Brian Setzer brought his ‘Rockabilly Riot’ tour to Europe in the summer. The American guitar-slinger has long been musical royalty in the USA and is no stranger to the prestigious venues of the UK. His current tour and previous extravaganzas of recent years be either with his Orchestra or The Stray Cats have done very well thank you sadly without the need to bother with too many interviews. That hasn’t always been the case as revisited in the yellowing pages of the New Musical Express dated August 30th 1980, though he did make the front page despite The Stray Cats still being a month or so away from recording anything. That ambition was there though and viewed through a crystal-clear pair of hindsight glasses those of us reading in 2011 are blessed with the writing of greatness was on the wall way back then.
It’s doubtful the 19 year-old who had been sleeping on the floor on a first floor London Soho office with his 18 year old Stray Cats band-mates would have believed it at the time. In fact headlining the Brixton Academy as a solo artist would have been pure fantasy as he bemoaned ‘ It’s really hard to get gigs here, compared to New York it is almost impossible, over here they want tapes and that shit’ The Stray Cats (newly renamed after known briefly at home as The Tom Cats) had arrived in the UK just a month previously with the promise of gigs but were let down, they were on the verge of returning to their native New York when they got a leg-up by a respected publicist, for proof see cover story on national music weekly after just playing a few well-hyped gigs. Within a month they had gone from pub gigs to Dingwalls and The Venue and the young Setzer had no regrets coming to England explaining that the only thing he’d go back to the US for at that point was to get some decent hair grease.
Despite lack of pomade his song writing was becoming prolific during that time and ideas were flowing (there is an intriguing mention of a song entitled Teenage Army – whatever happened to that?) Any UK recordings were still a month or so in the future Brian Setzer was already on the back foot with some criticism, to modern desensitised ears it may seem bizarre but singalong scapping ditty ‘Rumble In Brighton’ was getting some flack in the media. When the song was accused of glorifying violence Setzer was quick to leap to it and his defence ‘ It’s not a glorification of violence ‘cause I think the whole fighting thing is totally ridiculous, people just beating people us for the way they dress’. Despite that sort of inter-cult aggro being the norm in the 1980s Brian was apparently not intimidated having recently been in the audience for a Cockney Rejects gig at The Electric Ballroom and emerging unscathed despite his appearance though admitted to being ‘Scared shitless’
Unusually for a Rockabilly band at the time the Stray Cats had been soaking influence from the home-grown music scene citing Two-Tone legends the Specials, Beat and Selecter as an influence the way they took and established style, in their case Ska, and made it contemporary, That is a feeling he obviously kept true to in the three decades since. The final word has to go to 19 year old Brian who was pleased to being playing gigs to 300 people with no idea of the legendary status that awaited him, ‘If people were to accuse us of some sort of revival I wouldn’t see it because we don’t play pure Rockabilly, If you really feel something it isn’t a revival, look at some Jazz musicians that have been playing Swing for 40 years, it’s not a revival it’s something you really feel’. There is no doubt that ‘feeling it’ is something Brian Setzer does with Rockabilly, had the 2011 version been there to meet the newly tattooed and pompadoured upstart sucking on a beer and waxing lyrical back in August 1980 I think he’d have probably liked him.
© Simon Nott
First Published in ‘Vive Le Rock’ magazine.