The Cats Stray
The Cats Stray
What began as a high school dropout, his brother, and some guy on stand-up bass playing next to the pool table in the back of a corner bar, turned into the rockabilly revival of the 1980s. The Stray Cats single-handedly brought back a style of music the heyday of which had ended before the bands’ members were toddlers. The resurgence of this early form of rock and roll saw girls borrowing their mothers’ poodle skirts and boys slicking back their hair in greasy pompadours, doing the Stray Cat Strut in a James Dean rebel slouch—all because of a guitar, a bass, a snare drum, and a rockin’ rockabilly ethic.
The high school dropout was Brian Setzer; the brother and other guy were the first of a constantly rotating roster of musicians that eventually ended with Jim McDonnel, also known as Slim Jim Phantom, and Leon Drucker, calling himself Lee Rocker. Setzer started pestering his parents for a guitar at the age of six—when he discovered the Beatles in their record collection. At 14 he’d begun modeling himself after a picture of rockabilly original Eddie Cochran; he cut his hair
Members include Slim Jim Phantom (born Jim McDonnel, March 20, 1961, in Brooklyn, NY), drums; Lee Rocker (born Leon Drucker in 1961 in New York; son of Stanley Drucker [a clarinetist]), string bass; and Brian Setzer (born April 10, 1959, in Massapequa, NY), vocals, guitar.
Band formed as the Tom Cats in Massapequa, NY, c. 1978; signed with Arista/UK, 1980; released single “Runaway Boys,” 1980; signed with EMI in U.S. and released Built for Speed, 1982; disbanded, 1984; recorded and performed sporadically, late 1980s-early 1990s, while bandmembers pursued solo work.
Selected awards: Platinum records for Built for Speed and Rant ‘N Rave With the Stray Cats.
short, greased it back, and donned T-shirts with rolled-up sleeves, tucked into baggy cuffed pants, and loafers. Phantom also started out with a love of the Beatles, while Rocker’s interest in music began more out of rebellion against his years of classical cello instruction. (He is the son of Stanley Drucker, longtime first clarinetist with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.) What brought the trio together was a dedication to simple, old-fashioned rock and roll.
Rockabilly was born in 1954, in Sam Phillips’s Memphis-based Sun Studios, where Elvis Presley, guitarist Scotty Moore, and bassist Bill Black invented a rocking hillbilly blues. Setzer explained these beginnings to Guitar Player’s Jas Obrecht as “basically a country guitarist trying to play rock and roll guitar, which is a mixing of black blues and white country... [it] leans towards the hillbilly side of rock and roll.” Soon now-legendary performers like Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent, and Cochran were spreading the rockabilly gospel. But the sound virtually died out by the end of the 1950s. Still, bands like the Beatles and Creedence Clearwater Revival kept the rockabilly spirit going, with others picking it up along the way, because, as Rolling Stone’s Kurt Loder put it, “Whenever rock seems played out and ready for pasture, rockabilly is always there to remind a new generation of the music’s still-marvelous possibilities.”
At 16, calling himself the Rockabilly Rebel, Setzer started singing and playing guitar at “old man” bars on the south shore of Long Island, New York. When he had garnered a small following, he suggested to one of the bar owners that his brother be allowed to play drums for an extra $25. With an acquaintance on bass, this became the first incarnation of the Stray Cats. When Phantom and Rocker started showing up regularly—greased, eager, and versed in drums and bass, respectively—the Stray Cats became a solid threesome, though then they were called the Tom Cats. The stages they played were so small that they couldn’t accommodate a complete drum set. Phantom compensated by using just two drums—base and snare—and a cymbal. Standing up behind the drums allowed him to save space and seem more a part of the band; the simple setup stuck and became a Stray Cats trademark.
Alas, disco was the rage at the time and folks in their white suits and spandex didn’t know what to make of the hard-rockin’ hepcats. One night in 1980, while Setzer was moonlighting with the new wave band the Bloodless Pharaohs in a New York City bar, he met Tony Bidgood, a British bartender. Bidgood, a rocker himself, told Setzer that back in England rockabilly had never died. The boys promptly sold all their belongings and moved to London, with Bidgood in tow as manager. Sources vary as to whether the band changed their name before or after the London move, but it was around this time that they became the Stray Cats, spending their days knocking on doors in search of work and sleeping in all-night-movie theaters or in Hyde Park. Once they got their first gig, jobs began to pile up, with record companies falling in line right behind them. Because they “seemed nice,” the Cats were signed to the Arista label. Other musicians started to catch their shows, among them the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, and musician and producer Dave Edmunds. Edmunds took the boys under his wing, worrying that a producer with too modern a sensibility would get his hands on the Cats and dilute their sound.
Having dodged that bullet, the sound demonstrated on their debut, The Stray Cats, was pure rockabilly, and Europe ate it up. The first single, “Runaway Boys,” broke into the British Top Ten in December of 1980. Two more, “Stray Cat Strut” and “Rock This Town,” became hits the next year, and the album leapt into the Top Ten. Concerts on the continent spread the band’s fame, and a two-week stint in Japan—where it seemed rockabilly fever had never abated—inspired a reaction not seen since the days of Beatlemania. The Rolling Stones honored the Cats by inviting them to open for a handful of shows during the Stones’ 1981 North American tour, exposure from which would make the band a big import seller in the States. In the meantime, the international whirlwind blew the boys to Montserrat, West Indies, to record their second album.
The isolated tropical island, it turned out, did not lend itself to rockabilly recording. The Cats cut Gonna Ball as fast as possible just to get out of the Caribbean, which perhaps had something to do with the record’s lackluster reception. Still, the trio remained headliners in Europe and in the spring of 1981, flew home for the Stones dates and a small U.S. tour of their own. The big break on their home turf came when the Cats gave a remarkable performance on ABC-TV’s short-lived Fridays. The ensuing sensation won them a domestic recording contract, with EMI Records, which in turn led to the release of Built for Speed, a compilation of songs from their two British albums, plus the title track. “Rock This Town,” the Cats’ first U.S. single, reached the Top Ten, and the album—spurred on by heavy MTV exposure and an intensive U.S. tour—sold steadily, also landing in the Top Ten; by January of 1983, Built for Speed had been on the Billboard charts for 30 weeks and had sold over two million copies.
The continued prominence of Built for Speed delayed the release of the next U.S. album, Rant ‘N Rave With the Stray Cats, until May of 1983, but it hit fans with a vengeance, buoyed by the irresistible swing of “Sexy and Seventeen.” Reviewers of both U.S. albums seemed to fall into two camps: one skeptically viewing the Stray Cats as decent-enough rockabilly practitioners trying to breath life into a tired cliché, and the other hailing the trio as adherents to a classic form that they had made their own with a clever and original modern approach. Regardless, the Cats were a huge musical force until September of 1984 when, quite suddenly, Brian Setzer pulled the plug.
Rolling Stone’s Michael Goldberg asked the guitarist and songwriter why, to which Setzer replied, “When I saw string basses and bowling shirts in the windows at Macy’s, I thought, ’Well, it was nice while it lasted.’... I didn’t think I had anything else to say in that genre.... This way people will have a good memory of the Cats.” But Goldberg hinted that the breakup had more to do with Setzer’s irritation with the rock-star attitudes and lifestyles of his bandmates.
Phantom and Rocker went on to record a couple of rockabilly albums with journeyman guitarist Earl Slick as Phantom, Rocker, and Slick. Setzer released two solo albums, 1986’s Knife Feels Like Justice and 1988’s Live Nude Guitars, and portrayed one of his idols, Eddie Cochran, in the hit film La Bamba. He received critical praise for his musicianship and the maturation of his now-varied style, but the pull of rockabilly and a continuing bond to his fellow former Cats would not keep him from his roots for long. In 1986 the Stray Cats reunited for Rock Therapy, which they recorded and mixed in a week. They got together again, in 1988, for Blast Off and, in 1992, for Choo Choo Hot Fish, touring sporadically when they weren’t working on an assortment of solo projects.
Although fans seemed happy to see the Cats back after what the boys had begun calling their hiatus, critics were not as positive. In his Rolling Stone review of Blast Off, Jimmy Guterman echoed others in the rock press, saying, “[This reunion album] reintroduces the Long Island trio as rockabilly revivalists supreme, which both makes sense and stifles the group.” After seeing what they could do beyond rockabilly, critics appeared disappointed that the Cats had not developed further stylistically. More than one reviewer suggested that despite their undeniable skill, with nothing new, they risked becoming just a rockabilly version of the 1950s nostalgia group Sha Na Na.
As the 1990s wore on, the Stray Cats continued to tour and record together, sometimes parting for prolonged periods, as was the case when Setzer took on his rockabilly big-band project, The Brian Setzer Orchestra, which resulted in a 1994 release. Perhaps the ultimate answer to the question of their future as an integrated entity could be found in one of their famed rebellious rants, “How long do you wanna live anyway?”
Stray Cats (includes “Runaway Boys,” “Stray Cat Strut,” and “Rock This Town”), Arista/UK, 1980.
Gonna Ball, Arista/UK, 1981.
Built for Speed, EMI, 1982.
Rant ‘N Rave With the Stray Cats (includes “Sexy and Seventeen”), EMI, 1983.
Rock Therapy, 1986.
Blast Off, EMI, 1988.
Rock This Town: Best of the Stray Cats, EMI, 1990.
Choo Choo Hot Fish, Great Pyramid/JRS/BMG, 1992.
Original Cool, Griffin Music, 1993.
Live: Tear It Up, Receiver, 1993.
Solo albums by Brian Setzer
Knife Feels Like Justice, 1986.
Live Nude Guitars, 1988.
Brian Setzer Orchestra, Hollywood Records, 1994.
BAM, February 11, 1994.
Billboard, August 28, 1982; October 2, 1982; May 19, 1984; June 22, 1985; July 31, 1993.
Creem, January 1983; December 1983.
Guitar Player, September 1983; February 1993; October 1993.
Melody Maker, February 21, 1981; October 3, 1981; November 7, 1981; March 14, 1981; January 2, 1982; May 29, 1982; September 3, 1983; September 10, 1983; October 1, 1983; November 10, 1984; February 4, 1989; March 11, 1989; April 1, 1989; June 23, 1990.
Musician, October 1982; November 1983; January 1985; June 1989.
Pulse!, September 1993; December 1993.
Record, January 1984.
Rolling Stone, September 30, 1982; November 11, 1982; March 3, 1983; October 13, 1983; December 22, 1983; April 10, 1986; September 11, 1986; May 18, 1989.
Trouser Press, April 1982; October 1982; December 1983; February 1984.
Variety, November 4, 1981; October 13, 1982.
Village Voice, August 3, 1982; November 15, 1983.
Additional information for this profile was provided by Levine/Schneider Public Relations, 1992.