Real Gone Guys: “The Stray Cats – Live at Rockpalast: Cologne, 1981″

By on June 12, 2017

The Stray Cats – Live at Rockpalast: Cologne, 1981 — now showing on Night Flight Plus –- shows a young band coming into maturity. Unfortunately, they were gone within a few years, undone by the usual infighting that goes on in bands. They were out of the picture before we really got to know them.

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The Stray Cats were one of the stranger pop culture stories to come out of the early 1980s. They were three young guys from Long Island, dressed as rockabilly dudes, ripping it up alongside The Clash and Duran Duran. It made no sense then, and it’s still hard to explain more than three decades later.

Of course, the Stray Cats were a fine group. They fired off a handful of memorable tunes, Brian Setzer’s guitar licks were bright as neon, and the band’s image was indelible.

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Still, the Stray Cats may always feel like an anomaly, an accident, something like an alley cat that sneaked into a restaurant and ended up being the chef’s favorite.

What lesson can we learn from the Stray Cats? That hard work and chutzpah is rewarded? That enthusiasm pays off? Like the Bermuda Triangle and the pyramids at Giza, the Stray Cats’ success mystifies. It’s as if we didn’t know we needed them until we saw them.

The trio formed in 1979, with Setzer on guitar and vocals, Lee Rocker on bass, and Slim Jim Phantom on drums. That three devotees of ‘50s rockabilly could exist at the same time in Massapequa, New York, is one of rock’s mysterious coincidences.

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Phantom recalled this phenomenon in his recent memoir, A Stray Cat Struts: My Life as a Rockabilly Rebel:

“The history of rock and roll is full of these chance bits of kismet. I’m still grateful for the accident of where I grew up and who I grew up with. The luck of the draw was with us. Right away, there was a feeling that it would be us against the world.”

Basing their style on the untamed rockabilly sounds of the ‘50s, with a few fashion nods to punk, the Stray Cats developed a small following in New York before venturing to London.

Rockabilly was enjoying a major resurgence in England. In a short time the trio became the cult band du jour, with such luminaries as the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin dropping in on their gigs. Major labels courted them, with Mick Jagger nearly signing them to The Stones’ own label.

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Though the Stray Cats remained friendly with the Stones and would open for them many times, it was Dave Edmunds of Rockpile who produced their first album and helped them become stars.

Their self-titled debut was released in the U.K. on Arista Records and yielded three of their most popular hits: “Runaway Boys,” “Rock This Town,” and “Stray Cat Strut.”

A second UK album followed with less fanfare, though more was to come.

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In 1982, EMI America compiled several Stray Cats songs onto the album, Built for Speed, which would go double platinum and was the No. 2 record on the Billboard album charts for twenty-six weeks.

Another strong single, “(She’s) Sexy + 17,” came along in 1983. That same year saw the band steal the show at the US Festival, a three-day outdoor celebration featuring such bands as INXS, David Bowie, and Van Halen.

The retro rockers from Long Island had made it, riding on a wave of old sounds, and vintage haircuts.

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The Stray Cats weren’t the first to mine the rockabilly style. The Cramps, for instance, had already established themselves with their mix of ’50s rock and Adams Family visuals. Robert Gordon, who’d been recording strong albums since ’77, was another dynamite rockabilly performer.

In fact, one could argue that Gordon was truer to the traditions of rockabilly than either the Cramps or the Cats. Yet, it was the Stray Cats that broke through. How’d they do it?

Timing was everything. MTV was hot, and the Stray Cats had a flashy but non-threatening image that fit right into the video era. In a way, they were rockabilly done up like a cartoon – they even had a cartoon cat as a logo – which made them seem fun and palatable, whereas Gordon and the Cramps looked downright dangerous.

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True, the Cats looked a bit scruffy, but it was a cultivated look, and safe for the kids watching at home. Setzer, especially, with his wavy blond hair and pouty mouth, seemed plucked from the pages of Tiger Beat.

The Stray Cat’s sound helped, too. As much as the band loved rockabilly, they jimmied with the template, dropping some of the country elements and producing a sound that was less ragged than early rockabilly, less frenzied.

It’s no insult to say that some of the original rockabilly classics sounded like they might fly apart at any moment, so harried was the playing.

The Stray Cats, without sacrificing the energy of the style, seemed as tight as a 1940s big band, which turned out to be another of Setzer’s loves.

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“Rockpalast,” a popular music show for German television, was a great showcase for the Stray Cats. They’d already established themselves in Europe, and the German fans were ready.

The concert footage from their July 16, 1981 show at Sartory-Säle in Köln, Germany, is exceptional. Though all of the songs sound great, the real show stopper is the Cats’ rampaging cover of Warren Smith’s “Ubangi Stomp.”

The footage is also remarkable in that it shows Setzer as the dervish he was in 1981. Not only could he channel his favorite singers, crooning like Elvis Presley one minute, yowling like Billy Riley the next, but his guitar playing was off the charts.

Though his playing was culled from various influences, Setzer’s real guitar hero at the time of this concert seemed to be Bill Haley’s legendary sideman, Danny Cedrone of the Comets. Listen to Setzer, and one can almost hear Cedrone’s legendary “Rock Around The Clock” riff, a bit of trick playing that can still make the hair on your neck stand up.

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Phantom and Rocker are also amazing, offering plenty of theatrics and keeping their supercharged tick-tock beat throughout. Still, it’s Setzer who looks like he wants to conquer the world, armed only with his bulky old Gretch and an endless supply of earsplitting riffs.

The US Festival of ’83 was probably the band’s high point, but by 1984 they were done. Clashing egos seemed to be the main reason, but there’s never been a concrete explanation for the band’s demise.

Years later, Setzer admitted to an Australian newspaper “it was silly to break up the Stray Cats at the peak of our success.”

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Recalling the break up, Phantom said of Setzer, “I think he has always wanted to be a solo artist.”

The trio has reunited many times since then, and even reteamed with Edmunds in 1992 for an album called Choo Choo Hot Fish. It was too late, though. As Phantom wrote, “the real opportunity to become a truly important band had passed.”

Seemingly done with rockabilly, Setzer tapped into the swing music revival of the late ‘90s with The Brian Setzer Orchestra.

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Setzer’s new project earned him two Grammys in ’98, one for his version of “Jump, Jive, and Wail,” (Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals), as did his version of “Sleep Walk” (Best Pop Instrumental). In 2011, Setzer’s album, Setzer Goes Instru-Mental! received a Grammy nomination.

His standing as a guitar virtuoso was in evidence in 2014 when the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC asked for a replica of his 1959 Gretch 6120. How far is the guitar, we wonder, from Fonzie’s jacket and Jerry Seinfeld’s puffy shirt?

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Rocker, who came from a musical family – his dad played clarinet with the New York Philharmonic – has put out several albums and has played with some major names, including John Fogerty and Carl Perkins. In 2013 Rocker (real name: Leon Drucker) received a “Lifetime Achievement Award” from Bass Player magazine.

Phantom (real name: James McDonnell) has been involved with many musical projects, including Phantom, Rocker & Slick, Dead Men Walking, The Head Cat, and Col. Parker.

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Despite being a notable drummer, he’s probably best known as owner of The Cat Club on Sunset Boulevard, and for his eight-year marriage to British actress, Britt Ekland.

At times, Phantom still pines for the Cats.

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“The other two do not get along,” Phantom wrote in his memoir, “and there is no communication between them.”

Still, Phantom harbors hopes for another reunion, if only to “earn a good payday and cement our legacy as the best rockabilly band ever.”

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The trio played together many times during the 2000s.

A live set recorded in 2004 called Rumble in Brixton belongs in the CD and DVD collection of anyone who admires sonic guitar and unabashed rock ‘n’ roll.

A U.S. tour in 2007 with ZZ Top and the Pretenders proved that, even with their differences, the Stray Cats can still rock any town they’re in.

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Could the Stray Cats prowl again, even if they aren’t all buddies? It’s a possibility. As Phantom notes in his book, “…from my experience, no band that stays together goes to lunch or hangs out.”

Watch the two-hour The Stray Cats – Live at Rockpalast: Cologne, 1981 — now showing on Night Flight Plus as part of our documentary Concert Films collection — and decide for yourself if the Stray Cats are the greatest rockabilly band of all time…

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About Don Stradley

Don Stradley has been a busy freelance writer for several years, covering everything from the pop culture to sports to crime. His work has appeared in various places, including Cinema Retro, ESPN.com, and the Film Noir Foundation's official magazine, Noir City. He's currently serving as editorial consultant for The Film Detective, a massive archive that specializes in restoring vintage films. He lives in the Boston area.