tornadoes?”
“Oh, the cowboy guys. Yeah, they’re next door.”
Grateful, we get our wristbands and make our way to the venue – to find that Them Tornadoes are already playing in full swing. We’re a little gutted – having grown accustomed to understanding “show starts at nine” to mean “show up at around nine”, we’ve missed the opening act and set-up, but they still go on to play for almost a full hour.
The room is tiny and the stage isn’t even elevated – it’s just in the corner of the bar, right by the entrance. This isn’t a bad thing at all though – the band is interactive and the crowd is appreciative. I infer that Them Tornadoes has a fairly regular and dedicated fan base, because as we walk in, we instantly see that more than half of the audience is dressed in denims, plaid shirts, Stetsons and pointy boots. Cowboys and hicks! There is an entire room full of people who’ve actually cowboy’d up for this event! One guy is even decked out as a grey-suited, white-hat wearin’ Sherrif, with Miss Texas 1969 draped over his arm. I’m completely charmed.
Now, I’m trying to be careful as I talk about the band. I am, I confess, easily excited by fixed ideas and notions I tend to build up entirely by myself, which frequently results in me entering an event like a bouncing bottle rocket, only to leave with little more than a mild, dull fizz, comparable to vinegar and baking soda. On the other hand, this tends to give me more material to write about afterwards, as my disappointment quickly turns to deep-rooting, brooding venom, and I begin spinning yarns about just how much everything sucked. So, I confess that I was by this point very, very excited to see Them Tornadoes, especially after they’d been postponed by a week. I was also really curious to see another one of three true rockabilly bands from South Africa. I am a big fan of rockabilly and psychobilly, and while I find myself enthusiastic about this genre in a musical and stylistic sense, I am a little reluctant to tell you exactly what it is, because you should really just sample some of the bands and decide if you like it or not. I also feel like maybe I’m insulting your intelligence by implying that you don’t know anything about rockabilly and that I need to break it down into chunks for you; so what I’m gonna do instead is make an example out of Them Tornadoes.
Most typical rockabilly and psychobilly acts are sustained by a basic guitar/bass/drum trio arrangement. Picture a dirty guy in a hat screaming “BE-BOP-A-LULA, SHE’S MY BAY-BEH!!” while a curvy tattoo’d girl with a 50’s hot-rod bee-hive plays a coffin-shaped bass. Rockabilly essentially stems from American blues and traditional rock and roll – think Elvis! Psychobilly, the hyper European-based sub genre (which sticklers can further sub-categorize into a whole bunch of words that end in –abilly, such as trashabilly, punkabilly, surfabilly, gothabilly, mermaidabilly, whatever) – essentially alludes to a more contemporary fusion of punk and ska. The common grounds of both genres are lyrical references to horror, science fiction, love, violence, sex ,and cowboys, and is in most cases very tongue-in-cheek. Psychobilly tends to be more about the B-movie monsters, robots and dinosaurs compared to the distinctly down-south rock ‘n roll progenitors, while Psycobilin, the common name for Stropharia cubensis - hallucinogenic mushrooms – tends to be pretty much the same. (*Just for those of you interested in lexical hula-hoops).
Right, so Them Tornadoes: they’re three middle-aged guys who are just classic rockabilly gems. Their drummer is a shirtless dude in a kilt and buzzcut, who whacks his drums and keeps simple but consistent rock ‘n roll rhythm while standing up. Typical as an instrumental and visual accessory, their bassist slap-plays an actual upright double bass. Their guitarist is a wiry guy decked out in tight jeans (not skinny jeans – tight jeans) and a golden cowboy hat. All three of them are adorned with awesome shit-tattoos.
All this, I love.
Really, this is genre you either like or don’t, as there’s not much to do wrong – many songs are essentially covers of others (they threw in a couple of odes to The Clams, a ‘billy rendition of some Blues Brothers oldies, and even played a quick and gentle nod to Nirvana – Nirvanabilly, or whatever) – and simple little rock and roll riffs that will probably never really die. I can’t fault them as musicians or for their performance – and they play for an audience who is as enthusiastic and ironic as they are. There isn’t much space to move in the bar, but couples do-si-do and dance little rock ‘n roll jigs around each other – don’t misunderstand my descriptions as country music, for while it does resemble a very hillbilly vibe, rockabilly is, well, a lot faster, and quite a bit heavier and gruffer. Remember that “Bee-bop-a-lula” line I had you picture? Hang on to that, but instead of a crooning Elvis, picture… more screaming. I don’t know, I could suggest you try and listen to Demented Are Go, The Murderdolls, The Horrorpops, Tiger Army, or Zombina and the Skeletones… while each band essentially has in themselves some unique elements, much of it sounds very much the same as everything else, and many songs tend to be covers of others. I’m not going to try and describe much more of the genre, because I really think it sort of takes the point out of things. Truth is, I am generally loathed to ascribe rules and parameters to scenes – it’s like Googling “how to be a goth” (helpful article on http://www.wikihow.com/Be-a-Gothic-Lolita).
The band clearly has a great time playing, and are happy to oblige the audience with at least two more encores after they announce their last song. They’re lively, they do little dances, they pull faces for the cameras. As I’ve mentioned before, as far as I can gauge, there seem to be exactly or about three South African psychobilly bands, and one of them, Reverend Wright And The Mystery Train Gamblers, are currently touring New York. Martin Rocka and the Sickshop is the other band, and I’ve both seen them and stolen a gig poster of theirs (it has a picture of a naked girl holding a telephone on it. You can’t see her boobies because somebody Photoshopped little stars over where the nipples are, but you get the general gist of the concept.) Martin Rocka, the lead, has a secret identity beneath a luchador mask. If these guys play a gig in town soon, expect to read from me a completely incoherent review, as I’ll probably be foaming at the mouth and typing with my face from excitement.
I can’t say I’m momentously surprised at the low number of rockabilly acts in South Africa – it’s not like the evolution of South African rockabilly is a relatable or even endemic movement – it’s pure borrowed culture, but why the hell not? It’s awesome, just like Doritos, Subway and… other stuff not native to this land. I dunno. I’m not going to go on a rant about brand names and franchises, but I do fucking wish there was a Subway in Long Street to hold my hand through certain rough mornings. Walking through a shopping centre full of screaming little kids on a very brightly-lit Saturday morning/afternoon for a sub is just not worth the remedy.
So the band plays their final-final song, bids the audience a warm thanks, and disappears into the bar. And then we’re left inside a room full of creeps in cowboy suits and dungarees. Having watched Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses a week earlier and being wary of hillfolk, we finished our drinks and left, elbowing our way through a crowd of kids outside waiting for their parents to pick them up, as excited and giddy as when we came in. I am still bitter that we didn’t come earlier, because I like watching crowd build-up and band weirdos, and because I genuinely enjoyed these guys and want to see them again. If you’re not familiar with the style at all, put your cowboy prejudices aside for an evening and go check it out. They seem to be pretty under the radar as far as things like the LMG and, you know, posters go, so have a look at their Facebook page for gig dates and venues:
If anything, challenge ‘em to a game of good ol’ cowboy ‘n injuns and show up in warpaint and feathers to mess with them.
So should I buy those stupid biker goggles?
I probably won’t even wear them. Or will they inspire in me a sense of private independent individuality within the confines of something which, while not mainstream, is inevitably commercial? Or do I picture myself wearing them and nothing else while writing articles for a website?
Or perhaps I’ll just be left with an irrational yet deep-seated satisfaction that comes with owning fucking BIKER GOGGLES.
Go see Them Tornadoes if you haven’t before, and if you don’t like ‘em, then bitch about it. If anything, it’s a fun show, and at the very least, is pretty much guaranteed to bleed out a slightly older audience than The Plastic Skirts or whatever kids’re listening to these days.