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35 Years Ago: ‘Built for Speed’ Sets High Bar for the Stray Cats

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The Stray Cats formed in 1979, and, under the influence of the Sun Records sound, would go on to release 10 albums and enjoy a handful of hits. But the Massapequa, Long Island, trio would never again see the success of their American debut, Built for Speed.

Guitarist and vocalist Brian Setzer, upright bassist Lee Rocker and drummer Slim Jim Phantom didn’t find a niche in the still-dominant U.S. punk scene, and moved to the U.K. to get in on the British subculture that, at the time, better suited their retro sensibilities. There, in 1981, they released two albums, their eponymous debut produced by Dave Edmunds, and Gonna Ball, the first of which struck a chord in Britain, turning “Rock This Town” and “Stray Cat Strut” — the latter synonymous with rockabilly music even today — into hits.

“I was really kind of the only one who knew what rockabilly was,” Setzer told Rolling Stone in 1983. “I wore my hair in a pompadour, and black leather pants. I hate to admit it, but I used, like, a rhythm box, and I played a folk guitar, you know? I did everything from Elvis [Presley] to Buddy Holly. My fondest memory is of having people walk by me to get to the bathroom and knocking the microphone stand — every night I’d have a bloody lip. These were, like, old-man corner bars, not rock & roll places, so it was really funny: all the kids would come in, and most of the old men would get mad and leave. But some would stay. They’d like it, you know: ‘I’m not goin’ home! Hell with the wife! I like this!'”

But they quickly garnered fans in the likes of Robert Plant and the Rolling Stones, with whom they later toured. They proved themselves on the charts and in record stores in the U.K., with Stray Cats reaching No. 6 and the two albums combined selling enough for EMI America to take notice. The label gave the rockabilly revivalists a chance to prove themselves back home in America.

Built for Speed was a cherry-picking of the best songs from those albums released in the U.K. — six from Stray Cats, five from Gonna Ball. Only the title track, which was later featured in the 1984 film Surf II, was new.

They received some mixed reviews for Built for Speed, including from critic Robert Christgau, the Village Voice‘s self-proclaimed “Dean of American rock critics.” “Though the soft, shuffling bottom makes up in volume what it lacks in angle of attack and Brian Setzer integrates quite an array of modernistic exotica into his pickin’, the mild vocals just ain’t rockabilly. You know how it is when white boys strive for authenticity–’57 V-8 my ass,” he wrote, giving it a B-.

Still, their return to the states coincided with MTV’s newly-minted status as a music business power broker.Their ’50s look and sound was ideal for video, and helped bring about a resurgence. Built for Speed went double platinum in the U.S. and Canada, and reached No. 2 on the Billboard album chart. Its success delayed the release of their second American record, Rant N’ Rave with the Stray Catswhich reached No. 14 in the U.S.

Their newfound fame proved too much for the band, and they split by 1984, only to reunite and breakup several more times over the years. But none of their later efforts even cracked the Top 100 in the U.S., although Setzer’s re-ignited his career in the mid-’90s fronting a big band during the swing revival.

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