One of the joys of ‘Top Of The Pops’ was that it simply didn’t discriminate. Punk, Ska, Disco, Novelty, Metal and even FA Cup winners would appear. The show simply reflected the unusually varied taste of the UK record-buying public. Around the turn of the 80s was undoubtedly one of the most mixed with the 2-Tone explosion, Brit-Funk, the New Romantics, Disco medleys and even Captain Sensible from The Damned with a cover of “Happy Talk” from 50s musical “South Pacific”.
I have been enjoying viewing some of these episodes recently on BBC iPlayer and watching Motorhead follow Spandau Ballet who in turn have Siouxsie & The Banshees, Kim Wilde and Stars on 45 in quick succession. Sleepless nights in Tokyo don’t have to be spent gazing wistfully from a whisky bar like Bill Murray in “Lost In Translation”.
However, there is a musical movement that is never covered or mentioned but seems to constantly have a place in virtually every episode and in truth has much to answer for. The Great British public of the time seemed to have an obsession with a rock ‘n’ roll revival.
Sounds cool doesn’t it?
Except it gave us “Do the Hucklebuck” by Coast To Coast, “Rama Lama Ding Dong” by Rocky Sharpe & The Replays and several singles by Darts – all decent enough disposable pop but really just pre-teen pop primer material. It also left us with over half a decade of Shakin’ Stevens and no matter how I try, I can never find anyone willing to own up for taking part of the responsibility for this musical injustice.
However, there was a strand of this revival that was a lot more genuine and rootsier. Matchbox possessed genuine rockabilly credentials, despite coming from deepest Middlesex, having toured with Carl Perkins and Chuck Berry. They created an authentic sound and certainly looked like a bunch of old rockers even then but then rather blotted their copybook with an awful version of “Over The Rainbow” that was so obviously targeted at the Christmas number one slot that no subsequently accurate Buddy Holly tribute could compensate.
I blame Shaky for their demise as well – thinking it was what rockers needed to do to succeed.
However, much of the rockabilly interest had come out of the post-punk world. The Clash after all, had adapted much of the look and never failed to show their appreciation of the style – “Brand New Cadillac” was a powerful cover of original British rocker Vince Taylor’s belting original. There were, to my recollection more Teds than Punks in circulation at the turn of the decade.
Thus was born, a genuine British cool rockabilly band, The Polecats, who had all the attitude of punk but ears of 50s Memphis – it’s best demonstrated in two fantastic covers of Bowie’s “John I’m Only Dancing” and T-Rex’s “Jeepster” which remain faithful yet inventive at the same time (Bowie himself approved). Interestingly, their then teenage guitarist, Boz Boorer would go on to join Morrissey’s band and act as Musical Director, giving a rockabilly sensibility to several of Moz’s albums – especially “Your Arsenal”.
But the most interesting and successful story has to be that of The Stray Cats.
First of all, they were American and therefore, the real deal. They oozed authenticity with their tattoos, quiffs and Gretsch guitars but allied it to a very punk attitude. They even sounded right – Brian Setzer (couldn’t be more New York) but add Lee Rocker and Slim Jim Phantom and you knew you were going to get exactly what it said on the tin.
They had formed in New York and were well known on the club circuit for their high-octane brand of rock ‘n’ roll that managed to sound surprisingly current.
And this is where it gets interesting; because in order to make their breakthrough they headed not to Memphis or Nashville but instead across the Atlantic to London where they came to the attention of Dave Edmunds, a passionate aficionado of rock ‘n’ roll and then a big name, himself. He had come from that other musical strain that had influenced this revival – pub-rock – as a solo artist and with his collective, Rockpile. He had long history of involvement with authentic rock n roll having recorded “I Hear You Knocking” and then turned into a sometime producer.
The result was explosive.
The lead single “Runaway Boys” might be hugely familiar but it has all the sass of a Clash single. You can hear the rebellion pressed into the vinyl in a far more convincing way than some of their seemingly more credible contemporaries. There’s an electrifying guitar solo and all backed by the stripped down rhythm section. It was no pastiche but a thunderous piece of genuine rockabilly.
The theme would be picked up in the next single, the equally dynamic “Rock This Town” another tale of youthful revolt though more hedonistic than its threatening predecessor.
However, rockabilly has traditionally been very much a 45s driven genre, classic albums are few and far between and, in truth, the first Stray Cats album suffers a little from that. Whilst “Jeannie, Jeannie, Jeannie” is a faithful Eddie Cochrane tribute, “Fishnet Stockings” and “My One Desire” simply have less bite than the more famous numbers – still at least it’s not Shaky.
But the album does have several more interesting songs to analyze. The first can only be termed Republican Punk which is “Storm The Embassy” a very new wave-like piece of political polemic urging the breaking of the then current siege of the US embassy in Teheran. Listening now it seems eerily reminiscent of some present-day exhortations emanating from the American political stage. In 1981, this seemed in keeping with the rebel nature of the band but raised very few eyebrows – I suspect this now would have caused their record label to take on more than just a little added security.
During this period, having seen the release of “Quadrophenia”, we also witnessed the Mod revival, as the seaside towns of Britain were once more invaded by scooter-riding hordes of Secret Affair fans. Doubtless watching from their new digs in England, Setzer and the band wrote what is almost certainly the only anthem for the Mods’ sworn enemies, the Rockers, with “Rumble In Brighton” – a surefire leather-clad call to arms for the less publicized opponents in the Bank Holiday skirmishes.
A peculiarly English obsession documented by a very American band – curiouser and curiouser.
Despite some of the rockabilly tracks not really cutting through, there are some interesting stylistic tryouts such as “Ubangi Stomp” an old 50s classic which is laden with a jittering nuttiness that carries something of a ska lilt. “Wild Saxophone” on the other hand has all the big band, jump-blues energy that would mark the rebirth of Setzer’s career with the Brian Setzer Orchestra in the mid-90s – it’s pure Louis Prima.
Indeed, Setzer would often return to his Stray Cats material and repurpose it for his big band sound to great effect – “Rock This Town” being a particular beneficiary. In his career, he would often switch between swing band leader and rockabilly rebel and I am still none the wiser as to which he enjoyed the most. They are related but very very different as one depends on a full lavish sound and the other is pared back to the basics.
Of course, he has also tried this trick with the third of the album’s big singles the eponymous “Stray Cat Strut” but really it loses the sleazy subtlety of the original. This is a fantastic sounding 45 that lopes along with an undisguised swagger peppered with razor-sharp guitar licks – he would prove to be a real guitar great as the years rolled by, much admired by his contemporaries as a pure and intuitive player.
It may well be a pop song but this is what good pop should be memorable, different and fun.
The problem as I said earlier is that great rock and roll in all its early forms be it doo wop, boogie-woogie, jump blues or rockabilly was always at its best in short slugs that were no more than two and a half minutes long. To be this authentic over a full album is a rare feat from the Stray Cats and worth reinvestigating accordingly – certainly none of the other quick burst luminaries of the movement managed it.
Sadly, their appeal didn’t last to a second album which followed quickly but bombed even more quickly. The material likewise, (perhaps from record company pressure) was not as robust and lacked the energy of the original debut.
But all was not lost, because their label put together the best of the two albums and released a new record as “Built For Speed” in America and nearly two years after success in the UK, this most American of bands with the most of American of sounds was brought full circle and imported as a big hit back to the States on the back of the MTV invasion.
Of course, it’s not Carl Perkins or Jerry Lee Lewis but the first Stray Cats album is faithful to the sound and intention of all the originals and should be enjoyed for that. They burned bright and briefly but then that’s what the great early stars of rock and roll were supposed to do.