Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2018
Images from the Internet
The Head Cat Rockin’ the Cat Club: Live from the Sunset Strip
Directed by Mikki and Malory
Cleopatra Records / Ultra Films / MVD Visual
34 minutes, 2004 / 2006 / 2018
Back in the 1980s, there was a huge ‘50s revival. It was spearheaded, like it or not, by the Stray Cats. The reason I phrase it like that is because while the two guys backing up Brian Setzer, who seems to have garnered the lion’s share of the attention in his cutsie looks, were so much better than he was; musically, Setzer was by far the weakest link. It would be as if Billy Idol’s and Generation X was the face of British punk. Like Setzer, Idol’s okay, but he’s not really a good example of the actual sound, more a pretty face that’s built on ego. For more authentic rockabilly, we in the know relied on bands like the Rockats.
The reason I bring this up is because a member of both those post-rockabilly groups are at the core of the supergroup cover band called the Head Cat. Recorded in 2004 and originally released in 2006, this musical collective is made up of Lemmy (of Motörhead) on vocals and acoustic guitar, Danny B. Harvey (the Rockats) on electric guitar, Slim Jim Phantom (the Stray Cats) on drums, and Jonny Bowler (the psychobilly Guana Batz) on stand-up bass. One look at the set list below will give you some idea of the direction of the music.
If you are familiar with Lemmy’s sound, you may think, hmm, how authentic a rockabilly sound is that going to be? He’s more known for the growling, metal-punk cross-over of “Ace of Spades,” which feels like a vocal oil spill sludging across the speakers. You know, a great sound… but rockabilly?
From the first notes of “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” one of the earliest rock’n’roll songs from 1947 by Roy Brown – which, if I may digress, proves that rock’n’roll did not start with (a) “Rock Around the Clock” in ’55, nor (b) with Elvis – you know you are in for an interesting show. The trio comes out swinging and out to take no prisoners (yeah, I’m full of cliché’s tonight). Lemmy’s growl is perfect for the effect, Slim Jim simply pounds the skins at full tilt, and Danny dances around the melody to a tight-yet-loose sound like a piledriver. This is rock and roll mixed with just the right touch of rock’n’roll.
The visuals are crisp and digital, but definitely pre-HD, and the sound is totally clean and loud. The lighting is cast in mostly hues of greens and reds, as they should be. Also, the stage is small, which is actually appropriate for the sound, rather than having musicians running around the stage.
Next up is Lloyd Price’s “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” more commonly known by Richard Penniman, aka the Little Richard. This medium-speed grinder is a great selection, even though tethered by the sheer weight of the rhythm section. Not a complaint, by the way. Sometimes I can be a purist, but hey, it’s Lemmy. This is followed by the similarly paced “Talkin’ ‘Bout You” by Ray Charles from 1958, though more know the Animals’ cover in ’64.
One of my major complaint about this DVD is the editing by Kari Pearson and King Romero. This isn’t ‘80s rock and it’s not M-TV; there is enough energy onstage that the editing doesn’t need to denote tension or excitement, as Sergi Eisenstein famously posited. The cameras move around way too much, swinging and swaying, and edited together so quickly that by the time you get your bearing on what you’re watching, it’s gone to the next shot. It seems like they average about every two-to-three seconds, which is not only annoying (and bad direction), but literally nauseating via motion sickness. I felt like turning off the screen and reviewing it like a CD rather than DVD. You can see a sample below.
Eddie Cochran’s “Something Else” has been interpreted by many, including an enjoyable one by Sid Vicious in ‘79, but the Head Cat are a bit more loyal to the ’59 version. The pace, however, picks up when they next cover Chuck Berry – in my opinion the true King of Rock and Roll – with 1957’s “Reelin’ and Rockin’,” a rave up all the way. I remember the Rockats did an outstanding version of it as their encore the night they recorded their Live at the Ritz album; though the song never made it to the vinyl, sadly. But I digress…
The camera hovers around the three big-name members, including Phantom’s minimal yet-highly effective drum set, but you almost never see Jonny or the stand-up bass except in the background. The best I can tell there are three cameras, one for Slim Jim who is off to the far left rather than behind, one for Lemmy and Danny (though it’s usually up Lemmy’s nose), and one for a longshot from the back of the room. The bassist gets squeezed out. As a fan of bass players, this was disappointing, as well.
Putting aside some of the growl, they do the almost ballad-like “Fool’s Paradise.” Lemmy explains this is off the first album he ever bought, by Buddy Holly and the Crickets in ‘58, which explains why he singing it more straightforward. It’s a more obscure track of Holly’s, as is their next choice, Chuck Berry’s medium rocker “Bye Bye Johnny” (which was also covered by the Stones). Keeping the pace, they play Fats Domino’s 1958 “Sick and Tired,” which actually as a very similar feel to the previous song.
It’s important that they did not just pick the “top 10” kind of songs that you hear at most revivals, but rather chose some that you don’t hear very often, such as Larry Williams’ 1958 “Bad Boy.” While I’m familiar with it, it’s not one that shows up on oldies radio shows often. More people know the Beatles’ cover from their Help! album. However, the next song gets covered a lot, Carl Perkins’ “Matchbox,” which is solid I-IV-V progression. Danny’s guitar really flashes on this one.
For the final number in the main set, it’s the third Berry number with the raver “Back in the USA.” Lemmy is in full growl mode for this one. It’s a fine number to end the set proper, just as Jimmy Reed’s “Baby What You Want Me to Do” is perfect to start the two-song encore. Danny B. again gets to show off his guitar skill in a more modern vein that still stays loyal to the heritage.
The last on the DVD is “Blue Suede Shoes.” Knowing this band’s fondness for Elvis, I am assuming that’s the version they are covering, but for me, it’s solid Carl Perkins, who got jyped out of his career potential by an accident. But I will say this: no matter who’s they are doing, it’s a kick-ass song and a solid way to end the show.
The last thing Lemmy says as he ends the gig is “Thank you very much; live forever.” After Lemmy’s passing in 2015, he was replaced by death metal bassist David Vincent (aka Evil D, of Morbid Angel and Genitorture); I’m guessing Bowler is no longer with the band?
The extras are nice. The obvious ones are the set list (i.e., chapters) and a 2:40 slide show over a song not included in the DVD’s show, which is a killer cover of Buddy Holly’s great “Not Fade Away.”
The other more significant extras are two sets of interviews. The first is 20:33 of Lemmy and Slim Jim. They discuss a wide range of subjects including how they met and became friends, bonding over rockabilly, music from that period’s effect on the youth then and “still going on all the time” (Slim Jim), and the mythology of Elvis of course. For the 19:18 second interview segment the focus is Johnny D., on his history in music, his bands, and his musical philosophy.
Despite the terrible direction/editing and shaky camerawork in the feature, the important thing is the music, which is fantastic. I will gladly play this DVD more, but I will have it go through my speakers, and turn the visuals off. It’s still a great record.
Good Rockin’ Tonight
Lawdy Miss Clawdy
Talkin’ ’Bout You
Reelin’ and Rockin’
Bye, Bye Johnny
Sick and Tired
Back in the USA
Baby What You Want Me to Do
Blue Suede Shoes