Forever The Coolest Cats

Slim Jim Phantom talks with Rock & Roll Globe about the scorching new Stray Cats live album and their London roots

Slim Jim Phantom 2020 (Art: Ron Hart)

On September 11, the Stray Cats released Rocked This Town: From LA to London, a 23-song live album that contains all of their biggest hits, from “Rock This Town” to “(She’s) Sexy + 17” and “Stray Cat Strut.”

It also includes a number of new songs taken from their 2019 album 40 (so named because it came out on the 40th anniversary of the band’s formation). That was the first new material the band had released since 1993’s Original Cool, and fans were overjoyed, resulting in the successful tour that’s captured on this new live album. 

Calling from his Los Angeles home, drummer Slim Jim Phantom is in a jovial mood as he discusses the band’s triumphant return. “I think we had to do a new album to get back together,” he says. “To get back together and [only] play the oldies, I don’t know if anybody would have felt right about that. I’m sure the fans would come out because we made an impact in a lot of people’s lives and there’s enough in the catalog. But for us, it was very important – I think we owed it to the fans and ourselves to make a new record.” 

Their instincts to make 40 were quickly proven correct: “It got into the Billboard Top 5. Holy mackerel, Billboard charts!” Phantom says, sounding as excited about this as if this were the band’s first successful album, not the latest of several. 

 

 

In truth, though, it seems as if the Stray Cats were always destined for success. Phantom – who was born James McDonnell – was playing drums in his high school band in Massapequa, New York (also the hometown of Jerry Seinfeld and the Baldwins) when he met fellow students Brian Setzer (who played guitar and sang) and Lee Rocker (who played upright bass).

“Fate intervened,” Phantom says of meeting his future bandmates. “One happened to be a drummer, one happened to play bass, and one happened to be a guitarist. Those are the three ingredients, like peanut butter, jelly and bread.”

Phantom, Setzer and Rocker also shared the same musical taste, admiring artists like Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent and Elvis Presley. This was an unusual thing, given that popular music at the time was dominated by bands like Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin.

 

VIDEO: Stray Cats Live at Montreux 1981

They began playing together, quickly coming up with a unique sound that blended retro rockabilly with a modern punk twist. Their image, too, combined these two seemingly mismatched scenes, with members sporting pompadour haircuts, ‘50s style shirts with the sleeves ripped off, and studded belts. Their vision, Phantom says, was to “make it like Gene Vincent, but we wanted to be light years ahead in the future at the same time.”

Phantom says he and his bandmates were “very aware” that they had something special: “Right away, it was good, and that’s what we recognized. Right away, there was a chemistry. Before we knew it, we were playing five shows every week.” They went into New York City and played at legendary venues like Max’s Kansas City and CBGB’s. 

Despite their young ages, Phantom says they were incredibly determined and focused: “The Stray Cats as a band, we always had an unwritten credo of, you have to look good, you have to play good, you have to have something to say.

“I don’t know if we put it into words so articulately back then, but now I know that’s what we were doing,” Phantom continues. “We hadn’t developed enough, emotionally or musically, to really be able to put it into words. But we organically knew this. And we were good at it. We worked hard at it.”

 

VIDEO: Stray Cats on American Bandstand 1982

When the band heard that there was a rockabilly revival underway in London, England, they moved there – even though it meant that they were homeless for a time. Phantom says even this tough spell didn’t shake their confidence, though: “It was such an undeniable thing. There’s no way you could have seen the Stray Cats do a set in 1980 and not say, ‘That’s something different.’”

London audiences soon agreed, and it wasn’t long before the Stray Cats led that scene. They signed a record deal and released their self-titled debut album in 1981. Released only in the U.K., where it became a Top 10 album there, with three high-charting singles (“Runaway Boys,” “Rock This Town” and “Stray Cat Strut”). Building on this momentum, the band released another album in the U.K., Gonna Ball, later that same year. That, too, reached platinum sales status.

By now, U.S. record labels were noticing the Stray Cats. In 1982, the band put out their first release in America, Built for Speed, which contained tracks from the two albums they’d put out in the U.K. The singles “Rock This Town” and “Stray Cat Strut” quickly proved as popular in their homeland as they had in the U.K. The next year, they released Rant n’ Rave with the Stray Cats, and the single “(She’s) Sexy + 17” became a hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

 

VIDEO: Stray Cats “(She’s) Sexy + 17”

For Phantom, who recalls wanting to be in a band like the ones he grew up watching on television shows like Saturday Night Live, The Midnight Special, and American Bandstand, this career has been a dream come true. “I didn’t know what going on the road meant, or going in the studio meant. I didn’t know what any of it meant. I had no conception of any business attitude toward it. I just knew it looked cool and the drums always seemed like something I could do,” he says.

Now, forty years on from their debut album, the Stray Cats have become a cultural touchstone. At the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, their song “Rock This Town” is listed in the permanent exhibit of “Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll.” “I think we changed pop culture all over the world,” Phantom says.

Stray Cats Rocked This Town: From L.A. To London, BMG 2020

Phantom says he and his bandmates never grow tired of playing any of their other hits because they often throw in improvisational elements to keep things fresh. “You can come up with new ways to make it interesting for yourself to play the song,” he says. “You can’t change things too much, of course. You can’t make it a waltz!”

Most of the time, Phantom says, he and Rocker follow Setzer’s lead on what direction to take with the material during shows. “If Brian is really feeling it in a certain song, he’ll just wink at you – or, we don’t even have that anymore, you just know he’s feeling it: ‘Man, he’s not coming back right now. He’s going to take it around again one more time!’”

 

This enthusiasm – from both the band and the audiences – is clear on Rocked This Town: From LA to London, and Phantom says he definitely feels encouraged to keep Stray Cats going: “It’s very important to me that I’m not the one that’s going to slow down,” he says. I’m not the one that’s going to be out of shape. So I think there’s a certain amount of healthy competition within the group. No one will give in.”

In other words, fans can rejoice: the Stray Cats are back, and they’re here to stay.

 

 

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Katherine Yeske Taylor

Katherine Yeske Taylor began her rock critic career in Atlanta in the late '80s, when she interviewed Georgia musical royalty such as the Indigo Girls, R.E.M. and the Black Crowes while she was still a teenager. Since then, she has done hundreds of interviews with a wide range of artists. She has written for dozens of magazines, including The Big Takeover (national), Aquarian Weekly (New Jersey), Stomp & Stammer (Atlanta), Creative Loafing (Atlanta), Jam Magazine (Florida), Color Red (Denver) and Boston Rock, among many others. She contributed to two books (several entries for The Trouser Press Guide to the '90s, and a chapter for Rolling Stone's Alt-Rock-A-Rama). Additionally, she has written liner notes and artist bios for several major acts. She currently lives in New York City.  

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