In the fall of 1991, The Planet Rockers were the opening act for the U.S. leg of Morrissey's Kill Uncle Tour. It was a primo gig for a rockabilly combo from Nashville back in the Ante-Jack-White-ian Era. Though one might think they found a fast track to success, in Los Angeles they ran into a reminder of their real position in the rock pecking order.
"The crowd was rabid Morrissey fans," Planet Rocker Eddie Angel recalls, sitting in the practice room of his Nashville home. "We were backstage, and they started getting out of control. The police and fire department came and said they were shutting the show down because people were getting crushed. They advised us to get out before they made the announcement. We left, and sure enough, the fans went on a rampage. Every bit of Morrissey merchandise got stolen, but they left the Planet Rockers stuff."
The Planet Rockers were together briefly, but they garnered acclaim in Nashville and around the world for their brand of "100 percent Tennessee rock 'n' roll." Now the original lineup — Angel, Sonny George, Bill Swartz and Mark W. Winchester — has reunited to bring their version of no-nonsense, non-fashion-driven rockabilly to their old fans and a new generation, and they're making a special appearance at The Basement Friday night.
Although many consider the Rockers to be rockabilly legends now, that was hardly the case when the band first came together in 1989. Guitarist Angel had come to Nashville and spent two years getting chewed up by the Music Row machine. He was ready to quit music altogether. It was then that his friend Mike Smyth, owner of Phonoluxe Records, gave him some good advice.
"Mike said, 'You can't quit,' " Angel recalls. "He started playing me some of his records. He's got a world-class record collection, and listening to them lit the fire in me again. It reminded me why I started playing music. Then Mike said there was a guy that was coming in the store, and he was keen to start a band. That turned out to be Sonny."
Although Angel and George both loved all varieties of early rock 'n' roll, George's full-throated vocals seemed best suited to rock from the hillbilly end of the spectrum.
"Sonny and I started getting together and learning songs, with Mike's record collection supplying our repertoire," says Angel. The goal was to get back to the basics of the rockabilly sound — that fusion of honky-tonk and rhythm & blues that burned so brightly but briefly in the mid-'50s. They especially wanted to avoid the traps of fashion-conscious revivalism or post-punk irony. "We didn't want to be a stereotypical rockabilly band. We soon met Bill and Mark, and they were perfect guys to do what we wanted to do."
In short order, The Planet Rockers were packing clubs in Nashville, and major-league producer Paul Kennerley oversaw their 1991 debut album. Appearances in the U.K. and Europe followed, with guitarist Boz Boorer producing a second album for the band in London. Boorer, who had just been hired as Morrissey's bandleader, brought the group to the Pope of Mope's attention.
"Morrissey asked us to open for him on his U.S. tour," says Angel. "I didn't even know who he was at the time [laughs]. I had never heard of The Smiths — they just weren't on my radar."
Despite their successes, after a three-year run The Planet Rockers found themselves in the position of being the band with the buzz, but very little cash in the bank.
"We were all getting frustrated," Angel says. "Mark got an offer to play with Emmylou Harris, and Sonny and I got an offer to work with a band in Chicago. We took it because we needed the money."
Angel would later return to Nashville and form the instrumental group Los Straitjackets with Danny Amis. George recorded three solo albums and spent some time living in Europe. Winchester backed Harris for several years before joining up with The Brian Setzer Orchestra, and Swartz played with various artists based out of Nashville, including Tom T. Hall and Jett Williams.
Over the next two decades, The Planet Rockers' reputation grew among rockabilly fans. Although the band remained on friendly terms and never ruled out a reunion, it was always a matter of finding the time in their schedules. Everything finally lined up in the fall of 2011. Getting together for their first practice in almost 20 years, the Rockers found the old spirit was still there. Since then, they've played a limited number of festivals in the U.S., U.K., Australia and Germany. They'll also appear at the Muddy Roots Festival in Cookeville, Tenn., next weekend.
"We've become a cult band in Europe," Angel says. "That really has us scratching our heads, because we hardly toured over there, and we only did two albums. I guess it created a mystique, because hardly anyone had seen us."