Listen to this track by Atlantic criss-crossing rockabilly revivalist trio The Stray Cats. It’s “Rock This Town”, their 1981 single as taken off of their debut record The Stray Cats. It would appear again the next year on the US-released Built For Speed album, which EMI released in North America on the strength of that earlier UK record.
The band was from Long island, forming on the New York scene playing both Max’s Kansas City and CBGB, with those scenes being breeding grounds for all kinds of “back to basics” approaches, even if the Stray Cats went back further than most. It was the enduring Ted scene in Britain that lured them across the pond, where they would eventually record their initial two albums, and this single with Rockpile’s Dave Edmunds as producer, himself known for his love of the Sun Records sound.
The single eventually hit top ten in the US and here in Canada, too. But how?
At the time, “Rock This Town” was something of a shock to hear on the radio, just because it was so obviously retro, but not in a nostalgic, or kitschy or camp sort of way in the vein of Grease, or Sha Na Na was in the 1970s. It was the real thing – actual rockabilly played straight, and played incredibly well; Brian Setzer on guitar and singing, Lee Rocker on stand-up bass, and Slim Jim Phantom on a minimalist drum kit. And it was one of the best things on the radio besides. Time was also on its side, which was another important factor to its success.
First, it traded on what punk had traded on, which was to avoid the inheritance of the hippy generation, even if most punk bands ended up referencing ’60s music anyway. Going back to Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran made that pretty simple. But second, it also hooked into the wish by fans that rock ‘n’ roll would make a comeback on mainstream radio after a decade of disco, prog, and corporate rock. With “Rock This Town”, that wish was pretty well embodied.
But, as is always, it’s the fact that the song is great that really solidifies it all. This is a story song of sorts, evoking all kinds of classic rock ‘n’ roll imagery; a night out, hair piled high, hopping from place to place in the car to find the right tunes and a good time. That’s pretty easy to connect with, no matter which decade it’s happening in. And it led to a string of singles which kept the Stray Cats in the top forty for roughly the first half of the 1980s, locked into a sound that was to be compared to no other act on the radio.
But, the timing that helped them along soon shifted, as it often does. By 1984, their classic run was over even if they would keep touring and recording into the ’90s. After that period, The Stray Cats would become an intermittent concern through various break ups and reunions as the three members embarked on various solo careers. “Rock This Town” would endure through the decades anyway, proving that classic rock ‘n’ roll themes can be still applied, even as trends come and go.
For more, check out this interview with lead singer and guitarist Brian Setzer about his time with the Stray Cats during their initial success, and about their connection to punk rock of the late 70s in Britain, and about what makes the difference between lasting units and also-rans – songs.