Resurrecting rockabilly

By Sergio Ariza

Brian Setzer was born on April 10, 1959, in Massapequa, New York, the very same year Buddy Holly had died on February 3, Elvis was halfway through his 2 years of military service, Little Richard had quit rock & roll to find religion, Chuck Berry had various problems with the law, and Jerry Lewis was losing his career due to his scandalous marriage with his 13-year-old cousin. To make matters worse, in July Somethin’ Else by Eddie Cochran was released and bombed in the U.S., but not in the U.K., the country would become a refuge for the last rockers like Cochran himself and Gene Vincent. The first wave of rock & roll and rockabilly had died in the USA, but our protagonist today was going to resurrect it in the early 80s, together with his band the Stray Cats, after going the opposite way to that of Gene and Eddie.

Little Brian was a fan of music since he was a boy, his first favourite band was the Beatles, getting his parents to buy him a guitar at age 6 to play the music of his idols. He showed promise from the start and started taking classes when he was 8, getting lessons for the next 10-12 years. One day, when he was in his bedroom listening to Honey Don’t, his father came in singing and dancing, Setzer asked him if he knew the Beatles, and his dad answered, “I have no idea who the Beatles are, but that song is by Carl Perkins”. From that moment on Setzer began to listen to his dad’s record collection and discovered the original sources. At 14 he became obsessed with Eddie Cochran, starting to comb his hair and dress like him.

When he entered high school disco music began its unstoppable climb on the hits charts. Setzer couldn’t have been more opposed to this movement, but neither was he much in favour of the rock scene of the moment, long solos that all sounded the same, progressive bands which were impossible to dance to, and lacked the aggressive excitement of the original rock & roll. His first real electric guitar was a Rickenbacker, Setzer tried to get away from the prevailing sound, a Les Paul plugged into a Marshall, and find his own personality. It was clear to him when he listened to Clapton or Dickey Betts on the radio, it wasn’t necessary to say it was them, he knew exactly who they were. He wanted the same recognition for himself, so when at 17 he saw an ad that said simply, “Gretsch guitar, orange, $100”, he got his money and headed to that address. It was a 6120, just like his hero Eddie Cochran played. At the time there was nobody he knew that played one. With this guitar, he was about to build the rebirth of rockabilly.   

A little earlier he had formed his first band, The Bloodless Pharaohs, with his brother Gary on drums, and 2 other musicians, Brian didn’t sing, he just played guitar. The group was into the new wave and punk scene, where Setzer found his comfort zone. It was in one of those juke joints of the punk scene, Max’s Kansas City, where he had a definitive revelation when someone put on Be-Bop-A-Lula by Gene Vincent and his Blue Caps. Setzer couldn't believe it, that aggressive raw attitude with just a few elements fitted perfectly with the urgency of punk but there was something else. The moment he heard Cliff Gallups solo he knew what it was. Those guys were playing like the devil himself. From then on they began to play as a trio under the name the Tom Cats, Palm Cats, and Bob Cats.  At the end of their performances they finished with a rockabilly number and the joint went crazy. He had found his new home, now he just needed to find the right players.     


Jim McDonnell, drummer, and Leon Drucker, bassist, were two 50s rock & roll fans and classmates at his high school. Before joining the band they had already changed their names to Slim Jim Phantom and Lee Rocker, in 1979 they joined the Tom Cats, and before long they were the only members along with Setzer. It would be Rocker who would find the right adjective for the Cats, the Stray Cats.

When he was 19 Setzer was up on stage at the legendary CBGB in New York, ground zero for the punk movement, with his extravagant pompadour, a green silk suit, blue suede shoes, and an orange Gretsch at a moment when half the world caught the Saturday night fever. The Stray Cats looked like aliens from another planet (or another time) in the wrong place. But then an old ‘teddy boy’, the English equivalent of the rockers, told them that they would love them in England where rockabilly still had a following, and they were the real thing; they were Americans. They didn’t need much more convincing, they sold all the gear they could to buy one way tickets and left for the land that had resuscitated the careers of Gene and Eddie.

Shortly after their arrival word of mouth spread and the Stray Cats became a real sensation in London. Suddenly rock stars started showing up at their gigs, Robert Plant one day, the Rolling Stones another, and The Who next. Without even realising it, one day Setzer was jamming with Keith Richards, exchanging Scotty Moores licks with Keef himself at his mansion. They signed with Arista and Dave Edmunds offered to produce their first record, called simply, The Stray Cats. That first record is still, to this day, Setzer’s favorite of his career. Not surprisingly, it contains the 3 greatest classics of his career, Stray Cat Strut, Rock This Town, and Runaway Boys, songs that can look in the face of the great classics of the golden days of the genre, showing that beyond a ‘revival’, the band had things to contribute. The most interesting thing was the sound of Setzer’s guitar, based on Moore, Gallup, and the rest of his rockabilly idols, but adding new things like greater fluency and dexterity. As an example Rock This Town is where his ‘59 6120 is jacked directly into an SSL 4000E console at Eden Studios, giving it a warm crystal-clear sound.     

The record wasn’t released in the USA, but was an instant hit in the U.K and Europe where the Stray Cats became authentic stars. In mid-1981 they went back to the studio to record its sequel, Gonna Ball, which, despite not achieving as similar a success as the 3 hits on the debut, they kept a high level of playing as on Rev It Up And Go, a tribute to the music of Chuck Berry in which Setzer shines on his Gretsch. When the album was released in November of 1981, the Stray Cats were on tour in the USA as the opening band for the Rolling Stones. That impulse would cause record companies to scramble to get them to come to their country.

This was how they signed with EMI who in 1982 released Built for Speed, a record that combines the best songs from their first 2 albums and in which on the album cover you can see where a good part of the money was going until then; the ‘56 Chevy on the cover was owned by Setzer. The guitarist had begun to collect classic cars, and didn’t forget to get himself some more Gretsch models, including a precious White Falcon which would make an appearance on Stray Cat Strut video, one of the songs that would make them stars in his own country.   


Built For Speed climbed to #2 on the sales charts and both Rock This Town and Stray Cat Strut snuck into the top 10 list of singles. Rockabilly was back and the Stray Cats were its new masters. All at once the old Gretsch models were fetching astronomical prices and not long after the company was back in the game. Gretsch would never forget it, and turned Setzer in 1990, into the 2nd guitarist to whom they would dedicate a ‘signature’ model, after Chet Atkins.  


Their 3rd album came out in 1983, Rant n’ Rave with the Stray Cats, another remarkable record who had the misfortune of being compared to Built For Speed, basically a compilation of their best songs. The album opens by paying homage to his idol Eddie Cochran, with Rebels Rule, but things like the horn section in Look At That Cadillac see Setzer looking at the future of his time with his orchestra, while on I Won’t Stand in Your Way, he successfully gets into doo-wop territory, but the song that had the most success on the record was the unstoppable (She’s) Sexy and 17, featuring an excellent solo by Setzer. But just at the time when they were on top, the decided to break up. It was a decision they would regret but everyone was in their own bubble.

Brian Setzer was requested by stars like Bob Dylan and Stevie Nicks, besides playing with Robert Plant and his Honeydrippers on Saturday Night Live, but he already had his mind set on his solo career. In 1986 The Knife Feels Like Justice came out, and it was a complete surprise since, instead of rockabilly he was more into ‘roots-rock’ and ‘heartland rock’ from contemporaries like Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty, as proof his 2 right-hand-men were Steve Van Zandt and Mike Campbell, who appear sharing credits for composition. Despite remarkable songs like the title cut or the beautiful Boulevard of Broken Dreams, where he dusts off the 6120, the record didn’t get the desired response, and that same year the Stray Cats got back together. They had lost part of their original impulse but, even so, they were still a great band. Especially onstage, with Setzer’s habitual gear, his beloved 6120 plugged into a ‘63 Fender Bassman and few other effects, although he usually uses a Roland RE-301 Space Echo to emulate the ‘slapback’ effect so characteristic of rockabilly.  

In 1989 Blast Off was released, with their tribute to Gene and Eddie, with Setzer ripping various riffs by Cochran and Cliff Gallup. However, after their 7th record, Choo Choo Hot Fish, out in 1992, the trio split up again.

Setzer had been trying for some time to incorporate an orchestra to do something with another of his obsessions, 1930s swing. So the Brian Setzer Orchestra came about and released their first self-titled album in 1994 provoking a ‘revival’ of swing as he had done in the 80s with rockabilly. As on that occasion the thing came together bit by bit. Firstly, other bands were out with the same style and, after albums like Guitar Slinger, where he gets together with his good friend Joe Strummer, the total revolution arrived with his cover of Jump, Jive, & Wail by Louis Prima, included on the 1998 album The Dirty Boogie, a record that also housed a revision of the classic Sleepwalk by Santo & Johnny, which would earn him a Grammy, a new version of his own classic Rock This Town, and a duet with Gwen Stefani from No Doubt, on You’re The Boss, originally sung by Elvis Presley and Ann-Margret.

During the 21st century Setzer has combined his albums with his orchestra, with solo rockabilly comebacks and sporadic reunions with the Stray Cats, the last of those being his participation in an event in Las Vegas where they shared the bill with one of their idols, Jerry Lee Lewis. In this year the Stray Cats had got back together to celebrate their 40th anniversary with a new record, 40, and a new tour, it is time to don once again the blue suede shoes, the pompadour, and dust off the leather jacket because “We’re gonna rock with Brian, Lee, and Jim!”.