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The Eternal Teenage Tremble of the Rock’n’roll Heart – Stray Cats “Live at Rockpalast”

Stray Cats
Live at Rockpalast
MIG Music

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It’s always curious, isn’t it, when the revival overshadows the originators? In the otherwise staid days of the pre-Elvis, Perry Como-dominated mid-Fifties, rockabilly, for one calamitous moment, raised its rambunctious, rebel yell head and the results were tumultuous to say the least. Tellingly, though, it wasn’t a performance that raised such hell, but instead the insertion into a well-ahead-of-its-time, socially-conscious movie (the inner-city teacher epic Blackboard Jungle starring Glenn Ford) of a former B-side (!) by Bill Haley & the Comets called “Rock Around The Clock.” The inclusion of that side into crucial moments of the film – the opening credits not the least of them – had the unintended consequence of loosing some long pent-up rock’n’roll energies and triggering hordes of would-be teddy boys to go full-tilt Lord of the Flies, on more than one occasion going so far as to savage theaters (especially the Elephant and Castle in South London), tearing out what seats they could and disemboweling the stuffing from those they couldn’t. Thing is, though, beyond possessing the questionable cred of having had a healthy string of hits in the pioneer years, that one movie tie-in, eliciting that level of feral response, was by some measure as close as Haley ever truly got to representing the pure outrageous rebellion implicit in the very music he was so instrumental in popularizing. Most notable in all this, perhaps, is that, compared to what we’ve been treated to in the years since, or more to the point what we now know existed at the time up and down the wooly woods lurking behind Bill Haley’s spotlight, the curlicue-becoiffed one was actually pretty damn tame, “Rock Around the Clock” and the band that made it the acceptable, Ed Sullivanable face of that pulse of wild mercury energy that was pushing at barricades waiting for a kid from Tupelo to come along and knock down. And certainly in comparison to the rockabilly revival that came snarling out of the shadows in the wake of the punk explosion twenty-plus years later – Tav Falco & the Panther Burns, Robert Gordon, the psychotic derivation that was the Cramps – well, there is no comparison. By the evidence presented on this Rockpalast release, if that had been the Stray Cats playing over those opening credits, ‘trashed’ may not have been enough to describe the damage and mayhem. One may have needed phrases more along the lines of ‘utter structural damage’ and ‘reduced to rubble.’ The boys in them days, as they say, tore it up.

A 3-disc set comprising two full live audio-only sets and a DVD that combines both into a thunderous single show, the slightly unusual decision was taken on the audio-only discs to present them in reverse chronological order, with disc 1 covering an August 1983 date at the Open Air Loreley and disc 2 a July 1981 show at Satory-Säle in Cologne. In most senses it doesn’t matter, the band are in their prime in both instances but, seeing as how instructive it is, in sharply nuanced ways, to hear the startling extent to which the Cats evolved from their more raw and ragged beginnings to a far more polished – if still as incendiary – proposition just two quick years later, you may, in true record geek fashion, want to listen to this package back to front. By so doing, you’ll also net the added advantage of hearing a performance by a band that had become, almost unfathomably, even more confident than they’d been 25 months prior, which was itself supremely so and how you top ‘supremely’ I don’t know but this trio born in Massapequa NY – bassist Lee Rocker and drummer Slim Jim Phantom flanking fiery shred prodigy Brian Setzer – somehow managed it.

Before delving and diving into the rockin’ dopsie details, a further prepatory point. As the later performance dissolves into a panzer roar following “Rock This Town”‘s final flourish, what’s ultimately clear from this 3-disc gem is what a quintessentially great American band Stray Cats were – even if at this point in the early 80’s their popularity was far more acute across the Atlantic – and what a perfect opportunity this release offers for reappraisal should one be needed. For your correspondent (and, he reckons, many others of his generation) the fact that the band were both ‘retro’and apolitical as per the strictures of the genre meant the 20-something he was at the time didn’t fully grasp the stature of these young guys finally, to the vibrant ends of possibility, making good on the original American rock’n’roll dream, an expression of that primordial ardor that nearly burst from its own potential and that the world, quite evidently, was hungry for. The energy the audiences reflect back at the band during these two shows is monumentally vivid and unsprung devotional. As for the songs, the songs are exactly as you’d expect them, so boundlessly eager, proficient, and enthusiastically delivered as to demolish the so-called fourth wall between performer and spectator. Indeed, check that marvelous cover shot, the trio in a moment of frozen kinetic frenzy inside a barely-raised, low-fenced stage, inferring quite convincingly that the Stray Cats were the good-time people’s band, balls-out and bar none.

Sticking to the geek-ordained order dictated above, we lurch madly through disc two, from the hiccuping dash of “Sweet Love On My Mind’ that kicks off the festivities like a train on fire, through the sixteen-cylinder adrenaline of “Rumble in Brighton” wherein Seltzer’s playing is more Scotty Moore than the man himself would dare imagine, the tribal swing that is the ethically sketchy “Ubangi Stomp” (no doubt dropped later for obvious reasons) and the midnight gambol of “Drink That Bottle Down” that can’t help but illustrate that, even when they slowed it down and bluesed it up, the Cats brought such havoc-sustaining catch-and-release tension that one’s heart rate barely let up, to the brash slink of “Stray Cat Strut” and the inevitable but necessary rave-up of Cochrane’s iconic “Somethin’ Else” that Seltzer revs up gradually with some chopped engine chords before opening up the choke full bore into a raggedly-coiled fury, realizing anew that the Stray Cats of 1981, a mere four years into their career, are already so brimming with real deal bona fides that there’s little surprise they took the newly MTV-ed world by storm. The only let-up – and slight let-down, frankly – through a 65-minute set is the breathy cover of Gene Vincent’s “Important Words,” a ballad of the “16 Candles” variety that regardless of authentic delivery dulls the ember’s glow for a few minutes and is also noticeably absent from the later date. That aside, it’s rip city through and through and the only question at the time would be whether the three young men (Phantom and Rocker were both 20 – the latter barely – Setzer a rough and tender 22) could maintain their mojo at what already seemed an unreasonable level, and disc one answers the retrospective nonsense of that concern with a gleaming, juddering, and yes, supreme ease.

As mentioned, the later show, while hardly differing in intent or intensity, presents a band whose live presence has acquired that mostly undefinable – but immediately discernable -‘x factor,’ a dose of lived-in sophistication has been added to that original jolt of adrenaline, hence providing the impression that the band have become more confident. Their sound, for want of a better word, has organically developed a more suave character, an outgrowth, no doubt, of touring damn near non-stop for two years. The result quite naturally is the rounding of some of their more serrated edges and a subtle burnishing of the initial teenage rawness. Some reading this, I suppose, will greet those words as anathema, the same sort of contingent that rioted when they thought the Clash had ‘sold out’ by recording Give ’em Enough Rope, as if there’s some punishment must be meted out to any rock’n’roll band that dares sound even more together. In the case of the Stray Cats, as evidenced here, any such judgments would be even more ridiculous than they normally are. The band are just as blazing in 1983 France as they were across the border in 1981, a fact the added je ne sais quoi (sorry, couldn’t resist) only enhances. When the Cats, second song in, take off midway through Vincent’s “Double Talkin’ Baby,” the flash and mad headlong dexterity on display is off the flippin’ chart.

In truth, the gist of Stray Cats – and this is true wherever one turns here, be it the punchy swing of “Something is Wrong With My Radio,” the devotional hot-rod paean “Built For Speed” that’s racy in all the right places, the precisely contained unhingedness of “Runaway Boys” that’s nothing less than a rockabillied Thin Lizzy, the lascivious, legally-dubious rebellion of unlikely hit “She’s Sexy and 17” that on this day in ’83 carves out a yelping groove that’s sharp enough to have left marks on the stage – is that they articulate the eternal teenage tremble of rock’n’roll excitement that has quivered inside our collective heart of hearts since the form grabbed a hold or us 65 years ago and never let go.

It’s in this sense that Stray Cats shall remain rock’n’roll relevant for as long as 16-year-olds pick up electric guitars and begin stringing together rudimentary chords while posing in front of bedroom mirrors, which by the latest estimates will be forever. Though primers pretty much make up the whole of this album, aspiring six-string dreamers could do worse than work out the dueling solos exchanged (and overlapped) by Setzer and encore guest and debut album producer Dave Edmunds on “Tear It Up,” a take that not only does an insanely corker job of doing exactly what its title instructs but as well achieves the curious trick of ripping up the playbook at the same time it’s being written. Figure that out, kids, and everything past that should be a breeze, you’ll be set for life. A riotous life, true, but that’s what you want, right?