It’s 2018, and there are a ton of great bands we can honestly say took part in making history. However, there are only a handful of them who are history. The Stray Cats just happen to be one of those bands who moved the needle. In a very retro way, they were ahead of their time with their music and video influence. It’s very fair to say that they were the Blink 182 of the 80’s.
Before they became household names, they were just 3 Dudes from Massapequa… that’s a little hamlet just outside of Oyster Bay in Long Island, New York. They got together in 1979, and the original lineup remains intact. It features: Brian Setzer (guitar / vocals), Lee Rocker (upright slap bassist / vocals), and Slim Jim Phantom (skins). Like the Beastie Boys and Social Distortion, they put their genre on the map. Like their iconic brothers, they are great musicians and dynamic Earth, Wind & Fire-like showmen. Sportin’ their slicked-back hair with over-the-top pompadours and uber-cool leather jackets, they brought the Rockabilly lifestyle back to the future. Just as the Two-Tone Ska revival was skyrocketing in the ‘80s with bands like the Specials, the English Beat and Selecter, the Stray Cats brought their own muscle to their scene. It was a great time to be into Rockabilly. In addition to being the darlings of the airwaves, their music videos transcended the MTV generation into a behemoth. It’s hard to say if they intended this, but they were a genuine leader on the world music stage. They weren’t seeking for a consensus to see if what they were doing was cool, they simply went out and made it cool. As a result, they have fans from coast-to-coast and around the world.
Ask anyone who followed them back in the day, and they’ll tell you, their music was solid. It’s tight, rhythmic and fast all at the same time. It’s not too fast, and not too slow… it’s half fast. If this makes any kind of sense, they’re kinda built for speed. Setzer and Rocker can croon with the best of them, and collectively the band is absolutely electric on stage. It’s a weird combination of old school Rockabilly, with punk fusion that propels their signature sound. Other bands and artists from back then that had the punk moniker with a twang included The Reverend Horton Heat, The Cramps, and X. There’s also the Polecats; they, too, brought a swagger to the scene. Setzer once said that rockabilly music paralleled punk’s energy and feeling. That’s a pretty spot on comparison as their fans are always engaged any time they take the stage, just like at a Beastie’s show… it’s déjà vu all over again!
If you think you’ve heard their music before, you have–kinda. It’s a genre that was huge in the 50’s. The sound was influenced by legends Eddie Cochran, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Elvis. As for the Stray Cats, we first heard of them as The Tomcats, The Teds, and finally, Bryan and the Tom Cats. In 1981, they released their self- titled album, and that album re-shaped the landscape of music. From that point forward, everything was golden. With all good things, the party came to an end in 1984 when the band broke up. Typically, that’s where band stories end. Maybe you’ve seen the VH-1 “Where Are They Now” special? But, luckily for us…there’s a sequel.
There are countless stories out there of parents playing these Rockabilly songs to their kids; or, how they danced with them in their living rooms while listening to their tunes on the family record player or boom box. Those kids grew up loving the Stray Cats, and now, they’re turning their kids on to this band. There is no loss in generational translation in the love for this band’s music. In reflection, Setzer said it was silly to break up the Stray Cats at the peak of their success. In the end, it happened, and there’s a reason why they’ve stayed in the hearts and souls of their fans. There’s definitely a new generation of fans out there that dig this band. For what it’s worth, they’ve earned the respect of musicians worldwide. As for me, I remember being in high school, listening to Rick James, Prince, Parliament and AC/DC. Listening to any of those bands made you cool. Then, there was high school fringe cool; you know, being that kid from a John Hughes movie that knew all the cool bands before everyone else did. That’s what knowing who the Stray Cats were did for you back in the day. Reason # 101 why Baby Boomers and Generation X love this band.
To love this band, you need to know a few things. First, there’s the music; the Stray Cats’ catalogue features eight studio albums, that includes juggernaut albums Stray Cats, Built For Speed and Rant n’ Rave with the Stray Cats. Hits that launched them to super stardom and beyond include mega-hits “Stray Cat Strut”, “(She’s) Sexy + 17”, “Rockabilly Rules”, “Rumble In Brighton”, “Little Miss Pissy”, “Rev It Up & Go”, and then there’s their sonic anthem, “Rock This Town”. That tune is so legit, The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame identified this song as one of the top songs that shaped Rock and Roll. It actually did more than that, it defined a generation. That’s the thing about the Stray Cats, they hit it big at a time when synthesizers were all the rage, but their music remained genuine. They have the same type of guitars and amps from way back when, they just play to a much, much bigger crowd these days. Louis Armstrong once said, there are two kinds of music, the good and the bad… I personally think the Stray Cats play the good. I’m pretty sure Louis would have agreed.
As a postscript to the Stray Cats, the guys have successfully gone on to individually do their own things. Slim Jim Phantom makes regular appearances in SoCal; in fact, he just played this past year’s Like Totally 80’s festival in Huntington Beach. He’s in a rockabilly band called 13 Cats. He’s also an active member of a foundation that is near and dear to the hearts of countless people. He’s part of the Love Hope Strength Foundation. It’s an organization founded by Mike Peters of The Alarm, an artist who’s experienced his own bout with cancer. Like Peters, Phantom uses his celebrity to help those who have been afflicted by this terrible disease. Lee Rocker also has a great solo career… he also makes appearances in SoCal, like last summer’s So-Cal Hoedown in Santa Ana. He’ll be appearing at the Coach House in October. Some of his very successful albums include Black Cat Bone and Racin’ the Devil and Bulletproof. He’s also recorded or performed with icons, Carl Perkins, and Willie Nelson just to name a few. Rocker, also, was a DJ here locally; for a little bit, he frequented the airwaves at KX93.5 FM in Laguna Beach. As for Setzer, he’s found success with his swing revival band, the Brian Setzer Orchestra. He makes regular appearances in SoCal, especially at Christmas time. Some of his hits under this band are familiar tunes like“ This Cat (Is On A Hot Tin Roof)” and his cover of Louis Prima’s “Jump Jive an’ Wail.”
The guys reunite periodically for gigs, and it was recently announced that they would be playing two gigs at The Pacific Amphitheatre on August 16th and 17th. It’s unclear if this will be it for a while for the Stray Cats, or if we have more in store. If you take one thing away from this article it’s this….it’s one thing to read about bands that made history, it’s another thing to see them live. Who knows, maybe there’s a big announcement just around the corner. Until then, if you like to dance at a show, here’s your chance to see living legends, check out the Stray Cats at Pac Amp this Summer.