Slim Jim Phantom: "The Stray Cats saved rockabilly for another generation"

A photograph of Slim Jim Phantom stood in front of a graffiti wall

James McDonnell formed the Stray Cats on Long Island, New York with school friends Brian Setzer (guitar) and Lee Rocker (upright bass). Having been entranced by rockabilly and lured into a lifestyle of pink peg slacks and bouffant quiffs, the trio gigged themselves watertight before relocating to London in 1980. Within a year their Dave Edmunds-produced self-titled debut album had netted three UK Top 10 hits and spearheaded a full-scale rockabilly revival.

Latterly forming the Head Cat with Lemmy and climbing Everest for Mike Peters’s Love Hope Strength Foundation, the six-foot-two drummer better known as Slim Jim recently published his autobiography, A Stray Cat Struts: My Life As A Rockabilly Rebel.

Do you believe in God?

I’m an atheist. Aways have been. I was brought up in the church, I went to Catholic school. So I’m not really against it, I just never quite believed it.

What were you like at school?

A pretty regular guy. I loved baseball, rock’n’roll and looking at the girls. But I always wanted to leave where we were. It wasn’t so bad, it was New York, a cool place, but I wanted to get out. I felt from a young age that playing the drums was the way out.

When did the sound of rockabilly first capture your imagination?

When I was seventeen. Rockabilly came in for two reasons. I started researching The Beatles and Stones records, trying to find the originators. I was the guy who loved baseball cards and album liner notes. I’d pore over that stuff; play the Beatles record and think: “Who’s C. Perkins?’ or the Stones record and think: “Who’s C. Berry?” At that same time, I found the early recordings of Elvis Presley. That was the main catalyst.

How was life with Britt Ekland in the glare of the tabloid press?

Britt and I are still close. We have a son together, so that’s a very positive thing. When we met she introduced me to a side of life I didn’t know. She was more cultured than I, more practical. And, spectacular as she was, she’d come on tour and do ironing in the hotel room. I can really only say positive stuff about my time with her. We were truly in love.

What is your biggest regret?

There’s thousands of them. There’s nothing wrong with regret, it’s only when you let it drive you that it becomes negative energy. The Stray Cats stopped working at a pretty critical time. We were household names at twenty-one years old, but we were burnt out. Before anyone ever heard of us we played five nights a week, four sets a night for a year and a half. Then after the success we worked harder. We didn’t take a break for seven years. We didn’t need to stop, we just needed a break. But I was twenty-five, I thought: “I’m from New York, I have a tattoo, I have a hit record, I know everything.”

What’s the biggest misconception about you?

I’ve never been just a rockabilly guy. I love all music. My favourite quote is from Duke Ellington: “There’s only two types of music: good music and the other kind.” There’s great rockabilly, but there’s also great metal, reggae, jazz and blues. I’m not aloof, either. Anyone can call me. I’m the easiest guy in town to find.

What’s the secret of your success?

I’m still happy to be here. I said I was going to be a drummer when I was twelve, and I am. I chose a certain life that I thought I wanted when I was very young, and I’m still doing it and I still like it.

What was your biggest waste of money?

We made a record in the nineties that we spent a few hundred thousand dollars on that never came out. It wasn’t the right record for the time and ended up not getting used.

How did you meet Lemmy?

In the summer of 1980, when the Stray Cats went to London, Lemmy was at one of the first gigs and we had an immediate connection. I had no idea who he was but I could tell he was somebody. He was always the one who wanted to get another drink. And that’s me. I’m that guy. So Lemmy and I became friends.

Would you recommend climbing Everest as a character-building exercise?

No way. It’s too hard. You can build as much character from climbing a much easier one.

What in your life are you most proud of?

Despite living a crazy alternative life, I got two regular kids who are very nice people. I’m also proud that the Stray Cats saved rockabilly for another generation and that we made something completely ours: a mix of old American rockabilly with slap bass and a twangy guitar, the energy of punk rock, the swing in jazz and the feeling of the blues.

What will be written on your tombstone?

‘Drummer’.

A Stray Cat Struts: My Life As A Rockabilly Rebel is published by Thomas Dunne