Stray Cats Rock This Town
Jacob Quistgaard transcribes an infectious Brian Setzer piece with a retro rockabilly vibe, flaming licks and a guitar sound to die for.
With flamboyant guitar chops, a knack for writing catchy songs and a strong frontman persona, Brian Setzer has spearheaded the launch of two revivals during his impressive career; rockabilly and swing.
Brian was was born in April 10, 1959 in Massapequa,New York and built his musical foundation from a healthy obsession with the Sun Studios recordings of the 50s. After performing locally under different band names, Setzer decided to take a huge leap of faith with drummer Slim Jim Phantom and bassistLee Rocker. In the summer of 1980 they packed their bags and sold their instruments and gear, getting just enough money for three one-way plane tickets to the UK - they figured their music would be better appreciated overseas.
They decided to call themselves the Stray Cats, as originally suggested by Lee Rocker because of their status as ‘strays’. After performing for no more than a few months in the UK their strong 50s rockabilly revival style was spotted by record producer Dave Edmunds. They subsequently released a slew of successful singles, providing a stark contrast to London’s vibrant punk scene.
Much like Jimi Hendrix’s early success in the UK, the Strays didn’t immediately translate theirs to their native US. However, with the release of their third album Built For Speed (1982), they finally caught America’s attention, scoring two Top 10 hits with Rock This Town - the subject of our transcription - and Stray Cat Strut, which got to Number 3.
I’m not God’s gift to rockabilly. There’s great players out there, and some of them deserve a lot more than they’ve gotten. Brian Setzer
The album was essentially a re-release of many of the songs from their two previous offerings. Impressively, the prestigious Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame has since listed Rock This Town as one of the 500 most important songs in the history of rock and roll.
Sadly, after only four years in the game, the Stray Cats officially parted their ways in 1984, reuniting sporadically on several occasions since then to record albums and go on tour. From 1985 to early 1986, Setzer appeared as lead guitarist on tour withRobert Plant’s The Honeydrippers and the summer of 86 also saw the release of his first solo album, The Knife Feels Like Justice. This album marked a huge move away from Brian’s trademark retro approach, heading towards a more mainstream ‘rock-roots’ sound. It has become a bit of a cult favourite. In the 1990s, Setzer also successfully formed a swing revival band, The Brian Setzer Orchestra, where he melded jive-style tunes with roaring lead guitar.
Our transcription is mainly based on the Stray Cats’ original studio recording, although a few bits have come from some of their jaw-dropping live performances. Head over to YouTube and spend a few moments checking out some of the live versions of this track. You’ll see the Strays were clearly a fantastic live act, deviating from their original arrangements with some wild improvisation. However, they always kept it very much within the context of the song and style – inspired, skilful and passionate stuff!
As always, remember our audio track is for you to refer to and play along with and when you feel up to it, our stripped down backing will provide a fun vehicle for you to bang out Brian’s stonking collection of riffs, fills and fiery licks. Enjoy!