"And here I sit so patiently
Waiting to find out what price
You have to pay to get out of going
Through all these things twice."
IF ANYONE wants to make a prophet out of Bob Dylan, he might start with this ominous query from 1966's "Memphis Blues Again."
With 30 years of rock history now piling up around lots of contemporary rock bands, more than a few are being sucked, quicksand style, into a dismal swamp of stylistic mimicry. The ongoing do-wop, rockabilly, surf, punk and psychedelic revivals all exemplify this obsession with the creation of historical de'ja vu.
Currently, no band is making more out of rear-view vision and adding less to the future than the Stray Cats. The problem is that the Cats' harmless and "Happy Days" version of the rockabilly style snuggles more comfortably in the consumptive bosom of the American teen-ager than any of the nasty and reckless original stuff ever did.
On its second domestic release "Rant and Rave" (EMI-America SO-17102), the band not only reclaims rockabilly's past, but also their original producer, Dave Edmunds.
Edmunds' job is to inject guitarist and singer Brian Setzer's '50s re-creations with enough sonic pizazz and dance floor immediacy that the Stray Cats won't float to the surface like the dead fish they are. If Edmunds succeeded with the Cats' early singles, here he fails. This time, Setzer's songs are such transparent appropriations of classic material that even a whole modern studio's worth of electronic boom and echo can't disguise some of the most overworked riffs of the '50s.
On "Rebels Rule," Setzer cheers on a bogus teen rebellion set to the hambone rhythms of Bo Diddley. "Look at That Cadillac" swipes Joe Turner's "Shake, Rattle and Roll," while "Something's Wrong With My Radio" inserts the drums from "Jailhouse Rock" into a melange of Carl Perkins' songs. "Hot Rod Gang" is inspired by Tex Rubinowitz's "Hot Rod Man"; "How Long You Wanna Live Anyway" swallows Eddie Cochran's "C'mon Everybody" whole. Only "18 Miles to Memphis," a truckdriving number featuring Setzer's excellent Hawaiian steel guitar work, moves just a musical inch from straight rockabilly.
It's hard to argue against the sincerity of the Stray Cats' passion for this music or the precision of its pilferage. Setzer's guitar solos are still exciting recapitulations of the work of rockabilly legends like Cliff Gallup, Scottie Moore and James Burton. But his singing remains strained and bleached of nuance while his songwriting embraces a comic book version of hepcat mythology.
It's time for Setzer to drop the teen queen and bluejean stuff and tackle a serious issue such as what it's like to try to be a real rockabilly with only a Long Island accent, fast fingers and a stack of old records to work with.
While the Stray Cats cling to the '50s, a new British band, Roman Holliday, works its way back to the jump and jive of the '30s and '40s.
The group's first American album "Cookin' on the Roof" (Jive/Arista JL8-8101), is a highly danceable synthesis of Benny Goodman's swing, Louie Jordan's jump, the slick vocal work of the Andrews Sisters and Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, and contemporary rock. While there is little that is substantial about this good-natured music, Roman Holliday's involvement with the past is so lighthearted that it is able to recapture the musical moods of bygone eras without confusing itself with the real thing.
The band is most successful on its two hit singles, "Stand By" and "Don't Try To Stop It," where its clever arrangements shift attention among swinging horns, cracking bass and drums, and smooth two- and three-part harmonies. While the seven band members are smart enough to play everything for fingersnapping fun, their lack of instrumental prowess and willingness to take musical risks eventually makes their jive run out of steam.
Finally, we have the Elvis Brothers, an American trio whose presumptuous name leads to expectations that their debut album "Movin' Up" (Portrait BFR 38865) could hardly fulfill. The 12 pop songs on "Movin' Up" place a listener on one of the most congested thoroughfares in rock history. The Elvis Brothers unimaginatively move through musical traffic dating back to the Everly Brothers and the Beatles and coming up to the Knack, Nick Lowe, Marshall Crenshaw and Dave Edmunds.
On most of the album, the Elvis Brothers' anglicized vocal harmonies, acoustic guitars and catchy tunes are so reminiscent of Lowe and Edmunds that you might think this was a Rockpile album devoid of the creative tension and bite. When not evoking Rockpile, the band digs back to the Beatles, especially on "Long Gone" and "Fire in the City." And sometimes it is chasing the Stray Cats. A band like the Elvis Brothers can make you feel that rock history is piling up so fast and deep that, indeed, we may have to pay a very heavy price to avoid going through these things twice, even thrice.