How the Stray Cats Revived Rockabilly

They rocked the ‘80s by looking to the past.

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When rock and roll was born, it could trace its genealogy back through a combination of country, folk, jazz, blues, and its cousin, rhythm and blues. In those early days of pompadours, stand-up basses, and a definitely pronounced twang, the rock offshoot called rockabilly put more emphasis on the country and R&B aspects and directly led to ascent of stars like Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins. The style took a backseat to other rock approaches by the start of the ’60s, but it wasn’t forgotten. In 1982, a trio of American musicians put their rockabilly rebellion right up front and had major success alongside the booming synthpop and New Wave acts. They were Stray Cats, and their debut album rocked this town 40 years ago this week.

Stray Cats formed in Massapequa, New York, in 1979. Guitarist/vocalist Brian Setzer, double bassist Leon Drucker aka Lee Rocker, and drummer James McDonnell, better known as Slim Jim Phantom, came up in the punk scene and were fans of the early rockabilly wave that produced Perkins, Presley, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, and others. Certain aspects of the punk rock that emerged in 1970s New York echoed in those 1950s rockers, like the leather jackets of The Ramones and the musical choices on songs like “(There’s Gonna Be a) Showdown” by the New York Dolls. Stray Cats combined the vibe and instrumentation of rockabilly and infused it with punk energy and feel; similarly, their look invoked the early days while also fitting into the then-current climate. The band started scoring gigs at CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City, the same venues that launched The Ramones, Blondie, and other NYC bands.


“Stray Cat Strut” (Uploaded to YouTube by Stray Cats)

When the band learned that there was a burgeoning new interest in rockabilly in the U.K., they decamped to England and began playing regularly. Stray Cats were soon at the forefront of a number of bands reviving the sound, like The Cramps and The Blasters. They earned fans among the punks and established rock stars alike.  Eventually, they attracted the attention of producer Dave Edmunds, and he offered to man the boards on their first U.K. album, 1981’s Stray Cats. The album was a hit in Europe and Australia, but follow-up Gonna Ball was less well-received. However, EMI America noticed the noise the band was making and signed them, compiling selected tracks from the two albums in their American debut, Built for Speed. Speed hit stores 40 years ago this month and took off.


“Rock This Town” (Uploaded to YouTube by Stray Cats)

“Stray Cat Strut,” which made it to #11 in the U.K., was chosen as the lead-off single in the States. It went all the way to #3. By August, “Rock This Town” was on the radio and it zoomed up the charts to #9. Built for Speed would cruise up to #2 on the Billboard LP and Tapes chart. The rockabilly revival that the Cats helped kick off in Britain had found a foothold in the U.S.


“(She’s) Sexy + 17” (Uploaded to YouTube by Stray Cats)

Buoyed by their success on both sides of the pond, the Cats reconvened to record Rant n’ Rave with Stray Cats; the band split recording between New York and London. Rant n’ Rave went to #14 in 1983, and the single “(She’s) Sexy + 17” went to #5 in the U.S. That turned out to be the band’s commercial peak in the U.S. While other rockabilly-influenced acts of the time like The Cramps and the Reverend Horton Heat would continue to thrive in alternative circles, the Cats split for two years. Setzer cited his own restlessness as the cause, though the group did reassemble in 1986 for Rock Therapy, a covers-heavy album. For the next six years, the band fell into a pattern of regrouping, making an album, and disassembling. By 1993, the group had split.


“Jump, Jive an’ Wail” (Uploaded to YouTube by BrianSetzerOrchVEVO)

For several years, the individual band members took on a variety of separate musical endeavors. Setzer had first formed a swing band, The Brian Setzer Orchestra, in 1990, but began to concentrate on it after the dissolution of the Cats. Ironically, he would help spearhead a second genre resurgence by becoming a key figure in the late ’90s swing revival. Setzer’s group joined a cluster of bands that included Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Royal Crown Revue, Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, and more that were inspired by the swing look and sound. Films like Swing Kids and Swingers (set in the L.A. subculture and featuring performances by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy) gave the acts wider attention. A Gap ad featuring Louis Prima’s original version of “Jump, Jive an’ Wail” drew tremendous notice just in time for Setzer’s cover of the tune to hit on his 1998 Orchestra album The Dirty Boogie. The album nabbed two Grammys.


“Three Time’s A Charm” (Uploaded to YouTube by Stray Cats)

In 2004, Stray Cats got back together for a five-year run that yielded a series of live albums. After several years apart, the trio regrouped in 2018 and has been together ever since. 2019 saw a new live album as well as 40, the band’s first new studio album since 1993. In 2020, the Cats released Rocked This Town: From LA to London, a live album featuring songs records in various cities on their tour.

Despite heading to England to get a kickstart, Stray Cats remain a quintessentially American band. They demonstrated musical ingenuity by building something new on the blueprint left by those that came before. In doing so, they’ve introduced their own contemporary tunes as well as musical heritage to new audiences for decades. And when they head their separate ways, they always seem to find their way back to that trio that they were as young men, leaning into the very things that they loved about the music in the first place. Wherever Stray Cats are at any given moment, you can be certain that town will be quite thoroughly rocked.

Featured image: Shutterstock

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Comments

  1. Late 80’s I saw them on tv in Holland. That’s it. The hair, the slap bass, the music. Fan ever since that day! Their first split up worried me a lot, I would never hear from them again. (no internet back then)
    Brian’s best song to me is ‘Chains around your heart’.

  2. I saw the Stray Cats for the first time on Top of the Pops in 1981, when I was 14 years old. My jaw literally hit the floor. I’d never seen anything so colorful, so different and so vibrant before, and their sound was simply magical. Absolute perfection. For several years I bleached my hair blonde and wore it in a big pompadour just like Brian. I got a Stray Cats tattoo just like Brian’s and I followed them from show to show. I love the Stray Cats, then and now. I still get that feeling when I watch their old videos, and I never regretted that tattoo.

  3. I saw the Cats open for the Stones at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta super nice venue (3,500 seats). I wouldn’t say they blew the Stones off the stage but they were so much more than an opening act.

  4. The Stray Cats were a blast to listen to in the 80’s and still are today. Their music has aged wonderfully or more accurately, not at all. They unfairly get overlooked as one of the great bands of the decade, not unlike Huey Lewis and the News, and the Fabulous Thunderbirds. I saw the T-Birds at the Palomino Club in the mid-80’s. Wonderful.

    The Cats formation in 1979 was perfect timing. They blended the vintage 50’s rockabilly with the 80’s, merging the two decades as so many had merged the older decade in the 70’s, only with Doo-Wop then. ’79 was also the year of Led Zep’s last studio album which had the unexpected and delightful rockabilly ‘Hot Dog’ on it. Robert Plant would do Doo-Wop 5 years later with the gorgeous ‘Sea of Love’ on the Honeydrippers departure album.

    I love the history of the group here, along with the wonderful links! It looks like Brian Setzer may have taken a page out of Plant’s playbook himself, straying into new territory, but returning to the fold at a later date. Very glad they’re active in the 21st century. Brian needs to be be given the proper credit for the late 90’s swing revival; the last hurrah for the 20th, except for the musical acts still around now.

    Covid’s been a real drag on absolutely everything; concerts too. The destructive domino effect just worsens with the cost of gas. I need another ELO and Styx (‘Crash of the Crown’) fix first, before any other groups, but at $7-$8 a gallon (more?), new waves of Covid, it’s really up in the air. No fun allowed ever under Poseidon Biden. Thanks Merry Joe! You’re doing such a bang-up job!

    I’m glad I saw The Smithereens in 2013 (when Pat DiNozio was still living) at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano. He was great to talk to ahead of time. Just another Beatles/Batman/Monkees/Dark Shadows kid, only from New Jersey. It was worth the long trip from Northwest L.A. A very underrated band, in a time period really not that long ago, but as far removed without a trace now as the 60’s.

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