The Cramps: an appreciation.
I first heard The Cramps in 1990, when I was 14 years old. I'd made friends with this girl in my high school gym class based on our mutual love for weird and unusual music that most people were completely unaware of. We started trading mix tapes pretty much immediately, and "God Damn Rock N' Roll" by The Cramps was on one of the first tapes she made for me. This was a song from their album "Stay Sick!", which was brand new at the time, and I loved the lyrics. "I dig that goddamn rock n' roll," Lux snarled, starting before the instruments had even come in. "That kind of stuff that don't save souls." "Awesome," I thought. This was so early in my own musical evolution that I'd been listening to records mostly from my dad's collection only a couple of years before. What's funny about that is that my mom used to actually give me shit for not listening to enough modern music. Then, when I started to do so, I started having run-ins with her about the horrible stuff I was listening to. Nothing was ever good enough for my mother.
Anyway, "God Damn Rock N' Roll" by The Cramps was like a manifesto for me. The song's unapologetic boosterism for the very same music that was getting me in trouble around the house sounded pretty right-on to me. What's more, the no frills rockin' sound of the song fit well with my nascent interest in old school punk rock. Of course, I could tell that The Cramps were more rock n' roll than anything, but at that point in my life, I had no real idea of the sort of wild, insane rock n' roll that was out there, just under the surface. To me, they sounded way beyond anything I'd ever encountered on an oldies station.
But really, I had no idea just how far out The Cramps could get. I enjoyed the "Stay Sick!" era material when I heard it. I heard several other songs from that album soon after hearing "God Damn Rock N' Roll" not too long after hearing that one. In addition to supplying me with mixtapes, the girl in my gym class also introduced me to a local college radio station that played rock music between 11 PM and 6 AM every night. Staying up late and making tapes of the radio led me to discover plenty of other unusual underground rock acts, as that radio station didn't play anything even remotely resembling the sort of music I was used to hearing on the radio. I ended up with radio tapes containing several other songs from "Stay Sick!", including "All Women Are Bad," "Bikini Girls With Machine Guns," and "Everything Goes." I also ended up with a few older Cramps songs.
These were the real revelation. What I hadn't realized when I heard "Stay Sick!" was that it was later material by The Cramps, who'd been around about as long as I had. Their early records--"Gravest Hits," "Psychedelic Jungle," "Songs the Lord Taught Us," and "Bad Music For Bad People"--were on a whole different level than "Stay Sick!" By 1990, The Cramps had become more of a fun, partytime band than anything else. They'd also changed their lineup to a more conventional one, with original members Lux Interior and guitarist Poison Ivy Rorschach, as well as longtime drummer Nick Knox, joined by a bass player, Candy Del Mar. But on their early records, instead of having a bass player, they'd taken the then-unusual step of having two guitarists, backed only by a drummer. The contrasting guitar styles of Poison Ivy and original second guitarist Bryan Gregory created a bizarre and menacing sound, which The Cramps exploited to the fullest on early songs like "Garbageman."
"Garbageman" was the second Cramps song that I truly fell in love with, after "God Damn Rock N' Roll." It was on another mixtape, made for me by another high-school friend that I met in my 10th grade art class. This was the first of the early era Cramps songs that I ever heard, and the mix of Poison Ivy's twangy lead guitar lines and Bryan Gregory's distorted rhythm chords both surprised and delighted me. Overtop of this strange but compelling mix, Lux snarled a message seemingly directed at the pretty postcard punks of the time (early 80s): "You ain't no punk, you punk. You wanna talk about the real junk?" He demanded that listeners "rock til you see red," and claimed, "It's just what you need when you're down in the dumps, one half hillbilly and one half punk." What I didn't know at the time was that Lux was probably referencing the wealth of dirty, raw, underground garage and primitive rock n' roll singles that were out there, unknown to most rock n' roll, punk, and "classic rock" fans (I'm sure that particular genre classification gave our Mr. Interior the hives). The songs lyrics referred in passing to "Louie Louie" and "Surfin' Bird," both songs I knew, but I had no idea just how much other stuff there was. At least, not then.
What I learned in more recent years, through digging up comps like "Back From The Grave," "Pebbles," and "Nuggets," was that a great deal of songs I'd come to know as Cramps tunes were actually covers. This was especially true of the early, Bryan Gregory era material, as well as the era immediately after Gregory, rumored to be a junkie of the first order, split the band, taking all of their equipment and money with him. They pulled themselves together and recruited the Gun Club's Kid Congo Powers, who played the Gregory role (musically, at least) for the next few years of the band's existence. The early albums mentioned before are full of covers, covers that stick so closely to the sensibility The Cramps outline on their originals that I never would have guessed at the time that they weren't original songs. I was particularly surprised to learn that "Goo Goo Muck" was a 1962 single by Ronnie Cook and the Gaylads--I hadn't imagined that anyone before The Cramps were writing songs like that, let alone bands from 30 to 50 years ago. Discovering a song I'd thought of as being by The Cramps was something that helped fuel my interest in checking out comps of garage rock material--and it just kept happening! "Green Fuz" was a 1966 single by Randy Alvey and Green Fuz, "Love Me" was a 1958 single by The Phantom, "Rockin' Bones" was a 1957 single by Elroy Dietzel... it just went on and on.
What I came to learn through reading various garage rock fanzines and websites was that Lux Interior and Poison Ivy Rorschach were some of the original collectors of obscure garage rock singles. Personally, I wish I could have been around for that era of being able to dig through record sections in thrift stores and find singles by The Novas or Teddy And His Patches for a quarter each, but I was born too late. Thankfully, though, there were other people out there paving the way for my own interest in and love for all of this stuff. Not only were Poison Ivy and Lux instrumental in making all of this stuff available for those who came after them (one of the more popular compilation series of hard-to-find rockabilly and garage rock singles is called "Songs the Cramps Taught Us"), The Cramps had ties to other people who did similar work. Before Nick Knox joined the band on drums, they'd had two short-lived female drummers, one being Bryan Gregory's sister, Pam Ballam. The other was Miriam Linna, who played with The Cramps for most of 1977 but left the band before ever getting to play on one of their records. After leaving, she formed 80s rockabilly band The A-Bones, as well as starting Norton Records, a label that was instrumental in putting a lot of early rock n' roll and garage rock back into print.
Now that Lux Interior has passed away, I can't imagine that The Cramps will continue to exist. From his inimitable rockabilly yelping and bizarre, lascivious lyrics to his insane live performances, there's just no replacing the guy. It's a shame that he's gone, but he lived a decently long life, and certainly packed a lot of living into it. The legacy of The Cramps will endure for a long time, from the great music they put onto record and the work they did as punk pioneers, opening up venues around the country for underground groups, to the great music they brought to us by covering it and just generally bringing it to the attention of fans (like me) who might otherwise never have heard it at all. I for one feel greatly indebted to Lux Interior, so today I will blast that god damn rock n' roll in his honor. Rest in peace, Lux.
The Cramps - God Damn Rock N' Roll
The Cramps - Garbageman
and, just for fun...
Ronnie Cook and the Gaylads - Goo Goo Muck