Salon: Sharps and Flats

Published February 21, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

for a few months in 1956, Gene Vincent seemed every bit the peer of Elvis Presley. Born the same year as Presley, Vincent was twice as wild and burnt out three times as fast, a rebel with a bum leg and an appetite for self-destruction. Vincent's best known today for the hiccupy swagger of "Be-Bop-a-Lula," his first single and by far his biggest hit. His Blue Caps played rockabilly with speed-freak intensity, to which Vincent added his own slurred expressions of desire. Where Presley was quickly tamed by the Army, Vincent seemed liberated by his Navy discharge, wearing his sneer to brief success and an early grave. (Maimed in a 1955 motorcyle accident and nearly killed in a later car crash, he died from a bleeding ulcer in 1971.)

Though Vincent is less widely revered than Buddy Holly or Jerry Lee Lewis, "The Screaming End" attempts to prove that he was a rock pioneer of the first rank. It almost succeeds on the strength of 20 tracks collected from 1956 and 1957, when Vincent was at his musical peak. Besides "Be-Bop-A-Lula," the two songs that stand out are "Race With the Devil" and "Woman Love." The first, about a guy determined to drive faster than sin itself, must have sounded particularly dark and dangerous 40 years ago. And in terms of pure unrestrained lust, "Woman Love" is positively filthy compared to anything Presley recorded. (It was banned by radio stations in the South.)

The other revelation about "The Screaming End" is just how good the Blue Caps were. It's easy to give credit to guitarist Cliff Gallup and his string-bending blend of jazz, country and blues, but it would be a mistake to shortchange the fine rhythm duo of Jack Neal on upright bass and Dickie Harrell on drums. This said, Vincent & his Blue Caps already sounded less vital by 1957, when Gallup left the band and Vincent took a stab at an Elvis-like ballad, "Wear My Ring," and a Buddy Holly imitation called "Lotta Lovin'." These two songs were his last American hits, and Vincent soon moved to England, where he remained a scowling, black-clad star through the first half of the '60s. (John Lennon was a particularly big fan, borrowing Vincent's all-leather look and don't-fuck-with-me attitude.) Today, rockabilly is most closely associated with kitsch revivalists like the Rev. Horton Heat, and Vincent's dance with the devil has mutated into the comic-book Satanism of Marilyn Manson, but "The Screaming End" chronicles that brief period when Vincent could credibly claim to be the most dangerous man in rock 'n' roll.

By Keith Moerer

Keith Moerer is a regular contributor to Salon.

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