In the age of the single download, Jeff Harford
rediscovers the album.
Following a hunch, Stray Cats timed their 1980 hop across the
pond to perfection. Guitarist/vocalist Brian Setzer,
upright-bass player Lee Rocker and drummer Slim Jim Phantom
had been gigging steadily from their New York base, but
instinct told them the Brits would be more receptive to their
revved-up rockabilly sound.
The band's UK audience, still in thrall to the ghost of rock
'n' roll pioneer Eddie Cochran, who had died in a car
accident while touring 20 years earlier, lapped it up.
Within months, the trio scored a record deal courtesy of a
backstage meeting with singer/guitarist/producer Dave
Edmunds, himself a champion of '50s-era rock 'n' roll, and
charted with two singles before the year was out.
The 1981 self-titled debut album added Top 20 single Stray
Cat Strut to Top 10 hits Runaway Boys and Rock
The band's charismatic mix of old-school rock and roguish
good looks painted them as stylised retro-punks, their
coiffures, tats and muscle shirts not a mile away from the
image that the Clash was cultivating.
But that's where the similarities end. While the Stray Cats'
music revives the notion of the "bad boy" outsider, the
battle here is for nothing more revolutionary than the right
to dance and raise good-natured hell.
With the exception of token political statement Storm The
Embassy, band members are fixed on paying tribute to
their heroes (Cochran's Jeanie, Jeanie, Jeanie, Warren
Smith's Ubangi Stomp, Rick Nelson hit My One
Desire and Gene Vincent's Double Talkin' Baby),
while kicking away the stops on some rousing originals.
Against a curtain of slap-back echo, Setzer reveals himself
as a merely proficient singer but virtuosic guitarist. He
draws a string of stunning lead breaks from his hollow-body
Gretsch, nimbly running patterns around Rocker's walking
Stardom in the US soon followed and just as soon died for
Stray Cats, but Setzer continues today to steer his Brian
Setzer Orchestra around the globe.