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Music / Stray Cats

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Three cool cats. Left to right: Slim Jim Phantom, Brian Setzer, and Lee Rocker.
"Teenage rebel out all night
Teenage rebel drink and fight
Rockabilly rebel don’t go to school
Teenage rebels rule, rule, rule"
— “Rebels Rule”

The band that brought Rockabilly back to the pop world. Stray Cats are a power trio formed in the late ‘70s by guitarist Brian Setzer, stand up bassist Lee Rocker, and drummer Slim Jim Phantom. All three went to – or didn’t go to, as the case often was – school together in Massapequa, New York. Hanging around CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City introduced them to both Eddie Cochran and the punk scene, big influences on their work.

They played the small places and amassed an impressive following, but had a hard time breaking through. Their style of stripped-down rock music was considered too weird in New York because it was neither Hard Rock nor Punk. They’d heard the scene in London was more diverse...and in the summer of 1980, they scraped together enough money to fly there. The tickets were one-way, so success was the only option. After sleeping in parks and on floors for a few months, they started getting gigs as an opening act.


With their gravity-defying hair, thrift store cat clothes, and flashy showmanship, the Stray Cats couldn’t help getting noticed. Soon, they were being wined and dined by The Rolling Stones. Every record label in England wanted to sign them. They accepted a deal that would see their albums released everywhere but the United States and got to work.

The rest is history. The band saw incredible success in England – so much so that people in other countries were surprised the Stray Cats were American. The US warmed up eventually, though it took a few years. Their showmanship, with Slim Jim Phantom standing at the front of the stage pounding his kit; Lee Rocker spinning and climbing on his bass; and Brian Setzer crooning his way through the songs like a tattooed Paul McCartney, ensured they became an MTV mainstay.


The Cats went their separate ways in the 90s, but get back together for a tour once in a while. Brian Setzer is the best-known Stray Cat by a long shot, perhaps due to his orchestra.


  • Brian Setzer – lead guitar, lead vocals, and most of the songwriting.
  • Lee Rocker – upright bass, acoustic guitar, backing vocals. On the rare occasion he takes the lead, assume he cowrote it.
  • Slim Jim Phantom – drums, backing vocals, more songwriting than you might expect.


  • Stray Cats (February 1981)
  • Gotta Ball (October 1981)
  • Built for Speed (1982) note 
  • Rant n’ Rave with the Stray Cats (1983)
  • Rock Therapy (1986) note 
  • Blast Off! (1989)
  • Let’s Go Faster (1990)
  • Choo Choo Hot Fish (1992)
  • Original Cool (1994)
  • Rumble in Brixton (2004)
  • 40 (2019)

We’re gonna rock these tropes:

  • Aerith and Bob: Lee Rocker, Slim Jim Phantom…and Brian Setzer.
  • All Drummers Are Animals: Slim Jim Phantom. Offstage, he’s always been the party animal of the three. Onstage, he’s not content with sitting behind the singer. His drum kit is always at the front…and he plays it standing up. During particularly intense songs, he climbs on top of his drums.
  • The Alleged Car: “Rev It Up & Go”
    I got a ’39 Ford
    This old heap just won’t die
    Well this ’39 Ford might outlive you and I
  • Break-Up Song: “I Won’t Stand In Your Way” is a ‘50s-style ballad about letting go of someone who isn’t interested anymore.
  • Car Song: It’s rockabilly, so this is inevitable. “Built for Speed”, “Look At That Cadillac” (comes complete with a video full of, well, Cadillacs), and “Hotrod Gang” all qualify.
  • Childhood Friends: Lee and Jim have known each other since they were 9, and met Brian (who’s a few years older) in junior high.
  • Cool Car / Cool Bike: The cover of Rant n’ Rave features Brian Setzer’s own ’31 Model A hotrod, and there’s a picture of him on his Harley on the inner sleeve.
  • Covered Up: Inevitable when a lot of the songs you’re covering are over 30 years old! “Ubangi Stomp” (an album track by Jerry Lee Lewis), and “Double Talkin’ Baby” (originally by Gene Vincent) are probably the best known.
  • Drowning My Sorrows: “Looking Better Every Beer”
  • Freudian Trio / Rock Trio: Slightly atypical for a rock band - Brian is the Id, as you might expect for a lead singer and guitarist; however, Jim (the fun-loving drummer) is the ego; Lee is the superego.
  • Germans Love David Hasselhoff: The Cats (and rockabilly music in general!) have always been more popular in Europe.
  • Heavy Meta: “Rock This Town” is the most notorious example. The Blast Off album takes this up to 10 - 4 of the 10 tracks are about rockabilly or rock ‘n’ roll.
  • Intercourse with You: “Fishnet Stockings”,
  • Long Runner Lineup: Type 3. All 3 members are original, although they’re quite on-and-off these days.
  • Rock-Star Song: “18 Miles to Memphis”
    Got a rocket in my pocket and I lit the fuse
    Taking off in your direction
    Have you heard the news
    We're just 18 Miles to Memphis and we won't leave 'til we rocked you all!
  • School Is for Losers: “(She’s) Sexy + 17”, which seems to be loosely based on Brian Setzer’s own life – he dropped out of high school to do music full time.
  • Signature Song: “Stray Cat Strut”. Bonus points for having their name right in the chorus.
  • Sleeves Are for Wimps: Pick almost any picture from 1980 to 1983. Chances are, at least two Cats will be bare-armed.
  • Song of Song Titles: The lyrics to “Gene and Eddie” are packed with references to Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran, two of the Cats’ biggest influences.
  • Step Up to the Microphone: “Drink That Bottle Down”, the blues number Lee Rocker sings at almost every concert.
  • True Companions: They’ve been friends since they were kids and obviously have a lot of affection for each other. Jim and Lee are probably the closest – as Jim puts it in his autobiography:
    “In our personalities, it’s the classic case of “he’s the bass player and I’m the drummer”. Even as a kid, he was always more pragmatic and less impulsive than I was. […] Every adventure or life-changing event in my life between the ages of fifteen and forty somehow involved Lee.”


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