The Listener: Not Cramped For Style

Our music column gets The Cramps, revisiting a sadly neglected band which formed 40 years ago

With Blondie heading into London town again, a septuagenerian Debbie Harry is back on screen, and there is always someone going on about late-seventies 1970s art-punks Television. But there’s one band of the period that never seem to get the respect they deserve…so The Listener’s retrospective on The Cramps can only be long overdue.

The Cramps defined their approach to rock and roll with their 1980 track ‘Garbageman’, but began to lay down their back to basics foundations three years earlier (40 years ago!) when recording their first EP, Gravest Hits. Whereas the rest of their CBGBs mates were embracing the new punk sound, The Cramps were looking backwards to salvage 50s rock n’ roll, 60s garage rock and surf rock, while keeping one eye on the punk scene around them. Looking and listening both ways led to what came to be known as Psychobilly – one half-hillbilly and one half Punk – although The Cramps always rejected the term as a description of what they had invented.

Primarily made up of the husband and wife duo of front man Lux Interior and guitarist Poison Ivy, The Cramps back line would change so frequently from album to album it would make Queens of the Stone Age’s line up look consistent. The Cramps’ songs existed in a world of B movies and dodgy double entendres, with titles ranging from ‘Human Fly’ to ‘What’s Inside A Girl?’.

While many bands took songs by other artists and covered them as a tribute, The Cramps grabbed the lost artifacts of rock n’ roll and garage rock and took them on an acid infused trip through the graveyard. When I first started listening to The Cramps I thought that songs such as ‘Rock on the Moon’ and ‘Goo Goo Muck’ could only have come from the minds of Lux and Ivy (Turns out they were from the minds of Jimmy Stuart and Ronnie Cook respectively).

On stage they were renowned for carnage, dressed like the characters they sang about. The Cramps brought the high-octane, stage-diving madness of their Protopunk predecessors to songs that had roots in a time when the audience was expected to sit and clap politely at the end. Shortly after recording Gravest Hits, The Cramps performed a gig quite like no other, at California State Mental Hospital (Video above) – a gig which still provokes controversy today. If there was one group that would be able to play such a gig without sneering at the patients they were performing to it was The Cramps, with Lux remarking during the gig: ”Somebody told me you people are crazy, but I’m not so sure about that”.

The Cramps’ popularity peaked in the mid 80s after the release of the Off the Bone and Bad Music for Bad People compilations. 1986’s A Date with Elvis saw a change in sound, with Candy del Mar brought in on bass to give a cleaner sound. On their albums and in their live sets the band started to cover songs that were more mainstream such as ‘Jailhouse Rock’ Their first hit on the UK singles chart was ‘Can Your Pussy Do The Dog?’, combining the humour of Are You Being Served? with the lyric style of Rufus Thomas! Following the success of A Date with Elvis the band set off on a world tour, resulting in live album Rockinnreelininaucklandnewzealandxxx. My dad actually saw the band on that tour and here’s what happened according to him:

“Lux entered the stage wearing shiny gold trousers and a princess tiara on his head, to break into a turbo charged version of Elvis’ ‘Heartbreak Hotel’. By the end, once ‘Sunglasses After Dark’ had squealed through the PA system, Lux was left with nothing but his tiara on, hanging upside down from the lighting rig with his crown jewels exposed.”

Not only did The Cramps create a genre, but they were a significant influence on bands such as Queens of the Stone Age (Who covered ‘Thee Most Exalted Potentate of Love’ from The Cramps’ 1983 live classic The Smell of Female) and The White Stripes. Forgetting The Cramps, would be a grave mistake.