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The Cramps

The trashiest, sleaziest 50s throwbacks to ever besmirch the good name of rock’n’roll, The CRAMPS took the genre’s inherit debauchery to its thrilling (and often hilarious) conclusion. Crawling from the mire of the CBGB’s punk scene like the proverbial swamp thing in one of their beloved B-movies, the primal pioneers of psychobilly started as they meant to go on and without taking themselves too seriously.
Lux Interior (alias Erick Purkhiser) and Poison Ivy Rorschach (alias Kristy Wallace) first met in 1972 in Sacramento, California and duly became a love-match while studying “Art and Shamanism” at the local college. Adopting the aforementioned pseudonyms, the pair formed the group, the former taking up the microphone, the latter lead guitar. After abandoning group names Raven Beauty and Vip Vop, The CRAMPS hit New York City in ’75 via a spell in Lux’s home in Akron, Ohio. Along the way, Lux invited fellow record store employee Bryan Gregory (alias Greg Beckerleg) on guitar and his sister Pam “Ballam” Beckerleg, although the latter drummer was almost immediately replaced by Miriam Linna. Fitting in with the expanding CBGB’s and Max Kansas City elite, their initial gigs proved worthy of the buzz and excitement they’d created, all in such a short space of time. But in July ’77, Linna left the group (she went on to jointly run Kicks magazine and the worthwhile indie imprint at Norton Records), her place filled by the experienced Nick Knox/Stephanoff, known to fans of the defunct ELECTRIC EELS combo from Cleveland, Ohio.
The CRAMPS initiating their vinyl career in 1978 with coupling covers: the A side a riotous mangling of The TRASHMEN’s `Surfin’ Bird’ and the flipside a re-tread of Canadian JACK SCOTT’s `The Way I Walk’, the former dirge as close to a theme tune as the band ever came. Follow-up `Human Fly’ introduced Lux’s impressive capacity for disturbingly accurate animal (and insect!) noises, its voodoo surf twang and creeping tempo scarier than the frontman’s skin-tight leotard. Ditto its B-side, `Domino’, a stuttering 2-minute masterpiece.
Subsequently signed to Miles Copeland’s I.R.S. roster, The CRAMPS set up shop in Sun Studios, Memphis (where else?!) with producer ALEX CHILTON at the helm working on the material for their acclaimed debut set, SONGS THE LORD TAUGHT US (1980) {*8}. Featuring such bad taste gems as `Garbage Man’ (with even more animal noises!), `TV Set’, `I Was A Teenage Werewolf’ and `The Mad Daddy’, the record further boosted the band’s cult credentials, while a cool cover of the Peggy Lee standard `Fever’ tempered the rush to walking pace; other cocky covers came by way of rockabilly jewels from Jimmy Stewart (`Rock On The Moon’), LINK WRAY (`Sunglasses After Dark’), the JOHNNY BURNETTE Trio (`Tear It Up’) and The SONICS (`Strychnine’).
The departure of Gregory after the `Drug Train’ single was the first in a long series of line-up changes through which Poison Ivy (the sexiest thing in stockings!) and Lux were the only constants. With Kid Congo Powers (from The GUN CLUB) as a replacement, the band cut the slightly less convincing PSYCHEDELIC JUNGLE (1981) {*7}, their final release for Copeland whom they later sued. Split between raucous Rorschach-Interior originals and a bevvy of covers, the record promoted Lux’s primeval prowess; the re-treads were sourced from the garage grooves of Randy Alvey & The Fuzz (`Green Fuz’), Ronnie Cook & The Gaylads (`Goo Goo Muck’), a GENE VINCENT staple (`Rockin’ Bones’), The Groupies (`Primitive’), The Novas (`The Crusher’), Kip Tyler & The Flips (`Jungle Hop’) and a JIM LOWE classic (`Green Door’). Their fan club was surprisingly based in Grangemouth, Scotland; one recalls that wee Marty fi’ the Nash ran it.
A short spell with the French New Rose imprint and then UK’s Big Beat (a spin-off from Chiswick Records) saw the release of the 6-track, live mini-set, SMELL OF FEMALE (1983) {*7}. Cover songs such as Bert Shefter’s cinematic cult-piece, `Faster Pussycat’ and The COUNT FIVE’s `Psychotic Reaction’, were pitched next to the seminal `Call Of The Wighat’, `Thee Most Exalted Potentate Of Love’, `You Got Good Taste’ and `I Ain’t Nuthin’ But A Gorehound’; a cover of Hasil Adkins’ `She Said’ featured on CD re-issue versions. Each track went at least some way to capturing the cheap thrills of a CRAMPS gig.
Lux Interior had always modelled himself in a kind of ELVIS-from-the-crypt aplomb, and, in 1986, The CRAMPS met their maker, so to speak, on the classic UK Top 40 album A DATE WITH ELVIS {*7}. They’d already snatched the rocker’s classic songs for their live sets (`Heartbreak Hotel’ and `Jailhouse Rock’ showing up elsewhere), and here, ELVIS and other rock’n’roll references were aplenty. The likes of `The Hot Pearl Snatch’ (think JOY DIVISION meets The B-52’s), minor UK hit `Can Your Pussy Do The Dog?’ and `What’s Inside A Girl?’, need no further explanation save that “The King” was no doubt turning in his grave. Further live exploits from an August ‘86 gig at the Galaxy (featuring further female foil and their inaugural bassist Candy Del Mar) were unsaddled on the self-released ROCKINNREELININAUCKLANDNEW ZEALANDXXX (1987) {*5}, but the group’s insistence on reverting to crudely-recorded re-treads resulted in their first failure to communicate; `Do The Clam’ (an old ELVIS cut) and The RIVINGTONS’ `Birdfeed’ (plus on the re-issue, nostalgic staples `Blue Moon Baby’, `Georgia Lee Brown’ and `Lonesome Town’) were nothing out of the ordinary.
Though this marked a creative and commercial peak of sorts, The CRAMPS continued to think up the best song titles in the western world over a string of subsequent albums. A long time in the making, STAY SICK! (1990) {*6} was bit underwhelming; Ivy almost soft-porn in her sensual expose on the front cover. Bookended by covers of Macy Skipper’s `Bop Pills’ and JIMMIE RODGERS’ `Muleskinner Blues’ (the unnecessary trad piece, `Shortnin’ Bread’ splintered half-way in), there was at least top totty in `Bikini Girls With Machine Guns’ (their sole UK Top 40 hit), `All Women Are Bad’ and `Journey To The Centre Of A Girl’.
Enlisting a completely fresh set of rhythm-sters in Slim Chance and Jim Sclavunos, LOOK MOM NO HEAD! (1991) {*5} was essential, if only for the IGGY POP collaboration cover of `Miniskirt Blues’; re-hashes of the NITZSCHE-COODER-Schrader song `Hard Workin’ Man’ (from the “Blue Collar” OST), Don Turnbow’s `Hitsville 29 B.C.’ and Ellis Mize’s `The Strangeness In Me’ were for the most part, poor.
1994’s FLAMEJOB {*6} redressed the balance somewhat, and marked their first and only album for Alan McGee’s Creation imprint, while sticksman Harry Drumdini took over from filler Nickey Alexander (ex-WEIRDOS). Together with a raft of covers from the pens of Jas. Joiner (‘How Come You Do Me?’), Jerry West (`Strange Love’), Hayden Thompson (`Blues Blues Blues’), Kohler-Fana (`Trapped Love’), Freddie & The Hitchhikers (`Sinners’) and BOBBY TROUP (`Route 66’), one could at least see improvement in hard-edged `Mean Machine’, `Ultra Twist’ (yet another flop 45) and `Let’s Get F*cked Up’.
Finding a home at Epitaph Records (once bastion of the US hardcore punk revival movement), BIG BEAT FROM BADSVILLE (1997) {*5} was another to bomb. Though they’d hardly pushed back the boundaries of music, The CRAMPS were still arguably even more essential now than in their heyday, if only to remind the current crop of indie dullards what it “really” means to play “the Devil’s music”. As deliciously under-dressed and perverted as usual, Ivy and her long-time beau, Lux, delivered sleazy stompers such as `Like A Bad Girl Should’, `Devil Behind That Bush’ and `Sheena’s In A Goth Gang’ – presumably fed up being a punk rocker.
Now in their fifties (well, Lux, at any rate), The CRAMPS showed no signs of ageing gracefully with their first album of new material in over five years, FIENDS OF DOPE ISLAND (2003) {*6}; they’d also superseded Slim with Chopper Franklin. The most interesting titles of the album, and perhaps the year, had to be `Papa Satan Sang Louie’, the token single `Big Black Witchcraft Rock’, `Dr. Fucker M.D. (Musical Deviant)’ and `Elvis Fucking Christ’, as good an indicator as any of the band’s reliably static musical development. Over the years, The CRAMPS were known for taking on the odd cover or three, this album was no exception as they tramped through JERRY REED’s `Oowee Baby’, the (Seattle) Wailers’ `Hang Up’ and the very obscure Margarita Lecouna’s `Taboo’.
Another succession of fill-in players came and went through a torrid time for the label-less combo, WHITE ZOMBIE’s bassist Sean Yseult there most renowned intern since who knows when. Without any new songs on the horizon and with The CRAMPS fading fast, it was indeed sad news to hear that Lux/Erick Lee died (aortic dissection) on February 4, 2009; past member Bryan Gregory had died on January 10, 2001.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/GRD // rev-up MCS Sep2012

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