"Here's a little song I wrote in my garage in Massapequa," Brian Setzer told the highly-enthused British audience, as the Stray Cats went into one of their earliest and best-known tunes, Stray Cat Strut. It made little difference, of course, if even a single one of those English fans had the foggiest idea where these Stray Cats came from (aside from "the States"), or that Setzer was referring to his little hometown on New York's Long Island. What mattered was that the Stray Cats were cool, man, and they loved their sound in England, just as they loved their snazzy stage clothes and exaggerated, pouffed-out pompadours. Before long, everybody would be into the Stray Cats, expert rockabilly revivalists who knew a thing or two about how to rock, and how to entertain. It's almost hard to believe that Brian Setter has been in the music business for 20 years now, but it's true. It was 1979 when Brian — a talented young (barely 20) guitar player and singer — joined with two friends, bass player Lee Rocker and drummer "Slim" Jim Phantom, to form the Stray Cats. Right before that, Brian and his brother had been in a New York City punk band called The Bloodless Pharoahs, while Slim Jim (real name James McDonnell) and Lee (real name Leon Drucker) had played in various blues bands and rock groups in the New York area. (Lee, a classically-trained cello player, was the son of Stanley Drucker, first clarinetist with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.) Punk was all the rage, but just as former Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious crashed and burned at the Chelsea Hotel, the three budding rockers decided to make an about-face and take their music in another direction altogether. First as The Tomcats and then as the Stray Cats, Brian (who'd been playing guitar since age eight), Jim and Lee chose to put their talents to work in a traditional rock 'n roll vein, mining the rich legacy of Fifties and early-Sixties roots rock created by the likes of Elvis Presley, Scotty Moore, Johnny Cash, Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent (look for the Stray Cats original Gene And Eddie), Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry and Carl Perkins.
Surely by design, the Stray Cats were "retro"- but this was damn good retro. Anybody with ears could hear that. And their timing could hardly have been better. Whether or not it was an entirely conscious decision, the band was mod-eled after the rock 'n roll trio of the mid-Fifties, which was Johnny and Dorsey Burnette, and Paul Burlison on electric lead guitar. Lee played an upright bass like Dorsey's, but the main difference was having a drummer (Slim Jim's bare-bones "kit" consisting of one snare and one cymbal) rather than a second guitar. But even the purists had to later admit that the Stray Cats' version of Johnny Burnette's Baby Blue Eyes was terrific.
In 1980, encouraged by their manager of the time, Tony Bidgood, and their friends in the group The Rockats, Brian, Jim and Lee came to the conclusion that they would have a better shot at making it if they moved to England. ("The boys pulled a Jimi Hendrix by heading to Britain" was how CREEM magazine later described it.( "In England, that stuff [rockabilly] never went away," Slim Jim told GOLDMINE [publication]. "School kids knew who Gene Vincent was and Eddie Cochran. Back here you had to search it out, and that always confused us. In New York, they thought we were from Mars, they had no way to relate to us at all." They made the move across the pond, getting some small gigs around London at first. They were barely making it, living like real stray cats, scrounging for food and a place to sleep. A significant break came in September when the Stray Cats were invited to open the show for Elvis Costello & The Attractions at the Rainbow Theatre. But a musician who did appreciate what they were doing, who loved those same types of early roots music, was Welsh-born guitarist Dave Edmunds. Edmunds, signed at that time to the F-Beat label, a U.K. subsidiary of Arista Records, had some pull in the business aside from being a fine player and producer, and one who also recognized that Setzer "was actually a good guitar player, not just a thrasher, he actually had integrity." Edmunds literally begged the Stray Cats to allow him to be their producer ("before someone else fucks it up for you...," he told them(. In a matter of months Edmunds would produce the first official Stray Cats recordings, released on Arista in Europe as the STRAY CATS album in 1981. Things were looking up, but Brian, Jim and Lee had to fend off their share of criticism, no small part of it from other musicians. "During the early days of the rockabilly thing," Brian told PULSE! [publication] in 1998, "everybody was dissin' each other. Everybody was saying nasty shit about each other..." "We went to his house and he had a whole pub in his basement...so we thought he was the coolest," Slim Jim told GOLDMINE. "We looked at his records and he had, like...the same records we had. It was just the right thing, he really knew what he was doing." The earliest recording on this Brian Setzer collection is Rock This Town, a Setzer tune that was among the ones Edmunds produced. It went to #9 in the UK, as did their first single, Runaway Boys. Both songs were later re-released as part of the BUILT FOR SPEED LP after the Stray Cats had signed with EMI America.
Rock This Town eventually cracked the U.S. Top 10 as well, and their biggest hit, Stray Cat Strut (also produced by Edmunds), made it to #3 in U.S. singles action. (Years later, Setzer would record new versions of Rock This Town and another song from BUILT FOR SPEED, Rumble In Brighton, with big band arrangements.) "Arista [U.S.] could have had us for relatively nothing," Setzer told Susan Smallwood, in an article for GOLDMINE. "They didn't think we'd do anything in the States. So me and Lee came back and finally talked Gary Gersh at EMI into signing us." Something strange was afoot in 1981, as those first few Stray Cats records started to happen. Suddenly there was a somewhat deranged-looking guy appearing on television who had an uncanny resemblance to The Who's Pete Townshend (actually, it was Pete Townshend) shouting, "I want my MTV!" In less than a year, everyone seemed to want his or her MTV, and the Stray Cats benefitted greatly from their exposure via this new music industry promotional tool. "I think when MTV started," Slim Jim told Smallwood, "they had, like, 12 videos and two of them were ours, so they just played them over and over." Meanwhile, as Arista released a second Stray Cats album in Europe — GONNA BALL - the band was invited to go on tour with The Rolling Stones. Since this was The Stones' TATTOO You tour, maybe Mick was impressed with the ink that Brian and Jim sported on their arms. (The Stones had seen Brian, Jim and Lee the year before playing the London clubs, and so had numerous other veteran English rock stars, including Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant, a Gene Vincent fanatic.) In any case, with the hit singles, the constant MTV appearances, plus opening for The Stones, by 1982 there was no doubt that the Stray Cats had made it. "That's my favorite time period," Brian remarked to GOLDMINE. "We were a rockabilly band, with an edge. We had our rock edge on the rockabilly, tried to update it and modernize it, and succeeded in a lot of places." Also included on this CD from that era is a late '82 live Stray Cats performance of Runaway Boys (with the boys in a celebratory mood due to their runaway success), and the a cappella version of I Won't Stand In Your Way. The latter served as the B-side of the single of the same name, an original Setzer ballad aided by the smooth stylings of vocal group Fourteen Karat Soul.
The momentum of the Stray Cats carried into 1983, as they enjoyed another big hit (U.S. #5) with (She's) Sexy + 17, which also made the U.K. Top 30. The inclusion of this song —a masterful job by Edmunds in using echo and in capturing Brian's guitar tremolo —is appropriate not only for the record's deserved popularity, but for the fact that it is virtually a Setzer love letter to the infectious spirit of classic rockabilly. After that these cool cats cooled a bit, and were not heard from for awhile after their RANT 'N RAVE album, once again produced by Edmunds, who would return to assist the re-formed Stray Cats again in the late '80s (for the BLAST OFF album) and early '90s. "There was a crooked lawyer, accountant and manager, all in cahoots," Brian recalled about the early '80s period in a PULSE! interview. They took everything from the Stray Cats' early days, and only left me the songs I wrote." Setzer claimed that the band, whose live performances overseas have been extensively bootlegged, ended up making absolutely nothing from all the "legit" records they sold throughout Europe, where they were hugely popular. But Brian Setzer had ambitions as a solo artist and aimed to pursue them. (He had already participated in a successful side project spear-headed by Robert Plant, The Honeydrippers, playing some live shows with them.) In the mid-'80s he set to work on his first solo album,
eventually titled THE KNIFE FEELS LIKE JUSTICE and released in 1986. England now long behind him, Brian cut his album in several studios in and around L.A., New York City and the familiar confines of Tiki Recording Studios in Glen Cove, Long Island. On THE KNIFE FEELS LIKE JUSTICE, represented here by the title track, Boulevard Of Broken Dreams, Chains Around Your Heart and Bobby's Back (all Setzer compositions), Brian proved himself a crooner and a romantic, a side of him seldom hinted at in his work with the Stray Cats. Among the fine musicians who played on the Don Gehman-produced album are drummer Steve Jordan, keyboardist Benmont Tench of Tom Petty's Heartbreakers (both heard on Bobby's Back) and drummer Kenny Aronoff from John Mellencamp's band. Boulevard Of Broken Dreams was one of three singles released from the album, and also included here is the B-side Keep Your Lovin' Strong. The recordings that comprised this album (recently reissued by Razor & Tie) were a strong indication that Setzer had other kinds of songs in him, and that this was not merely a guitarist at work, but a maturing artist more complex than many had suspected. During this time Brian was invited to portray one of his heroes, rock 'n roll immortal Eddie Cochran, in LA BAMBA, the 1987 movie version of the life and music of ill-fated Latino teen rocker Ritchie Valens. (Like Cochran, Setzer normally plays a hollow-bodied Gretsch guitar.) Brian's recording of Summertime Blues, produced by Gehman, appeared on the sound-track album. The version of Summertime Blues included here, taken at a slightly slower tempo than the one that ended up on the LA BAMBA soundtrack, was most likely cut sometime prior to the recording of LIVE NUDE GUITARS, Brian's second solo effort (produced by Dave Stewart of Eurythmics). This may have been a dry run
taped for executive producer Taylor Hackford's consideration. In any event, Brian Setzer was the Eddie Cochran the movie makers were looking for. LIVE NUDE GUITARS, released in 1988, is repre-sented by the tracks When The Sky Comes Tumblin' Down, The Rain Washed Everything Away and Every Tear That Falls. It's clear that Setzer's romanticism was really in bloom at this point, reflected in the poetic imagery of these songs. Cross Of Love, the B-side of Sky Comes Tumblin', is also from those sessions. The rest of the songs here, including Summertime Blues, are previously unreleased Setzer outtakes from the late '80s. Wank,' For Desiree is a passionate rocker that is just about as good as anything Springsteen was turning out in his TUNNEL OF LOVE period. It is also curious that the excellent Living Souls never made the cut, a song evoking a powerful mood that Brian may have later lifted guitar parts from to rewrite into She Thinks I'm Trash. In Thing About You, there is no grand design or statement taking place, just a few genius riffs interconnecting, and some soloing by Brian that is breathtaking. This song perfectly illustrates that Setzer's toss-offs were often better than someone else's best tune.
Echo Park is a solid rock 'n roll song that draws on a memory of a relationship that has gone away, and the singer is wondering if she's still the same. It is somewhat of a shame that the fickle marketplace of that time would not lend more support to this direction of Brian Setzer's songwriting, because he was onto something special. Thanks to this compilation, we can once again appreciate a side of Setzer's music that was sorely overlooked. Today, Brian Setzer is no longer the skinny kid he was when the Stray Cats set out for England armed with little more than their instruments, a dollar and a dream. He has grown and matured physically, artistically, and also in terms of the success he has achieved with his music over two decades. After leaving EMI, he formed The Brian Setzer Orchestra and took his sound "uptown" with more horns than you can shake a stick at.
Under the sway of classic Capitol Records recording artists such as Bobby Darin and Louis Prima, Setzer led the swing music phenomenon of the late '90s and has done very well by it. There have been occasional Stray Cats reunions, and the guitarist has not ruled out further such reconvenings with Phantom and Rocker. Brian Setzer has been many things musically in a career that still has many chapters yet to be written. But there's one thing that he most certainly is, and always has been: vastly talented.