Stray Cats - Biography
By Jonny Whiteside
Where the late 1970’s punk rock revolution leveled an uneven playing field and blazed new trails for a half dozen developmental off-shoots, punk’s short reign and ignominious 1980 implosion left a void that the neo-rockabilly band Stray Cats explosively filled. The trio’s meteoric rise to stardom was as extraordinarily unusual--and culturally inevitable--as the original rockabilly movement ignited almost twenty five years earlier by Bill Haley and Elvis Presley. By not merely resurrecting but aggressively expanding the genre’s potent mix of Rhythm & Blues and Southern hillbilly, the Stray Cats were trading in elemental musical forces, supercharged further with a wry contemporary lyrical sensibility and a stunning force equivalent to punk. Topped off by guitarist-singer Brian Setzer’s shrewdly crafted blend of vintage Eddie Cochran rockabilly wallop and a swinging, jumbo-sized brand of blues-fueled six-string apocalypse, the Stray Cat‘s triple-distilled musical cocktail caught the world completely off guard. It also rocketed them to sustained international fame.
Setzer had been fronting local rock & roll band The Bloodless Pharaohs in Massapequa, New York circa 1978-79, but his unshakeable faith in rockabilly had found an outlet in the Tomcats, a retro side project he already had going with his brother Gary on drums and bassist Bob Beecher. Setzer’s rockabilly yen finally took hold and, with like-minded cohorts Slim Jim Phantom and Lee Rocker (their original nom de squares are Leon Drucker and James McDonnell), Setzer ditched the Pharaohs and the newly formed unit began gigging relentlessly along the New York and Philadelphia club circuits. Still billed as the Tomcats, their full-throttle rockabilly sound quickly established them as a strong drawing phenomenon. The three were also developing a wild visual image, with their slicked-back, pumped up ten-gallon pompadours, sharp cat clothes wardrobe and an array of vivid, colorful old school-inspired tattoos.
While the Long Island club-goers weren’t entirely knocked out by rockabilly, the band found a welcoming context in New York City, where bands like the Cramps and straight-up revivalist Robert Gordon were already well-established. But as the old saying goes, “if you’re one in a million, there’s ten of you in New York,” so the band’s decision to head for London in 1980 was a prescient one. Significantly, not long before traveling to the UK, Setzer and Phantom added a final, key ingredient, acquiring the fabled quiff-topped, tongue-lolling cat head tattoos, executed by the fabled underground NYC tattooist Bob Roberts and subsequently adapted it as the bands logo, providing an instantly recognizable symbol of what the band was all about.
In the UK (where a deep appreciation of classic American rock & roll has never wavered), the music scene was a dizzying vortex of new movements: the Two Tone ska of the Specials and Madness, the angular post-punk of Gang of Four and the Mekons, and a burgeoning underground scene developing into the goth, industrial and New Romantic acts that would soon rise to the surface. Yet none of these carried the rough-edged, fiery appeal of the new arrivals, and their All-American creativity quickly distinguished them. Based in London, the band adopted Rocker's suggested new moniker and officially became the Stray Cats. They gigged as often as possible and wasted little time in gaining the approval of Brit rock big shots like the Rolling Stones' Keith Richards and the roots-fixated Rockpile guitar hero Dave Edmunds, who evinced a great deal of simpatico for the Stray Cats. With Edmunds’ guidance, a deal with Arista records was signed within months of their arrival and the band's debut single, "Runaway Boys" b/w "My One Desire" (1980) was released shortly thereafter. With it's propulsive, slap-bass bottom end, shouted back-up vocals and Setzer's big rowdy guitar, the song made it to number nine of the British pop singles chart, and allowed the group to make it's television debut on UK show, Top of the Pops.
The following year in 1981, Arista released their eponymous debut album (including a novel gimmick: stick-on Stray Cat logo tattoos), which generated a good deal of attention and the two subsequent singles culled from it, "Rock This Town" and "Stray Cat Strut," also sold briskly. The Stray Cats toured Britain and Europe, and also backed Dave Edmunds on his Twangin’ (1981 Swansong records) album, a collaboration that resulted in another single, Edmunds' version of George Jones' 1964 breakthrough “The Race is On.” The Stray Cats were riding a wave of momentum that also took them to Japan and Australia and finally, back to America, where they made a memorable, high-impact appearance on ABC television rock showcase program Fridays, where they insisted on ABC running an onscreen crawl reading “Sign this band . . . They Have No American Record Deal . . . ,” an audacious stunt in the pre-MTV era. Their profile was also raised considerably by opening for the Rolling Stones, who were kicking off the American leg of their Tattoo You tour in Atlanta, Georgia.
In the UK, their second release Gonna Ball (Arista 1982) generated a backlash amongst the notoriously fickle British music press, but the Stray Cats kept rolling and had soon landed a recording contract at home, releasing Built for Speed (1982 EMI). Essentially a mixture of songs from their first two UK albums spiced up with a few new recordings, it rose to the number two spot on Billboard‘s albums chart. For a straight-up rockabilly act this was a significant achievement, despite a steadily growing revival movement spearheaded by Southern California indie label Rollin’ Rock and its top roots rockers the Blasters. Unlike the UK, there really was no built-in fan base for rockabilly, but the success of Built for Speed was undeniable; their first American single, “Rock This Town“ b/w Supremes cover “You Can‘t Hurry Love“ not only got a great deal of radio play, it went to number nine of the singles chart, and an invitation to appear on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. When EMI issued “Stray Cat Strut” as a single, it climbed to number three. The Stray Cats had not only begun to expand the rockabilly audience, they were reaching mainstream America itself.
By 1983, the band reached its peak: on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, nominated for Best New Artist at the Dick Clark-produced American Music Awards (another key national television appearance) and, at the Southern California Us Festival, playing to a crowd of half a million people, all of them flabbergasted by the jumbo-sized sounds which the three skinny little dudes conjured. That year also saw the launch of MTV, coinciding with the release of Rant n' Rave With the Stray Cats (1983 EMI), and a single “Sexy & 17” which not only entered heavy rotation on MTV, but also became their third domestic Top Ten hit. By 1984, the ceaseless touring was eating away at the once tight-knit band, and Setzer augmented the line up with Tommy Byrnes, a guitar-playing pal from the old Long Island days. Slim Jim Phantom had married blonde bombshell Britt Ekland, Setzer was guesting with the likes of Bob Dylan and Robert Plant, touring as lead guitarist for Plant’s classic rock act The Honeydrippers and in turn, Slim Jim and Lee hooked up with guitarist Earl Slick cutting an album as Phantom, Rocker & Slick (1985 EMI). By the end of the year the Stray Cats had fallen apart even more swiftly than most of their 1950s-era progenitors had.
Two years later, they resurfaced with Rock Therapy (1986 EMI), however with Setzer concentrating on his solo debut, (the poorly received The Knife Feels Like Justice EMI) the now fractured band declined to tour in support of Rock Therapy. It looked like the end, but the Stray Cats hadn’t used up all nine lives. They reunited for a 1988 North American tour and issued their final EMI release Blast Off (1989). The Cats continued to sporadically tour the world through the 90's, along the way dropping Let's Go Faster in Austrailia and Japan (1990 Liberation, 1990 Toshiba EMI LTD), the Dave Edmunds-produced Choo Choo Hot Fish (1992 Castle) and the Japan-only set Original Cool (1993 Toshiba EMI LTD). By 2000, Setzer was busy leading his hard-charging big band swing unit, the Brian Setzer Orchestra, Phantom was operating his Sunset Strip rock joint the Cat Club (and drumming for Thee Head Cat, a rockabilly trio featuring Motorhead’s Lemmy Kilmister and former Rockcat’s guitarist Danny B. Harvey) and Rocker was working and recording with his own, blues-fueled combo. In 2003, the Stray Cats reunited once again, touring Europe the following year, and in 2008, embarked on the worldwide “Farewell Tour.” Given their fitful--and fruitful--track record, it’s likely the Stray cats may well prowl again someday.