At a time when most musicians were trading in their more traditional instruments for synthesisers and electric drumkits, it was rather refreshing to hear a trio of young rockers preferring to belt it out the old fashioned way, using equipment which was as primitive as it was antiquated. The Stray Cats’ first album, Runaway Boys, was a surprising runaway smash, thanks mainly to the title track and the classic “Stray Cat Strut”, a song that had James Dean cool written all over it. And with their pompadours and retro look, these punkabillies had certainly found their niche.
Gonna Ball was The Stray Cats second album, and while it may have failed to meet commercial expectations, at least artistically, it was just as good, and more varied than its predecessor. Brian Setzer (guitar, vocals), Lee Rocker (bass), and Slim Jim Phantom (drums) were determined to make a record under the most archaic of conditions that they could, and in that respect they succeeded.
“Baby Blues Eyes” is the opening track, and it doesn’t disappoint, taking the listener all the way back to 1957, when rock ‘n’ roll was still in nappies. “Little Miss Prissy” is rockabilly mixed with heavy metal, and the sort of thing which may have resulted if Eddie Cochran had of jammed with Pete Townsend. They do a convincing cover of Wynonie Harris’ “Wasn’t That Good”, pass through 1950’s Chicago on the bluesy “Cryin’ Shame”, followed by the jump blues of “(She’ll Stay Just) One More Day”, which includes the amusing if misogynist verses “Never tries to tease me/Always tries to please me… Never gives me bitchin’/Magic in the kitchen.” Imagine getting away with those words nowadays?
“You Don’t Believe Me” could be Eric Clapton handing in his Fender for a Gretsch, while on title track “Gonna Ball”, Setzer resembles a ‘80s Eddie Cochran. The grungy, instrumental “Wicked Whisky” is ZZ Top with a bad hangover, but get you back on the dance floor with the Chuck Berry inspired “Rev It Up and Go”. The band goes all sentimental on “Lonely Summer Nights” (just picture Olivia Newton-John on a beach at sunset), before the rowdy, near punkish “Crazy Mixed-Up Kid” brings the LP to a close.
How refreshing it was to hear music the way it used to be played, when guitars sounded like real guitars, and the drums were actually made of real skins, instead of those tinny electric kits found at Toy World. Not to mention Lee Rocker’s upright double bass, which he would pluck and pull like it was his very own six foot penis (with a pompadour to match).
The Stray Cats were about as ancient as they came, reviving old rock traditions in an age when old rock traditions were considered, well, old. By the early ‘80s rockabilly was in vogue again, along with Cadillac car wings and James Dean. Suddenly it was cool to appear as though you’d just walked out of a 1950’s diner, before driving off in your 49 Ford. The perfect antithesis to many a synth-possessed pop obsessive. Britannia may have ruled the new wave, but it was Setzer, Lee and Slim who were reminding us of where it all came from.