Predating and never quite participating in the early ’80s rockabilly revival, the Cramps used that genre’s primal sound as a jumping-off point for a uniquely weird pastiche of rock’n’roll, psychedelia and a monster movie/junk food/swamp-creature aesthetic. Led by uninhibited vocalist Lux Interior (Ohio native Erick Purkhiser, who was clearly a student of Cleveland television’s Ghoulardi) and guitarist Poison Ivy Rorschach (California native Kirsty Wallace), the band had its roots in Cleveland but was actually formed in New York. (Drummer Miriam Linna, guitarist Bryan Gregory, drummer Nick Knox and guitarist Kid Congo Powers are among the Cramps’ illustrious alumni, who all went on to spread the bad word far and wide among the faithful.) After two self-released 45s in ’77, the Cramps crashed the 12-inch barrier with Gravest Hits, reissuing all four songs from those records plus a fifth track from the same time, all produced by Alex Chilton.
Like a seance or voodoo session, the Cramps’ music needs time to work its spell, and so the albums make a better introduction. Songs the Lord Taught Us is a delirious invocation to the demons behind rock’n’roll. Besides horror-comic originals like “TV Set,” “The Mad Daddy” and “Zombie Dance,” the band overhauls classics like “Tear It Up” and “Strychnine” to emphasize their Dionysian inheritance. A minimal approach — no bass, rudimentary drumming, Lux’s monotonous vocals — underlines the music’s incantatory power. (The 1989 CD adds four alternate versions of tracks from the LP and an otherwise unavailable original entitled “Twist and Shout.”)
Slower tempos reduce the intensity of Psychedelic Jungle; still, it contains prime Cramps psychobilly (“Goo Goo Muck,” “Voodoo Idol,” “Can’t Find My Mind”) as well as related phenomena (“The Crusher,” “Rockin Bones”). The CD adds Gravest Hits.
On Smell of Female, a six-song live EP recorded at New York’s Peppermint Lounge, the group’s maniacal sense of humor comes through loud and clear on well-recorded mung like “Thee Most Exalted Potentate of Love” and “I Ain’t Nuthin’ but a Gorehound.” The reissues (red vinyl on one label; CD and cassette on another) add three non-LP tracks, including alternate versions of “Beautiful Gardens” (originally on Psychedelic Jungle) and the hilariously offensive “She Said.”
Amid rotating guitarists and disputes with their record label, the Cramps temporarily submerged. IRS issued Bad Music for Bad People, a kiss-off collection of singles sides (both LP and non-LP) and other obscure gems. Meanwhile, the Cramps’ foreign cult following was temporarily sated by Off the Bone, a fifteen-track compilation including all of Gravest Hits and the contents of Bad Music for Bad People, with two earlier album cuts replacing the latter’s “TV Set” and “Uranium Rock.”
Concurrent with the beginning of a four-year studio layoff, the Cramps toured some of the world’s nether regions; the cruddy-sounding (you expected maybe Mobile Fidelity?) Rockinnreelininaucklandnewzealandxxx documents an August ’86 show Down Under. Lux is in fine fettle; the set includes more than half the songs on A Date With Elvis plus typically choice covers (“Sunglasses After Dark,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Do the Clam”). As good as any bootleg!
The Cramps returned to the living dead in late ’85 with a wonderfully smarmy single (“Can Your Pussy Do the Dog?”), followed by an all-new sex-crazed studio album, A Date With Elvis, dedicated to Ricky Nelson. A bit more professional (Ivy breaks tradition and plays bass as well as guitar!) and less stylized than usual, but as happily crazed as ever, Elvis contemplates such Interior/Ivy designs as “What’s Inside a Girl?,” “(Hot Pool of) Womanneed” and “The Hot Pearl Snatch.” (Although initially unreleased in the Cramps’ homeland, A Date With Elvis was subsequently issued, with four bonus tracks collected from European B-sides, on CD/cassette by Enigma and colored vinyl by Dutch East.)
With fulltime bassist Candy Del Mar joining the lineup and Ivy in the producer’s chair, Stay Sick! maintains the Cramps’ high low-culture standards with colorful enthusiasm. While “Bikini Girls With Machine Guns,” “All Women Are Bad” and “Journey to the Center of a Girl” all spring from Lux’s bewildered bedevilment by the opposite sex, “Mama Oo Pow Pow” takes a good swig from the cultural trashcan that originally fueled the Cramps’ wild- eyed vision. (The artistic reasons for covering “Shortnin’ Bread” and “Muleskinner Blues,” however, are completely open to debate.) The CD adds a nifty version of Carl Perkins’ “Her Love Rubbed Off.” The 12-inch of “All Women Are Bad” contains three additional B-music tracks: “King of the Drapes,” “Teenage Rage” and “High School Hellcats.”
Ivy and Lux have two new playmates (veteran drummer Jim Sclavunos and bassist Slim Chance) on Look Mom No Head! , a half-baked genre exercise that, true to its title, is short on original ideas. Singing with only a taste of his usual shuddering passion, Lux follows his lust into lurid originals — “Dames, Booze, Chains and Boots” (which inexplicably paraphrases Elvis Costello’s “Pump It Up”), “Two Headed Sex Change” (“If your clam’s in a jam/Baby I know what to do”), “I Wanna Get in Your Pants” and “Bend Over, I’ll Drive” — with a notable lack of enthusiasm and a surprising degree of vulgarity. Iggy Pop makes a cameo on “Miniskirt Blues,” and the rote album has a couple of relevant obscure closet classics (“Hipsville 29 B.C.”), but there’s no substitute for a full shake of the Cramps’ own special sauce.
FlameJob is more like it. Co-produced by Lux and Ivy, with new drummer Harry Drumdini replacing Sclavunos, the album (also available as a limited-edition CD doublepack with a thirteen-song career retrospective) doesn’t work so hard to fester the band’s garbage aesthetic, doesn’t hide its crudity under a bushel — “Let’s Get Fucked Up” is by far the coarsest item in the Cramps catalogue, with “Inside Out and Upside Down (With You)” a close second — and doesn’t even waste much effort on stylistic fidgeting. The songs are simple, stupid, direct and as raw as a scraped knee. Poison Ivy plays her ass off, and Lux sings like he means it. His gurgling rendition of “How Come You Do Me?” is spectacular proof of his rockabilly chops; the rest of the album finds him no less engaged or exciting. If a booklet quotation about aesthetics from Man Ray strikes a bum note, these precious “Sinners” otherwise run right into the dirt-filled mainstream of ’90s traffic, dodging oncoming cars with a wicked grin and a manic laugh. Even “Route 66” sounds like a creepy place in the Cramps’ capable clutches.