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‘Slim Jim’ Phantom recalls the rough and ready early days of The Stray Cats

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‘Slim Jim’ Phantom recalls the rough and ready early days of The Stray Cats (Photo courtesy of Masao Nakagami)

I have a vivid memory of the first time I heard a song by rockabilly missionaries The Stray Cats. It was early on during my first semester at college, an impressionable time when new students often have strangely conflicted feelings of freedom and uncertainty. Music was an anchor then as it is today and my dorm neighbor, Elliot, who lived directly across the hall, was my conduit to the newest sounds coming down the pike.

With a few notable exceptions, it seemed that most of the new songs that made it to commercial radio in 1982 were either slickly produced dance tracks or cloying treacly ballads. The bulk of my modest record collection didn’t fit those confines which made me appreciate it all the more.

One morning before my first class of the day, Elliot was holding court with an open door and a stack of 45s. “Come check this out,” he said, “It’s gonna be big.”

Elliot dropped the stylus on “Rock This Town” by The Stray Cats, and I was smitten by its swinging energy and authority. Compared to its contemporary charting brethren, “Rock This Town” offered 204 seconds of unrelenting authenticity and I had to know more.

Seeing The Stray Cats on MTV sealed the deal. They were elegant gangsters with pompadours, a nod to their original ‘50s and ‘60s heroes, but it wasn’t merely a gimmick or a throwback. These guys seemed to be serious period-correct students of the rockabilly era on a mission to bring the art form forward at a time when many artists and bands, even some classic rockers, looked and sounded like they’d dropped out of a dystopian novel.

I recently had the good fortune to connect with Stray Cats drummer “Slim Jim” Phantom to talk about his band’s fledgling pre-fame days for my radio show on BIG 104 FM.

“Slim Jim” Phantom is one of rock’s great storytellers, and man, does he have stories. The first two seasons of his “Rockabilly Confidential” Spotify podcast feature vividly recalled true tales drawn from four decades of adventures with The Stray Cats, from the earliest shows up to the band’s recent triumphant 40th anniversary tour.

Phantom’s “Rockabilly Rave-up,” where he tells the stories behind the songs, airs each Sunday at 8:00 p.m. (Eastern) on SiriusXM Ch. 21, Little Steven’s Underground Garage.

The Stray Cats formed in 1979 and paid their dues playing long nights in corner bars for about a year before pulling a Jimi Hendrix move and heading to England with the hope of getting noticed. There, “Slim Jim” Phantom, along with guitarist Brian Setzer and stand-up bassist Lee Rocker, caught the attention of some London heavyweights who took it upon themselves to spread the word about these homeless American rockabilly cats that put on the wildest show imaginable. I’ll let Jim tell you about it.

The Stray Cats – In the beginning, as told by “Slim Jim” Phantom

We played around in New York for about a year, four sets a night five nights a week. I can’t even say we played the cool clubs they make documentaries about because it wasn’t. We had to make our own scene. We played in corner bars because our scene wasn’t punk, it wasn’t new wave, it wasn’t anything that could be really defined. We had our own gang of people who didn’t look rockabilly, more like “Dazed and Confused” circa 1979. But we looked the part 24/7, as outrageous as we could.

We were the local eccentrics who went out and played every night and had our gang who always came out to see us. We knew that if wanted to get to the next level, to maybe get our picture in the newspaper, to get a record company to come see us, England had to be the next step. The Clash was there on King’s Road with teddy boys and mods and people from every scene walking down the street. So we packed up with no information and no money and went to England.

We were homeless for six months or so, sleeping on couches if we could find one or in Hyde Park when we couldn’t. We kicked around enough to get a few shows, but we were third or fourth on the bill on the pub rock circuit.

We brought the goods and started to attract a few scenesters, including Lemmy (from Motorhead), Joe Strummer (of The Clash), Chrissie Hynde (of The Pretenders) and the guys from The Sex Pistols and The Damned. We’d draw maybe 25 or 30 people but most of them were from other bands. That drew the attention of the big music papers in England. There were six or seven big ones like Melody Maker, Time Out and Sounds, and to them, we were a built-in story. We were homeless guys from New York who slept on the floor in pink suits and happened to be friends with The Clash. Then the record companies started coming out.

We represented the original cool of rock and roll and anybody who dug that saw The Stray Cats and knew immediately that it wasn’t some knockoff or wannabe version. You can’t pull the wool over the eyes of people like Lemmy, Chrissie Hynde, Dick Clark, Keith Richards or Ray Davies. When we got in front of those people, they knew we were the real thing. The Rolling Stones all came out to see us which may have been the last time they did something like that as a band. They just wanted to see a gig they all thought they’d like. That got the attention of the national newspapers in England which sent more record companies out to see us and soon we had a record deal.

We celebrated our 40th anniversary in 2019 with a new album, “40,” and what was maybe our most successful tour ever. Hopefully toward the end of this year, we’ll be back out there. Everybody’s out there now so I think we’ll wait for the dust to settle then we’ll do it again.

We saw that the market and the people are still out there for rockabilly and there’s new rockabilly now. Rockabilly reenergizes itself. It reinvigorates. Kids are just getting into it now and some of them get into it as a lifestyle. We’ll do a gig with maybe 10,000 people and the first 20 rows or so are all decked in rockabilly outfits. I think for these kids to be able to see their original inspiration is still kind of a cool thing.

(“Slim Jim” Phantom’s Patreon site offers a podcast, unreleased music, exclusive Q&As and more. Connect with Jim at Patreon.com/SlimJimPhantom.)

Last modified on Wednesday, 11 May 2022 06:45

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