By Steve Beard
Sending the grandest Happy Birthday wishes to Brian Setzer. Most well-known for his hair “piled high” and shredding on a vintage Gretsch guitar, he played a monumental role in reintroducing young punks like me around the globe to the retro sounds of rockabilly and roots rock.
The magnetism of that bygone era when rock and roll was young and brassy permeated Southern California while I was in high school in the early 1980s. Seeing Stray Cats and Blasters shows in LA was all the ignition that my bandmate Troy Meier and I needed to launch The Belvaderes, our own fledgling rockabilly band. There were garage bands percolating all over the Southland. Having cut our teeth on punk rock shows in smaller clove-smoke-filled clubs, those larger electrifying concerts flipped our world upside down. Setzer, the Alvin brothers, and other local rockabilly bands (The Red Devils, The Lifters, Jimmy and the Mustangs, the Rockin’ Rebels, the Paladins) provided the kind of atomic inspiration we needed.
The spotlight on stage in that era, however, was trained right on Setzer. He was the stylish Pied Piper with a peroxide-blonde pompadour of 1950s-infused rock. There was even an aggressive touch of punk in songs such as “Storm the Embassy” and “Rumble in Brighton.”
Fans were mesmerized by the seemingly primitive instrumentation of a stand-up drum kit, a dog house acoustic slap bass, and Setzer’s vintage Gretsch hollow-body guitar.
“There is a certain indescribable aura to the old guitars. I think part of it is that they were there at the incarnation of the first rock and roll songs,” he once told Guitar Player magazine. “While all that music was being created, those guitars were there.
“Maybe a lot of that is just in your head, like with anything vintage, you know? You can’t re-create that. As [Stray Cats producer] Dave Edmunds used to say, it was just ‘in the air’ back then — a special moment in time.”
Setzer has been working his craft for a long time. He started playing guitar at age 8 and learned to read and write music through an Italian music teacher. He then took lessons from a jazz guitarist. His first band was formed while he was in junior high. They would play crowd favorites like “Proud Mary” and the Bee Gees’ “Jive Talkin’” and then inject songs like Carl Perkins’ “Honey Don’t” and Gene Vincent’s “Be Bop A Lula.”
The boundary-crossing new wave revolution in music launched in London, New York, and Los Angeles, provided an opportune time for a band like the Stray Cats to re-engage the sounds of the past with panache and verve. With hits like “Rock this Town,” Stray Cat Strut,” and “(She’s) Sexy and 17,” the Stray Cats (Setzer joined by drummer Slim Jim Phantom and bassist Lee Rocker) exploded on the music scene, offering up a zesty style of rockabilly that captured the imagination of the first generation christened by MTV.
The dynamic success of The Stray Cats catapulted Setzer into a dizzying stratosphere of fame and fortune. The band broke up and Setzer began to drift with his music style with solo albums such as “The Knife Feels Like Justice” and “Live Nude Guitars.” In an interview a few years ago, he characterized the era: “Made records that weren’t very good – couple good songs now and then.”
During this time, he was also drowning in alcohol. “The worst thing was me becoming an alcoholic and hurting people,” he confessed in a 2018 interview with Dan Rather. “It’s an old story for people who are alcoholics that they’ve abused relationships. I’ve tried to repair those [relationships] – some you can, some you can’t. The worst thing was getting reliant on something like a bottle of whiskey. … It is a terrible, awful place to be.”
Setzer found the help at the Crossroads Centre, a substance abuse rehab center on the Caribbean island of Antigua launched by Eric Clapton.
“The number one thing that you learn from getting sober is that you cannot rely on things as a crutch,” Setzer observed. “You can’t rely on things to get you through life – whether you’re hooked on pills or booze…. You gotta face it. It’s not always fun …. The best thing about life is you feel things – good or bad. That’s the way it has to be.”
Setzer reported that he goes to meetings to keep his sobriety in-check and called his rehab the “best thing I ever did.”
Many of us who were first-generation Stray Cats fans were more than a little startled that Setzer directed his revivalistic mojo in the early 1990s to the sounds of swing and rock-tinged big-band music and produced sold-out orchestral shows and Christmas productions each year.
Setzer has won three Grammys for his music — and been nominated eight times. One of those Grammy nominations was for one of my favorites, “Wolfgang’s Big Night Out” – a collection of swing versions of classics from artists such as Beethoven, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky. One listen has the power to convince a listener that Setzer is truly blessed with a lifelong passion to swim upstream and make old things new again with fresh pizzazz and style.
“Everybody thinks people get into rock ‘n’ roll for the girls and the parties – yeah, the girls – but I really started because of the music. I still love it,” he told Rather. “I can still hold this guitar and the way it vibrates and the way I feel with it – it’s still the best thing you can ever feel. It still makes me happy. It’s still the best thing ever.”
Happy Birthday Brian. Thanks for making music.
For other Brian Setzer stories on Thunderstruck, check out
• Troy M. Meier’s 2007 interview with Brian Setzer: Guitar Slinger HERE.
• Steve Beard 2004 “Stray Cat Patron Saint: Brian Setzer leans on St. Jude” HERE