The Emperor reveals his true colours.
Picture the scene if you will. A transit van remains motionless on a service station forecourt in the middle of nowheresville during the wee small hours. Inside sit four exhausted souls fresh in the memory of having just performed an extensive residency slot at Glastonbury Festival. Such opportunities to perform at this prestigious music event come along very seldom and when they do it kind of signals that you have seriously arrived as a band. In the case of Jack Rabbit Slim, this was the equivalent of possessing the winning lottery ticket because their brand of rockabilly music – aptly titled sleazeabilly – is not likely to be gracing the covers of certain music publications for the foreseeable future. Such an oversight is not down to Jack Rabbit Slim’s inability to pen a quality rockin’ tune or two, but rather the unfortunate tag rockabilly music has been castigated with due to being seen as a bit Luddite and limited in its ventures.
A few influential folk within the music industry have taken note of the band’s plight when it comes to more general press coverage with the likes of BBC Radio Two’s Bob Harris providing recent airplay, as well as receiving the aforementioned invitation to perform at Glastonbury. But it remains a lonely path for the members of Jack Rabbit Slim to be treading; something of which frontman Bob Butfoy is clearly aware of.
“It is difficult as it’s a big barrier to try and break down because there is such a premeditated opinion of it,” comments the lead vocalist regarding the dismissive nature from certain quarters of the music press of rockabilly music. “The opinion is that it’s an old path to keep walking, in the sense that it’s been done and overdone and it’s kind of like they’ve [music press] decided that before they’ve even listened to the music. I have seen it in a review of ours for the ‘Hairdo’s & Heartaches’ album,” he continues, clearly getting into his stride right from the off. “There are a lot of bands like us, and The Caezars, who are trying to divert that rockabilly influence into indie [music] because rockabilly was really the first kind of indie music. We’re trying to divert that sound so that younger people understand it, but you have to dress it up a bit different in order to disguise it so that they don’t think it’s rockabilly before it’s too late. But the music industry is blinded by Grease [film] and the Fonz [Happy Days] and it’s such a terrible image. I always think that the 50s gets such bad press, not in a terrible way but in a cheesy way. The 60s, for example, everyone thinks was amazing with The Beatles and flower power and everything was ultra-cool. But the 50s was ultra-cool, as it was dangerous and desperate and they’re all the words you want rock ‘n’ roll in the 50s to be described as. Instead, you get that soda pop imagery and it’s hard to get over that because it’s such a solid image that the media and the music industry have of the 50s.”
With such a poorly conceived image of the 50s still transmitting to this very day, the path to fame and fortune has been far from tranquil for Jack Rabbit Slim, despite enjoying an ever-increasing fanbase and producing a consistently solid series of albums, as recent line-up changes attest.
“Basically, I got a text from the guitarist saying that was it and that he couldn’t really afford to be in the band anymore. It was a surprise, obviously, as we had just played the Isle of Wight festival, which a lot of people would be glad to be playing. The bass player then jumped on the bandwagon and went with it as well,” sighs Butfoy at the memory of this. “It was a surprise and a shock but also I thought it was probably time for change as well because our style had been gradually changing and these two guys were very rockabilly orientated. So I used it as a positive and used it to embrace the kind of style of playing we had been doing more recently. I drafted in guitarist Paul Scoulding from The Mojo Kings, as I had always liked Paul’s guitar playing because he has a much more garage and indie-sounding influence. Since we’ve been performing together, I‘ve really enjoyed it and enjoying his involvement and how he plays. It has kind of felt right as well, and how we should have been playing.”
Was there ever a point when the two former members left the band that you felt like giving up?
“The truth is that I have got a lot of songs written which are not suitable for Jack Rabbit Slim as they are more indie-based. The album before our current album, ‘Hairdo’s & Heartaches’, we did experiment a lot more with that kind of indie-Morrissey sound and it sold pretty well. We had a lot of very good reviews, certainly from the music press, but the rockabilly side of things turned their noses up [FLW – there is clearly no pleasing some people!], which, to a certain degree, is kind of understandable. There were still quite a lot of broadminded rockabilly lovers who took it on board though. So, I never really thought about giving up as it spurred me on because this is the fourth line-up we’ve had in the band and there was a pretty big queue of people offering their services.”
Bob Butfoy comes across as very affable during our discussion, engaging deeply in the conversation and revealing a considerable depth of knowledge of not only rockabilly and rock ‘n’ roll music (naturally) but also indie music as well, as The Smiths and Morrissey are often referred to with great reverence.
“We try not to pigeonhole ourselves, as the rockabilly tag is kind of wrong in terms of our music. What rockabillies would consider a rockabilly band, we are more of a rock ‘n’ roll, sixties garage band. I don’t like being labelled with that [rockabilly], and that’s why we created ‘sleazeabilly’ as it’s our own label and therefore we’re in charge of what comes out of it. We have a lot of influences, and those influences change as well. I am not ashamed to say that we’ve drawn on influences of other bands because we’ve picked from that map from day one,” explains Butfoy honestly regarding the influences fuelling the Jack Rabbit Slim sound.
With a fresh album in the can, ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ is definitely draped in a broad palette of influences as Jack Rabbit Slim flex their collective musical muscles in a sincere attempt to appeal to the masses, but at the same juncture retain their loyal devotees by appeasing their needs i.e. the Jerry Lee Lewis inspired ‘Rock n Roll Shipwreck’ or flat-out rockin’ ‘Come Back Baby’ suggesting that the band is not quite ready to ditch their rockabilly roots in favour of a completely leftfield approach. However, this willingness to experiment with an extensive level of influences is one of the significant factors in Jack Rabbit Slim’s appeal and, more notably, their survival as a band.
“We’ve always wanted to put our own twist on rockabilly, as I mentioned earlier, but within firm rockabilly roots in an attempt to bridge that gap between rockabilly and maybe indie or popular music by taking it out as far as we can, and to as many people as possible. We’ve had a limited amount of success doing that and, to be honest, maybe influenced other people to try it as well.”
Bearing this in mind, it comes as no surprise that Butfoy is more than enamoured with present album ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, as the king of sleazeabilly has every reason to feel content in the heartland of rural Cambridgeshire deep in the knowledge that his band has revealed, yet again, a trump card due to the album’s diversity and for resonating truthfully the words spoken throughout this interview.
“With all of our albums, we’ve tried to have an eclectic mix of styles on there,” acknowledges Butfoy regarding FLW’s reference to the diversity shown throughout ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’. “It is my favourite album – but then I say that every time! Some of the songs on the new album are some of my favourites that I have written, and some are my favourites in terms of how they’ve been produced. So I’m really, really pleased with it. If anything, I wouldn’t have included the cover versions on there to be quite honest. We were juggling with a few different songs and I pulled a couple of songs which I felt were too indie for the album, but on the whole it is still my favourite album and I’m really proud of it.”
After what has been a fascinating and frank discussion concerning all things music with Jack Rabbit Slim’s guiding light, providing FLW with enough material to amply fulfil the requirements of a thesis, attention turns once more to the continual thorn in their side and that being a poor return when it comes to critical appraisal from certain sections of the press concerning the quartet’s high-octane yet diverse sleazeabilly. This lack of national coverage has clearly not deterred Bob Butfoy and his merry men because not only are the band worthy of such attention, but they are also great advocates of many bands outside the confines of the rockabilly genre.
“It’s nice to get in any magazine or receive any kind of exposure, but to have taken it to that kind of audience such as NME, Mojo and all that stuff would have been great, despite their opinions being not quite what you want to hear some of the time. However, it remains a big stumbling block to get past, and get that kind of involvement from them. There are bands that have managed to do it and broken through, but you need the luck as well, and be in the right place at the right time with the right person to say the right things on your behalf. We have been lucky in terms of our interaction with famous people, but they’ve been all the wrong kind of people such as supermodels and stuff like that, which is great to be around and mix with but absolutely useless in terms of the music industry. So I’d love to receive wider press coverage. If it’s not us, then I really hope it’s someone else like The Caezars who kick it down. If they get there, then I’d like to think we played a part in helping kicking down a few doors.”
I am not ashamed to say that we’ve drawn on influences of other bands because we’ve picked from that map from day one.”
Bob Butfoy, Jack Rabbit Slim
FLW - From the Tapes
Bob Butfoy of Jack Rabbit Slim waxes lyrical to FLW about the band’s experience of performing at Glastonbury Festival for the first time in their career, and enthuses over a piece of Johnny Burnette’s birthplace that now resides in rural Cambridgeshire.
“Glastonbury was a f****** nightmare to be honest! We ended up playing Glastonbury because of Gaz Mayall – he runs a stage there called The Rocket Room – and we were invited along by him to play. We were due to play two or three times during the early hours of the morning but when we played it was amazing as everyone was really up for it and embraced the music and went to town at silly o’clock! It was a great experience to play but the downside was the mud and all the red tape about getting in and out and all of that kind of business. The mud was awful and about a foot deep! So no room for any flashy pink pegs or white shoes, it just doesn’t go! We complained the whole time we were there but when played it was great and really enjoyed it. Then the last time we played about five in the morning, we decided that we’re going to play and pack the stuff and go, which we did. We stopped at some services about eight o’clock in the morning on concrete thinking this is great [no mud] and that we’ve just played Glastonbury! And it was amazing, in hindsight, even though we had moaned about the mud but playing there was a great thing to do.”
“My Johnny Burnette brick – I have a brick from the birthplace of Johnny Burnette from Memphis Tennessee. Ricky Lee Vaughn, who is in The Spacecadets and the Big Six, was out in Memphis and the house had just been demolished so he managed to salvage an armful of bricks, washed them in the shower of his hotel and brought them home on the aeroplane and he gave one of the bricks to me because he thought that I was very much like Johnny Burnette. So I’m very proud of my Johnny Burnette brick. We [Jack Rabbit Slim] caress it every now and then for inspiration!”