“We’re gonna rock this town,
Rock it inside out,
We’re gonna rock this town,
Make ‘em scream and shout.”
In the 80s, musical styles were exploring strange new territory, with the inclusion of synthesizers and drum machines adding a mechanical texture and giving a glimpse into the future. But one band in particular, decided to look back rather than forward, going to their roots to forge a retro sound that harkened back to a simpler time in music, the rockabilly era of Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran and the famous Sun sessions of Elvis Presley. With plenty of pomade in their hair, flipped up collars, and a simple instrumentation, The Stray Cats were a welcome blast from the past.
Three young and talented musicians, Brian Setzer, Jim Phantom and Lee Rocker, cut their teeth in their home territory of Long Island, New York, in the late 70s but found the audience response to be somewhat lukewarm to their return to the roots of rock and roll. So they packed up their gear and headed to the more appreciative location of London, where rockabilly was still a beloved genre. With a sound reminiscent of Bill Haley and the Comets, coupled with high-energy performances, they captured the ear of producer Dave Edmunds and soon after, released their first album in the UK in 1991, simply called Stray Cats. And for their efforts, they landed three hits, “Rock This Town,” “Runaway Boys” and “Stray Cat Strut.” Not long after, they were the opening act for the touring Rolling Stones and the rest of the world began to take notice of the trio.
The returned to the States in 1982, inked a deal with EMI America, and released the album, Built For Speed, which featured both “Stray Cat Strut” and Rock This Town.” Attuned to the emerging popularity of a new station called MTV, they released videos of both songs, both of which showed off the band dressed to the hilt in retro 50s attire, the look accentuated by their prominent, pomade-filled pompadour hair. The album sold 2 million units and upon it’s success, they released their second offering, Rant N’ Rave with the Stray Cats in 1983. The album soon produced another Top-10 hit for the group, “She’s Sexy + 17.” Another song, the smooth harmony-filled ballad, “I Won’t Stand In Your Way” proved to be another radio favorite. And, in the midst of all of the growing popularity and recognition, The Stray Cats quietly called it quits. Well, sort of.
Guitarist Brian Setzer embarked on a solo career, as well as playing with Stevie Nicks and Led Zeppelin vocalist Robert Plant in his new band, The Honeydrippers. Meanwhile Jim Phantom and Lee Rocker hooked up with noted hired-gun guitarist Earl Slick to form Phantom, Rocker and Slick. Both endeavors were somewhat short-lived, however, and by 1986, The Stray Cats had reformed. They recorded a quartet of lukewarm-received albums, Rock Therapy, Blast Off, Let’s Go Faster and Original Cool (consisting entirely of cover material) and then promptly disbanded again.
Setzer formed the Brian Setzer Orchestra, which highlighted his affection for the jazz/swing era and produced the hit single, “Jump, Jive, An’ Wail” and it seemed that the days of The Stray Cats were but a memory. But time has a funny way of making one long for the past and, in 2004, the band reunited after being apart for twelve years, embarking on a month-long European Tour. They released a live album called Rumble in Brixton, which also included a new studio track called “Mystery Train Kept A Rollin.’” And in 2007, they took to the road with ZZ Top and The Pretenders, giving American audiences another glimpse of the loveable rockers reminiscent of a bygone era – where simple melodies, walking stand-up bass lines and greased-up hair reigned supreme.
If you are a fan of this decidedly retro trio, we welcome all of your cool Stray Cats memories in our comments section.