Back in 1981, the Stray Cats were a breath of raucous fresh air. At a time when punk, new wave, and disco competed for airplay, the Cats’ retro sound was more than just a revival of the rockabilly styles of the late ’50s. They were an obvious bridge between the hits that had been laid down on Sun Records by the likes of Elvis, Carl Perkins, and Roy Orbison, with the desires of new audiences wanting rock and roll without the often overblown corporate polish of the ’70s.
Right out of the box, the Cats had three major worldwide successes with the singles “Stray Cat Strut,” “Sexy and 17,” and “Rock This Town.” But after two albums, it was pretty much all over. The power trio of vocalist/guitarist Brian Setzer, slap-back upright bassist Lee Rocker, and drummer Slim Jim Phantom would split, reunite, split, and reunite multiple times to the point where their nostalgia=loving audiences would not only be remembering the styles the Cats had reinvigorated, but the Cats’ own early ’80s songbook as well.
Live at Montreux 1981 is a concert DVD that captures the Cats in their prime on a night of unrelenting rocking for a very appreciative Swiss audience. In DTS Surround Sound, Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Digital Stereo, the raw jams of the Cats are preserved in all their primitive glory, including the squeaks, buzzes, and hums of unintentional feedback. The whole scene is as minimalistic as it can get with the Cats’ duct-tail haircuts, Western shirts, tight black jeans, and Phantom’s simple drum kit—one snare drum and two cymbals. Despite the simplicity of the three-man line-up, the Stray Cats could pump up the volume, fill the arena with their peppy and catchy melodies, and rock every moment of their performance.
Not surprisingly, nine of the 15 tracks are from the Cats’ eponymous first album along with numbers not widely circulated or officially released before. Most of the tracks, like “Sweet Love On My Mind,” “Double Talking Baby,” and “Fishnet Stockings” are pure stomping, thumping fun. One cut, “Storm The Embassy,” is worthy of special mention as it’s a bit of social commentary on the Iran crisis of 1979 with lines about the Soviets invading Afghanistan. Equally noteworthy is the fact the boys were called out for three encores which resulted in performances of “Runaway Boys,” “Be Bop A Lula,” and the two-song closer, “Somethin’ Else” and “Pretty Pretty Baby.” It might be unkind to say that, by that point, we’ve heard enough of a good thing. These guys don’t slow down a minute, and, sooner or later, it all starts to blur together.
So if the only complaint I can find for Live at Montreux 1981 is that the band was overly generous to their fans all those years ago, that should signal this is a disc well worth spending an evening with. You don’t have to be a Stray Cats fan or a lover of rockabilly to enjoy this set. Simply wanting to groove on straight-up rock and roll and nothing but three-chord rock and roll is all you need. If you don’t end up wanting to strut your moonlit back-alley cat badness when it’s done, then you’ve been too domesticated to go outside.