How Stray Cats Became Rockabilly Royalty: Exclusive Interview
The road to stardom for Stray Cats began with a trip overseas. They didn't have much money, but they had no shortage of ambition.
Drummer Slim Jim Phantom says he has strong doubts today about whether current bands could take a similar journey, since everything could have gone so terribly wrong. But the gamble paid off for Phantom, vocalist/guitarist Brian Setzer and bassist Lee Rocker.
They came back to America with an elevated profile, a new record deal with Arista Records and a head start on the songwriting which would eventually produce a stack of hit records. The band became a regular presence on radio airwaves and MTV with juke-joint jams like "Rock This Town," "Stray Cat Strut" and "(She's) Sexy + 17."
Phantom now hosts a podcast called Rockabilly Confidential, where he shares engaging stories from his rock 'n' roll past. He checked in with UCR to discuss his band's rise to fame in the '80s.
What was the goal with the Stray Cats? How much did you all realize it had any kind of potential? Did the three of you care about that?
I don’t think we really cared. I know that no one was more surprised than us when Robert Plant turns up at the gig in England. At that point, we had already thought that we won – because we grew up in New York and played around. We were not part of any scene; there was no rockabilly scene. There was punk rock, there was new wave – and even that, I mean, it wasn’t particularly giant, but we were too weird for that. There was not a scene. We’re in New York and then on Long Island, once a month, we’d go to the city and play CBGB's, Max’s Kansas City, all of the ones they’ve made documentaries about, but there was not a full on rockabilly scene. I don’t think there is now, there. We made our own scene. We were the [only] three guys around that looked like that.
That’s not hard to imagine!
We fell in love with the music. I found it through listening to classic rock. You do it through the [Beatles] or the [Rolling] Stones, [Led] Zeppelin. Blind Faith, they did a Buddy Holly song that was on that album. All of that would link you and you would eventually find Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran from maybe the Who, and Carl Perkins from the Fabs. You would just find out. You’re young and we were music guys. We really played and our goal in life was to somehow be musicians and to somehow get ahead and somehow do something. When we discovered this music and you go back a little further, there’s a whole look attached to it and there’s a lifestyle. Even before I found it, we were the ones that would have long hair, but we would try to find a velvet jacket like Jimmy Page had, that kind of thing. For me, there was always a look attached to whatever the music was. That was part of the fun. When we found rockabilly music, it was all, “Holy mackerel, there’s a look that we love! There’s a sound that we love.” It swings and it shreds and it shuffles. It was all things that I could relate to and that we could do. That’s my personal story.
How did you meet Brian and Lee?
The other two [members of the Stray Cats] were my friends from school. They’re virtuosos. They are fantastic players. Rockabilly made it possible for us to do this and be different. So we started to do it to make up our own scene. We played at little bars and clubs that weren’t known for live music. They weren’t the established rock clubs on Long Island or the city. We would just make up our own things, knock on doors and find a place that the guy would have us. We did five nights a week, four sets a night. At one point, we were doing six nights a week. We played a lot, and e loved it. Every night was an opportunity. We basically wanted to live like we thought Elvis Presley lived in the ‘50s in Memphis – with his guys, going and finding clothes and records during the day and then sleeping late and going to the diner and having breakfast and making your way to the gig. That’s how we lived. We did it in my car with the bass sticking out of the window, rolled up as far as it could go. We just did that. We listened to records all day and then at night, we played.
The people that came to see us, at that point, it would have been whatever you would think it would be in 1979 on Long Island. Dazed and Confused-looking [people] would be a reference. [Laughs.] But they loved the Stray Cats; we were their gang. So there’s a few hundred people out there that can honestly say, “Yeah, we followed those guys around.” None of them bought into the look, but we weren’t really trying to do that. A few of them made it possible for us to not get killed. Before the advent of MTV and even before all of that, you really in a lot of parts of the country took your life into your hands. To me, it’s still an inexplicable thing that anyone would care how anyone else looked, acted or dressed. That’s not bothering anyone else. We were antagonistic when confronted. So if I was at the 7-11 in Massapequa getting something and someone said something to me, I would say, “Why do you care about another guy’s hair so much? What do you care what I’m wearing? You seem to be paying a lot of attention to what another guy’s shoes are.” And game on, right? It was game on.
There was always confrontational things. We embraced it, yet at the same time, after a year or so, we were weary of it. We knew from getting the music mags once a month, eight weeks late or whatever, it’s some import record store that you have to go to – that there was a scene in England. There’s something going on. We knew about the [Sex] Pistols and the Clash, even though it was a few years later. We had heard about teddy boys.
How did things progress from that point?
We met a few English people who had come to the States. They wound up in New York and said, “You guys would be big over there.” We just thought, “Okay!” One day, with about a few weeks’ planning, we went there – which I wouldn’t recommend for anyone as a way to get ahead. I think you should make sure that you have a hotel or maybe a friend’s house to stay at, or something. Have the gig booked first. But we went, the three of us arrived. Times are different, and even if you wanted to, I don’t know if you can really do those things anymore [and] just turn up. We almost didn’t get in, because you’re not allowed – then, now or anytime, there were no “old days” when it came to turning up with a guitar and half a drum kit in your luggage, saying, “Oh, we’re just here to go see the Tower of London and Buckingham Palace.” “No, you’re not.” We somehow managed to talk our way through and we were outlaws there for a few months of very rough living. Homelessness, kind of. We were finding out about where a gig might be that was free, or a party. We’d hang around out front. We looked outrageous, I think – and kind of desperate at some point.
We knocked on enough doors to get a few gigs. I don’t think that’s ever changed. The handful of pubs back then that were rock pubs, they would start at four o’clock in the afternoon and have maybe five bands until 11 o’clock at night. That would spill over after that into the nightclub world. I think we found out about enough of them, knocked on the doors and got three or four gigs where we went on at five o’clock in the evening to play for 20 minutes. We had been to a few parties and hung around in front of enough offices that when we played these first few handfuls of shows, a couple of faces turned up at them. We were friends with the Pretenders, the original guys, and [Joe] Strummer, Glen Matlock – people who I am still friendly with [like] Captain Sensible [of the Damned], Topper Headon [of the Clash] – and back then there was the music papers that were [coming out] once a week. People from the Pretenders were friends with a couple of people from the original Kinks and they came. Lemmy, of course, was there, [Billy] Idol – a few people.
Those are the things that start to make waves.
The next week, when someone did an interview for the NME or the Melody Maker or Record Mirror or Sounds and Ray Davies did an interview, or Chrissie Hynde or Joe Strummer or Captain Sensible or Glen Matlock. “What did you do last week?” “Well, I saw this band at the Greyhound, they’re from New York and the guy stood on the drums and it’s an outrageous thing.” When that gets a little bit of attention, then that leads to ultimately, the guys from the Stones came. It was one of those shows, and this is all within a few weeks. We arrived in June and I think we started playing shows in maybe September or October. So there was that period of being kind of rough. When all of the members of the Rolling Stones come, and it becomes not a story for the fifth page of NME. That’s when it became the front page. So when you get it into the daily newspapers, that’s when it changed everything, really. That’s when record companies start to get involved. It was really game on.
That part was the easier part for us. No problem. We can go play “Race With the Devil” by Gene Vincent and then “Rock This Town,” I wouldn’t care who was there. We would kill it and just do our thing. That’s when it started to really happen. And then Dave Edmunds started coming at the same time as record companies started to come. It really just lined up then. We met with Edmunds at his house. He had a little pub in his basement. He had a finished basement, outside of London. Edmunds had a jukebox, a little jukebox. He had “The Race is On” and “Rockabilly Boogie” by Johnny Burnette. He had those records in his jukebox. We all looked at each other and said, “This is it.”
There was a record company that was hotter than a few others. We could have gone with anyone really at that point. There were a lot of beautiful people that came around. Richard Branson came around. They were all good. I really have nothing bad or dirt about anyone. Everyone was super nice to us. We were motivated by all of this was happening. We were going to lunch with the Stones. These ones were coming and that one was coming, but we still had no money. So the opportunity really had to strike now. It wound up being the guys at Arista Records. Simon Potts, who we’re still friends with, [and] Tarquin Gotch, they were fantastic guys and they came through. Edmunds was there. I think we went to the studio a few days later after everything was agreed upon. In that time, in the month or so leading up to that, we had written “Runaway Boys,” which we did not go there with. I think that right there is the genre, the era – you know, the future-changer right there.
What were those lunches with the Stones like?
Oh, they wanted to produce it. They were beautiful and awesome. I’m still in touch with a few of them. Charlie [Watts] was my friend and I speak to Bill [Wyman]. I just saw Bill when we were in London the last time Stray Cats played. They totally wanted to do it, but that funny thing entered into it of the urgency that we had to do this in a certain [amount of time]. All of this is great, but we have to act now. I think it wound up being right before Christmas – which I think if we didn’t do it then, you know, the business, after Christmas, nothing opens again until March, at least. I don’t think it would have happened in quite the same way. We had to get it done. Without knowing any of it, we knew it. I think we could have really gone with anyone. I think it’s kismet that we went with who we went with, and that Edmunds was involved. I think anyone else we would have gone with, it would have been different. So there’s no way of saying what would have happened. Maybe nothing. It’s kind of hard to say, but we did follow our hearts and it was right there. Arista stepped up, Tarquin and Simon, and Edmunds, everyone kind of stepped up at the exact right time.