STRAY CATS – Stray Cats

stray catsBack in 1980, aside from a few heavy metal bands, the charts were dominated by effeminate lads with foppish hair and make-up. Visage and Ultravox were riding high with their brands of new romantic electronics, Soft Cell were big news with their Soho synth-pop and seedy lyrics while Adam and the Ants were at the height of their popularity with fun pop songs and dressing-up-box, panto-style theatrics (hard to believe now, but they were very cool at the time). In short, thanks to a new generation of pop stars fixated with David Bowie’s ‘Low’, early Roxy Music and Kraftwerk, pop music had become very androgynous.

Step forward, three guys from Long Island, New York. Stray Cats were unlikely heroes. They championed a brand of no-nonsense fifties-style rock ‘n’ roll which was heavily influenced by Eddie Cochran. At a time when that style wasn’t so popular, they represented something altogether tougher and undeniably masculine. They first made waves at the end of 1980 with their first hit single ‘Runaway Boys’. When their self-titled debut LP (co-produced by Brian Setzer and Rockpile’s Dave Edmunds) appeared in record racks in 1981, it was almost totally out of step with the musical climate.

‘Runaway Boys’ opens the album, and it’s here that Stray Cats put most of their cards on the table. Energetic rockabilly rhythms, fantastic upright basses and a simple but thumping drum part ensure the track shows Stray Cats at their best – these key features play a major part in most of the album’s greatest moments. ‘Rock This Town’ is a perfect example of the band’s style – Brian Setzer’s guitar twang evokes the late fifties and is meticulously played, while Lee Rocker’s upright bass drives the track at a jumping pace, while once again Slim Jim Phantom hammers the drum with a musical heartbeat that’s hard to ignore. For ‘Stray Cat Strut’, things slow to a sleazy groove. This provides a closer look into Setzer’s retro guitar style. He really is in a class of his own, as a couple of great guitar breaks prove.

Don’t be fooled into thinking it’s just the hits which are the big draw here. The rock ‘n’ roll twang of ‘Rumble In Brighton’ is suitably menacing; the standard rock ‘n’ roll vibe of ‘Fishnet Stockings’ provides upbeat fun and a cover of Warren Smith’s ‘Ubangi Stomp’(a song written in the mid-fifties, which shows absolutely no understanding of other cultures) makes excellent use of the drums, pounding out a basic rhythm. It’s a little heavy-handed in places but works well – provided, that is, you can put up with its potentially racist tone. ‘Storm The Embassy’ is a political song about the 1979-80 Iran hostage crisis. It’s the only time ‘Stray Cats’ obviously deviates from its classic rock ‘n’ roll style. Slim Jim’s drum sound loses its reverb and Lee Rocker’s bass is warmer. In fact, the whole thing sounds like something more modern, even though it retains a little rock ‘n’ roll spirit. Its political lyric also feels a little out of place up against the other, more fun material.

A cover of Eddie Cochran’s ‘Jeanie, Jeanie Jeanie’ is tackled at full-pace and has been updated for a demanding post-punk audience by making the lyrics edgier with a liberal use of the f-word, but despite that, it’s a fairly faithful rendition of the song. ‘Crawl Up and Die’ slows things down a little once again and sounds like something based around the ‘Peter Gunn’ theme and is suitably sneering. As you’d expect, ‘Wild Saxaphone’ [sic] is a fast workout featuring brass. With the addition of saxophone to Stray Cats’ trademark rock ‘n’ roll, the end result sounds a little more complex than some of the other material. For a wild saxophone, the brass section isn’t quite punchy enough on this number, coming across as “slightly quirky” as opposed to “wild”, but it’s a minor complaint.

‘Stray Cats’ is a cracking debut album (which interestingly never got a US release, despite the band hailing from New York). It may have a couple of moments which are questionable lyrically, but musically it hits the mark nearly every time. The synth-pop music of the early eighties may come in and out of fashion, but it’s full of dated sounds. Stray Cats (the band) sounded timeless back then and they sound the same now and ‘Stray Cats’ (the album) is a great snapshot of their talent.

Watch their 1981 appearance on the German Rockpalast show:
Got Sweet Love On My Mind
Double Talkin Baby
Rumble In Brighton
My One Desire
Ubangi Stomp
Drink That Bottle Down
Storm The Embassy
Stray Cat Strut
Fishnet Stockings
Important Words
Rock This Town
Runaway Boys
Somethin’ Else
Gonna Ball

Watch various other clips from 1981:
The video for ‘Runaway Boys’ here.
‘Stray Cat Strut’ live on US TV here.
‘Runaway Boys’ live on US TV here.
Various clips from Japanese TV here.

March 2010

TOM ALLALONE & THE 78s – Major Sins pt 1


In February 2010, one of the finest bands of the previous couple of years broke up rather suddenly. Driven by an equal love of Brian Setzer, Elvis Costello and old Phil Spector discs, the 78s were set to bring rock ‘n’ roll music back to the people. The timing was right – after all, other bands like Baddies and the over-rated Vincent Vincent and the Villains were starting to make waves with sometimes similar types of retro cool. The band had even secured a deal with major label Nettwerk, who’d taken a gamble by making Tom Allalone & The 78’s their first UK signings. Sadly, the record company then showed less than no interest and give ‘Major Sins Pt 1’ no promotion whatsoever at its time of release.

Released in May 2009, their album showed a great deal of potential. Taking those aforementioned influences and trademark check shirts, the band deliver the album’s thirteen songs (many thinly veiled with references to their hometown and surrounding areas) with gusto – sure, there are slow numbers, but even those are brimming with self-confidence.

The album’s lead single ‘Hell Hath No Fury’ is a full throttle rock ‘n’ roll belter. A tale of being wronged by women, this track is largely driven by Richard Clarke’s twangy guitar riff and a shouty chorus. Similarly, ‘Gravesend Boys’ is chock-full of r ‘n’ r bluster and is another moment where the no-nonsense Stray Cats influence is at its most obvious. Combined with sexually charged lyrics regarding an unnamed local lass, it’s probably the track on the album I’m most likely to skip; it doesn’t make it bad – it was always an excellent live number – it’s more a case of ‘Hell Hath No Fury’ doing this kind of thing better. For simple, high energy rock ‘n’ roll, ‘The Jitterbug’ – an ode to sex on the dancefloor – is the album’s winner. Si Fawcett’s bass work is confident, Matt Evans’s drumming is suitably aggressive and the guitar riff is cutting. If you want to cut loose and listen to something that’ll make you want to jump up and down, look no further.

Despite the rock ‘n’ roll influences at the heart of the band’s core sound, it’s on a few of the album’s more complex tracks where the 78s really shine. ‘Casillero Del Diablo’ brings a Latin quality (not to mention a really memorable guitar part) and an excellent use of horns. Lyrically, it features some of Tom’s best work as he describes that nighclub where everyone seems to go, but nobody really should, since “the dance floor is a black hole” and the DJ swigs “petrol from an old hip flask”. Opting for a slightly more indie-rock feel and probably the track that’s most accessible to the widest audience (though always retaining their retro cool), ‘I’m Just The DJ’ explores the lonely world of the lonely man who spins the tunes while everyone around him has a good time. He provides the entertainment (in Tom’s world, this is provided while listening to ‘Gloomy Sunday’ on the earphones), but ultimately goes home alone. The album’s second single ‘Crashland’ is a fantastic soul inspired number with energetic use of brass. Trading in fifties rock for a sixties soul vibe is inspired and the band sounds equally comfortable here. The arrangement is faultless (this sounds like hype, but I honestly think it’s that good) and it features one of Tom’s greatest vocals. In short, it should have been a hit.

‘Wounded’ is another story of loneliness; this time it’s loneliness caused by a painful break-up. Musically, it’s one of the album’s simpler numbers, showing a big Chris Isaak style influence. Once again, it’s Tom’s knack with lyrics which makes it stand up. Lyrically, ‘Dogshit Street’ is Tom’s greatest achievement. Set to a gentle musical arrangement which makes great use of piano and slide guitar, this tells the heartbreaking tale of a girl subjected to a terrible upbringing, who in turn gives her kids a similar life (“Roach butts and roaches lie at your kids feet/You won’t change/ “You race home from Dover with goods you hand over to kids/A small girl that is sober is hard to win over”). When I first heard it, there was something in its frankness and downbeat nature which reminded me of Eels; musically, too, there’s a smidgeon of Mark Oliver Everett in there, though that’s most likely due to the piano and bells.

‘Sign On You Lazy Diamond’ provides another musical and lyrical high point. Its chorus is one of the album’s most memorable, while the story within regards a pushy mother and her insistence our protagonist should sign on and look for real work instead of looking at music for a career. But, as he says, “someday I’m gonna be somebody and prove that woman wrong”. The track is structured around a superb walking bassline from Si Fawcett and sharp rhythm guitar parts. It’s as good as anything you’ll ever hear in this style. ‘This Teenage Crush’ is an epic number with a strong Phil Spector vibe which evokes the sound of those classic girl bands and fifties doo wop. The rhythm section is used sparingly; the dramatic build up is provided by well arranged strings and an increased volume from the vocals and guitars until eventually the strings all but take over in this wall of sound.

Since the album lacked promotion, it seemed to be only the band’s die-hard followers and those who saw Tom and co supporting The Stereophonics or Imelda May (a tour the band got kicked off of for being too good) who took notice to any great level. Their future should have been so much brighter – and listening to the demos for the unfinished second album, the 78s sounded more confident in their approach than ever.

There’s something altogether familiar about the sole Tom Allalone & The 78s LP, ’the music has a timeless quality, largely due to their classic influences, but more than that, Tom’s lyrical ability and the band’s tendency to throw different influences into the mix makes great listening. Track down a copy of this album – you won’t regret it. Since it wasn’t a great hit at the time, it may eventually become a cult classic.

See the video for ‘Crashland’ here.
See an acoustic version of ‘Who’s Gonna Kiss Me at Midnight’ here.

June 2010