The Stray Cats were on a roll in 1983.
Formed in 1979 by guitarist Brian Setzer, the rockabilly trio from New York City didn’t find success until they went to England—where punk had brought the band’s favored Teddy Boy fashions back in a big way.
Setzer and fellow Cats Lee Rocker (upright bass) and Slim Jim Phantom (drums) cut a self-titled debut in 1981, followed closely by the U.K.-only release Gonna Ball. Their first American album, 1982’s Built for Speed, was a compilation that cherry-picked from the first two LPs for a single rockin’ stateside release on EMI. “Rock This Town” and “Stray Cat Strut” burned up the radio charts. Meanwhile, the band’s tough-boy image (with rolled up jeans and pompadours) made them favorites on then-fledgling MTV.
Despite their throwback ‘50s sound, The Stray Cats were booked for “New Wave Day” at the 1983 US Festival alongside A Flock of Seagulls, Men at Work, and INXS. There, they heated up an already sweltering San Bernardino stage over Memorial Day Weekend.
Setzer, Rocker, and Phantom had already paid their dues—but playing to crowds numbering in the tens of thousands must’ve been a huge confidence-builder. By the time they took the stage at Open Air Loreley in Germany three months later, the Cats were absolute masters of their domain.
Now available from MVD Entertainment, Stray Cats: Live at Rockpalast captures two phenomenal live shows by the brothel-creeping brethren—including the whole of Loreley—as filmed and recorded by WDR for the popular German T.V. show.
Starting in late afternoon and ending at dusk, the perspiration-inducing outdoors performance sees a 24-year old Setzer head up an eighty-minute romp through a slew of raucous Cats originals—plus a handful of cool covers. And the thousands of spectators (not a port-o-pot in sight) love it.
Wielding an orange Gretsch guitar (whose finish matches his pants), the slick-haired Setzer powers through Johnny Burnette’s “Baby Blue Eyes” and Gene Vincent’s “Double-Talkin’ Baby” with convincing ‘60s swagger, endearing himself to the prodigiously-inked, Mohawked young crowd. Eschewing a drum stool, tall, slender Phantom throttles a minimalist kit consisting merely of kick drum, snare, and crash cymbal while Rocker thumps double-bass with a flipper-like right hand.
Watching the video, one is reminded just how skilled a guitarist Setzer was (and still is). Born when Elvis was just breaking (with “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”) , Setzer takes Scotty Moore’s brand of echo-saturated sock-hop acrobatics into previously uncharted territory—and tosses in a few of the wicked-fast Van Halen-style licks that were en vogue at the time. He drops to his knees while soloing on “Rumble in Brighton,” then leaps down into the camera pit without missing a note.
Rocker (who alternately straddles his bass like a horse and caresses it like a woman) fields lead vocals on a boozy “Drink That Bottle Down,” then loses his jacket and shirt on “Built for Speed.” Perched on his instrument like a biker on a Harley-Davidson, Rocker tugs the strings on “Runaway Boys” and keeps things clipping on Rant ‘n’ Rave cut “Too Hip, Gotta Go.”
British sax legend Mel Collins (King Crimson, Alan Parsons Project) oozes R&B suave on “Look at That Cadillac” and “Lonely Summer Nights” as Slim Jim climbs his kick-bass, whacking the snare and cymbal from above. The show hits second gear with “Stray Cat Strut,” whereon Setzer gives a mid-song toast and enters the pit again to high-five onlookers. A dude in a Confederate flag tank-top does an impressive skank dance as Setzer wails during “Sexy and 17.”
A shirtless Setzer trades guitar for banjo on Earl Scruggs encore “Banjo Time (Foggy Mountain Breakdown),” going bluegrass for the three-minute instrumental. Then the Gretsch is back—along with guitar hero Dave Edmunds, who sings and swaps licks with Setzer on the George Jones number “The Race Is On.” Another pair covers follows: Edmunds rips on the Rock and Roll Trio’s “Tear It Up,” then defers to Brian on the Buddy Holly classic “Oh, Boy!”
The Cats’ “Rock This Town” grand finale turns from four-minute single into a seven-minute jam on the banks of the Rhine.
A shorter (but no less stellar) 1981Rockpalast performance at Cologne’s Satory-Sale comprises the DVD’s latter half, and boasts most of the requisite big cuts (“Stray Cat Strut,” “Rock This Town”). But it showcases lesser-known cuts like Charles Underwood’s “Ubangi Stomp,” Gene Vincent’s “Important Words,” and Eddie Cochran’s “Somethin’ Else” by a barely out-of-their-teens trio that hasn’t yet broken through in the States.
It’s a nice contrast to Loreley: The indoors gig sees Setzer and friends (in leather jackets) playing to a much smaller audience in front of a faux graffiti wall backdrop. And—minus a technical glitch that prompts Phantom to instruct a crew member to turn Rocker’s bass “the f#$k down” in his monitor—it’s a hitch-free sixty-minute marathon of rockabilly heaven that’d make Bill Haley proud.