Sunday, May 31, 2009

Cry Baby - Stray Cats

No, I'm not an expert on rockabilly. I just know that it's music that's just dripping with pomaded teenage rebellion, 1950s style, and was a great offshoot of more straight-ahead rock 'n' roll. I consider it the landlocked, scuffier, wilder, and slightly more countrified version of surf guitar music. Oh yeah, and there's singing, too...almost exclusively by guys, almost exclusively about girls, cars, backstreet brawls and beefs with The Man.

Don't know much about the Stray Cats, either. Of all their songs before 1990, I only know their three biggest ones: "Stray Cat Strut," "(She's) Sexy & 17," and "Rock This Town." Brian Setzer and Co. were born about 30 years too late, it seems. But they deserve mad props for bringing rockabilly back with a vengeance in the 1980s, even if it was an uphill struggle. They were about the only ones in the convertible cherry red Cadillac spearheading the effort. Worse, people were too infatuated with new wave synthesizers and short, sunny pop tunes to pay attention to much music before 1975.

By the early 1990s, the Stray Cats had long grown old. So it was no surprise that in 1992, Choo Choo Hot Fish dropped with the impact of a pebble into Niagara Falls. A shame, too, since the album wasn't half bad. But "Cry Baby" - the one song that my local "alternative" station played from it - was faster, more rambunctious, and more infectious than anything the Stray Cats had ever dropped before. Including "Rock This Town." If there were any justice, radio as a whole would have picked up on this hummer and brought these guys back to relevance. No such luck.

There's no real variation on any rockabilly themes here. Guys in these songs are always itchy and impatient and finding fault with the world around them. Here, the subject of discontent is a crybaby who always runs late for her dates. Lyrics like "The game you're playing is just not my bag/Why must you be such a drag?" certainly didn't win any awards for poetic excellence, but score major points for punk-like conciseness and attitude. Here, attitude is everything. Brian Setzer's sultry snarl is reverbed to the max, as is the stuttering guitar that zooms up and down like a rollercoaster flying out of control. And damn, these guys sound like they're having a blast. You'd think Setzer was thrilled to be kicking his girl to the curb, free to be on the prowl again.

Yeah, the Stray Cats are a footnote in music history, long gone (aside from the cliched reunion concerts and tours). And rockabilly remains the bastard cousin of rock 'n' roll, often easily overlooked in search of other genres with more variation. But who cares? Those facts are irrelevant when you discover songs as fun as "Cry Baby."

1 comment:

Megan said...

Hi Uncle Spike,
I’m writing from Surfdog Records. Thanks for posting about Brian on your blog, we really appreciate it! We’re gearing up to release a brand new Brian Setzer album this Fall and I’d love to add you on to our e-mail list so we can send you some exclusive free tracks before the album even comes out. I did not see an e-mail address on your blog. Please send me an e-mail at if you would like to be added to our list!