In late ’70s New York City, kids forming underground bands often drew from the Ramones and their brethren. Punk rock rejected the sanitized mainstream music of the era, seeking to recapture the excitement of pre-Beatles rock n roll.

Long Island native Slim Jim Phantom took a different path when he formed Stray Cats with Brian Setzer and Lee Rocker in 1979. He had discovered rockabilly, a style of music that predated rock n roll. Rockabilly in 1979 seemed out of place, at least on the surface, but upon further examination, it made just as much sense as punk. “[Rockabilly is] the most American music,” says Phantom, who plays drums. “Gene Vincent wasn’t affected by the British. Eddie Cochran wasn’t affected by the British.”

“[I’m a] big Ramones fan,” Phantom continues. “Johnny Ramone was one of my best friends I’ve ever had in my life. Very close….we used to go to their gigs and we loved the Ramones. And, like a little bit of research, and you find out that Johnny Ramone’s the biggest Elvis fan that there ever was.”

Bands formed in Phantom’s Long Island neighborhood also sharply contrasted with the punkers. Punk kids typically had little musical training and sounded terrible until they worked things out in the garage. But for the Stray Cats and other bands in the area, that ethos didn’t apply. “If you wanted to play music, everyone took lessons….in our neighborhood, everybody was pretty good,” says Phantom. “There [were] a lot of musicians, and if you wanted to be with the good guys, you kinda had to play pretty good. Like, to get together in the garage, and just play until you were good enough to play a song—there was no one really like that. Like you wouldn’t have really lasted very long in our neighborhood doing that.”

Phantom enjoyed mainstream success in the early ’80s in Stray Cats, pioneers of a new rockabilly sound, with such hits as “Rock This Town” and “Stray Cat Strut.” Following that band’s demise, Phantom met up with two British rockabilly fans, guitarist Tim Polecat and bassist Jonny Bowler, and formed 13 Cats in the ’90s. The trio also eventually moved on to other projects, but have reformed as the Whammy this year, continuing to explore the world of rockabilly.

For those with a cursory knowledge of rockabilly, the genre may seem somewhat musically limiting, compared with the diversity that has characterized rock n roll. Phantom disagrees. “I don’t see it as limiting,” he says. “I think that the only limit that you can have is like self-inflicted. Like most rock music, there’s three chords and a fourth one for good luck once in a while…..it’s a basic structure, [like] punk rock or rockabilly or the blues—and it’s kinda what you do within those parameters that makes [you] great.”

The Whammy, based in Los Angeles, will tour California through year-end. Working in some originals as well as Stray Cats and 13 Cats covers, the band intends to reconvene in February for an 11-show tour of the Midwest and Northwest. If primetime karaoke contests and YouTube sensations have battered your faith in old school rock, then The Whammy will almost certainly be your burning bush.

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STEPHEN TOW, a professor of history at Delaware Valley College in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, specializes in American popular music and culture. He is the author of The Strangest Tribe: How a Group of Seattle Rock Bands Invented Grunge.

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