The Stray Cats are a rockabilly band formed in 1979 by guitarist/vocalist Brian Setzer (Bloodless Pharaohs/Brian Setzer Orchestra) with school friends Lee Rocker and Slim Jim Phantom in the Long Island town of Massapequa, New York. The group had several hit singles in the UK and the US during the early 1980s.
Formation and move to UK
The group, whose style was based upon the sounds of Sun Records artists from the 1950s and heavily influenced by Bill Haley & His Comets
, had little initial success in the New York music scene. When Setzer heard that there was a revival of the 1950s Teddy Boy
youth subculture in England, the band moved to the UK. The band found themselves in the midst of a nascent rockabilly revival, with youth wearing drape jackets, brothel creepers and updating the 1950s look by using hairspray instead of grease to style their hair and by wearing bright, "loud" colours.
After a gig in London, Stray Cats met producer Dave Edmunds, well known as a roots rock enthusiast for his work with Rockpile and as a solo artist. Edmunds offered to work with the group, and they entered the studio to record their self-titled debut album, Stray Cats, released in England in 1981 on Arista Records. The had three hits that year with "Runaway Boys", "Rock This Town," and "Stray Cat Strut." The UK follow-up to Stray Cats, Gonna Ball, was not as well-received, providing no hits and receiving some negative reviews.
Return to the US
The band returned to the United States, signed with EMI America
, and in 1982
released Built for Speed
, a combination of their earlier LPs. "Rock This Town" and "Stray Cat Strut" hit the top of the American charts thanks to MTV airplay. The follow-up, Rant N' Rave With The Stray Cats
, was almost as successful. Helped by extensive airplay on the newly-launched MTV
, "Rock This Town" and "Stray Cat Strut" both hit the American Top Ten
, over a year after their British chart peaks. As a result, Built for Speed
was a left-field smash, and Stray Cats became icons of retro style. Their second American album, Rant N' Rave With The Stray Cats
, appeared in 1983
and produced another Top Ten hit in the #5 hit song "(She's) Sexy + 17," as well as a minor Top 40
entry in the doo wop-styled
ballad "I Won't Stand in Your Way."
Breakup and reunions
Personality conflicts began to emerge in the ways that the individual members handled their new-found success; Phantom married actress Britt Ekland
, while Setzer made guest appearances with stars like Bob Dylan
and Stevie Nicks
and became the concert guitarist for Robert Plant
side project. In late 1984, Setzer broke up the band. Rocker and Phantom formed a trio called Phantom Rocker & Slick (the "Slick" being former David Bowie
guitarist Earl Slick
), while Setzer went on to a solo career, exchanging his rockabilly focus for a more wide-ranging roots rock
sound on albums such as 1986's The Knife Feels Like Justice
In 1986, the Stray Cats reunited in Los Angeles, and recorded the covers-heavy Rock Therapy, which sold poorly. In 1989, they reunited once again for the album Blast Off!, which was accompanied by a tour with US blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan. No longer with EMI America, they entered the studio with Nile Rodgers for the lackluster Let's Go Faster, issued by Liberation in 1990. 1992's Dave Edmunds-produced Choo Choo Hot Fish also attracted little attention, and after another covers album, Original Cool, the group called it quits again.
However, after a dozen years apart, Stray Cats reunited for a month-long tour of Europe in 2004. A live album culled from those concerts, Rumble In Brixton, included one new studio track, "Mystery Train Kept A Rollin'." In 2007, they reunited once again for a successful and long awaited US tour with ZZ Top and the Pretenders. This was their first North American tour in over 15 years. In the 2000s, the band toured Europe as part of their Farewell Tour.
Band members' follow-on careers
Stray Cats have reunited periodically for live performances. Setzer is still part of his 1990s swing
-revival band The Brian Setzer Orchestra
. Rocker and Phantom went on to form Swing Cats as well as releasing some solo material. Slim Jim Phantom also plays the drums in another rockabilly band 13 Cats, as well as the Rock and Roll
band The Head Cat with Lemmy
) and Danny B. Harvey (13 Cats). The band was inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame on October 15
- 1980 "Runaway Boys" - # 9 UK
- 1981 "Rock This Town" - # 9 US/ # 9 UK
- 1981 "Stray Cat Strut" - # 3 US/ # 11 UK
- 1981 "The Race Is On" - # 34 UK
- 1981 "You Don't Believe Me" - # 57 UK
- 1983 "(She's) Sexy And 17" - # 5 US/ # 29 UK
- 1983 "I Won't Stand In Your Way" - # 35 US
- 1989 "Bring It Back Again" - # 64 UK