Join us as we slip back to a simpler, spiffier time — when guys greased their hair and pressed 'n' cuffed their jeans, and gals perfected flawless curly coifs and bright crimson lips, and wiggled into '50s frocks, frilly and full-skirted or tarty-tight and pencil-straight. Cars were big, beautiful gas guzzlers, art and home decor was kitschy but streamlined with lots of pastel panache. The music was swingin,' sexy and twangy, rhythmic rock & roll to rumble and stomp to. We're talking rockabilly and midcentury styling here, kids, and all of the above are, in fact, not symbols of the past but of the present. In the past few years, '50s-influenced retro culture has re-emerged in Los Angeles, providing a unique contrast to the modern music scene and other thematic subcultures in the city.
The 1970s, '80s and, lately, the '90s are repped all around L.A.'s clubs and by music played within them, as well as in the casual, mismatched fashion mix favored by the hipster set. In a week or two, these neo-boho–blending bunches will empty out of L.A. to slather on sunblock, don floppy hats and big sunglasses, and model mall-bought “festival fashion” as they descend upon the desert for Coachella, a SoCal institution and world-renowned music gathering.
But on the second weekend of that fest, tens of thousands of Angelenos with a different musical mindset and aesthetic, most in meticulously coordinated 1950s and early-'60s vintage gear, will head further into the desert to Las Vegas for a weekend of equally rousing amusements: live bands, burlesque shows, pool parties, a massive car show and vendors galore. And they've been partaking in this parallel universe of sorts for just as long as the Coachella hordes have.
Viva Las Vegas, named after the Elvis Presley film, was created by U.K.-born, Los Alamitos–based rockabilly enthusiast Tom Ingram and co-produced by Burbank burlesque queen Audrey Deluxe. It has been the premier rockabilly event in the country for more than two decades, recording exponential growth each year. Ingram ran a big rockabilly festival in England called the Hemsby Rock 'n' Roll Weekender before he moved to Southern California in 1996. He initially planned a Hemsby offshoot on the West Coast, but when things went south with his partner in England, he decided to throw his own fest. He soon looked to Sin City because the “licensing restrictions in L.A. and the O.C. were too strict,” he says.
Now in its 21st year, Viva, as it's called for short, is the world's most popular rockabilly fest, attracting 20,000-plus people from around the globe, a third of whom Ingram estimates come from California.
The event has become so popular that many plan for it all year. And unlike other festivals, its fans conjure a very specific era focus and an ardent level of dedication to representing it, particularly when it comes to fashion. Ladies especially take their looks to period-perfect extremes, planning outfits for each day and night, documenting it all on social media and via online groups — from their accessories to their swimsuits (modest by today's standards but undeniably sexy) worn during the event's epic tiki pool party.
“It's really impressive — these women have Excel spreadsheets with the jewelry, the purses, the shoes and the hair planned out for each day,” says Deluxe, who's been working with Ingram for the last several years, running her popular show, Burlesque Bingo, and coordinating all the burlesque performances at the event. “There are a lot of women out there who actually live this lifestyle. So many women really identify with it and the beautiful aesthetic of it. Like Dita Von Teese, for example — these ladies are almost creating characters, and there's a fantasy element that you just don't have in real life, where people are wearing yoga pants to the grocery store. It's about adding a little bit of glamour to daily life.”
Burbank, where Deluxe resides, has slowly become one of the biggest hubs for this kind of traditional Americana glam, and since a lot of the architecture remains unchanged, its kitschy 1950 and '60s buildings and old neon signs provide the perfect backdrop.
Every Friday night a dapper car-crazy crowd heads over to Bob's Big Boy on Riverside Drive for the restaurant's weekly car-show meetup, where the old eatery's parking lot is a bumper-to-bumper bounty of spruced-up classic autos from the 1950s and '60s. The family-friendly flashback feel of the evening is one of the coolest, only-in-SoCal type gatherings for the scene.
Another one happens monthly: the area's busiest shopping street, Magnolia Boulevard, forgoes wheels for walking during the street's monthly street meet, Ladies & Gents Night Out. Amid food trucks and old-timey live music combos set up outside storefronts, you'll see among the modern families a fair number of flash tattoos, stacked “creepers” footwear, pedal pushers, beaded cardigans, Marilyn Monroe and Bettie Page style dresses and tresses, and tiki-inspired looks such as bamboo jewelry and the ubiquitous flower worn on one side of the head. Most of the eye-catching looks can be purchased at stores on the street, too: Pin-Up Girl Boutique, Unique Vintage, the Bearded Lady, Classic Hardware and countless thrift stores and curated retro clothing shops. Afterward, many hit up Bob's or joints such as Joe's American Pub and Viva Cantina.
Karen Mamont, known on the scene as the Reverend Martini, books some of the area's most popular rockabilly shows, but she got her start in the fashion industry, showcasing 'billy-ish lines such as Stop Staring, Bernie Dexter and Bettie Page Clothing in her position as marketing director of the California Market Center downtown.
“I was always a rockabilly girl and I brought in bands to play the fashion events way back, like Royal Crown Revue, Big Sandy and His Fly Rite Boys, Deke Dickerson, The Paladins, The Blasters, bands from Wild Records … people who really started the genre,” says Mamont, who eventually moved into full-time booking, hosting shows at Weber's Place in the Valley around 2008 (attempting to conjure the vibes of the popular Palomino Club of the '80s).
She went to Viva Cantina after that, helping put the Mexican restaurant on the map for the greaser crowd, along with L.A. Weekly writer Jonny Whiteside and his punky twang thang called the Messaround. Both happenings moved recently when the Cantina got into trouble regarding its entertainment license, with Whiteside now at Joe's and Mamont at Petie's Place in Tarzana. Mamont has been busy planning her infamous “All Night Jumpin' Showcase” (midnight to 4 a.m.) at Viva Las Vegas; she's done it there for the past six years. She's also working on some shows with “teddy boy” Lee Dexter, coming to L.A. next month.
Speaking of the “teddy boys,” Ingram notes that British subculture was the starting point for him and the scene itself. He first got into '50s music and dress back in England, seduced by the Teddys of the '70s. Originally, the term referred to British fellows of the '50s who reinterpreted American rock & roll style in their own way, with Edwardian wear and exaggerated pompadours and sideburns. In the '70s, a resurgence of this look took hold in London and surrounding areas; it influenced the punk aesthetic, too, as seen in Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren's Let It Rock shop. At the same time, the flames of '50s freakdom were being fanned on both sides of the Atlantic by films like American Graffiti and Grease and TV shows such as Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley.
By the time the '80s rolled in, pop culture was primed for another resurgence, ushered by American bands like The Stray Cats and The Pole Cats. The Strays will reunite for the first time in 10 years at Viva and they'll celebrate their 40th anniversary next year. Thanks to exposure on MTV in its heyday and hits like “Rock This Town” and “Stray Cat Strut” (which are still heard on radio), they are the most recognizable faces of rockabilly for many. Lead singer Brain Setzer has stayed active with orchestral shows during the holidays. Drummer Slim Jim Phantom was a popular Sunset Strip club owner (The Cat Club, now Rock N' Reilly's), and he played in super-groups The Head Cat with Lemmy Kilmister and Dead Men Walking with Capt. Sensible. Bassist Lee Rocker still plays shows under his own name. The band's mainstream success was temporary but it inspired offshoot genres and other retro rock revivals to follow, such as neo-swing in the '90s (Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, The Cherry Poppin' Daddies) and psychobilly (Reverend Horton Heat).
Big Sandy and the Fly Rite Boys, who play Viva Las Vegas on April 19, also emerged around this time and have endured as a local favorite, playing their own combo of roots and rockabilly swing in L.A., Orange County and all around the country.
“The popularity of this music goes in waves,” says Big Sandy, aka singer Robert Williams. “An event like Viva pulls it all together, so it's at a peak right now. You have the original artists who started in the '50s, you have a ton of new bands who are just breaking ground now, and then there's The Stray Cats, who are responsible for the revival in the '80s, which was huge.”
No one can discount the significance of The Stray Cats, but rockabilly did enjoy a niche following before they hit it big. Ingram says that people in his age group had already been into the music for a while. “We listened to bands like The Jets and Matchbox,” says the rockabilly expert, who hosts a rockabilly radio show on the web and started an entire networking site and dating site for rockabillies as well.
“The bigger bands did create a whole new audience and exposed it to a new generation,” he concedes. “Especially in America, The Stray Cats inspired a new interpretation of what rockabilly was to the mainstream, just as the Teddy Boys of the '70s did for the Teddy Boys of the '50s.”
Today, he says the meaning of “rockabilly” is no longer what it was. “What's happened is now rockabilly is being used to describe any type of '50s music,” he says.
Still, at Viva, Ingram and his team stay faithful to a bluesier '50s mood. There are no psychobilly bands or country bands, unless the acts known for those styles change it up and do more traditional 'billy sounds. Mamont says her all-nighters feature more “jumpin' rock,” including L.A. faves such as The Moontones, Pachuco Jose and Blazing Hailey.
This year, the rapid growth of the scene and event has encouraged Ingram to use some bigger spaces at the Orleans Casino, where the event is being held (it started at the Gold Coast in Downtown Vegas). The burlesque showcase and competition will now be in the building's “arena,” which holds about 4,000 people, and the main concert, where Stray Cats, Jerry Lee Lewis and Duane Eddy will play, is held during the car show outdoors on a massive stage erected in the casino's adjacent parking lot. The “car show” was simply the parking area for the event at first, but so many Viva attendees drove gorgeous wheels that people wanted to walk through and look and take pictures. It's since become one of the most popular parts of the event, with thousands of vamped-out vehicles to ogle and pose with. One wonders about the long hot drive to Vegas from places like L.A., but it's obviously worth it to many.
Mamont, who lives in the Valley, thinks cars are a big part of why L.A. and the O.C. have been breeding grounds for the rockabilly scene in the first place.
“Southern California is conducive to vintage car kulture — spelled with a 'K,” she adds. “It works in California because of our wonderful weather. Our cars, our clothes and the music all go together so well — it's a whole lifestyle.”
Orange County also is known for its rockabilly scene, but in general the bands from that part of town tend to have a rowdier rep. Events like the now on-hiatus Hootenanny in Silverado Canyon and the Reverend Horton Heat's Horton's Hayride in San Pedro also have catered to punk, “punkabilly” and “gothabilly,” so the fans aren't quite as focused on the vintage fashions. Also, the crowds seem to be a little less ethnically diverse than in L.A., an obvious reflection of the area's differing populations.
Everyone can agree that L.A.'s Latino contingent has been a huge part of rockabilly's success here, and why that is has been questioned nearly as much as why Morrissey is beloved in the same circles. Maybe Latin people just love nostalgia. We definitely love “oldies” and old cars. Ingram credits the Latino fan base for his big break into rockabilly DJing; he spun at a popular Latin-favored '50s R&B night called Be Bop Battlin' Ball at the club/restaurant Rudolpho's near Frogtown (now Home Restaurant) for several years.
More recently, Latin crowds frequented Spike's in Rosemead for promoter Brando Von Badsville's Revv It Up!, showcasing rockabilly, punk and psychobilly bands past and present, but the venue closed late last year. Now the promoter does rockabilly shows at the Airliner and does his own weekender, the Long Beach Psyclone, for Labor Day. He'll throw an unaffiliated event in Vegas during Viva called Vegas Neo Invasion at Fremont Country Club downtown on April 20.
There's a revelry and reciprocal energy exchanged between promoters and scenes, extending to the tattoo community, the tiki crowd, the burlesque and pinup world and vintage music nerds, too. To an outsider looking in, it probably appears a Disneyland-like rebel rocker sock-hop. A few years ago, filmmaker Brent Huff attended a car show with a friend and was so blown away he made a movie about the scene, “It's a Rockabilly World.” Currently available for streaming on Amazon, it explores everything about this retro world, and it features Ingram, Mamont and all the major players in the scene. Huff calls Viva Las Vegas the “mecca” for this enduring subculture, and with a large international attendance (bands and fans come from all over the globe, from Spain to Japan), it really is just that.
The SoCal connections are so prevalent, Viva is something more akin to a high school reunion. Rockabilly is a niche thing in some parts and a phenomenon in others, but L.A. has been its most bodacious breeding ground. For many here, it feels personal, like family even. It may be driven by flashes from the past, but the talent, reverence and beauty of its present is why it continues to rock.