A smile flits about my lips as passersby study the logo splayed across my chest. I feel their gaze on my retreating figure, the questioning look in their eyes undoubtedly increasing as the words “MEN WITHOUT SHAME” glare at them from my back. A feeling not unlike satisfaction bubbles within, and I can’t help but take a small measure of comfort in knowing that one of the decade’s best kept rock ‘n’ roll secrets, Phantom, Rocker & Slick, remains safe.
But it shouldn’t.
Anyone familiar with the rockabilly canon or with John Lennon’s 1980s catalog — tragically abbreviated by his murder — understands just what Phantom, Rocker & Slick is capable of… they simply don’t realize it. When Brian Setzer, lead singer and guitarist for the popular rockabilly revival group, the Stray Cats, chose to pursue a solo career, its upright bassist, Lee Rocker, and drummer, Slim Jim Phantom, decided to make their sabbatical from the Cats a productive one. In 1985, John Lennon’s son, Julian — who had begun to emerge from his famous father’s rather large shadow, thanks to his successful album, Valotte — introduced the pair to respected journeyman guitarist, Earl Slick. Slick had established himself as a versatile, go-to guitar wizard, playing with a variety of artists, from pop performer du jour, Leo Sayer, to the inimitable David Bowie. It was with the latter that he achieved a level of recognition, joining Bowie for the concert album, David Live, and a pair of studio records, Young Americans and Station to Station. Slick added memorable licks to some of Bowie’s biggest tracks, including “Fame” and “Golden Years”, and joined John Lennon on the former Beatle’s 1980 release, Double Fantasy.
It seemed certain, given their collective musical pedigrees, that Phantom, Rocker & Slick were slated for rock music greatness. Rocker and Phantom, often overshadowed by their wild-haired Stray Cats bandmate, appeared to have matured into well-rounded rock ‘n’ rollers. With Slick, they crafted a series of hard driving, finger snapping rockers, including the catchy, six-minutes-and-change long “Men Without Shame”, and the law breaker’s lament, “Runnin’ from the Hounds” — which Rocker would later rework for his 2006 disc, Racin’ the Devil. Phantom cast aside his stripped down Stray Cats-era drum kit — which he would play while standing — in favor of something more traditional, while Rocker traded his bulky double bass for a standard one. Rocker assumed the role of lead vocalist, his surprisingly crisp voice causing me to question why, during the Stray Cats’ boom time, he had been relegated to backing vocals or an unreleased cut that could occasionally be found buried amongst the cornucopia of Setzer-driven tunes.
In 1985, Phantom, Rocker & Slick released their self-titled debut album, and the rest could have been rock ‘n’ roll history. “Men Without Shame” seemed firmly lodged within MTV’s rotation — you know, back when the television network actually aired music videos — and the song became a hit. The track’s follow-up, “My Mistake”, to which the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards lent his capable guitar work, also enjoyed heavy MTV airplay. I’m confident that an appearance by campy horror movie hostess, Elvira, didn’t hurt the video’s promotion or appeal, either.
The group quickly followed their attention-grabbing inaugural album with Cover Girl. Released in 1986, the record enjoyed a meager two-week stay on Billboard magazine’s 200 Top Pop Albums chart, peaking at number 181, quite a difference from its number 62 slot-earning predecessor. The record’s paltry performance, despite being a solid effort — just try not to sing along with the title track or “Going South” — has been credited to the reformation of the Stray Cats. Suddenly, the Cats were back in the recording studio and releasing albums, albeit sporadically, with Setzer again ensconced as its frontman and primary songwriter.
After two brief years, Phantom, Rocker & Slick was no more. “Well, Brian called and wanted to do the band again,” Phantom explained to me during a 2008 telephone interview. “The Stray Cats are first priority.”
Nearly 26 years have passed since the release of Phantom, Rocker & Slick’s final album; time marked by six presidential elections, the end of the Cold War, and national tragedies too painful and numerous to mention. In the ensuing decades, Lee Rocker has emerged as an acclaimed solo artist, his thumping upright bass a perfect accompaniment to his smooth vocals. Slim Jim Phantom has supplied his stick skills for numerous bands, including his recent HeadCat collaboration with Motorhead’s Lemmy Kilmister and famed guitarist, Danny B. Harvey. Earl Slick, as he has done since the mid-1970s, continues to release albums, both his own and as a supporting musician. With such a lengthy list of individual accomplishments, it seemed improbable — almost laughable — that Phantom, Rocker & Slick would ever reunite, yet, in late June, that’s exactly what happened. The group performed a pair of well-received concerts in Wisconsin and, if Facebook can be an indicator of such things, has hopes of reuniting for more.
While far outmatched by the abundance of Stray Cats-related memorabilia scattered throughout my home, my scant Phantom, Rocker & Slick collection remains an important centerpiece. A small poster from a Michigan concert — another Ebay find — adorns a hallway door, while a vinyl copy of their initial release, which, in early 2012, was re-issued on CD for the first time, resides alongside the reverential works of Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley and the Beatles.
The T-shirt that lays bare the secret of a forgotten band — what might have been, as Lee Rocker aptly sang in “The Only Way to Fly”, rock ‘n’ roll’s “next big thing” — remains near the front of my closet, always within easy grasp. It’s an item that will never meet a mothball; never see the inside of a plastic bag or a cardboard box. Phantom, Rocker & Slick is my electrified, not so guilty pleasure, and a secret that, for once, I don’t mind sharing.
Published: August 8, 2012