Stray Cats knew where to take their strut

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 This Town.

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 bass.

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.


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