The wild and crazy Rockabilly cat has always been one of my favorite guitar players ever since he blasted onto the scene 30 years ago. Can you believe that? 30 rockin’, boppin’ years already? During that time I’ve owned almost all of the Stray Cats material save for the Greatest Hits stuff. I had the first import album and a couple of other releases that were hard to get in the USA at the time. The Stray Cats had a great sound, a great look and could really turn out pro performances, especially in the early days. I was introduced to the band when I caught their first performance on the old television show Fridays. Anybody remember that? I think that a whole lot of people saw that show and this performance as well as some of the other guests who were on. The show only ran for two seasons but featured a ton of great music and was the first appearance of Michael Richards (of Seinfeld fame) on television (I think). This was a really interesting time for music because the effects of the punk rock BANG! from a few years before had splintered into many different directions and were going mainstream in a big way. The Stray Cats hadn’t even had a record released in the USA at the time of this performance but by Xmas of that year I was able to find the imported first release that was recorded in England and produced by Dave Edmunds. Great record, probably there tightest ever and of course Edmunds was an idea producer for the band given his love for the Rockabilly style they were playing. While in England they were seen by many other big British superstars like The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin because all of these guys had come of age when the original Rockabilly stars were releasing their records. Here is the whole Fridays performance from 1981.
What was cool about The Cats was that they were able to blend the punk and new wave styles that were dominating then with a retro sound and look. It was really hard to tell where one left off and the other began because they were able to integrate the two seamlessly. While many people credit guys like Social Distortion’s Mike Ness and Henry Rollins for the proliferation of skin art (tattoos) in rock and roll, Brian Setzer and Slim Jim Phantom deserve a lot of credit too because they were rocking the tattoos and were on national TV and MTV for at least a couple of years in the early 80s. While The Stray Cats weren’t as punk rock and hard-edged as some other bands of the time, they had a sound and a musical approach that appealed to many punk and alt-rockers, especially in England and Europe, where the sound of the 1950s never goes out of style.
Even at the young age of 22-23 when the Stray Cats came on the scene, Brian had obviously digested a lot of the finer points of playing rockabilly and swing guitar and was able to get a really GREAT sound with a pretty simple set-up: his trusty Gretsch, a Roland Space/Chorus echo and Fender Bassman amp. Whether it was on the records or in performance he was able to blow off a lot of really dazzling and fiery licks with a clean sound and that epochal slap-back echo. This combination resulted in a Great Big Presence and Awesome Tone and it worked so well with Slim Jim’s simple drum set-up and the slappin’ bass provided by Lee Rocker. Most of what Brian was doing and still does comes from his hands. He is able to alternate between picking and finger-picking at the drop of a hat just as he is able to alternate between playing standard rockabilly riffs, Jazz/Swing melodies, blues patterns and country styles. Mixing all of these different approaches gives him a very WIDE sound and is great for the tension that is always necessary in music. You just never know what he is going to do next. Here is an excerpt from his Hot Licks video. I have the whole thing and think it’s pretty boss. If you can get some of this stuff happening in your playing you will definitely expand what you’re capable of doing.
While I’ve always dug Brian’s playing I found a new appreciation for it when I started playing Gypsy Jazz and Swing music, because the Jazz, Bop and Swing lines one finds in Rockabilly come from those great players of the 30s, 40s and early 50s. In THIS post I traced an old song from Django Reinhardt to Les Paul to Carl Perkins and George Harrison. Charlie Christian and T-Bone Walker were two other cats who had a huge influence on what 1950s Rockabilly and Rock and Roll cats like Scotty Moore, Cliff Gallup, Chuck Berry and Eddie Cochran would mix into their playing. I recently listened to a couple of Charlie Christian CDs and it’s really astonishing how not only his electric playing revolutionized the sound and presence of the guitar, but also how his lines show up EVERYWHERE. While Django had an almost 30-year recording and performing career, Charlie Christian was only on the scene for a couple of years before he succumbed to tuberculosis in 1942. His recorded material is pretty scarce and I haven’t been able to find any film clips of him. He attained legendary status within the jazz community while jamming at Minton’s, the Harlem club that attracted all of the best players of the day, including people like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, who would go on to completely turn music on it’s head later in the 1940s. Charlie’s lines anticipated be-bop and almost all of the popular music styles we know today. They have filtered through other people over the years but so much guitar as we know it started with Charlie and Django it’s amazing. I remember reading an interview from Guitar Player with Brian and he related that he learned to play from “guys on Long Island who knew how to play that old swing jazz in Eb and F”. The old-time jazz lines and CHORDS! really take an ordinary three-chord song and make it something special and because of this early training and his love for this sound, Brian has always sounded completely different from most of his contemporaries, although he does have a lot in common with someone else I’ve written about…Chris Spedding. Personally I’ve always had a complete and total love for the way jazz chords sound against a heavy beat and how they can be used to motor through the song. Once a player is adept enough to know how to cycle through changes and mix in single string lines, string bending, vibrato and double-stops there is really no limit to where a song can be taken save for the player’s imagination. Brian demonstrates this in the Route 66 video at the bottom. It’s all about how much you can HEAR and then execute. It has always thrilled me to be able to watch or listen to someone like Brian or Chris Spedding tear up a song in this way. Notice that in the following Brian Setzer Orchestra clip Brian is still using the set-up that has been his mainstay for almost 3 decades. Don’t change what works!
The Stray Cats broke up in 1984 but have reunited numerous times to record new records and tour. Some of the stuff on those releases was really good, some not, and perhaps Brian always felt a bit limited by the restrictions of a three-piece band. He tried branching out in the late-80s with solo efforts like The Knife Feels Like Justice and Live Nude Guitars, which were more mainstream, roots-rock offerings, but neither release did very well. He has played as a guest with a superstars like Robert Plant, Dan Hicks, Paul Rogers, Bob Dylan and Stevie Nicks and has always gotten big ups for his ability to bring the swing to the song. But it was with the formation of the Brian Setzer Orchestra in 1990 where he finally found his niche and was able to build on his earlier successes. BSO broke out at the height of the early 90s swing revival and have been able to keep that popularity alive through this past decade. Not only is Brian a great player, but he is also a very keen arranger, which is probably why he’s won Grammys for instrumental performances of Sleepwalk, Caravan and My Favorite Things. The fact that he has great players working with him helps out a whole bunch too. Usually the toughest adjustment for any young guitar slinger is how to mature, stay fresh and keep an audience while adding new fans as the years go by. Forming the BSO has made this possible for Brian and it’s a brand of entertainment that is part Rockabilly, part Vegas, part old-time supper club, which suits him perfectly.
When the Stray Cats reformed in 2004 they did a tour of Europe that was captured on film and became the Rumble in Brixton DVD release. I have this and think it’s Really Cool Daddyo because it shows they are still capable of rocking the house just like the old days. All of the good stuff is here including some of my personal faves: Double Talking Baby, Fishnet Stockings, Ubangi Stomp, Blast Off, That’s Alright Mama, and Please Don’t Touch. All of the hits are on here too and the only downer is I Won’t Stand in Your Way, which is very rushed for some reason. Shame, because it was such a well-written ballad on the Built for Speed record back in the day. The Stray Cats really bring the swing and boogie and on several songs Brian stretches out and plays some magnificent stuff — Sleepwalk is a bona-fide guitar hero performance. The DVD comes with a bunch of extras and a new song and is a great testament to a trio of guys who have a lot of love for a great style of music and have kept at it for over a quarter century. It’s really cool that Brian continues to thrive and expand what he began back in the 1970s and that shows not only his talent, but the power and appeal of this very American style of music, which continues to move people all over the world.