Wednesday, July 12, 2006

“Sexy & 17” by The Stray Cats from the album Rant ‘n’ Rave with The Stray Cats
Fourth week in July, 1983

The 1950s are seemingly always good for a comeback, whether it’s through the musical Grease, the nostalgia band Sha-na-na, or the Nixon administration. But the 1980s—what with Reagan in office and a certain pre–Brown v. Board of Education vibe permeating the whole land—were particularly ripe for nonsensical celebrations of the U.S.’s Leave-Us-Alone-and-Let-Us-Make-Babies-Who-Will-Eventually-Drive-Everyone-Crazy decade. Enter The Stray Cats, a rockabilly trio out of (seriously, now) Massapequa, Long Island: one Gretsch hollow-body (Brian Setzer), one acoustic bass, twirled liberally during performances (Lee Rocker, born Leon Drucker), and one snare drum plus hi-hat cymbal (Slim Jim Phantom, born James McDonnell). To call the Cats a deeply derivative band is simply to state the truth—they were nothing more than microwaved-to-room-temperature rockabilly for a new era. Yet—I gotta tell ya—compared to Madonna and Duran Duran they were a rockin’ breath of ’80s fresh air.

“Sexy & 17” is straight-up twelve-bar blues in the Chuck Berry vein, complete with rants against school, taunts of the teacher, use of the word “Daddy-O” and references to a super-hot girlfriend who is “a little bit obscene.” To its eternal credit, the tune includes a lick-o-rific Setzer two-chorus guitar solo that hopefully taught a generation of kids about the blues. If some band were to cover this tune in a sweaty beach bar near you, you would be a lucky customer, indeed.

The video, of course, is not to be missed. Setzer, Rocker and Phantom—pompadours all up on their greasy heads, hard-cases of Marlboros rolled up in the sleeves of their white T-shirts—bust out of a 1950s classroom (the other kids all wearing white button-down shirts and black-rimmed glasses) to meet Setzer’s “little Marie.” When the video cuts to Marie, however, she has plainly been transported through time machine from a time 30 years hence when New Wave babes in string-bikini panties and thigh-highs put on their make-up while standing topless in front of the bathroom mirror. Marie walks past her couch-bound parents in a pure 1950s living room wearing a pink polka-dotted strapless thing and major dangle earrings, not to mention those black lace, fingerless glove-thingies that were popular for, like, six weeks in 1983. Also, there is a large right shoulder blade skin appliqué of some kind that I believe was popular for about six days in late 1982. My theory: she arrived in the past using the DeLorean time-machine car from Back to the Future (1985 but, hey, close enough). There is a even a moment late in the video in which Marie, wearing a white corset, the aforementioned thigh highs, and black heels—and sitting on a stool in a corridor for some reason—lifts what appears to be a baby cougar to her lips and gives the cat (the STRAY Cat?) a smack on the lips.

Best Moment: Just after the guitar solo (2:26), there is a Presley-esque bridge introduced by “Ah-wo-oh-wo-oh-wo-oh …” that offers just enough contrast (a) to demonstrate that the Stray Cats actually knew what they were doing, music-wise, and (b) to have you popping a serious boner when the I-IV-V of the blues finally comes back. Which, cats, is as it should be.

Will Layman

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