Most every major city possesses a subculture composed of people who look like they just stepped out of a 1950s B-movie. To some, they may seem like a caricature of the “kid from the other side of the tracks.” Hair is greased and fashioned into tall, bulbous pompadours, and cuffs on button-fly denims are 3 inches tall. They prefer shadowy old-man bars to dance clubs and wouldn’t be caught dead buying a car built after the 1960s. This ethos is called “rockabilly,” and just like its sister rock scenes, Mod, Metal, Deadhead or Glam, its following is almost maniacal.
Rockabilly was originally a moniker designating the genre that bridged roots music to what would later become rock ’n’ roll. But over the years, its meaning has branched out to encapsulate a whole lot more than the slap-thud sounds that folks like Elvis Presley and Eddie Cochran made famous. But to Lee Rocker, one of the founding members of the 1980s neo-rockabilly outfit, The Stray Cats, the adoration of the old-school genre still pleases him. This upright bass player says it’s universal.
“It’s everywhere. Moscow, South America,” he explains.
With childhood pals and bandmates Brian Setzer and Slim Jim Phantom, The Stray Cats (along with artists such as the Blasters and Robert Gordon) disrupted the sound of the 1980s, a time mostly defined by synthesizer-laden New Wave and remnants of arena rock. It wasn’t long after The Stray Cats’ 1982 breakthrough song, “Rock This Town,” hit the U.S. charts that groups of teenagers and twentysomethings everywhere found themselves in the market for ’50s greaser duds: leopard-prints, pencil skirts and black leather jackets.
Connected by aesthetics and a devil-may-care attitude, the early days of nu-rockabilly were associated with NYC’s punk scene.
“We played shows at Max’s Kansas City and CBGB a lot,” says Rocker of his early days with the Cats.
Like it or not, the scene that defined a more stylish rebellion during the last days of the Cold War would forever be cousin to punk rock. Think flame tattoos and Betty Page doppelgängers.
Maybe it was the refreshing, stripped-down sound, or the undeniable attraction of fundamental rock ’n’ roll, but Rocker admits, “We were pretty successful from the beginning.”
He and his bandmates took their act to London.
“When we got there, we literally just started knocking on doors,” he says. “There we would be … three of us in pink suits and white pedal pushers and an upright bass — club owners had to give us a shot.”
And they did. In 1980, (two years before the mass market in the States would catch on to the Cats) their jump-and-shout number, “Runaway Boys,” hit No. 9 on the U.K. Charts.
Folks like the Rolling Stones and other Brit luminaries began frequenting their London shows. Such anointing “had a lot to do with our success,” Rocker says.
But after a more than a decade of touring and the churning out of seven full-length records as The Stray Cats, the three lifelong friends decided to apply the brakes.
“It was kind of a relief,” admits Rocker of the change. “I wanted to sing and write more.”
But unlike a lot of musicians who pursue solo careers after breaking out in a group, Rocker is more than happy to talk about the old days, which he says never really ended.
“The Stray Cats was and is a band. We just wanted a break,” he says.
After a short hiatus, Rocker and Setzer pursued solo careers. While Setzer pursued Big Band reverie, Rocker started a blues outfit dubbed Lee Rocker’s Big Blue. And even though his days as a bluesman were numbered, Rocker admits that he loved playing in a group like Big Blue.
In his latest solo effort, Bulletproof, on 33rd Street Records, however, Rocker harks directly back to his rockabilly roots. He says he “never gets sick of” the whole rockabilly thing. His twangy cover of the Beatles hit, “I’ll Cry Instead,” and torpid take on Johnny Cash’s “Johnny, Frankie’s Man” illustrate Rocker’s keen attachment to the sound.
“You can push it to a point, but if you push it too much, it is no longer rockabilly,” he says.
His main goal, he says, is to “do it well,” and if possible, “put my own stamp on it.”
On Bulletproof, you can hear Rocker’s stamp — it’s indelible. Still tinged with that Stray Cats sound, and as rockabilly as it gets.
Lee Rocker will perform at the Tenny Street Roadhouse (22361 West Village Dr., Dearborn) on Thursday, Jan. 29. Call 313-278-3677.Eve Doster is the listings editor of Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]