ROCK / It's no longer so cool for cats: Stray Cats - Town & Country

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The Independent Culture
IN 1981, the Stray Cats were a lively antidote to the over-produced new romantic pop of Spandau Ballet, Ultravox and the like. Relying on the bare bones of the semi-acoustic guitar, snare drum and stand-up double bass, the US trio of Brian Setzer, Slim Jim Phantom and Lee Rocker came on with a sound and a look Gene Vincent would have been proud of.

A decade later, a return from the grave by Vincent looks more likely than a Stray Cats revival. Grey hairs pepper Lee Rocker's quiff, Setzer's many tattoos have lost most of their colour and Slim Jim Phantom is looking decidedly less slim.

For all the hearty crash, bang, rock'n'roll attitude, the songs too sound middle-aged. The band leader, Setzer, no longer sings about tearing up the town and strutting his stuff. Old favourites like 'Runaway Boys' and 'Rock this Town' were demoted to late in the evening in favour of bluesier tunes with tricksy titles like 'Standing on the Corner of Lust and Love'. Wondering why he's feeling so low and thinking about getting back on the road again are Setzer's central preoccupations these days.

His guitar playing has grown more ponderous too. Armed with a large semi-acoustic guitar (two in fact, which he swaps over regularly for no discernible reason) Setzer can still bash out a rootsy rock'n'roll riff as good as the next man - as long as the next man isn't Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley or any of the Stray Cats' obvious influences.

Faced with more technically demanding solos Setzer falls short of the mark. The amateurish gusto with which he attacks the strings almost lets you forgive him his clod-hopping fingering. But clod-hopping it undoubtedly is and it's something of a relief when he retreats into more traditional rock posturing with power chords, feedback and sustained electric wailing.

A few years ago Setzer was cool, confident and talented enough to make you believe he could create a rock'n'roll band to rival The Clash during their classic London Calling period. Nowadays his closest musical peers are probably the bearded fraternity of ZZ Top. They have money, a sense of humour and a bigger vision on their side.

Take away the haircuts and the shiny equipment - clearly borrowed from a recently-made Bill Haley biopic - and the Stray Cats are a passable rock band. They did at least manage to fill the Town & Country Club and keep the punters reasonably happy by playing dirty and loud. With the big time probably gone forever, they join a select band of diehard rockers - Doctor Feelgood, Rockpile, and The Damned - who are probably too in love with the lifestyle to ever really call it a day.