Brian Setzer, Lee Rocker, and Slim Jim Phantom hit it big in the early 1980s as the Stray Cats. But the rockabilly revival spearheaded by the three boys from Long Island didn't translate into a long life on the charts for the band, and they broke up, amid some bad blood, in 1984.
The reunion albums they've made since then have made relatively little splash. While Setzer's swing-revival Brian Setzer Orchestra and Rocker's solo work have garnered success, the Stray Cats themselves have come to seem a band restricted to a moment in time: in the US, that’s the early days of MTV, when their videos for "Rock This Town" and "Stray Cat Strut" were inescapable.
The Stray Cats have reunited a number of times, however, and not just to cash in on touring. They made two solid albums in the late 1980s. Rock Therapy (1986) and Blast Off (1989) have been unavailable for some time, but Hep Cat Records has just reissued them with new liner notes by Lee Rocker. These discs, the Cats' fifth and sixth studio efforts, are definitely worth a listen.
I'm not sure why the band chose to open Rock Therapy with their heavy-handed arrangement of the title track. The album's energy really gets going with the second tune, "Reckless," a Setzer-penned garage-y rocker that could have been a hit single in a more receptive period. Gene Vincent's "Race With the Devil," Buddy Holly's "Looking for Someone to Love," and Chuck Berry's "Beautiful Delilah" pay accomplished tribute to some of the band's important influences.
Rocker and Phantom's "I Wanna Cry" has a harder, dirtier, Joe Walsh type of sound, but side two starts with "I'm a Rocker" and Setzer's trademark lightning-fingered guitar solos. He later demonstrates his facility on the banjo in the countryish "Broken Man." Musically, this album ranks with the band's best work.
Three years later, with Blast Off, the Stray Cats hooked into – or, as Rocker claims, ignited – the harsher, punk-influenced psychobilly movement. While psychobilly had roots earlier than this, there's no doubt the early Stray Cats albums had a significant influence on the style, which persists today. Produced by the Cats' original helmsman, Dave Edmunds, Blast Off has a harder and darker spirit than anything the band had done before. This was explicit in the forceful, scowling title track, but evident also in songs with more earthbound and harmless-sounding themes like "Everybody Needs Rock 'n' Roll."
"Gene and Eddie" is a weird, nicely crunchy pastiche of Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran lines and licks. The band was bringing those seminal sounds into a new, harder era. "The slamming bass, cave man drumbeats and stinging guitar," writes bassist Rocker in his new liner notes about the album, "were as raw, powerful and dangerous as anything we had ever done… psychobilly was born. I hear a lot of the bands that have come after us regurgitating bits of this record."
Everything old is new. "Gina" with its rolling drums looks back to Buddy Holly. The record was full of nostalgia and musical self-awareness even as it reflected its own time and broke new ground for the band. Song titles tell the story: "Rockabilly Rules," "Bring It Back Again," "Rockabilly World." It closes with the slinky "Nine Lives," a throwback to the early hit "Stray Cat Strut" but at the same time a showcase for a jazzy Setzer solo that looked ahead to the Brian Setzer Orchestra, which he was probably already contemplating; he formed the big band the following year.
Lee Rocker, for his part, has continued a steady output of very good solo albums that have helped carried the rockabilly revival into the 21st century. I saw him in Nashville two years ago and he seriously rocked the house.
Rockabilly aficionados and fans of the Stray Cats will want to pick up these nicely produced reissues. Blast Off will be of interest also to the cowboy-hats-and-piercings crowd. It's good to have these albums back in circulation.