Rockin' Bones: 1950s Punk and Rockabilly

It's easy to look at Rhino's four-disc 2006 box Rockin' Bones: 1950s Punk and Rockabilly and confuse it with the label's 1999 four-disc box Loud, Fast & Out of Control: The Wild Sounds of '50s Rock. It has the same garish neo-pulp artwork, covers the same era, and even has several of the same songs, usually big hits like Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues" or Jerry Lee Lewis' "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," or Ricky Nelson's "Believe What You Say," but it also has cult classics like Joe Clay's "Duck Tail" or the Phantom's "Love Me," or Vince Taylor's "Brand New Cadillac" -- plus, this builds on the speeches and dialogue that were interspersed throughout Loud, Fast & Out of Control by adding the audio from '50s and '60s exploitation movie trailers; a cool idea on mixtapes that is unbearable in the digital age because for some reason, Rhino did not index the trailers as individual tracks, so whenever you try to make your own mix or listen to it on your iPod it's a mess. So, Rockin' Bones is very similar in many respects to Loud, Fast & Out of Control except in one important way: this contains only rockabilly tunes, cutting out any of the R&B, jump blues, and straight-up rock & roll that made the 1999 box an excellent, essential portrait of the rock & roll revolution. In other words, with the exception of Big Al Downing, there are no black artists here -- no Chuck Berry, no Little Richard, no Bo Diddley, three artists who were as crucial to '50s rock & roll (not to mention greasers) as Elvis Presley, Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent and Buddy Holly. While the argument could be made that Berry, Little Richard and Diddley weren't rockabilly, their absence nevertheless casts a shadow over the set, as if the compilers were trying to rewrite history so they could shoehorn the beginning of rock & roll into the nebulous "1950s Punk" of the set's subtitle, since punk in its 2006 incarnation is pretty much devoid of black musicians (but, let's face it, a generation raised on Hot Topic punk-pop and emo is unlikely to buy 50-year-old recordings no matter if they're labeled punk or not). It's a decision that can be defended, but it still leaves a bad aftertaste. It's not the only flaw on Rockin' Bones, either. The set is pitched halfway between a basic introduction to rockabilly and a collection of wild-cat rarities for collectors, with the big, big hits alternating with oddball selections, including several songs that have never been on a U.S. CD before this box. This gives the set a bit of an unbalanced feel, particularly for listeners who have "Baby Let's Play House," "Rumble," "Get Rhythm," and "Who Do You Love" on countless comps, but it also doesn't function as a good introduction for the curious since it provides little context for either the hits or rarities; it just plays like a very good rockabilly station on shuffle. Of course, there are some benefits to this -- it makes for good, consistent listening -- but it doesn't make this a definitive portrait of a style, the way that Rhino's first Nuggets set did, nor does this work as a worthy rarities roundup for the hardcore collector, the way that their girl group box One Kiss Can Lead to Another did. Instead, Rockin' Bones occupies a netherworld where it has too much familiar stuff for the hardcore fans and too many samey novelties for the less dedicated listener who would be better off getting Loud, Fast & Out of Control. But for those listeners who fall somewhere between those two extremes -- those who really like rockabilly, have a bunch in their collection, but want some good rarities and novelties -- this is worthwhile, since there are some great sides scattered throughout these 101 songs, including the tribal thump of Tommy Blake's "Lordy Hoody" or John & Jackie's "Little Girl," a truly bizarre single where the duo's perky vocals are overshadowed by a female backing vocalist who sounds as if she's writhing in orgasm for the song's entire two-minute running time. These, along with such other highlights as rockabilly singles by George Jones and Buck Owens (released under pseudonyms: Thumper Jones and Corky Jones, respectively), are the reason for serious rock & roll fans to get this set: cuts like these, and there a lot of them here, are enough to forgive the severe flaws on Rockin' Bones as a historical set and just enjoy it as 101 tracks of pure raw rock & roll. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine

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