It figures, amidst the 1980s’ buttoned-down conservatism, that the ’50s would become talismanic — and that the Stray Cats would be such big hitmakers. Yet, a new Eagle Rock concert DVD makes it clear there’s still something to be learned from those rockabilly-loving post punks.
Namely, just how good Brian Setzer has always been, even back in the days when he played under a bleach-blond mop.
Appearing at Montreux only six months after their 1981 debut had burst onto the pop charts behind hits like “Rock this Town” and “Stray Cat Strut,” this concert showcases Setzer at just 22 — and he was the oldster of the bunch. Stray Cats drummer Slim Jim Phantom was 20, and bassist Lee Rocker was 19.
They play here with the commiserate abandon, leaping and yelping and riffing with a sweaty abandon. Yet, between the cheers of the crowd (which is strikingly close to the action; some of them even have their elbows on the stage), there are these early signs of the embryonic talents embedded in Setzer’s playing.
Radio (or, really, MTV) fans will flock to the hits, if only to hear Setzer’s snotty putdown of the then-fading disco movement in “Rock This Town” or his slinky come-ons during “Stray Cat Strut.” Others might love the throwback vibe found on their covers of Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran and the like.
For me, though, the most interesting moments are the deep cuts and other assorted originals: “Rumble in Brighton,” which Setzer co-wrote with Phantom, finds the guitarist playing with a nervy, low-key aggression. I was also struck by the jazzy feel of “Drink That Bottle Down,” with Setzer concentrating on his guitar while Rocker takes over the mic. Then there’s one of the Stray Cats’ few, maybe only, political songs: “Storm the Embassy,” about the Iranian hostage crisis that had gripped America at the turn of the 1980s. Setzer walks a fine line here, playing in a more modern, almost new wave style before exploding into a series of furious declamations.
Elsewhere, the 15-song set alternates between their then-new originals and vintage grease-ball tracks first put to wax between 1956-61. Four of them, in fact, come courtesy of Vincent, including a raucous, sing-a-long version of “Be Bop A Lula.” (His “Important Words” and “Pretty Baby,” from this new DVD, haven’t appeared on any other Stray Cats release.)
Eddie Cochran’s “Somethin’ Else” is also given a revved-up reworking. “Sweet Love of My Mind,” meanwhile, was recorded by Johnny Burnette’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Trio — which featured guitarist Paul Burlison, a key influence on Setzer’s early style. Setzer also references James Burton, who rose to international fame as Elvis Presley’s late-period guitarist, with a new rendition of Ricky Nelson’s “My One Desire.”
Still, I kept coming back to signature moments like “Drink That Bottle Down” and “Storm the Embassy,” times when it is utterly obvious just how much Setzer had to offer. I’m not certain he couldn’t have been any kind of player he’d wanted to be. Of course, we all know that Setzer instead traded in one reminiscence for another and then another, switching from ’50s music to jump-and-jive big band and onto Christmas music — but that’s a complaint for another day.