Tag Archives: George Harrison

A Stray Cat Struts: My Life as a Rockabilly Rebel by Slim Jim Phantom

A Stray Cat Struts by Slim Jim PhantomWhen I look at musical biographies I’ve read in the past, from Laura Jane Grace to Tony Iommi to Ginger Wildheart to Frank Turner amongst others, it’s fairly obvious that most have focussed on frontmen or band leaders.

This seems to be a fairly standard trend so, coming to the autobiography of Slim Jim Phantom, most famously the drummer from The Stray Cats, I expected something a bit different, and that’s just what I got.

From the start Phantom makes it clear that his book won’t be a mudslinging ‘needless to say I got the last laugh’ type affair but a look at the positives that his life as a rockabilly musician of note has brought him.

That isn’t to say that it’s all saccharine sweet though as he and his various band members go through their share of problems but, for the most part, Slim Jim finds the good in all the situations, one way or another.

With this approach he makes it clear early on that he won’t engage with the potential fallout of the split of The Stray Cats, so when that comes it’s not a surprise (though later he sheds a little light on the relationships between himself and fellow Cats, Brian Setzer and Lee Rocker).

The Stray Cats

The Stray Cats

Up to the split of that band the book moves in, largely, chronological order tracing Phantom’s life from Massapequa, Long Island, New York to London where the Cats first found fame, through meetings and tours with The Rolling Stones and the kind of encounters and happenings that are genuinely amazing to hear given the speed with which they occur following the trio’s arrival in the UK.

In this we begin to meet some of Slim Jim’s ‘true pals’ who become a major feature of many of the stories and many are household names from the world of rock ‘n’ roll. While this could easily feel like name dropping par excellence, it actually comes across as if our humble narrator is as surprised by many of these encounters and friendships as we might be, including his marriage in the mid-1980s to Britt Ekland!

As the book goes on the stories focus more on specific subjects so there are chapters on Lemmy, ‘The Killer’ Jerry Lee Lewis, George Harrison and other rock ‘n’ roll heroes as well as Phantom’s endeavours in film acting, nightclub ownership and life on and around the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles.

HeadCat and Jerry Lee Lewis

HeadCat and Jerry Lee Lewis

Through all of these what makes the book so engaging is the manner in which Phantom writes. It’s as if he is telling you these stories one-to-one, and his enthusiasm for his music and extraordinary comes through strongly in every passage regardless of what he’s recounting.

As the book goes on he becomes more reflective as his hard partying days subside to watching game shows while on the phone with Harry Dean Stanton, spending time with his, evidently equally rock ‘n’ roll, son TJ and later charity mountaineering trips to Kilimanjaro and Everest.

Rockabilly music is never far away though and it’s clear this remains what makes his heart beat and its worth having YouTube handy to look up some of the Stray Cats performances he mentions just to revel in the same things he is.

Slim Jim Phantom up Kilimanjaro

Slim Jim Phantom up Kilimanjaro

What I think this accessibility and enthusiasm stems from is something he highlights and I’ve noticed in my own life that, in a majority of cases, drummers are the members of the band most happy to let down the facade of rock ‘n’ roll life, connect with others and generally are more open and sharing.

Using this Slim Jim lets us into his world in a far less self-conscious way than many other musicians making for a fascinating and easy read that may have a few rough edges tidied but feels honest and true in the way that the best things in rock ‘n’ roll should be.

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The Beatles: Eight Days A Week – The Touring Years

The Beatles: Eight Days A Week - The Touring Years posterThe story of The Beatles is one that has been told, to reference one of John Lennon’s famous quotes, as many times as Christmas, so sitting down to watch Ron Howard’s new documentary feature on them I wondered just how much it could add.

Well thankfully Eight Days A Week – The Touring Years adds a lot to the tale, particularly when it comes to the context of quite how and why they became the phenomenon that they did.

Tracing their career as a live band from the Cavern Club and the Reeperbahn to Shea Stadium and the roof of the Apple Corps offices, it focusses on a side of the band that is generally less explored in favour of their more artistically credible time holed up in Abbey Road Studios.

Howard has constructed the film in a relatively conventional way with talking head interviews (including new interviews with Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr), archive clips of John Lennon and George Harrison as well as Brian Epstein, George Martin and other behind the scenes people and contemporary concert footage.

Paul McCartney and John Lennon

Paul McCartney and John Lennon

The interviews help set this apart by giving The Beatles a context often missing from other documentaries. While the band members tell us what it was like being in the eye of the Beatlemania storm, which gets more interesting as the touring and press attention take their toll, it is the ‘celebrity’ fans who really help give it a context.

One of the most notable of these early on is Whoopi Goldberg who recounts seeing the Fab Four on The Ed Sullivan Show which leads into a fascinating thread demonstrating how the band fell, somewhat accidentally, into the civil rights movement and had a fairly major effect on segregation of at their, and other musical acts, concerts as well as in the minds of their fans, whatever their skin colour was.

While tours of the UK, Europe, Australia and New Zealand are discussed, it’s not surprising given it is Howard’s film that the main focus is on the band’s presence in the USA. With this comes a fascinating section on their first major tour there with news reporter Larry Kane who followed the band on that and later tours.

The Beatles

The Beatles

He adds the context of the ‘baby boomers’ and the real confirmation of the teenage generation that had begun with the rock ’n’ roll of the late 1950s.

It’s interesting to see how The Beatles developed the rock ’n’ roll template into what has become pop but while being so counter to the mainstream of the time they almost feel like the punk rock of their day (though without the politicised music). This impression was probably confirmed in my mind by seeing how much Ringo’s drumming is like that of The Ramones a decade and a bit later.

While all this and the usual praise about quite how good and prolific the band were (an album every six months in this period as well as the touring) it is the concert footage that is the film’s real crown jewel.

Paul McCartney, John Lennon and George Harrison on the Apple Corps roof

McCartney, Lennon and George Harrison on the Apple Corps roof

While much of the footage, from early gigs in Liverpool and Manchester to Shea Stadium shows is at least familiar Howard and his team have done an amazing job of restoring it to as close as high-definition as could be possible and, with the sound treated similarly, the effect is startling.

Seeing these pictures, now more 50 years old, in such clarity lifts this above all other films I’ve seen on the band and really shows how they pioneered the size of shows they were playing.

Added to this, the music nerd in me loves hearing them talk about how the total lack of monitors meant they couldn’t hear one another or themselves in the face of the screaming audiences who seemingly never let up for the duration of their performances, and how Vox created new (then high-powered) 100 watt versions of their AC-30s for the band to use which even at full volume were next to useless in front of tens of thousands of fans and no dedicated PA system.

Ron Howard, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr

Ron Howard, McCartney and Ringo Starr

As the film heads to its end we take a glimpse inside Abbey Road and the effect the likes of Rubber Soul, Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band had on the band and their fanbase (Elvis Costello is a particularly good contributor at this stage), before the film rounds off with that iconic performance on the roof of Apple Corps in London by an almost unrecognisable band compared to the previous footage.

All this comes together to create something I’ve not seen properly captured on film before, that being the mania, power and presence these four young men from Liverpool created, lost control of and rode for four years in the mid-60s that changed the face of popular culture forever.

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