The Stray Cats, and rockabilly in general, remind me of my old friend Pat, with whom I worked many years ago at a coffee shop. He was 19 and I was 27ish, but we became great friends because of our mutual love of music. Pat was in a few bands and one of them actually recorded an album, which I still have. We hung out a lot and started going to a local goth bar when they had a weekly 80s pop music night. He was nice enough to be my designated driver every week, since he was underage and I was already an unrepentant party girl. We used to have a lot of fun together, and he shared lots of music with me I had never given a chance. He came with my sisters and me to see the Brian Setzer Orchestra once, and my sisters were kind of annoyed because he kept critiquing the musicians instead of just enjoying the show. I wonder where Pat is now. He was such an awesome guy.
But mainly, The Stray Cats remind me of the power of music. By the time I heard them in 1982 I was nine years old and had been listening to my Mom’s old rock and roll records for about four years. I am not sure if I thought they were an old band or what, but I knew that their sound was retro, as was their look. Not that it mattered to me, because their music was kick-ass and I always had to tap my toes and sing along with it. And that’s why I loved rock and roll in the first place.
As I have mentioned many, many times before, writing my MA thesis about rock music changed the way I listen to it. It’s not that I’m analytical in the usual dry fashion of so many historians; rather, I hear it differently. I absolutely still enjoy it as a fan, but now I can hear the various influences on the artists as well as specific lyrics or licks that were inspired by or blatantly stolen from others. I’m a music nerd, so it’s fun for me to figure out these things and tell everyone! I am not a musician (aside from having played the violin in 4th grade and flute from 5th to 9th), but I am a writer, so I can definitely look back at old work and tell you who I was reading at the time I wrote it. (I mostly copied the styles of Jack Kerouac, Dorothy Parker, and Anaïs Nin.)
The first time I listened to a Bill Haley & His Comets album in its entirety I was struck by all the other musicians I could tell were influenced by them. I felt the same way about listening to Chuck Berry’s Great Twenty-Eight compilation. These guys are some of the founders of the sound, as varied as their sounds are. Bill Haley’s “Happy Baby” is clearly an influence of The Stray Cats, from the very first note! It’s not one of the songs I grew up hearing, but as soon as it boomed out of my stereo I had a say what now? moment, and immediately thought of “Rock This Town.”
The Stray Cats were always honest about their influences, and since they came around more than a quarter-century after rock and roll took over the souls of teenagers all over the world they obviously were doing a tribute to that era, but not in a cheesy way. I grew up watching the Sha Na Na TV show, and though they focused on doo wop and not rockabilly they still dressed like greasers, and between that and watching Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley, I knew everything I needed to know about 50s music and fashion. And I knew that I loved it! So loving The Stray Cats came naturally to me. They were not the biggest band at the time, and maybe they were thought of as more of a novelty act in the United States, but my middle sister and I just adored them!
“Rock This Town” is about a guy going out with a girl to try to have a wild night. It’s a typical 50s song about looking cool, doing cool stuff, and having a cool night. He tells the story of how they tried finding a cool place to hang out. There was one bar that really didn’t look half-bad until he went to the jukebox and saw that disco was all they had! So he said fuck this shit and got out of there right away. They’re just looking for a joint where they can rock! So they go to another place where they’re dancing their asses off and having a ball, but this real square cat from, like, 1974, keeps lookin’ at him funny. Brian Setzer is ready to rumble if necessary. In the video, this is the part where the badass chick (who I always thought was wearing a wedding dress, lol!) Brian is on a date with more than handles her business with this douchebag who’s trying to get all up on her. I always loved that she didn’t need anyone to help her take of it. Though they didn’t have a million videos like everyone else in the 80s, the chicks The Stray Cats featured in their videos were always fierce, and I wanted to be just like them.
When I wrote about Queen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” a clear tribute to Elvis and the early rock and roll that influenced the band, I mentioned how emotional I get when listening to it.
Freddie’s voice is always impressive, but what affects me most about the way he sings this song is his obvious affection for Elvis. Anyone can do an exaggerated imitation of Elvis, but that’s not what Freddie does here. This really is an exceptional tribute to not just the man who died just a few years before, but to the music that was such a necessity, such a vehicle for so many young people who desperately needed something to call their own.
This is how I feel when I listen to The Stray Cats. I can feel their love for rock and roll. Brian Setzer is one of my idols in this regard, because that guy just fucking loves to play music whenever and wherever he can! He has a true appreciation for the art form, and I really admire him. This is also why I love Dave Grohl. (I just couldn’t write a blog a not mention Dave!) I love anyone who is as obsessed with music as I am, especially the early days of rock and roll. Rock and roll made us all who we are.