Warning: I’m only 32 so I have little to no memory of the early days of the Stray Cats or the 80s rockabilly scene. Everything I’m writing is from what I’ve been told or looked up. Outside of opinions of songs or albums. There now you can take any complaints you may have. And shove it. Proceed to read.
Now picture this. You go out to a show. You’re going find a couple of different kind of people in the rockabilly world. The kind that LOVES everything that Brian Setzer has ever done. Thinks he is a legend. Then you got the other crop. The ones that hate his super polished sound. Some even going as far as to say he isn’t real rockabilly. Who is right? Which side of the fence do you belong? I’m going to break down the pros and cons of the Stray Cat’s Brain Setzer.
Lets get started. Before anything. Lets point out this song. I think a lot of us are sick of it. I’m not sure if everyone here has experienced this. But I would go to a bar (where this is the closest to anything rockabilly that anyone in the town was aware of) and someone would pop this song (or stray cat strut) on the jukebox. Song would pop up and someone would see me. Point to the thing and started laughing. It got old fast. This track is what broke the cats into the mainstream here in the U.S. It has gotten super over played over the years. Including the Muzak at the stores I have worked at. It’s not a bad song just a lot of people have had enough (ok ok I’ll sing along when I’m drunk). During the time that this came out. The rockabilly revival was underway. In the U.S. Rollin Rock records were making albums raw and cheap inside of a garage with older and new artist. The newer musicians were inspired by the raw and sweaty sounds of Sun Records and various obscure artist. Then this came out. Not a hint of it was raw. This was super polished by 80s standards. To some these guys were Duran Duran with a stand up bass (I wish I could remember who said that to me). They were probably the only group known as sell outs in the rockin world (Jets came out around the same time and I notice no one ever tears into them).( Update: A friend on my facebook Colonel Paco made a good point. That if they did sound straight from the 50s they probably wouldn’t have gotten as big as they did. Good point. Go HERE. To find out when you can check out his radio the The Pacobilly Hour.)
One thing I hope others can agree on. Is this song. Or any slow song they ever did. I cannot stand their ballads. If they were a real rockabilly band their slow songs would sound like more like something Carl Perkins or Elvis did. Something with a “BILLY” twang to it. It reminds of a quote a guy had in the Rebel Beat documentary (which you can watch HERE) “they weren’t as much a return to Gene Vincent as I think they were a return to Fabian”. To a degree I have to agree. Some songs borderline on the late 50s Philadelphia sound (or a good mimic of it) that a lot of the older rockabilly guys hate. These songs represent a style of music that made america kick rockabilly artists to the curb from the radio.
Please stop making him synonymous with pompadours!
Now time for me to sound bi polar! Now I’m not going to say every song he has done (stray cats, BSO, or solo) is perfect. There can be some skipping required (like the majority of “13”). Has anyone listened to the album “Ignition”. Such a guilty pleasure. I feel this kind of birthed the whole Revved Up Rockabilly sound. So many bands copied this after they heard it. Sure it’s nowhere near the most genuinely 50s sound but it is so good. He always has great musicians with the cats or any of the number of guys that have worked with him in recent years. Every collaboration with such talent have made an incredibly fun discography (once again except for 13) Speaking of good discs. Most of the cat’s discography is essential. Rant N Rave, Built for Speed, Blast off (the album I’m gonna mention in the next paragraph is also on my list). If anything feels like I changed direction. Like I said, the whole Setzer world. It is a guilty pleasure.
As I stated prior. Some folks have said he is not real rockabilly. And I mentioned their lack of doing a good “BILLY” style ballad. Well, I posted Blue Lights, Big city. Off of “Rockabilly Rio: all originals”. His most recent album. This is the most pure rockabilly song he has ever recorded. Even got the classic sounding back up singing. No drums (Update: I was informed that this track does have drums done lightly with brushes. Oops, my fault. To show my appreciation for this I would like to thank The Rockabilly Chronicle pointing out that goof up). This is the closest he has ever sounded to an Elvis sun recording (that so many publications want to say he has done). Figured I would shine the spotlight on this track.
Have you ever heard their music live? I too was a snob for this style of neo rockabilly for a second. Though you never hear anyone give too many 80s band a lot of crap (The Polecats, The Jets, Restless). I’ve seen Brian Setzer, I’ve seen Slim Jim Phantom(doing SC covers) live on multiple occasions. And what I learned is that these songs actually sound authentically rockabilly live! Sure the recordings aren’t done on analog tape and they were a bit over produced compared to other acts. But they had rich material. Pay attention to Setzer’s guitar playing. It is brilliant. How many great guitar players from that time can you name from that era that wasn’t in a metal band. He basically inspired a generation to pick up a Gretsch and rock out during a time when synthesizers were the thing. We could use another Brian Setzer now. Times like today, the word “guitar” is almost forbidden or a four letter word in today’s pop culture.
I know there is a lack of the Brian Setzer Orchestra. Ultimate Collection is one of the greatest live albums of all time. That is all I’ll say.
I’m going to take this one step further. The rockin world would not exist the way it does if it were not for Setzer and the Stray Cats. If you loved them you were inspired to look into the old sun recordings(that they didn’t sound like). You were inspired to look up obscure rockabilly. You were inspired to go to shows. You were inspired to pick up a guitar. If you didn’t. Someone you listen was a fan. In turn, inspired you. Even if you hate what he did. You were inspired to sound better. Inspired to sound more like the real 50s artists than ever before.They did it out of spite! Think this is a coincidence? That we have so many bands now a days that sound like they could have been in Sun studios or hanging with Johnny Burnette. That brought in more bands in this world. This is why so many people are at shows. This is why there are still rockin scene all over the world. Positive or negative Setzer had an impact and a big one. Thank you sir!
Agree? Disagree? Let me know how you feel. Send me a message or comment. Also if you have time, go LIKE the Official Rockabilly Nerd Facebook HERE. Don’t forget to share this on social media and spread the word.
Come back next time when I’ll make a slide show of some of the best home made flaming dice tattoos.