I love artists past their prime.

As I’ve repeatedly mentioned here, I derive endless fascination from the things musicians do after they’ve been forgotten by the public at large. They all deal with it differently, of course — but I’m just as awed by, say, Geoffrey Downes bringing his latest incarnation of Asia to a screaming crowd of 38 people as I am by Stephen Bishop gouging his few remaining fans for $20 a CD.

The one thing these artists all seem to have in common is the stubborn support of a handful of embittered old loonies who continually gripe on the message boards about how their favorite artist’s career decline is all due to the sad state of today’s pop culture. Nobody appreciates “real music” anymore. It’s Britney Spears’ fault. MTV did it. It’s funny, in a way, especially if the washed-up artist in question happens to agree, and joins in on the conversation. These people seem to forget that music has always been this way, and if they can’t understand the appeal of a Spears or an Avril Lavigne, then that’s because they’re idiots, not because of any big changes to the culture.

Understand that I’m not defending Spears or Lavigne, per se — I’m just saying I understand why they’re successful, and that they’re really no different (probably better, actually) than prefab acts from the Archies to David Cassidy to NKOTB.

What I don’t understand is the continuing career of Brian Setzer:

Aside from seeing a kitten run over by a steamroller, I can think of few things sadder than this picture of Setzer, the puffy-faced old hack, still rocking the greasy pompadour he sported two decades ago. The Stray Cats released their first album in 1981 — that means almost 25 years of his goofy retro shtick. You could pick a song at random from each of his solo or Stray Cats albums, put them all together, and not be able to detect any appreciable difference between any of them.

I don’t understand who keeps buying this shit, of course, but what really interests me is what’s going on in Setzer’s brain. Isn’t he tired of this by now? He’s been making rockabilly records longer than the actual rockabillies themselves. Jesus Christ, even David Cassidy tried to grow as an artist. Is Setzer secretly into weird, interesting music? Does he sit in his garage, recording music spiritually related to Beefheart and Zappa? Or does he really think he’s Gene Vincent?

I’m not sure which scenario is more disturbing.

This latest effort, credited to Brian Setzer and the Nash-villians (so clever!) is a tribute to Sun Records called Rockabilly Riot! Volume One. (Volume One? Who’s he kidding? His albums shouldn’t even have titles anymore — just cover photos of Setzer mercilessly flogging an extremely dead horse.) It’s just as dull and uninspired as it sounds — though in all honesty, I couldn’t listen to cuts like “Real Wild Child” (download) without being something like impressed that Setzer still sounds reasonably energized.

Mostly, though, I just thought about how little difference there is between Brian Setzer and Sha Na Na. Children of the ’70s (like me) will remember Sha Na Na as the group of state-fair-touring 1950s revivalists who enjoyed a career rebirth after Grease came out — between 1977 and 1981, they even hosted a weekly TV variety show. For these guys, the sock hop never stopped; in fact, they’re apparently about to release a new CD, featuring a song called — I’m not kidding — “The Cat in the PT Cruiser.”

It sounds awful, but hey, at least it’s a sign that these guys know what year it is. They’ve even released a new DVD:

I think Brian Setzer should join Sha Na Na. I’m sure the group makes reasonably decent money, and their busy touring schedule would keep him from having to pretend to be a real recording artist anymore. He could just do a flashy little guitar solo on a song — say, “Charlie Brown” (download) — wave his pompadour around, and enjoy the screaming adulation of grandmothers across America.

I bet it’s a gig that sounds pretty good to Geoffrey Downes.

About the Author

Jeff Giles

Jeff Giles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Popdose and Dadnabbit, as well as an entertainment writer whose work can be seen at Rotten Tomatoes and a number of other sites. Hey, why not follow him at Twitter while you're at it?

View All Articles