How we made Stray Cat Strut: ‘The solo must have taken me 30 seconds’

‘I couldn’t relate to prog rock. We never had any wizards in my neighbourhood. We had ’58 Chevys and good-looking girls’

Brian Setzer, singer

My dad had been in the Korean war with some guys from the deep south, and when I was a kid he told me: “This is the music they liked and I like it too.” He played me Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash. I thought, “Wow.” I’d never heard anything like it. Rockabilly was dead in America by then, but we lived for the music and the whole lifestyle. I loved the old cars and motorcycles, the music, the fashion. Nobody was doing anything like that in 1979. I couldn’t relate to prog rock with its lyrics about dungeons and dragons. We never had any wizards in my neighbourhood. We had ’58 Chevys on my block and a couple of good-looking girls, so that’s what I wrote about.

We went to London and our first show was at the Fulham Greyhound, opening for the Fabulous Poodles, who were kind enough to let us play. Pete Farndon from the Pretenders was at that gig and we became fast friends right away, riding around the city on Triumph motorcycles. We had a couple of nights sleeping in the park, trying to pick up girls so one of them would let us stay in their flat, but a lot of people helped us out. Ronnie Lane from the Faces put us up and Dave Edmunds grabbed me by the hand at the Venue and said: “Let me produce you before someone else ruins you.”

I came up with Stray Cat Strut back in our garage in Long Island when I was 18. I wanted something slower than our other songs. It’s about us three guys, and the lives we were living. At that point, we were still called the Tomcats, but it became “stray” when we went to London, because we had wandered.

I sang “Black and orange stray cat sittin’ on a fence” because I had a black and orange cat sticker on my guitar. The line about a “feline Casanova” depicts a wise-guy cat. I was a big fan of the cartoon TV series, Top Cat. I played the guitar solo out of thin air, on the spot, probably thinking: “I wanna to do something that will bend your ear, something unexpected.” It’s crazy that it’s become one of the most famous solos ever. It must have taken me 30 seconds.

James McDonnell, AKA Slim Jim Phantom, drummer

When I first heard rockabilly, I sprayed my hair with Elnette into a quiff so hard it felt frozen. Then I got the clothes from a thrift store. Brian [Setzer] and I shared a flat and combing our hair became a daily drill. We modelled the band on Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps. I’d seen pictures of their drummer, Dickie Harrell, playing drums standing up, so I played like that too. Years later he told me: “I only did it for the photos, man.”

In 1979, we were playing two sets a night in Long Island but people on the street were hostile: “Who are you looking at?” Nobody looked like us then. We avidly read the British music press and felt more comradeship with British youth culture. We wrote Rumble in Brighton about mods and rockers on Brighton beach having never been there – but we were keen to visit.

We got on a plane wearing all our gear and found this whole counterculture in London. The original group of people that came to see us included Chrissie Hynde, Joe Strummer, Lemmy and Glen Matlock – a gang of all the hipsters in London. Once the music press started writing about us, everything happened like wildfire.

The Rolling Stones all came to see us and poured us champagne. It was hard to believe. We almost signed to Rolling Stones Records, but it was hard to get those guys in the same place. We ended up on Arista, who put us in the studio with Dave Edmunds – he knew everything about the original rockabilly but also understood that the kids wanted heroes from their own peer group and that we needed a contemporary sound.

Our first hit, Runaway Boys, documented what we were going through. It didn’t sound like an old rockabilly record but had the same essence: a song you could crank up on a car radio. Stray Cat Strut was a more feline sound. The name Stray Cats was a nod to Elvis Presley, the “hillbilly cat”, and how the early rockers called each other “cats”. Ironically, we were all dog people. I had a weimaraner.