I Put a Spell on You: From Screamin’ Jay Hawkins to Gothabilly

Posted by Aspasia Stephanou on January 11, 2009 in Blog tagged with

I Put a Spell on You: From Screamin’ Jay Hawkins to Gothabilly


A black man enters the stage inside a coffin that is in flames. He is dressed in a leopard skin suit, Victorian shirt (sometimes he appears dressed as a vampire), has a bone in his nose, a rubber snake around his neck, and holds a smoking skull. He moans and groans, utters incomprehensible words, primitive growls. He sits at the piano while holding Henry (a skull with a cigarette in its mouth) and breaks into a deep, howling melody: I Put a Spell on You… This is rock and roll voodoo.

    One of the most famous performances in music history, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ I Put a Spell on You is notable for its gothic aesthetics. The theatricality of Hawkins’ performances is a basic characteristic of the gothic subculture and gothic music. From his extreme, theatrical, and shocking costumes made of leopard skins and primitive motifs, to his use of voodoo, skulls, snakes, dancing and groans, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins has managed to incorporate into blues a gothic and dark aesthetics and influence a generation of rock and roll performers.

    Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ theatrical performances, especially the use of voodoo elements, skulls and shocking costumes have shaped and became the trademarks of music genres like garage rock/punk, rockabilly and psychobilly. One of the most interesting and significant bands of rockabilly that played with gothic, or more precisely with horror elements and developed the shocking primitivism and theatricality of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, were The Cramps. With The Cramps rockabilly becomes gothicised, or what would be later coined as gothabilly. The Cramps being the progenitors of gothabilly introduced in rockabilly the stylistic experiments of the gothic subculture (fetish clothing,black eyeliner), the themes of 1960s B-movies (monster films), and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ voodoo props and occult symbols.


    Like Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and The Cramps, The Misfits, The Damned, Nick Cave, The Meteors and 45 Grave were among the bands that fashioned the sound and style of what has become known as gothabilly. Gothabilly, the merging of rockabilly or similar genres like punk, psychobilly, death and gothic rock with gothic aesthetics is popular among members of the gothic subculture and film fans of the 1950s-60s B-movies. Gothabilly bands, and very often rockabilly bands or garage punk bands like the Fuzztones, favor topics from horror or exploitation films, violence, sexuality, taboo themes, the occult and paranormal, monsters (especially zombies and vampires). All these themes can be found in the stylized and theatrical personae of the members and in the lyrics and art of their recordings. What makes gothabilly interesting is the way it blends rockabilly and American blues with gothic elements offering a more traditional rock and roll sound -perhaps a romanticized approach and glamorization of the past- than the electronic experiments of gothic( Electronic Body Music, Terror EBM, Power Noise, Industrial, Aggrotech and other cybergothic bands of postmodernity, that often have a more cynical view of reality.

    Some gothabilly bands that are worthwhile to mention here are Dave Vanian (The Damned) and his Phantom Chords, Zombina and the Skeletones http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=iQ2E8-XoeLU

Hellbilly Club  http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=wLEjN7TU-bo

Koffin Cats, Cult of the Psychic Fetus http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=HJjEIbHjTHY

Nekromantix http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=R0rvNXScsss

Frankenstein, Dr Daniel and The Rockabilly Vampires, Nacho Knoche & The Hillbilly Zombies, etc.


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