The temptation is to think of the Stray Cats as one-hit wonders who strutted onto MTV for their 15 minutes, and that there wasn’t much more to their story than that. A quick look at their catalog, though, reveals a string of hits that includes “Stray Cat Strut”, “Runaway Boys,” “Rock This Town”, “(She’s) Sexy + 17”, and others. Anchored by Lee Rocker’s bass and Slim Jim Phantom’s drums, Brian Setzer emerged as a guitarist who could play pretty much anything the history of rockabilly threw at him. Together, they single-handedly brought about a short-lived rockabilly revival.
The Stray Cats were always a better band than they were given credit for at the height of their popularity, and certainly deserve more credit than they currently receive in people’s memory. Part of that perception problem, though, probably lies in the band’s on-again/off-again nature. After 1983’s Rant N’ Rave With the Stray Cats, the band broke up. Realizing they were obligated to produce one more album, the band reformed for 1986’s Rock Therapy, only to break up again before reconvening for 1989’s Blast Off. The band separated again after a covers album, 1993’s Original Cool. Since then, they’ve played live dates through the years, although even now, they’re in the midst of a farewell tour.
Rock Therapy and Blast Off have recently been reissued by Hep Cat Records. They’re straight reissues, with no bonus cuts, but they still provide a valuable opportunity to re-evaluate the band’s output.
Equal parts covers and originals, Rock Therapy was primarily recorded live. Its off-the-cuff feel is part of its charm. Of the originals, there’s nothing to match the band’s biggest hits, although Setzer’s ode to a bad girl in “Reckless” holds up especially well and “I’m a Rocker” overflows with that coveted Elvis-at-Sun energy. By and large, though, Rock Therapy is defined by covers such as Gene Vincent’s “Race With the Devil”, Charlie Feathers’ “One Hand Loose”, and Lee & Rocker’s “I Wanna Cry”. Surprisingly, “Race With the Devil” might best encapsulate the main problem with Rock Therapy. It’s a song that screams to be played recklessly, at a breakneck pace, but the Stray Cats—despite Setzer’s fluid lead guitar fills—treat it like a leisurely Sunday drive. In the same way that Rock Therapy should be the Stray Cats’ blazing return to form, it feels a little tentative, although I give points to the band for stretching out on the banjo-led “Broken Man”.
Blast Off, by contrast, is much stronger coming out of the gate, with the band sounding more raw and locked-in. Consisting mainly of originals (the only cover being Eddie Bond’s “Slip, Slip, Slippin’ In”), Blast Off also finds the band reuniting with Dave Edmunds, who did such great work producing their debut. From the way Setzer makes the word “more” sound like a wolf howl in the title track to the catalog of vintage guitar licks in “Gene and Eddie” to the buzzsaw riff that kicks off “Rockabilly Rules”, Blast Off is the closest the Stray Cats would come to recapturing their initial fire. “Rockin’ All Over the Place” is a rave-up from beginning to end. “Nine Lives” ends the album with the band’s best bit of slink since “Stray Cat Strut”.
After Blast Off, the band would attempt only two more studio records, followed by a string of live releases. It’s tempting, then to look at Rock Therapy and Blast Off as the band’s last hurrah. While Rock Therapy is easily the weaker of the two, it still features that timeless, organic tradition that inspired the Stray Cats (especially in light of Setzer’s incredibly dated-sounding solo debut, The Knife Feels Like Justice, which came out between these discs). Blast Off for its part, sounds just as vital and charged as those hits we got from the Stray Cats’ early days.