STRAY CATS: Hot Rods, Harleys and Hormones…

StrayCatsRockinBonesLogo

StrayCats_Pin-UpWith an everlasting eagerness to learn about, and listen to, those early ‘ringin’ rumbles’ of Rock ‘n’ Roll music as we know it, during the dawn of my early teenage years, was both a rapturous blast of discovery and a healthy part of growing up, believe it or not. However, to some it may have been wrongly judged as a somewhat ‘unhealthy’ part of the process – smothering yourself in all that music your parent(s) grew up with, playing all that ‘scratched, cracklin’ vinyl’ which sounded like you were cooking your weekend fry-up: “Do you also play your records on your mother’s old gramophone?!” – the question of ridicule which was typically met with ‘gigglin’ girlie’ laughter by those who were witness to this uneducated slur on a well-educated pleasure. It was such ‘slurs’ that were made by the uneducated who preferred the then-current day mainstream music of chart hits more than anything else, and therefore couldn’t really understand the importance of the nostalgic overtones in my preferred choice of ‘sanity’. What these so-called modern ‘hipsters’ didn’t quite get was the fact that most of their pop/rock idols of the day were influenced by this bygone era too. Nevertheless, I was proud to be a Rockabilly/Rock ‘n’ Roll ‘Revivalist’ – carrying that torch, flying that flag, and collecting that music: Bill Haley & His Comets, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, Chuck BerryBuddy Holly, et al. The glorious singles and albums (and several cassettes) were alphabetically arranged in my vinyl storage cases.

In 1980 the emergence of ‘The Stray Cats’ – a trio of pioneering Rockabilly ‘Rebels’ – brought a welcome homage to the current rock revival scene in the UK and Europe. The Cats’ debut album and singles sat proudly amongst the established R ‘n’ R greats in my record collection, and I had become a part of a generation who were keen to discover further pop culture elements and influences with significant attention on American diners, jukeboxes, motorcycles, cars, Gretsch guitars and the obligatory bobby-soxer ‘chicks’ and James Dean worship – all deliciously wrapped up into a cultural festival of ‘cool’ for the 80’s! Even the popular US sitcom, “Happy Days” (then currently being screened across various regions of the UK) had already cashed in with a compilation of classic 50’s and 60’s hits from its story timeline entitled “Fonzie’s Favorites” (the concept was named for the show’s much-loved lead character, ‘Arthur “The Fonz” Fonzarelli’). Furthermore, the UK jumped on the nostalgia bandwagon by commissioning the revamp of the late ’50’s television favorite, Jack Good‘s “Oh Boy!” – the first British TV all music series. Shortly thereafter, this revamped format was continued with a new series entitled, “Let’s Rock”.

The correct timing of the place and cultural trends all combined to assist the rockabilly exploits of this ‘greaser’ trio having then-recently left the US in order to execute a worthwhile itinerary on UK shores. It may have felt like a decision made of the utmost premature nature for their developing legion of fans around Long Island, New York, especially having not released any form of wax ‘keepsakes’ so that they could purchase something to immediately remember them by. However, the band, consisting of Brian Setzer“strummin’ ‘n’ croonin'” (lead guitar & vocals), Lee Rocker“slappin’ ‘n’ howlin'” (Double-bass & vocals) and ‘Slim’ Jim Phantom“bangin’ n’ yellin'” (drums & vocals), embarked upon the dawn of this new era with unyielding aplomb. The time was ripe in Britain and it embraced the boys’ dedication in delivering their own interpretation of the early Sun Records sound intermingled with blues orientations whilst maintaining their own creative brilliance in songwriting and musicianship. Here was a hard-working band who vented all their passions firmly into something they lived and breathed and in the process developed their own individual nuances in production. They looked dangerous and played even more dangerously – it was raucous, riotous Rockabilly, or early Rock ‘n’ Roll, if you will. Setzer’s guitar solos added a flavour of Scotty Moore, Les Paul and Cliff Gallup with some aggressive textural flourishes sounding very much derived from a Jimmy Page-like influence. The chart sales and placings were equivocally good and bad for such an excellent output of material which eventually infused some Jazz rhythms with saxophone and keyboards, but still nurtured its rockabilly raucousness…

Stray Cats logos

Consequently, the band’s sound and image combined to display another major ingredient of appeal: post-Punk sensibilities. It’s there in the tattoos and the ear-rings – just two of the elements grabbing designs on the attitude. It’s also laced throughout their rockabilly sound – Brian’s growling vocal that intermittently duels with the growling riff of his guitar solo. The camaraderie of hollerin’ and screamin’. It’s a revolution all itself and one which was taking flight. These guys conveyed an image of an ‘hard shell’ exterior at the next available opportunity through their performance repertoire, but there’s a softer interior that’s very accessible – a defining landscape of innocent elements of an earlier time when rock was young(er). But, here was a band with an additional mix of ‘crudeness’ that created a further ambiguity about their intentions. If they had been formed at any earlier juncture in the 70’s and subsequently toured the UK, they most probably would have been defined under the category of Proto-punk – the same distinguished characteristic that Marc Bolan and T.Rex had been identified with leading up to Marc’s tragic and untimely death during the reign of the Punk rock revolution in 1977. Nevertheless, in late 1980 and early 1981 the rockabilly train began to rumble on ahead at full steam and with Dave Edmunds as the engine driver steering production everyone fell in love with the debut of the Stray Cats

‘ROCK THIS TOWN’:

It’s a bittersweet mystery that befalls the release of their follow-up album in late 1981: “Gonna Ball”. The rumours circulated that they were producing this next recording by themselves and were ready to test run a few compositions outwith their established formula and repertoire. However, rockabilly, r n’ b, blues rock – it was still at the heart, the whole core components hadn’t been stripped away – they were still ever-present. What is delivered in this 2nd album is a mix of inspired performances which also introduced their work within a couple of other genres which are not necessarily out of context with their own brand of music. This aspect of the album illustrates how the guys are intuitive enough to realise the diversity of their talents and the necessary development required with each new phase of musical presentation. It shouldn’t have come as too much of a ‘taxing’ surprise that the band were ready to introduce alternative styles into their repertoire:  “Wild Saxaphone“, at the close of Side 2 on their debut album, hinted at new musical prospects for the future. Furthermore, some of the styles in the follow-up work were to be developed in later years in order to assist each individual player’s glorious path of destiny. Incidentally, a selection of singles were also waxed from the ‘Gonna Ball’ album and yet to no avail. Is it any wonder they re-grouped, re-organised and re-located – back to their roots in New York…?!

The return home was a triumph and justice prevailed. At the start of the summer of 1982, EMI America released “Built For Speed” which was a compilation of several tracks from their first two UK album releases. This album hit the No.2 spot on Billboard’s Pop Album chart. Plus, the singles “Rock This Town” and “Stray Cat Strut” broke the Top 5 on Billboard and it goes without saying that the US had wholeheartedly welcomed their ‘sons of rockabilly’ back with open arms. The following here is an interview with the guys hosted by Dick Clark on ‘American Bandstand’ in late 1982. It’s interesting to note how they obviously still have some affection for British shores despite the abrupt lack of success over there with their follow-up album and singles. However, take note also that they were scheduled to go back to England in 1983 to record their next album (“Rant N’ Rave…”) with Dave Edmunds at the producing helm once again:

“Rant N’ Rave with the Stray Cats” was an album that maintained their 50’s rockabilly style and served as another worthwhile showcase, not only for a great ensemble trio, but as individual artists. It should be deemed as another classic of its genre, albeit an underrated one as it wasn’t as commercially successful as their US debut album and only achieved positions of 14 and 27 on Billboard’s album charts. The single, “(She’s) Sexy + 17” achieved a high of No.5. Success was still only moderate across the Atlantic but their ‘cult’ status was retained sporadically. This would prove to be the case throughout the Stray Cats’ tenure of musical productivity from 1980 – 84, 1986 – 93 and finally 2004 – 09. I still feel it’s a travesty that their work hasn’t been wholly recognised throughout the years, and in summary I can only cite the ever-changing commercial trends – on both sides of the Atlantic – to be the main sources of reason behind this matter. In complete contrast, the likes of The Rolling Stones, The Who and Led Zeppelin all championed the talent and musical output (both studio and live) of the Stray Cats for years especially during their first period of  creating ‘classic’ genre-defining albums. As you read on and peruse you will discover such defining testimony to the creative processes and outcomes of a truly great band…

‘DRINK THAT BOTTLE DOWN’:
The following depicts my listening odyssey of the first time I actually listened to the ‘B’ side of the Cats’ hit single, “Stray Cat Strut”. The title of the song is “Drink That Bottle Down” and it was co-written by all three members of the band. Furthermore it’s an astonishing live performance captured during their UK tour of early, 1981. The city of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in the North East of England plays venue host here. Plus, as an extra bonus at the end of this article you’ll find another live performance of the song which is also worth a watch/listen because of its alternative delivery and presentation. Now, I’m almost certain that a studio version of this song was never committed to record; the spontaneous appeal of a live showcase for the song allowed for endless possibilities of execution. For the moment, here’s the performance that inspired a ‘teenage’ listening odyssey for myself and you can read that which precedes the video here. I hope you enjoy the reflections of my listening journey…

Drink That Bottle Down Stray Cats‘Stray Cat Strut’ single with a zoom-in on “D.T.B.D.” on back cover

“At the time no words could even attempt to describe the moment that followed when I first flipped over the ‘A’ side of ‘Stray Cat Strut’ to encounter the haunting rawness of “Drink That Bottle Down” – a live execution dripping in an earthy blues of inconsolable desperation. It’s all here and it was the finest piece of modern-day blues rock that seemed to filter from a primitive musicality of a bygone era. The spine shivered and the prickly hairs spiked to attention – it was chilling…but oh so frighteningly beautiful. From Brian’s weaving solo lead-in hook to the shock-surprise discovery of ‘bassman’ Lee delivering the raucous lead vocal (I hadn’t read the back of the single cover’s vocal credits at that point)…from the ever-reliable time-keeping ‘thud’ of Slim Jim’s drums to Brian’s heartfelt harmony-part on the chorus ‘line’ which soothingly descends upon Lee’s vocal like the slow pouring of a golden vintage. “Oh, play the blues, Brian!” – Lee’s bellowing encouragement is raging on approach to the first instrumental solo and Brian and the Gretsch consummate that growling passion. The showcase is now aflame and further ignited to the next level: the ambience succumbs to the piercing sound of her electrifying ‘lover’. This was soooo ‘dirty’. I felt as though I shouldn’t really have been listening. In a sense I was strangely relieved the first solo segued back into Lee’s vocal at the next appropriate segment. But, the ‘growl’ of the Gretsch was still biting, fighting – still frightening. It was very overwhelming…and now I feel so vulnerable to the point of these feelings having been ‘erotically’ charged by this…this…guitar ‘seduction’…it being so ‘beautifully’ belligerent…if I played it that way my teeth would be chipped, my lips bloodied, my…my passions f…fingering that fretboard – a musical ‘highway’ of dishonourable ‘delight’…Brian’s second solo is ablaze whilst the drums and cymbals became an intense thunder and lightning of erratic ‘heartbeats’ in tandem with a ‘filthy’ fury – an amplified inferno of furious musical combustion. Lee’s ‘cat’ screech is one of animal exhilaration as the lions roar their approval. The crashing sounds began to dissolve..my musical ‘hormones’ now primed…more…more…more…”

Now, press ‘Play’ below and read the above again:

Click on the cat logo to check out
the various releases of the
“Stray Cat Strut” 7″ single:

stray-cats-logo

– THE 3 ORIGINAL CLASSIC UK ALBUMS (1981 – 1983) –

‘STRAY CATS’ (1981):
Released at the same time as new single, “Rock This Town” which achieved the same Top Ten status (No. 9) in early ’81 as “Runaway Boys” had in late 1980. The debut album here simply drops “The” from their title and is an all-out attack on the musical landscape the boys so artfully revel in and consequently deliver in a passionate force of nostalgia. The next single taken from the album – the anthemic blues of “Stray Cat Strut” – was released in April and just missed the Top Ten by one placing. The LP as a whole did them and Dave Edmunds (Co-Producer) proud hitting the No. 6 spot on the UK’s album chart. Sidenote: When ‘The Stray Cats’ resurgence began in the US in 1982 the previous UK singles of “Rock This Town” and “Stray Cat Strut” both went Top 10 and Top 5 respectively across Billboard’s Pop and Mainstream charts. “Stray Cats” is one of my most favourite Rockabilly/Rock ‘n’ Roll albums of all-time. It epitomises a great homage to 50’s culture and its influential elements. It is also a ‘modern voice’ for political controversies: “Storm The Embassy” – the first Rock ‘n’ Roll song I’ve heard intermingled with then-current ‘new wave’ undertones equipped with an expletive to boot! But everything what the Stray Cats wanted to be is displayed on this album: throbbing and frenetic double-bass patterns, catchy guitar hooks and breathtaking solos, squealin’ and howlin’ cries of protest and gratification taken to another level with some fine drum fills and rhythms. It’s all just too good as a whole to really single out individually, but the hit song, “Stray Cat Strut” is a finely-tuned masterclass in modern-day blues perfection…

Stray Cats

‘GONNA BALL’ (1981):
The follow-up to their debut album released later that same year is a great-sounding quality masterpiece which should be appreciated and enjoyed without the listener casting any unfair discrepancies. It’s maybe not as raw and frenetically paced as the previous classic, but the Rockabilly still rings true and the blues still cuts through every groove! However, if the boys appear more commercially polished and refined then it was probably a conscious effort to diversify with another genre or two in order to further expand the potentially unlimited appeal of their combined talents: Lee gets his own solo, Brian delivers an instrumental and a half while Slim Jim keeps on bangin’ away! It’s the next level up and it’s oh so good once you reach up there to embrace its ‘heights’! Very underestimated, therefore very underrated, consequently a lost classic – ‘Gonna Ball’ sings its own ‘song’ and just look at that beautiful cover! Not committing to highlight any individual performances simply because its all good and each track deserves its own acclaimed merit in adding to the whole concept of the production. You’re about to discover something that you knew they were capable of all along, and something that the British regret not embracing at the time due to the ambiguity of in-house ‘hearsay’. It should really be classed as the Stray Cats’ ‘Holy Grail’…

Stray Cats - Gonna Ball

‘RANT N’ RAVE WITH THE STRAY CATS’ (1983):
The band’s third album release in the UK but it’s the first one released on a global scale. Unfortunately, it was looking to be the end of the band’s immediate rockabilly reign in Britain and parts of Europe as the album did not fare very well at all probably due to an influx of ‘New Wave’ and novelty pop that was dominating the music scene at the time. However, ‘The Stray Cats’ had already begun to experience a career resurgence on their home patch in the States with a newfound chart reign. “Rant n’ Rave” soared into the Top 20 on Billboard, and whilst not hitting the Top 5 heights of the previous ‘Built For Speed’, the album’s 1st single “(She’s) Sexy + 17” managed to parallel the placing in the Billboard singles charts. The guitar solos with their pulsating rockabilly textures once again evoke images of 1950’s rock ‘n ‘roll movies and diners with a recurring high school drop-out or ‘I hate school’ theme. A ‘Harley’ sound effect starts up the ‘engine’ which segues into “Rebels Rule” – a nod to Eddie Cochran’s narrative in his ‘Summertime Blues’. A further use of the Sax and keyboards are prominent throughout the album even though a rawness returns to the groove. A radio tuner sound effect briefly ignites the Rockabilly boogie of “Something’s Wrong With My Radio”. “I Won’t Stand in Your Way”: the beautiful ‘soft one’ of the album and once again Brian delivers with the type of rock ‘n’ roll ballad that he excels in writing and arranging. Complete with doo-wops, and do-wahs, and a wonderful blues guitar that will tighten your heart strings. A Masterpiece of production with some great pickin’ solos overall on this wax…

Rant n Rave with The Stray Cats

‘THE RACE IS ON’ (1981):
During his producing tenure with the Stray Cats, Dave Edmunds stepped up to the microphone as lead vocalist with the trio backing him for his interpretation of the George Jones 60’s classic, ‘The Race Is On’. It was featured on Dave’s album, “Twangin'” and became a Top 40 hit single in the UK charts. Here’s a special interview with the guys who discuss their collaboration with Dave followed by the promo video of ‘The Race Is On’:

‘CROSS THAT BRIDGE’ (1981):
As an extra bonus in this article we’ve included a rare performance of the ultra rare ‘Cross That Bridge’ – the single ‘B’ side to ‘You Don’t Believe Me’. The song was actually included on the Japanese release of the ‘Gonna Ball’ album:

‘LUCKY CHARM (Ooh Wee Suzy)’ (1983):
As another extra bonus in this article we’ve included here the ‘B’ side to ‘Look At That Cadillac’ single taken from the ‘Rant N’ Rave…’ album. The song was also included on the Japanese version of the album:

‘DRINK THAT BOTTLE DOWN’ (1981) – ‘Rockpalast’:
Another version of the great ‘Drink That Bottle Down’. This is from the German television show called “Rockpalast”. Once again, it’s a fabulous ‘blues’ team effort from the band and it’s great to have access to such a rare and brilliant performance. Enjoy:

Click on the cat logo to check out
the theory behind the potential for a
3-album reissue with extra tracks:

stray-cats-logo

If you’re looking to put the albums back on your shelf, then each 1 has been released as part of a special 3-CD set available at the links below:

Stray Cats 3 album classics

AMAZON UK
AMAZON US

Cosmic Dwellings do not own the copyright to the image/likeness/music/videos of The Stray Cats. The written content and style in this not-for-profit article is owned by this blog website. All Rights Reserved. Copyright © 2014 Cosmic Dwellings.
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About Cosmic Dwellings

'Cosmic Dwellings' is a social media network consisting of a fine mix of retro rock and pop music, a radio drama production, an ebook serial and several works of poetry and lyrical prose.
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One Response to STRAY CATS: Hot Rods, Harleys and Hormones…

  1. Pingback: ‘SHAKY’ and THE SUNSETS: Legends in the ‘Rockhouse’ | ♫ COSMIC DWELLINGS ♫

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