Essential Records: Gene Vincent and The Blue Caps

Posted by Amoebite, August 8, 2016 03:58pm | Post a Comment

Gene Vincent and The Blue Caps - Amoeba Music

Call it a rough patch, call it a dry spell, call it whatever, but let's just say a while ago the relationship between my guitar and me got a little stale. Now of course I loved that thing dearly but, well, you know how it is: sometimes it just seems like the two of you are stuck in the same old routine. Now the electric guitar is a tricky instrument, there are so many variations, effects, and styles, and it's so overly saturated in the mainstream consciousness that while it can be the most primal and cathartic sounding of instruments, it can also be the most horrendous, self-involved sound known to modern man. At this particular juncture, I just wasn't hearing anything new that was compelling me towards the former sentiment. In an attempt to revive our relationship I pulled out this guitar magazine I had from high school that was all about rockabilly and the late '90s neo-swing revival. In it was a picture I always found striking but was never sure why: five young men all dressed in white, wearing dark, floppy caps. I thought to myself: it's finally time I really dug into Mr. Gene "Be-Bop-A-Lula" Vincent and His Blue Caps. I learned a couple of riffs out of the magazine, all attributed to Gene's original guitarist, Cliff Gallup, then I went to the record store and picked up their second album (thinking it was their first), Gene Vincent and The Blue Caps.

I put the needle on and right out of the gate the band is swaggering and in full swing. My toe's tappin', my hand's snappin' and my hair's getting greasier by the second. Gene finishes his first verse of "Red Bluejeans and a Ponytail" with the order to his band to "Rock!" and the next thing I know Cliff Gallup's guitar struts onto the scene and picks up the lead while someone lets out a banshee wail in the background. Gene comes back into the second verse, singing like he's crooning and panting at the same time, a cross between Dean Martin and that cartoon wolf from the droopy cartoons whose mouth drops to the floor at the sight of the cute redhead, and before I can finish that thought the second verse is ending and Gene calls out, "Rock again!" and Cliff's back with his plunky, shimmering, echo-y tone.

Hot damn! Holy Moly! Pow! This was it! All of a sudden it was as if every rock record I had ever heard before was a parody, an imitation, or a contrived tribute to the pure, raw, and sweaty outfit that was Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps. And I hadn't even heard the second track yet, "Hold Me, Hug Me, Rock Me," which goes a little something like this:

Gene let's out a lone "Weeeellll...." like an archer pulling his bowstring, silence all around him. And then hiccups, "H-old me baby," and the band comes in: stand up bass walking up and down and the snare drum cracking out the driving backbeat, like he's hammering nails into a two by four and loving it. Gene starts shouting "Rock! Rock! Rock me baby! Rock me baby, rock me all night long," and then starts calling for Cliff to come Gallup-ing back into the spotlight, which he does like a shimmering tornado, spinning in circles until finally landing into a frantic groove of staccato picking and abstract bends. This verse/solo alternation happens two more times. Each time Cliff pulls out a different texture of tension in his playing before falling into that manic groove again. His playing is the perfect combination of masterful, jazz-like virtuosity and reckless abandon, like a dog who's been in the house all day when his owner comes home. The song never lets up, or changes tempo, it's just a straight shot through until Gene lets out his final "rock me all night long" and Cliff's jangley tornado tears through again, ending on a vibrato-y major chord.

Sure, Gene Vincent wasn't the first to rock 'n roll, nor is he the most remembered of those early rockers, but he's certainly one of the greatest. But just what is it that makes him and his Blue Caps stand out among the likes of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry and Little Richard? Elvis had the tenderness and the hip shakin' swagger; Jerry Lee has the aggressive, killer-like attack; Chuck, that cocky sense of humor; and Richard, the balls-to-the-wall flamboyant soul. But Gene had something else: a desperation, like if he didn't stop playing his ship would sink, or if he didn't stop rockin' there'd be nothing to live for. Just take a look at the cover (and what a cover it is!): the Blue Caps in the background, looking like a dapper gang in blue gabardine, and up front, apart from the band is Gene, dressed in black, singing, seemingly to no one in particular with a slightly haggard expression as if he's in pain. Which he probably was.

Gene VincentSee, after getting out of the Navy in 1955, Gene re-enlisted, earning himself an early bonus and spending it on a Triumph motorcycle, which he soon crashed. The damage to his left leg was so bad the doctors wanted to amputate, but Gene refused and his leg was put into a metal brace, giving him a stiff leg, a limp in his walk, and lifelong pain, which story has it he tried to subdue with alcohol and bottles of aspirin. Now don't get me wrong, Gene was handsome fella', but even at age 20 Gene's all-American, boyish looks were already a little worn: the youthful grin and greasy mess of hair seemingly holding back something not as cheery as the look on his face. Gene's singing tends to follow a pattern of confident and smoky crooning over a swinging beat that inevitably gives way to an unleashed holler or shriek as the beat becomes more aggressive and wild, like he can only keep the demons in so long before he has to let them out. 

Take "Cat Man" for example, one of Gene's dirtiest and most feral tracks. With a brushed snare drum pattin' out a bongo-beatin' rhythm, and a catchy, descending guitar line Gene ravages the mic like an alley cat in heat, charming his prey with his singing before screaming "Cat Man!, Ya! Git it!" like a crazed cattle herder, lasso madly flailing about. Even on "You Told a Fib," a bouncy pop tune where Gene goes from verse to chorus seemingly in one buoyant breath, he has to scream out to the band before he takes a break for the guitar lead.

That's not to say Gene didn't have a tender side to his singing. His version of "Unchained Melody" is one of the best. His intimate delivery evokes a fragility, and there's an almost nervous energy that brings out a longing in his voice. The laid back, mid-tempo "Blues Stay Away from Me" has a similar feel to Elvis Presley's "Blue Moon," but while Presley's song has an innocence and naiveté to his longing, Vincent's song sounds as if he's already been there and done all that.

The next day I went back to the record shop and picked up a copy of the band's first LP, Bluejean Bop!, and get this: it might even be better than the one I've been blabbing about! Truth be told I can't really decide which of those first two albums I like better, but I'd say Cliff's guitar playing is best and clearest on Bluejean Bop! (his solo on "Up a Lazy River" is one of my all-time favorites), while Gene Vincent and The Blue Caps has an aggressiveness and a real layer of dirt that I love. If you're going to start listening to Gene Vincent start with either of these albums or any compilation of singles recorded in 1956, then you're sure to hear Cliff's guitar, as well as the rest of the original band.

The thing about both of these albums is they're fun and have a lot of personality, something that seems to happen less and less these days. As I mentioned earlier, that guitar mag that piqued my interest in Vincent and his fellow rockabillies, was printed during the time of the late '90s neo-swing revival, an era that tends to elicit an ironic snicker from people now (as it did then too). Sure, not all that music has stood the test of time, and it certainly wasn't the most revolutionary, but there's something I miss about being a teenager going to the swing and ska shows in town. People weren't hiding behind irony or feigning preciousness at those shows, nor were they there just to feel cool and look at their phones the whole time. Those shows were just sweaty and unapologetically fun. Now, I'm not trying to get too preachy here; I, too, am guilty of taking my music too seriously and succumbing to the idea of having good taste and all that, but listening to Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps is always a great reminder that you ain't really rockin' if you ain't sweatin' and havin' a good time.

--Aaron Araki

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Gene Vincent (2), Gene Vincent And His Blue Caps (1), Cliff Gallup (1), Bluejean Bop! (1), Elvis Presley (25), Jerry Lee Lewis (3), Chuck Berry (7), Little Richard (8), Rockabilly (8), Swing (5), Ska (5), Essential Records (35)