I loved the early days of the Stray Cats back when they were young, raw and fresh from Long Island. Seeing lil’ Brian Setzer in these grainy old pics (if you can help out with any photo credits, I’d appreciate it!), some even from his pre-tattoo days built like a matchstick with a pile of hair that entered the room a full minute before he did…well, they are a sight to see. Their style was pretty tough back in the hungry years before the big payday when they rocked on a steady diet of engineer boots, creepers, skinny jeans, polka dot thrift shop tops with cut-off sleeves, bandanas and a sneer. Soon the look was gobbled up by the mainstream made-for-MTV crowd and regurgitated into a uniform with elements of new wave / new romantics fluffy hairdos, argyles, leopard print, gold lamé, Zodiac boots, and over-sized sportcoats.

Give the Stray Cats their due. Not only were they heavily responsible for a resurgence of interest in American roots Rock, Rockabilly, Swing, and Greaser culture– Brian Setzer was honored with being the first artist since Chet Atkins to be granted a Gretsch artist model guitar built and named for him. A true reflection of how strongly he was identified with Gretsch, and how he helped cement them with a new generation as the true player’s guitar for anyone serious about Rockabilly and the like. After the Stray Cats, guys like the Reverend Horton Heat, Mike Ness (Setzer played on Cheating at Solitaire) and others like them have carved-out their own sound and legacy on a Gretsch– and they owe a nod to Brian Setzer for paving the way.

A young and well-coiffed Brian Setzer of the Stray Cats back in the early 1980s

1982, Paris– A couple of lean, mean rockers Thierry Le Coz & Brian Setzer. Brian and the Stray Cats hit the road for the UK and Europe early on, as the Teddy Boy movement and the strong  love abroad for the Sun Records & rockabilly music legends (Elvis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, Duane Eddy, and many more) called them there to make their mark. Thierry (yep, he’s French) is a great guitarist and started out in the Rockabilly band Teen Kats back in the early 1980s, and met Brian and the boys while they were there touring Europe.  Le Coz moved to Austin, Texas in ’84, played with Will Sexton in Will and the Kill among others, and is still doing his thing. I love that pic of them, great style.

1983– Dave Edmunds and Brian Setzer of the Stray Cats rock New York City’s Roseland Ballroom with an encore of Eddie Cochran’s “C’mon Everybody”


    • yes, i agree. fantastically rock solid rhythm guitar. funny how the elder brian resembles the young joe strummer.

  1. I had the pleasure of seeing them at The Ritz in NYC in 1983. The night before they had opened for what was supposed to be Sqeeze’s last show ever at Nassau Coliseum. Brian Setzer had fallen off the stage at that Nassau show and rumors were flying that he broke his leg. Sure enough come show time at the Ritz, Brian hobbled out on crutches. Slinging his guitar over his shoulder, he addressed the crowd. “I guess you all heard what happened last night.” Then he threw his crutches into the crowd and screamed, “well it’s all bullshit!” He then lit up that Gretch and the Cats played a blazing good show.

    I have an old “Brian and the Tomcats” poster somewhere. I have to dig it up and digitize it.

    Thanks again TSY.

  2. They moved to London in 1980 which was what initially kicked off the fame thing – I saw them supporting Elvis Costello at I think the Royal Albert Hall that year. Although there were lines down he street to see them at smaller venues like Dingwalls back then the Costello crowd mostly didn’t seem to know them yet. I did, they were absolutely electrifyingly spectacular and the find my seat crowd milling about started to get into it. Seen them since then but that and hearing but not seeing them at Dingwall (too crushed) was really my SC’s high point. Robert Cray was killing it in London in the same period, he deserved to get up there with Clapton etc…

  3. Brian’s 6120 is amazing, but equally important to his tone today and then are the blonde Fender Bassman’s he uses. I’ve seen dozens of Stray Cat wanabees over the years with the identical set ups, but as of yet, I’ve never heard anyone who can capture Setzer’s tone (not to mention style). That bumble bee buzzing thing he does is, in my opinion, the coolest sound in Rock and Roll!

  4. love them! still do. Thanks for posting this, in the early 80’s seeing them was like the lights flashing brilliantly their sound & style was old but new and raw…it was like YEAAHHHH!!!! Nothing at the time had that sound, and their style was amazing. Best counterculture going. RockaSilly today needs to take a few old school lessons ditch the standard levi’s, t-shirts and cheap crap and dress it up like Setzer. Things have gotten so boring.

  5. Great post mate, sadly, they were indeed another American act who had to relocate to London to find the fame they so clearly deserved . . . I saw them on their world tour of ’82 and they were supreme, if not for Setzer and the Cats I would not have quit Uni in 1981, started a Psychobilly band and spent the next twenty five+ years playing and loving live music. Huge personal influence . . . there was a rumour circulating back then that Brian was also ‘given’ a Harley by the Motor Company . . . perhaps you some more concrete background on that one ??

    • Dog,

      Very interesting indeed, the bit about Harley. I came across several old pics of Brian on a big Chromed-out bike with him in a Harley-Davidson t-shirt to boot. They looked forced, and just off for some reason. He didn’t look comfortable on the bike. Could be that he was 98 lbs at the time and his arms we’re like pipe cleaners. I don’t know if he could even stand that thing up on his own. I seriously doubt it.

  6. Thanks, TSY, it was about time to pay tribute to the Staycats.
    Saw them at the Hollywood Palladium back in ’82. They pushed the Rockabilly revival to another level.
    Great band with an awesome sound and killer looks: Setzer’s guitar playing and Slim Jim Phantom hitting the small drum kit standing up and Lee Rocker slaming the upright bass – some of us had never seen such an instrument before. Made me go out starting an own band.
    Setzer owned the ’51 Mercury used in American Graffiti (the ‘Pharaoh’ car) for some time in the eighties.

  7. I have been watching this blog for some time, but when I saw the Brian Setzer piece I had to post. When I was a kid I saw a Stray Cats video on MTV and it changed my life. The music spoke to me and I spent the next several years buying up Gretsch, Guild, and Gibson hollowbodies and playing rockabilly and blues. It was the early 80’s and nobody wanted them. I met Brian on his first big band tour. He was as nice as could be. Hung out with him and his band and had some drinks at the hotel. Signed the pickguard on my ’63 Double Anniversary for me. I still have it.

    Great blog. Love the bikes, cars, music and art. Keep up the great work!

  8. Long time reader, first time commentor. As a long-time punker/roots rocker, The Cats were right up my alley. They were scumbag, flick-knife rock ‘n roll the way it was meant to be played: with reckless abandon. As a slight aside though, Mike Ness has been playing his own brand of greasy rock just as long as Setzer with the almighty Social Distortion (since around ’78), so I wouldn’t exactly call him a Setzer disciple. He’s also known more for doing his thing with Gibson Les Pauls.

  9. We’ve made suits for Brian at our shop in Minneapolis. He and his wife are outstanding people. The first time he stopped in our shop we had his music playing . He love it.

  10. I was working as a movie usher at a theater on Long island back in ’85. One slow weeknight I was manning the front door. Looking across the street I saw three narrow figures slowly walking out of a dingy mexican restaurant toward me. As they got closer I could see it was on guy with two girls. Stepping into the marque lights I realize it’s Setzer, with a blonde under each arm and a margarita in each hand. The dude just walked right past me, said “hey man”, and strutted right into a movie. Didn’t stop to buy a ticket. The place was so quiet that I’m pretty sure I’m the only one that even saw them. It was like an apparition. I felt like I had seen Elvis. That dude just dripped style.

    the movie was Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. I love that.

  11. maybe do a little sumpthin on robert gordon in the future…he was really responsible for the late 70’s early 80’s rockabilly revival. i’m sure you know that. thanx for your blog!
    always entertaining.

  12. I am pretty sure that quite a few of the early black and white shots you have here (the top one, for starters) are by the Scottish photographer Peter Anderson and appeared in NME (the UK music paper) in 1980. The band were on the cover of the same issue.

    I first saw them in ’82/’83 in London, and have seen them at some point in each decade since. They’re a bit of a guilty pleasure but when they hit the scene in London in the early eighties they were genuinely interesting and exciting. I mean, no young guys in bands had tattoos back then. I saw them at Dingwalls in Camden Town around 1983 and it’s still the best gig I’ve ever been to. If you play guitar, then you know how good Setzer is.

    As for the bike thing, he was riding his Panhead over to Paris from London in the early ’80s to party with the French HA… he’s no bandwagon-jumper when it comes to motorcycles and hot rods.

  13. Photo Credits: #1, 3 and 5 are by Peter Anderson. Published in an amazing book I have called “Cool Cats” – 25 Years of rock and roll style by Tony Stewart in 1982. Filled with some of the most amazing photography I have ever seen. Love the post and love TSY!!

  14. They’ve been on high rotation at my place since the mid 80s! I fell arse over on the dance floor right in front of Brian back in the day – thank gaaawd I was wearing some very nice stockings…

    Sarah xxx

  15. Nice work JP, you have def struck the cord. Ironically I just got on a pinterest bend and punched up Setzer images that then led me back to TSY! As typs you are 3 steps ahead of the high steppers….bravo! Coming up in Detroit I saw A LOT of bands, (it’s DRC, after all – it’s just what we did). And after the stadium momentum dyed for me, I saw all my faves at face value. Hell or high water my belt was pressed against the stage. NOTHING compares to the Sweaty-Electricity that our boys filled the room with. Some incredible magic mojo went down in those humid summer nites. Saint Andrews Hall, Detroit Rock City, Circa, 1981

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