It started with an ESL class.
Akinori Okada, Junichi Matsuzaki, and Seiji Sato had all arrived in New York, separately, from Japan, and enrolled in an adult school for English learners. They each loved original Fifties rockabilly, the primitive form of rock ‘n’ roll popularized by legends like Chubby Checker and Wanda Jackson. They quickly discovered their shared obsession, and, unable to find a rockabilly party where they could dance the Japanese style of the twist, started their own. They had no promoting experience and wanted little more than to dance and share their extensive record collections.
That was in 2005. Shortly after the ESL class, they met Hiromu Yanagiya and Katie Bickert, who joined them in organizing Rebel Night, which has become the center of New York’s small but dedicated rockabilly scene. What began as a monthly DJ night now hosts two record hops a month and concerts four times a year. Even after a decade in a city that sees parties disappear almost daily, Rebel Night is still going strong.
“We’re the only thing that pops up when you Google ‘rockabilly New York City,’ ” says Bickert, the group’s sole American member. “We’re proud for welcoming everyone. You don’t have to be wearing vintage or know the dances.”
To commemorate their staying power, they’re hosting a full weekend of live music in Brooklyn from July 17 to 19, highlighting the best in local talent and flying bands in from across the country and DJs in from Europe. While their dance nights — at Williamsburg’s Grand Victory and the Back Room, on the L.E.S. — are the key to their endurance, the shows are what keep the scene fresh. “We love record hops,” says Sato. “But the live music is special. We’re bringing all the bands we want to see ourselves.”
The festival lineup ranges from old-school originators like Johnny Farina, who released the instantly recognizable steel pedal instrumental “Sleep Walk” in 1959, to younger practitioners like NYC natives the Bothers. That four-piece bridges the gap between classic rockabilly and psychobilly, a sped-up, punk-tinged offshoot genre; thanks to the blend, their sets are raucous enough to appeal to contemporary audiences without losing sight of their roots.
“Rebel Night brings a community together that shares a love for all things rock ‘n’ roll,” says Bothers vocalist and guitarist Sean McNally. “We’re humbled they asked us to be part of their anniversary.”
The Bothers formed in 2011 and first attended Rebel Night when the party’s home was Otto’s Shrunken Head, a grungy tiki bar in Union Square. Sato and his collaborators had moved there after six months at the now-defunct Blu Lounge in Brooklyn. “We didn’t want to go there, because it was a psychobilly place,” he says, referencing the subgenre’s reputation for unruly crowds. “But we couldn’t find anywhere else, and we didn’t speak English well, so we wound up there.”
Otto’s turned out to be perfect. Its divey vibe meant there was no barrier for entry: Baseball caps were as welcome as pompadours, and guests didn’t have to know how to jive — the partnered social dance that dominates rockabilly gatherings — to enjoy themselves. The music attracted a younger crowd, including curious Union Square revelers who wandered in off the street after hearing Carl Perkins waft through the night air.
It didn’t hurt that the party counted among its fans members of the original New York rockabilly scene, who had kept their beloved subculture alive after the rockabilly revival petered out in the late Nineties. Jodi Ham, a DJ and the leader of Jukebox Jodi and Her 45’s, is one of those scene originals. She’s been involved in New York City rockabilly for over twenty years and met the Rebel Night crew when she worked at the now-shuttered bar Motor City, which then centered the scene. She was impressed by the boys doing the Japanese twist and still remembers when Bickert first came to the bar: “I think I taught her to jive right there at Motor!”
Mentorship from Ham and her contemporaries was crucial to Rebel Night’s ascent. Older fans had connections to the scene’s substantial international presence; soon, DJs from Europe and larger American hubs like Los Angeles knew that the party was the place to be on the East Coast. Rebel Night solidified their reputation within the larger community in 2011, when they hosted New York’s first-ever rockabilly weekender (scene parlance for convention-like festivals held worldwide).
“For some reason,” sighs Bickert, “I thought it would be a great idea for our first-ever live show to be a three-day festival. We spent every penny we’d saved for five years, but we pulled it off.” That success, which drew fans from hundreds of miles away, cemented their status both locally and internationally. But when it was all over, they still had a party to run at Otto’s.
Everyone uses the word “crazy” when looking back on those years. Many nights ended with the dance floor covered in whatever the crew could get their hands on to throw into the crowd: packing peanuts, toilet paper, birthday cake, Corona — so much of it their T-shirts were all stained yellow and they became known as the “Corona Japanese guys.”
Fun as the anarchy was, the familiar story of an increasingly moneyed Manhattan pushing out the Village crowd inspired the crew to move their party back to Brooklyn in 2014. Now Rebel Night regularly packs the Grand Victory with fans clad in head-to-toe Fifties vintage who dance until closing time. Sato likes the Brooklyn vibe better, too: “In the city, people try to be cool, but in Brooklyn, people don’t try,” he observes. “They just are cool. And a little crazier.” They’re modern, twenty- and thirtysomething rebels, just like the hot-rod teens who started the genre.
The crew admits it can be hard to get people out to a rockabilly show consistently, particularly since mainstream culture lost interest in the music as anything more than a novelty. With every generation, the Fifties recede farther into the collective consciousness, and rockabilly becomes even more niche. But they press onward, dedicated to offering the same open door to newcomers that the previous generation offered them.
Lately, things have picked up. McNally reports an uptick in new rockabilly bands since the Bothers started playing together. Ham consistently sees younger and younger people coming out to shows and to Rebel Night in particular. Bickert and Sato, who met at an early Rebel Night party and have been dating for over six years, run a dance school that teaches new acolytes how to jive, bop, stroll, and twist. And every month, new faces appear at the parties alongside the regulars.
Their anniversary festival is an opportunity to prove rockabilly’s continued relevance. In showcasing both its originators and its inheritors, the crew hopes to attract fans outside their domain: musicians who appreciate dedication to form, Brooklynites intrigued by the aesthetic, and anyone fascinated by the endurance of the scene. Jodi’s band is reuniting after a hiatus for the occasion, happy, as she says, to play for a group “taking over the reins and creating a much bigger scene” than what she and her contemporaries passed down.
And the next ten years? When asked what the future holds for Rebel Night, Sato looks nonplussed, then replies, “We just want to dance, listen to music, drink beer, and have fun with our friends.” And maybe book another weekender, says Bickert, though at that mention everyone slumps in anticipated exhaustion.
Matsuzaki is the only one who seems to have given it much thought: “Maybe in twenty years,” he laughs, “Aki’s kids will take over.” (Okada has two young children.) “That’s the future of Rebel Night.”
Rebel Night’s 10 Year Anniversary Celebration hits Brooklyn’s Grand Victory on July 17 at 8 p.m. and the Shop on July 18 at 8 p.m. and July 19 at 5 p.m.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 14, 2015