|Stray Cats, Rockabilly Back In The Charts!
Formed in Long Island, New York, in 1979, the Stray Cats comprised of Brian Setzer (guitar & vocals), Lee Rocker (Lee Drucher, stand-up slap bass), and Slim Jim Phantom (James McDonell, drums). Evincing a taste for raw, rough-edged rockabilly, their early gigs consisted solely of covers of Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent and Carl Perkins songs before Setzer - a former member of New York cult rockers The Bloodless Pharoahs - set to writing new material, based heavily on the style of his idols. The Stary Cats were soon a huge draw on New York's club scene - as much for their 50's look as for their recreation of 50's Rockahilly - but unable to score a record deal they decided to try their luck in the UK, where they'd heard a fully-fledged rock 'n' roll revival was under way.
A classic case of being in the right place at precisely the right time they arrived in London in July '80 - immediately post-Punk, when it was hip to look and sound cool again - and with their well-honed, high-octane set going down a storm, rapidly built up a big reputation on the London club circuit. Rave reviews in the UK's weekly pop mags followed, which in turn led to interest from record companies, and they signed with Arista who released their debut single "Runaway Boys" in November 1980. Boosted by some memorable TV appearances - with Setzer's gravity-defying quiff, baby-faced good looks and echo-laden vocals, Phantom's menacing demeanour and aggressive drumming, and Rocker's vigorous bass-slapping routines which accentuated the backbeat, the Stray Cats were perfect TV fodder - it charted immediately, reaching #9, as did the follow-up "Rock This Town". Their first album "Stray Cats" - produced by Dave Edmunds, whom they backed on a revival of George Jones' "The Race Is On" - was also a massive seller, reaching #6 in March 1981, as was their next single "Stray Cat Strut", which just missed the Top 10 a month later.
They spent the rest of the year touring the UK, Europe and Australia - they also opened for the Rolling Stones on a well received US tour - and cut a second hit album "Gonna Ball", which yielded another hit single "You Don't Believe Me". Fortified by their UK and international successes they returned to the US in 1982 to mount a heads-on offensive. Bolstered by heavy MTV exposure, "Built For Speed" - a compilation drawn from their two UK albums - spent 15 weeks at #2 on the US album charts (kept off the top spot by Michael Jackson's Thriller), selling over 2 million copies, and they finally cracked the US singles chart when first "Rock This Town" and then "Stray Cat Strut" made the Top 10 in quick succession.
Their third album "Rant 'n' Rave With The Stray Cats" made both the US Top 10 and the UK Top 50 in 1983, span off hits like "She's Sexy and 17" (A US Top 5 hit), "I Won't Stand In Your Way", and "Look At That Cadillac", at which point the Cats looked set for a long, successful career, but they suddenly split when Setzer, visibly unhappy with their 'novelty' status, decided to go solo. It was shortlived, however, and following a couple of unsuccessful solo albums - his former colleagues had meanwhile teamed up briefly with former David Bowie axeman Earl Slick as Phantom, Rocker & Slick - Setzer reformed the Stray Cats in 1988, and they promptly charted with their 'comeback' album Blast Off.
By Roger Dopson, 1996
Anchorman's Stray Cats Site
Official Brian Setzer Website
Official Lee Rocker Website
13 Cats (Slim Jim Phantom's band)
Official Dave Edmunds Website