Stray Cats Look Feline and Feral In Early-'80s Glory

Stray Cats – Live at Rockpalast 
145 mins., $24.99

Today, the Stray Cats are best remembered as the flagship band of the ‘80s rockabilly renaissance, their retro riffs and pompadoured quiffs perfect for the then-fledgling MTV in videos like “Rock This Town,” “Stray Cat Strut” and “She’s Sexy + 17.”

And while lead singer/guitarist Brian Setzer is now old enough to be an elder statesmen of an even more elder sound, retro swing, this pair of concerts from 1983 and 1981 shed some new light on the group. Setzer, drummer Slim Jim Phantom and bassist Lee Rocker appear as impossibly lean, mean, virile and dangerous runaway boys whose music and attitude had fare more in common with the Clash than Sha Na Na.

The first show is an August 1983 daytime gig at the Open Air Loreley Festival alongside such seemingly disparate acts like U2, Steve Miller and Joe Cocker, for whom a couple of signs held aloft in the crowd showed some love. Still, it’s clear from the German fans in the front — dressed much like the Cats themselves — which act they were most looking forward to.

The set, meanwhile, is the Stray Cats at the peak of their powers both musically and performance-wise, three seeming speed freaks barreling through 17 songs, including the highlights “Double Talkin’ Baby,” “Rumble in Brighton,” “Built for Speed,” “Runaway Boys” and “She’s Sexy + 17.” Guest saxophonist Mel Collins adds a horny flavor to several numbers.

The band’s early English champion, roots-rocker Dave Edmunds, joins them at the for a few covers, including George Jones’ “The Race is On” and Buddy Holly’s “Oh Boy.” Much like Jimi Hendrix a decade and a half earlier, this was an American group that had to find their initial success overseas (where the Stray Cats remain revered today) before reintroducing themselves to audience on these shores.  There’s a genuinely thrilling moment when Setzer and Rocker jump off the stage and are surrounded by wildly dancing Teddy Boys (including one with high hair and a sleeveless Confederate Flag shirt). For that moment, band and audience are one in whirling dervish of music and movement.

By contrast, the July 1981 nighttime show at Satory-Sale in Cologne finds the group in an even rawer and impossibly baby-faced state; could Setzer be all of just 21 or 22 and already written “Stray Cat Strut” and “Rock This Town"?

This performance is more feral, with Phantom’s drum-jumping and punctuated screaming more crazed. Highlights include Warren Smith’s rockabilly classic “Ubangi Stomp,” “Fishnet Stockings” (introduced by Setzer as a “dirty little underwear song exploiting females”), and set closer “Gonna Ball.” Tantalizingly, it’s an original song written about the then-fresh Iranian Hostage Crisis, “Storm the Embassy” (which also mentions Afghanistan), that shows what the band was capable of tackling contemporary issues with the rockabilly style. It would not have sounded out of place on an album by the Clash, Damned or Buzzcocks.

Both shows make one thing shockingly clear – Brian Setzer is one hell of a guitar player. While Rocker and Phantom stick to the basic beats and runs that rockabilly is known for (has anyone every done more with a single snare, bass kick drum, and cymbal than Phantom?), Setzer peels off amazing riff after riff and solo after solo with a guttural clarity that screams only one of two choices: fuck or fight.

And in some cases, it’s both.