Pop ’N Hiss: Brian Setzer’s The Knife Feels Like Justice

Cat Out of the Bag
Pop ’N Hiss: Brian Setzer’s The Knife Feels Like Justice
Setzer onstage with a bender-equipped Tele in 1986.
Brian Setzer: Ebet Roberts.

Changing genres after achieving great success can be a risky career move for a musician. But after making it big with Stray Cats, Brian Setzer did just that.

With fellow Long Islanders Lee Rocker and Slim Jim Phantom, Setzer formed Stray Cats in 1979 based on a mutual love of rockabilly and early rock and roll. Raucous gigs in the punk and rock clubs of New York City quickly amassed an audience, but when they learned of a raging rockabilly subculture in the U.K., the Cats left in search of a record deal. Shortly after arriving in Great Britain, the trio hooked up with guitarist/producer Dave Edmunds, who shared their passion and became an important element in their budding success.

Buoyed by Setzer’s flamboyant guitar playing and singing, over the next four years, Stray Cats revived rockabilly in the MTV era with smashes including “Rock this Town,” “Stray Cat Strut,” and “(She’s) Sexy +17.”

After touring the world and releasing four successful albums, by the mid ’80s, Stray Cats had disbanded and Setzer moved to other projects including Robert Plant’s very successful throwback album, The Honeydrippers. Abandoning rockabilly for a modern “heartland rock” sound, Setzer was offered a solo record deal by EMI America. Perhaps influenced by contemporaries Bruce Springsteen and John Cougar Mellencamp, he went to work putting together a crackerjack band including bassist Kenny Aaronson, keyboard player Chuck Leavell, second guitarist Tommy Byrnes, and two veterans of the Mellencamp posse, drummer Kenny Aronoff and producer Don Gehman. Demo sessions started in late ’85.

“I’d met Brian the year before on the MTV ‘Guitar Greats’ show, where I was playing in the house band with Dave Edmunds, Michael Shrieve on drums, and Chuck Leavell on keyboards,” said Aaronson. “After the show, Brian said ‘I really like playing with you… and I really dig your hair, man (laughs)! I’m thinking about putting a band together, are you interested?’ I said ‘Sure!’ For the next few months, we had a good time hanging out. Brian wanted to use Tommy on guitar, who was a friend of mine, so it became a very cool, friendly situation, and we ran down demos in a New York studio, with the help of Little Steven.”

One of the first songs Setzer presented to Aaronson was “Bobby’s Back,” a track reminiscent of early Motown.

“I said to Brian, ‘Steve Jordan would be perfect on this. Let’s see if he’s up for it,’ as he hadn’t yet brought Kenny onboard as a drummer. I’d been hanging out with Steve, so he joined us in the studio and just nailed it! After that, we went to Los Angeles to record the rest of the album.”

“Brian was looking to depart from rockabilly and go more mainstream,” Chuck Leavell added. “I think he felt cramped by the Cats… of course he was happy with their success and loved playing that kind of stuff, but he longed to break out and not be confined to what they were doing. When he reached out to see if I would play, of course I accepted. They flew me out to L.A., and it was smooth sailing. Don was a good choice as producer and did a fine job guiding us. We got along great and all really wanted to help Brian find the direction he was looking for.”

The album has its share of hook-laden singalong tunes including the title track and “The Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” but what really sets it apart is Setzer’s blazing guitar on tracks such as “Haunted River,” “Radiation Ranch,” “Barbwire Fence,” and “Three Guys,” where his Telecaster pyrotechnics sound like a cross between Danny Gatton and Albert Lee.

Another highlight was tasty 12-string electric on “Aztec,” co-written by Mike Campbell (VG, March ’21).

“A high point for me in recording the album was when Mike and Benmont Tench, from Tom Petty’s band, joined us in the studio,” said Aaronson. “That was a really cool session with those guys.”

With the album’s release, Brian Setzer and the Radiation Ranch set out on a tour across America.

“I loved that tour,” said Leavell. “Brian was a smart, quick-witted guy and very happy with what we were doing. Kenny Aaronson and Tommy Byrnes were great players and also fun to be with, and David Prater was a talented drummer. We played some really nice theaters and traveled on a comfortable bus.”

“Brian and Tommy were a formidable duo on guitars,” said Aaronson. “Tommy had technique and chops; he and Brian would develop parts and it worked so well. That band kicked ass.”

While the video for the title track found heavy rotation on MTV, the album peaked at 45 on the U.S. Billboard album chart despite Setzer’s passionate singing and the quality of the band. Once and for all, the album proved Setzer was one of his generation’s top guitarists, whether peeling rockabilly riffs on a vintage Gretsch or executing clean chicken pickin’ country rock phrases on his old Telecaster.

“Brian was a real pro that whole time – great fun to be with, and he brought it every night on tour,” said Leavell. “Great voice, great guitar player, and that record shows how diverse he is.”

Three and a half decades later, The Knife Feels Like Justice still sounds fresh and ranks among great guitar albums, thanks to great songs, musicianship, and light production.

This article originally appeared in VG’s July 2021 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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