Friday Song: “Rock This Town”

An artist revives rockabilly, then Big Band swing, with a great song connecting them.

If you watch the US version of Ghosts, you are familiar with the Lenape tribe, which originally settled Massapequa, NY, on Long Island, a town that has since produced a number of notable cultural figures.

Brian Setzer was born in Massapequa, as were Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider, Joey Buttafuoco, Alec Baldwin (and brothers), and Jerry Seinfeld.

As a teen, Setzer founded a band called the Tomcats, which he renamed the Stray Cats not long after. Reviving rockabilly music, the Stray Cats exploded on the New York punk scene in the late 1970s. Their fan base expanded so quickly that they found themselves being courted by no less than a half dozen record labels by 1980.

Setzer decided to record the band’s eponymous debut album in the UK, and from it sprang three singles — “Runaway Boys,” “Stray Cat Strut,” and “Rock This Town,” the last of which reached #9 on the singles chart and has been listed by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as one of the “500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll.”

The Stray Cats came and went quickly — as you’d expect with a name like that — but in those few years (1981-4), Setzer established himself as a charismatic performer and guitar virtuoso. After working with Robert Plant as a studio artist and recording a strong solo album of his own (The Knife Feels Like Justice), Setzer did for swing music what he’d done for rockabilly — revived it with a fresh approach, some amazing musicianship, and distinctive performance chops.

Setzer assembled a 17-piece Big Band (the Brian Setzer Orchestra) that broke through with a cover of Louis Prima’s “Jump, Jive an’ Wail” off the 1998 album The Dirty Boogie. The song won the Grammy Award for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals, while “Sleep Walk” from the same album won the Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Performance.

The Dirty Boogie remains a favorite road trip album. It’s timeless fun.

This performance of “Rock This Town” with a Big Band arrangement dates from 2012, and captures the band in all its glory — Setzer strutting like the stray cat he always has been, and the swing era updated for the modern age.


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