As proprietors of the reliably terrific Norton label (home of Hasil Adkins and countless Link Wray reissues) and the estimable if infrequent Kicks fanzine, Brooklyn’s Billy Miller and (onetime Cramps skin-beater) Miriam Linna have built their deep-rooted affinity for trashy, primitive rock’n’roll and R&B into a mini-empire. As frontman and drummer, respectively, of New York’s Zantees and A-Bones, the couple put their love of stone-age sounds into practice, delivering unpretentiously greasy lo-fi fun that’s consistently engaging in its try-anything spirit.
The Zantees were a rockabilly combo named after an episode of Outer Limits. The participants were never overly serious or pedantic about the music, which makes Out for Kicks delightfully irreverent. Singing and playing with a spirit money can’t buy (and synthesizers can’t replicate), they easily make oldies like “I Thought It Over,” “Cruisin'” and three others their own; the originals (including “Gas Up” and “Blonde Bombshell”) sound like oldies. A futile gesture, perhaps, but a grand one. Poor recording quality adds atmosphere. (Bassist Rob Norris graduated to the Bongos.)
With one-take loose sound on Rhythm Bound, method singer Miller barks out such ethnic ‘billy originals as “Tic Tac Toe” and “Money to Burn.” Linna also vocalizes on a couple: “I Need a Man” and “I’m Ready.” The guitar-picking Statile brothers’ proficient chromatic single-string playing provides a dual carburetor rhythm thrust. The subsequent 12-inch combines two tracks from the second album with a pair of blazing live oldies (one sung each by Miller and Linna).
Taking the more formal rockabilly of the Zantees to new levels of sloppy enthusiasm, the A-Bones’ joyously cruddy sound is built on Linna’s simple but effective pounding, Miller’s manly grunt, Bruce Bennett’s unexpectedly inventive guitar work and (from The Life of Riley onward) saxist Lars Espensen’s spirited honking.
The four-song 10-inch Tempo Tantrum and the six-song 12-inch Free Beer for Life! are both fun, but the band really comes into its own on the full-length Life of Riley, which benefits from the leaders’ record-collecting acumen by lining up swell covers of obscurities by the Royal Teens, Benny Joy, Doug Sahm and the Surfaris. The Japanese edition has different cover art and adds the contents of Free Beer for Life!, plus two extra tracks. The nine-song I Was a Teenage Mummy (soundtrack to an ultra-low-budget horror flick in which the band appears) demonstrates an unlikely exotic bent manifested in a howling version of the Coasters’ “Little Egypt” and the four-and-a-half-minute (epic by A-Bones standards) instrumental “Kashmiriam.”
The cover art of Music Minus Five cleverly refers to the Yardbirds. Produced at Seattle’s Egg Studios by PopLlama owner Conrad Uno, the album boasts a higher concentration of originals and (somewhat) improved sonic fidelity on catchy originals like “The Claw” and “Bonomo Twine Time,” a fine Gene Vincent cover and a syntactically mischievous version of “Hully Gully” featuring backing vocals by Japan’s 220.127.116.11’s.
The party came to an end in 1994, when the A-Bones officially disbanded (although they’ve periodically reunited on special occasions since). A backlog of recordings allowed Norton to release a couple of posthumous packages that, ironically, are more focused than the longplayers the band released during its existence. Crash the Party collects 19 killer covers of tunes by obscure but great Florida rockabilly Benny Joy. Although recorded in various studios over the course of several years — the band made it a point to cut a Joy tune whenever they entered the studio — it’s probably their most consistently enjoyable longplayer.
During their existence, the A-Bones released a wealth of non-album singles and EPs and contributed tracks to a variety of tribute and compilation discs. Norton eventually corraled 46 stray ‘Bones into the bountiful two-CD Daddy Wants a Cold Beer and Other Million Sellers. Since the band’s aesthetic was forged from scratchy old singles, it’s not surprising that they did much of their best work in short bursts; Daddy is an embarrassment of riches, including collaborations with Flamin’ Groovies frontman Roy Loney, the 18.104.22.168’s and vintage rockabilly rebels Johnny Powers and Rudy Grayzell. With frequently hilarious liner-note reminiscences by the band members, Daddy is a stirring document of a one- band campaign to bomb rock’n’roll back to the stone age.