Entertainment Music

Monday 20 November 2017

Cool for 'cats: Return of the rockabilly guys

You only have to look at the slide show on Boz Boorer's MySpace page to get a sense of what an extraordinary career he's had. There he is, as the fresh-faced, sharp-dressed gun-slinger with The Polecats, the cult rockabilly band he formed 30 years ago in his native London with his mate Tim.

Fast forward a decade or so, and that's him playing guitar on stage with the late, great Kirsty MacColl in London's Mean Fiddler.

Later still, there's Boz at Morrissey's side playing in front of tens of thousands in a cricket ground in Manchester. From cult rock'n'roller to stadium indie rocker -- Boz's journey makes for one cool scrapbook.

As guitarist, co-songwriter and musical director for Morrissey since 1991, Boz has played to adoring crowds all over the world, from New York's Radio City Music Hall to headlining The Hollywood Bowl.

But with Morrissey currently taking a break after last year's tyre-shredding world tour, Boz has found the time to hook up again with his old muckers in The Polecats for a one-off gig in Dublin's Mercantile Bar on Dame St on Thursday.

The Mercantile has emerged as a bit of a rockabilly hang-out thanks to its monthly Recession Club, where the capital's various tribal subcultures (mods, punks, Goths, indie kids) all gather to eye each other suspiciously before taking their turns on the dancefloor.

Regardless of his status as the right-hand man of the former Smiths legend, Boz remains a talismanic figure on the Irish and UK rockabilly scene -- and beyond. In his spare time, he has recorded dozens of young rockers. These days, they fly from all over Europe to work in his picturesque residential recording studio, Sierra Vista, on the Portuguese coast. The latest to pitch up there were Finnish band The Stringbeans.

The 48-year-old released a solo album, Miss Pearl, a few years back, which featured Boz's turbo-charged covers of classic rock'n'roll cuts from The Ramones right back to the heyday of Sun Records, and had guest vocals from New Romantic icon Adam Ant.

Regular visitors to Kilkenny's annual Rhythm'n'Roots festival may have caught him lifting the roof off a local bar with his good-time rock'n'roll band the Boz Boorer All Stars, which also features his wife Lyn on double bass.

"I loved those Kilkenny gigs," says Boz. "There was always one that was special over the weekend. We used to love playing those backrooms."

Boz's first ever Dublin show was as the guitarist in Lyn's band The Shillelagh Sisters in the TV Club in 1983.

There's some great footage of Boz from around this time with his fellow Polecats on YouTube, tearing through hits such as 'Rockabilly Guy' and their nifty cover of T Rex's 'Jeepster'.

Just as The Pogues did with Irish folk music, The Polecats helped bring what is very much a retro genre kicking and screaming into the post-punk era. This is a neat trick to pull off -- embracing a modern sound sensibility without losing the essence of what it made the music great in the first place.

"It started off underground, almost as a reaction against the Teddy Boys and the staid rock'n'roll scene," says Boz.

"The youngsters got into it and changed the clothes and made wilder music -- and we came out of that. It was a mixture of punk and rock'n'roll. We'd play rockabilly songs but also glam rock like T Rex and Bowie."

And The Polecats are still on the prowl. A recent photo on the MySpace slideshow shows a bunch of beaming Japanese rockabilly fanatics after one of their shows in the Land of the Rising Quiff. Another shows a party in full swing in Turku in Finland.

"Finland was always a good place for rockabilly in the late 70s and early 80s," says Boz. "For some reason, they had Top 10 records over there. And you had Wildfire Willy, who was part of the crazy, great New Wave of rockabilly in Scandinavia.

"Then the Americans had it good for a while -- which was odd because we had to teach them how to play their own music! They shunned it for a long time. But they're the ones who can sing it with a totally natural accent. It made sense for them to embrace it eventually. They have some great players. Big Sandy, for instance -- he played recently in Kilburn in London. Me and Lyn got up on stage. It's party time whenever our paths cross.

"I remember one time we were in Texas and we drove 300 miles once from Houston to Austin just to see Big Sandy. This time, he was just down the road from my own doorstep! We walked home after the gig. Fantastic."

Nearer home, Boz has also played the annual rockabilly festival in Belfast, where he has fond memories of getting up on stage with Dublin band Aces Wild.

However, the last time Boz was on a Dublin stage was with Morrissey in The National Stadium in November. The venue evoked some special memories for the guitar hero.

"We played there nearly 18 years after my first ever show with Moz," he recalls. "I remember (New York Dolls guitarist) Johnny Thunders had just died and we played 'Trash' as the encore. The Would-Be's were the support band. The official capacity was 1,001. It was mental. All the temporary seats in the front were taken away as soon as we came on."

Were there first-night nerves?

"We didn't know what to expect. We had rehearsed for a couple of weeks near Brighton. Just before we went on, I could hear the crowd roaring -- it was like the Bay City Rollers. Mad!"

Not everything ran smoothly, though.

"When I was going back on for the encore, I slipped over all the flowers that had been thrown on stage. I went arse over tit; my guitar went up in the air, so it went out of tune," he laughs.

The Polecats play The Mercantile, Dame St, Dublin, on Thursday. nkelly@independent.ie

Irish Independent

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