As an 11-year-old, my record collection was small but proud. It was funded largely by my pound-a-week pocket money, and deciding what to buy – mainly from Woolworths in Aldershot – was a serious business. One of the singles that found its way into my record box was The Race Is On by Dave Edmunds with the Stray Cats (as it was billed on the exciting picture sleeve). I had no idea who this Edmunds fella was but I knew that the Stray Cats rocked, as I’d bought their debut album with some holiday money after the hits Runaway Boys and Rock This Town had captured my ear.
Fast-forward 27 years, to 2008, and I’m standing in Brixton Academy awaiting the on-stage arrival of Brian Setzer, Lee Rocker and Slim Jim Phantom – the three cool Cats who’d stared out at me from those early record sleeves. After two decades of Stray Cats abstinence, I caught the bug again in 2004, when the band reformed for a European tour. I saw them at this very same venue that summer – a stunning gig that was captured on both tape and film and released as Rumble In Brixton. After hunting down the albums I’d missed (and I do mean hunting – at the time, the majority were out of print and scarce), I fell for the band’s charms all over again and, like most fans, really hoped that they’d cut a new studio LP to solidify the reunion.
Sadly, it wasn’t to be, and this tour is billed as a ‘farewell’. Yup, the Cats are heading for kitty heaven, though Brian’s teasing before tonight’s final encore is bound to give the more optimistic fan hope: “Hmm, we’ve run out of songs. Guess we’d better make a new album…”
To look at them, you’d think that the Stray Cats* were musical minimalists. Jim’s drumkit – which he plays standing up – consists of a single snare, a bass drum and a couple of cymbals, and Brian is the lone guitarist. Yet the sound they make is richer, fuller and just plain noisier (in a good way) than many supposedly harder rockin’ bands. Though it’s tempting to mainly credit Brian with this feat, given that he’s whipping up a hurricane of melody throughout, a considered but cursory listen to any of their songs instantly reveals that Lee and Jim are the true lynchpins of this sound.
I know, I know… apologies for stating the bleedin’ obvious (I can hear musician friends laughing), but rockabilly is the one genre in which the rhythm section always impresses my usually cloth-eared self. Couple this with the Cats’ showiness – Lee dragging his custom double bass around the stage; Jim playing while standing on top of his own bass drum – and you have a recipe for perfect live musical entertainment.
It’s a shame, then, that I spend the first half of the gig wishing I’d picked a better spot in the audience. I’m quite near the front and my view is excellent, but I’m forever having to step aside to let people in or out of the crowd, on their way to or from the bar or toilet. It’s partly my fault, though certain people’s manners aren’t. The ‘touch and push’ method of clearing a path through a crowd is horrible – don’t do it, folks. Still, as the gig progresses the distractions die down, and by the time Fishnet Stockings kicks off I’m very happy.
The setlist is on a par with the 2004 show, covering all but one of the band’s best albums (I’ve no idea why the excellent Gonna Ball is consistently ignored), and even throwing a few curveballs, such as Built For Speed, Seven Nights To Rock and a cover of Ian Dury’s Sweet Gene Vincent. They knock out three encores, the second of which sees Dave Edmunds** strapping on a yellow Telecaster and singing The Race Is On and Tear It Up. The 11-year-old me is hugely excited by this. He has a point – if the Stray Cats end right here, I can’t think of a better final chapter.
But it ain’t over yet, and the band, minus Edmunds, come out once more to play 18 Miles To Memphis and Please Don’t Touch, at the end of which Jim runs to the other side of the stage and sprints towards his kit, leaping up and crashing his sticks down at exactly the right moment. With final goodbyes to be said, he walks to the far left of the stage, in front of the PA, and applauds the deafening crowd… before losing his footing and disappearing into the photo/security pit.
He goes down like the proverbial sack of brown sticky stuff, and the audience react with concerned horror. His bandmates join security at the front, and I have a horrible feeling that I’ve just witnessed someone concuss themselves or worse – this is one Cat who I’m sure didn’t land on his feet. Twenty seconds later, the wounded drummer hoists himself up on to the stage and appears to be in full, working order. A roar goes up as he raises his arms and Brian hugs him. However, the next morning, an announcement appears on Jim’s website: he broke his arm in three places and is wearing a cast. The rest of the tour – dates in Manchester, Glasgow and Dublin – has been cancelled.
Unsurprisingly, Jim is said to be “devastated”. This isn’t quite the heroic ending the Stray Cats deserved. Get well soon, fella. Where possible, it’s really best to avoid testing this whole ‘nine lives’ thing.
* Officially, there is no ‘The’ in the band’s name, and it’s quite common to call them simply Stray Cats, but I opt to use a lower-case ‘the’ when it sounds neater.
** Edmunds produced four of the band’s albums, including their debut – he’s not simply ‘that guy they backed on a single in 1981′, though that’s what makes my l’il ol’ heart beat faster here. Also, Brian cheekily claims tonight to have stolen a stack of licks from him.