There’s a tendency to slice the pie too thin when coming up with names for new sub-genres of rock and pop. But if the term “psychobilly” isn’t precise, it’s close enough. The rollicking style has its roots in 1950s rockabilly – itself a fusion of country, R&B and rock ‘n’ roll – and 1970s punk, and is a blast of hip-rattling music designed for a wild, if not quite psychotic, time. One of its greatest proponents is Tiger Army, a band with a shifting membership whose one constant is Kearney Nick Jones, better known as Nick 13. Their best album is “Tiger Army III: Ghost Tigers Rise,” issued in 2004.
As it was with the two previous Tiger Army albums, on “Tiger Army III: Ghost Tigers Rise,” Nick 13 and the band departed from psychobilly norms, this time signaling its intention with a quiet, brooding overture, “Prelude: Death of A Tiger,” that led to the explosive title track with rockabilly’s relentless, straight-ahead drumming by Mike Fasano, Geoff Kresge’s thumping upright bass (with plucked strings providing additional percussion) and Nick 13’s twangy, vibrato-rich guitar. “Wander Alone” mined the pop-punk terrain Green Day explored as Nick 13 offered rock’s version of a high lonesome vocal. A romantic jaunt, “Santa Clara Twilight” was a rave in which Nick 13’s best bits on guitar were mixed well below the beat. As the album grew brighter and more formidable, “Ghostfire” launched with a spark and moved along briskly, albeit with a touch of menace, as the band locked in under Nick 13’s voice and agile solos on his preferred big, hollowed-bodied Gretsch guitar.
Tiger Army was founded in 1995 by Nick 13, who counted as inspiration the music of punk bands the Cramps, the Damned and the Misfits as well as rockabilly’s Charlie Feathers, Carl Perkins and Warren Smith, all of whom recorded for Sam Phillips at Sun Studios. The Meteors, the British psychobilly innovators, were influences as well. But Nick 13 also enjoyed post-punk goth bands like Bauhaus and country music giants like Ray Price and Hank Williams. Those sounds crept into his compositions, giving them an unexpected dimension. Tiger Army, which had begun to build its audience via live shows, released its first album in late 1999.
Even as the band was experiencing initial success, the lineup shifted often and by the time recording for what was became “Tiger Army III: Ghost Tigers Rise” was underway, Tiger Army was essentially Nick 13 and guests. The album was applauded immediately. To showcase it, Tiger Army backed Social Distortion on tour – a very nice double bill in early 2005 – and sold out shows on their own. In 2006, they opened for Morrissey, who Nick 13 had long admired.
“Tiger Army III: Ghost Tigers Rise” was rich with material that translated well to live performance. “The Long Road” called to mind Elvis Presley’s reading of “(Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame.” “Rose of the Devil’s Garden” was early rock ‘n’ roll funneled through ’80 British alternative rock. The metal side of punk and surf-guitar rock came together in “What Happens?” in which Nick 13 yelled “Go psycho!” before letting out a Joe Strummer-worthy yip-holler. The album closer, “Sea of Fire,” was a blues ballad fortified by Kresge’s walking bass that morphed suddenly into an amped-up rocker enriched by the tension between Nick 13’s patient vocal and his incendiary guitar playing.
Given its ever-changing lineup and Nick 13’s dominant role in the band, it wasn’t shocking to discover he set out to pursue a solo career. He tested his act, which leaned toward country and Americana, in venues large and small, including at the Stagecoach Festival, where he appeared prior to sets by Price and Merle Haggard. His satisfying debut solo disc, “Nick 13,” was released in 2011.
Tiger Army performed only now and then after its leader launched his solo career, but they’ve announced they’ll be playing the Octoberflame festival in late October. The pioneers of American psychobilly will no doubt tap into “Tiger Army III: Ghost Tigers Rise” for their performance, its undeniable and delight music well worthy of revival and celebration.