Pat Ivers and Emily Armstrong continue sorting through their archives of punk-era concert footage as it’s digitized for the Downtown Collection at N.Y.U.’s Fales Library.
At CBGB, it was a crapshoot what you would hear on a given night (maybe folk rock, maybe noise bands) and we, the audience, said bring it on. If the music was good, we listened to it. But over in England, there was a culture war raging that was alien to most variety-loving New Yorkers.
Teds were the original “rebel teenagers” of the late 40s and early 50s, with their own unique clothing style and love of early rock and roll. They endured as a niche group for years, enjoying a resurgence in the 70s. They held on to their sartorial and musical traditions – and with it, an unfortunate penchant for violence, a behavior certainly fanned by the British tabloids. Though the gritty details remain debatable, it seemed inevitable that the conservative, volatile Teds would pick a fight with the publicity-loving, anarchic punks. The natty Teds didn’t like safety pins and they sure didn’t like the Sex Pistols.
Leee Black Childers remembered going to a rockabilly show in London in 1977 while touring with the Heartbreakers as their manager during the “Anarchy in the UK” tour. “When the lights went up, Teds suddenly descended on us and threatened to beat us up for being punks,” he said. “This kid, Levi Dexter stepped up and stuck up for us and we were saved.” Childers asked him if he had any friends, because with his looks he could start up a band. Levi recruited childhood friend Smutty Smiff and a few others and Childers became their manager.
Johnny Thunders, the guitar hero of the Heartbreakers, went to their rehearsals and coached them on musicianship and stagecraft. They practiced diligently and a band was born.
“Levi and the Rockats were the first young rockabilly band with Hollywood glamor,” said Childers. They were gorgeous.
The band came to New York in 1978 and Childers set them up in Blondie’s vacated loft on the Bowery, where Television rehearsed downstairs – not bad digs for the new kids in town. Jerry Nolan, also of the Heartbreakers, joined them on drums, creating an extra draw.
Levi Dexter recalled arriving at CBGBs. “Three of us were fresh off the boat from England and we were thrilled to immerse ourselves in everything America had to offer,” he said. “We played two shows at CBs [see today’s video clip] and even Joan Jett came. Both shows were packed so we left happy, if not rich.”
Levi left the band the following year but the Rockats continued to tour, blazing the trail for other neo-rockabilly and roots bands like the Stray Cats and The Blasters. They will be playing at Viva Las Vegas, the premiere rockabilly festival in America, next March. Levi Dexter still tours as a solo act and is releasing a new CD, “Roots Man.” Bandmate Smutty Smiff resides in Iceland and recently launched JS Sloane, a line of hair products for men. A Ted always has to look his best.
This post originally appeared on The Local East Village.