The Cramps - Biography
Musical trash compacters The Cramps always pursued the course defined in one of their late-period song titles: “Wilder Wilder Faster Faster.” Taking the precepts of the original rockabilly madmen as road signs, the New York-bred band careened along a literal highway to hell, energetically and entertainingly piledriving a backhoe through the towering garbage heap of American popular culture.
Vocalist Lux Interior and guitarist Poison Ivy Rorschach, the couple who guided The Cramps for more than three decades, presented a kind of manifesto in their liner notes — which also served as an invaluable source of information about the band’s early days -- for How to Make a Monster (2004), a two-CD collection of early demos and live recordings issued on their own Vengeance label.
“The term ‘rock ‘n’ roll,’ which defines a lifestyle and sex act, as well as a type of music, had become ‘rock music’ in an apparent effort by squares to legitimize it,” they wrote. “We knew damn well the original sow’s ear was way better. We wanted to be as shocking, sexy and original as the great culture changing rock ‘n’ roll pioneers were during the ‘50s and ‘60s — not imitators, but the same kind of rebels that they were in their time. We set out to become a patchwork hybrid with a life of its own — a rock ‘n’ roll Bride of Frankenstein.”
The horror movie reference comes naturally. Much of the subject matter and lyrical content of The Cramps’ mondo sleaze-o songs were drawn from inspirations like cheap American International monster movies or Russ Meyer’s delirious T&A sex-and-violence fantasies. Their music was born in thrift shops, strip joints, B&D parlors, fleabag triple-bill movie houses, adult bookstores. Their fantasies of bloodlusting creatures, perverse desire, and savage kicks emanated from some weird Martian jukebox. Happily, the music was as funny and self-aware as it was pathological.
Their primal sonic style tilted from the near-unknown rockabilly singles they pillaged for much of their cover material. Originally arranged for two guitars and drums and ultimately settling into a classic guitar-bass-drums setting, it also borrowed knowingly from the more extreme forms of R&B and blues, plus ‘60s garage-rock and proto-punk. Lux’s untethered performances owed much to Iggy Pop’s precedent. And occasionally a surprising source could be heard: One latter-day track paid homage to England’s comedic Bonzo Dog Band.
In the end, The Cramps, despite their impact on bands in the US and abroad, were sui generis, despite their genesis in the Big Apple’s late-‘70s punk scene. Over the course of eight studio albums, many EPs and singles, and thousands of live gigs, they did one thing, over and over, in multitudinous variations on a theme. But they did it better than anyone else ever could, and they were not without their imitators. Few bands are a guaranteed good time, and The Cramps were one of them.
We know little about the youths of Lux (born Erick Purkhiser) and Ivy (née Kirsty Wallace), but we can assume they were misspent. They met when he picked her up hitchhiking in 1972 in Sacramento, where both were enrolled in the local city college. They found they shared a love of arcane, primitive music; Lux was already an enthusiastic collector whose formidable catalog would be mined for the fan-oriented compilation series Songs The Cramps Taught Us. They also both favored outré fashion and Dexedrine. Certain other things they loved are perhaps best left to the imagination. Alienated by Sacramento’s hippie community, they moved to Lux’s hometown of Akron, Ohio; after a three-year sojourn there, they moved to New York, where the novice musicians dubbed themselves The Cramps (“a painful violent affliction that’s hard to get rid of,” in their words).
The band’s original lineup was completed when Greg Beckerleg, like Lux a clerk at the local oldies store Music Maze, volunteered his services on guitar; the menacing, pock-marked guitarist, who renamed himself Bryan Gregory, drafted his sister as a drummer for the group, where she assumed the moniker Pam Balam. Their early live shows — which later featured Miriam Linna, later co-editor of Kicks magazine and co-founder of Norton Records, in the drum chair — flamboyantly mixed sex ‘n’ gore originals and covers of obscurities by such rockabilly wraiths as The Phantom and Dwight Pullen and garage-psyche by Roky Erickson and The Red Krayola.
In mid-1977, by which time The Cramps were gaining notice for their over-the-precipice shows at CBGB and Max’s Kansas City, the band’s lineup solidified with the arrival of Nick (Stephanoff) Knox, formerly with Cleveland’s confrontational Electric Eels. That fall, the two-guitar unit with Gregory and Knox recorded two singles at Ardent Studios in Memphis with former Big Star singer-guitarist Alex Chilton producing. The 45s included churning covers of Jack Scott’s “The Way I Walk” and Roy Orbison’s Sun obscurity “Domino,” the sci-fi original “Human Fly” (with its lyrical hat-tip to ? and The Mysterians’ garage-rock classic “96 Tears”), and a manic workout on The Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird.” They were embraced by the punk underground, and led to a contract with Miles Copeland’s A&M-distributed I.R.S. Records. (The singles were subsequently collected as Gravest Hits .)
Chilton returned to produce The Cramps’ debut LP Songs The Lord Taught Us (1980) at Memphis producer Sam Phillips post-Sun studio. The album remains the primo distillation of the band’s sound, featuring rave-up, blood-spattered originals like “TV Set,” “I Was a Teenage Werewolf,” “The Mad Daddy,” and “I’m Cramped” and several fabulous covers, including the Dwight Pullen-Link Wray mash-up “Sunglasses After Dark,” Johnny Burnette’s “Tear It Up,” and The Sonics’ “Strychnine.”
Gregory exited for what proved to be an unsuccessful solo career; he died of a heart attack at 46 in 2001. Following Lux and Ivy’s relocation to Los Angeles in 1980, he was replaced by Brian Tristran, the boyish guitarist from Jeffrey Lee Pierce’s Gun Club. Re-dubbed Kid Congo Powers, he joined Ivy in the twin-guitar lineup for sophomore album Psychedelic Jungle (1981). The self-produced opus was something of a let-down after their caustic debut; “Goo Goo Muck” became the most memorable original in the collection, but fans admired the crazed covers of The Novas’ “The Crusher,” Kip Tyler’s “Jungle Hop,” and Jim Lowe’s twee “Green Door.”
The Cramps became embroiled in a dispute with their label, and by 1983 they had exited I.R.S. (The 1984 compilation Bad Music For Bad People complemented LP tracks with such non-album goodies as versions of Memphian Charlie Feathers’ “I Can’t Hardly Stand It” and the dangerous West Virginia hillbilly Hasil Adkins’ proto-psychobilly “She Said,” plus the demented original “Drug Train.”)
As a stop-gap, the band issued the live EP Smell of Female (1983), to capitalize on their potentrep as a live act. Though lacking the visual impact of Lux’s writhing, mic-swallowing, latex-clad convulsions and Ivy’s semi-undressed axe-flogging, it’s a richly satisfying rundown of their then-current set, captured at New York’s Peppermint Lounge, original home of Joey Dee and the twist discotheque craze.
Congo was bounced from the group shortly after that gig, and The Cramps cut A Date With Elvis (1986) — initially released as an import -- as a trio, with Ivy doubling in the studio on guitar and bass (and playing two roles in the album art). One of the band’s most vital studio sets, it contains the anthemic “How Far Can Too Far Go?” and the underground hit “Can Your Pussy Do the Dog?”
Their next two albums were recorded with a new, young addition, bassist Candy Del Mar. Rockinnreelininaucklandnewzelandxxx (1987) was another, full-length live package that upped the aggression level beyond the Peppermint Lounge collection, and included the daffy Elvis covers “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Do the Clam.” The studio album Stay Sick! (1989), produced by Ivy, was highlighted by a version of Macy Skipper’s speed ode “Bop Pills,” off-the-wall renditions of “Muleskinner Blues” and “Shortnin’ Bread,” and the original B-picture salute “Bikini Girls With Machine Guns” (which became a gyrating, oft-censored video).
After 13 years behind the kit, Nick Knox exited the band in 1990, and for Look Mom No Head! (1991) he was replaced by former Teenage Jesus & The Jerks member Jim Sclavunos; Del Mar’s position was taken by Slim Chance. While the album sported a fierce production sound (with Ivy behind the board), the set was woefully short on memorable songs. The highlights were covers: “Miniskirt Blues” (with a guest shot by Iggy Pop) and “The Strangeness in Me.”
After three years in the label wilderness, The Cramps went into the studio for the major-distributed Medicine Label. With new skin man Harry Drumdini on board, Flamejob (1994) was an engagingly gross high-energy workout. The writing was again not top-shelf, but blatant invitations like “Let’s Get F*cked Up” and metaphorically impenetrable psychosexual rockers like “Swing the Big Eyed Rabbit” proved hard to resist nonetheless.
The last 15 years of The Cramps’ career saw the release of only two studio albums, Big Beat From Badsville (1997) and Fiends of Dope Island (2003). (In 2001, Vengeance issued remastered versions of the group’s albums, minus the I.R.S. and Medicine releases, with bonus tracks.) The band toured behind these largely spiritless and repetitive collections (with bassist Chopper Franklin and former Blasters drummer Bill Bateman), but the recordings were beginning to feel rote. Even this most out-there band may have finally discovered that the outer limits have their limits.
The Cramps’ career reached a sudden conclusion on Feb. 4, 2009, when Lux Interior passed away in Glendale, California, aged 62, the result of a heart condition known as aortic dissection. But, as long as the band’s records are played and remembered fondly, he will remain — like many of the monsters he sang about in his songs — forever undead.