Disenchanted with modern new wave, Brian Setzer bagged his trendy New York group, the Bloodless Pharaohs (documented with two songs on the New York-centric 2 X 5 compilation), to form a rockabilly trio and abandon Long Island for London. There, the Stray Cats wowed ’em with exotic American appeal, spearheading a rockabilly revival that naturally became absorbed into new wave. Is there a moral here?
Unlike some neo-rockabillies, the Stray Cats don’t care about painstaking reconstructions of moldy old recordings. They diddle around with non-originals, while Setzer’s own early songs tackle topical events (“Storm the Embassy,” “Rumble in Brighton”). Setzer’s extended guitar soloing sometimes seems descended from jazz rather than rockabilly, but there’s no faulting his skill or the group’s spirit.
Gonna Ball, released about nine months after Stray Cats, finds the band moving into R&B turf. Musical veterans like Ian Stewart and Lee Allen help fill out the sound; a strong producer, like Dave Edmunds on the first album, would have helped even more. Setzer is a better guitarist than singer, and some of Gonna Ball‘s songs resemble the music rockabilly was revolting against.
Combining the best of both British albums and adding one new cut, Built for Speed is a good introduction to the band. The US, generally not known for humoring nostalgic musical throwbacks, sent it into the Top 5. The Stray Cats must have been doing something right.
If chart success is the yardstick, they continued to do that something on Rant n’ Rave, the trio’s first identical and simultaneous US/UK release. Again produced by Dave Edmunds, the effervescent rock’n’roll teen rebellion of “(She’s) Sexy + 17” leads the stylistic parade (with one exception — the beautiful soul ballad, “I Won’t Stand in Your Way,” with vocal backing by Fourteen Karat Soul) and the rest of the record falls neatly in line, recalling Eddie Cochran, Carl Perkins and the whole rockabilly-into-early-rock’n’roll era. Sure it’s formulaic and derivative as hell, but timelessly enthralling and truly entertaining as well.
The Stray Cats broke up (temporarily, as it developed) in late 1984. While his bandmates teamed up with guitarist Earl Slick and issued a run-of-the-mill rock album the following year, Brian Setzer worked with Robert Plant in the Honey Drippers and then released The Knife Feels Like Justice, a strong, varied LP that further illustrates his multi-dimensional talent. The record encompasses unembellished frontier rock (“The Knife Feels Like Justice”), wistful balladry (“Boulevard of Broken Dreams”), Cochranesque rock’n’roll (“Radiation Ranch”), soulful power pop (the autobiographical “Chains Around Your Heart”), rock bluegrass (“Barbwire Fence”) and lots more. With tasteful restraint, Setzer checks his wilder instincts, avoiding showy guitar work, verbal grandstanding or self-parody; maturity and subtlety are the album’s two most unexpected and welcome qualities.
In 1986, drummer Slim Jim Phantom (né McDonnell) and bassist Lee Rocker (né Drucker) made Cover Girl, an improved — credit producer Pete Solley and generally better original material — but equally pointless and bland second album with Slick. Then, prompted by a contract they wanted out of, the threesome cut a Stray Cats reunion LP, Rock Therapy, and redeemed themselves handily. With Setzer back at their helm, the rhythm section sounds good as new; amazingly, the fine record picks up exactly where Rant n’ Rave left off. Setzer’s old-fashioned originals blend seamlessly with fine borrowings from appropriate sources (Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Gene Vincent, Charlie Feathers) and contributions from his bandmates. (The only misstep is “Broken Man,” a clumsy stab at bluegrass.) The spare self-production gives the record a comfortably loose feel; the exuberant air of playing for fun, free of commercial considerations, adds a magical dimension.
Where Setzer’s first solo album was nearly eloquent in its artistry, Live Nude Guitars — produced in pieces by Dave Stewart, Chris Thomas and others — finds B.S. in frantic commercial overdrive, foolishly aping Billy Idol and the Romantics, mucking about in inappropriate settings and self-parodic clichés (“Rockability”?) and — now this is serious — reducing Eddie Cochran’s classic “Nervous Breakdown” to modern triviality. The songs are crap, the performances routine and colorless. When Stewart begins laying on the synthetic horns and driving female backing vocals at the beginning of Side Two, you know it’s time to get off this ride. (But if you stick around, you get to hear Setzer’s Mark Knopfler guitar imitation in the heinous “Love Is Repaid by Love Alone.”)
The Stray Cats’ next album is no great shakes, but at least Blast Off! (well-oiled to run smooth by producer Dave Edmunds) offers a modest and pleasingly simpleminded dose of the trio’s standard-issue rockabilly froth. Redundant in the extreme but no less enjoyable for it, these ten slices of slap’n’wiggle rewrite the group’s canon (actually, “Gene and Eddie” is stitched together from the Vincent and Cochran songbooks) with no innovation but as much enthusiasm as ever.
The don’t-bother-it’s-just-some-old group ten-track Rock This Town compilation starts with “Rock This Town” (the trio’s first US hit) and ends with “Runaway Boys” (the Cats’ first UK hit, two years earlier). In between, the obvious tunes (“Stray Cat Strut,” “(She’s) Sexy + 17,” “I Won’t Stand in Your Way”) join some lesser-known LP cuts (“Bring It Back Again,” “Look at That Cadillac,” “Gene and Eddie”), with nothing at all from Rock Therapy. Gone, cat, gone.