Over the next 33 years, the Cramps would rotate over twenty different musicians through the band. Drummers Nick Knox and Harry Drumdini would have the honor of lasting the longest, followed by Slim Chance and Candy Del Mar on bass. The Cramps were stopped by the only thing that could stop it, a broken heart in the form of aortic dissection within the chest of Lux Interior in 2009.
Peeling back the layers of latex, leather, b-movies, surf music, and 45’s of garage bands, you discover the Cramps were the kind of love story your grandparents had. (Provided your grandparents were gender-bending, hopped-up dope fiends hell-bent to push the envelope named Rock and Roll.) Four years before the Cramps took the stage at CBGB’s, a Sacramento State College kid convinced his buddy to pick up the hot hitchhiker with the red panties peeking through her shorts. After that initial brief encounter, Kristy Wallace officially met Erick Purkhiser on the first day of their Art and Shamanism class. It was her birthday. Within weeks they were living together, a situation that would never waver over the next 37 years.
Monday nights were audition nights at CBGBs, but that didn’t mean just anyone could play. Capitalizing on a friendship with the Dead Boys, the Cramps took the stage in the audition slot on November 1, 1976. They were so naïve that they restrung the guitars just before the gig so that they wouldn’t break. Despite quickly going out of tune, the audience gave them an encore. Twenty one days later, they played their second gig at Max’s Kansas City. Between the two clubs, the Cramps began to hone their music and persona. Erick became Lux Interior and Kristy dubbed herself Poison Ivy.
Outrage, power, and showmanship were the names of the game. There was nothing the Cramps wouldn’t deliver up in a show. In 1978, they filmed a Target Video project playing a show at the Napa State Mental Hospital in California along with the Mutants. The Cramps didn’t dial back a thing when they played in the tiny courtyard. Jill Hoffman-Kowal, from Target Video, recalled the scene, “It was a beautiful thing…. They didn’t judge the band, and the band didn’t judge them.”
On stage, Ivy was pin-up girl spectacular. Her sultry, dominatrix sneer watched over the crowd, her 1958 Gretsch clearly the line dividing us and them. Lux was raw, open sex in latex and leather. His signature moves involved scaling speaker stacks in high heels and stage writhing. It was not unusual for blood to be drawn. Riots, arrests, anything could happen at a Cramps show. Beyond sexploitation and shock value, everything was honest and sincere, like a hammer swing in a slaughterhouse.
# 10 – Drug Train
Not to be confused with the Social Distortion song, “Drug Train” was originally a single (Illegal Records, 1980). It drives a simple, heavy rhythm matched with Ivy’s Maxon delay pedal for slapback sound. Both a cautionary tale and lascivious invitation, “Drug Train” sends you on a psychedelic journey with Elvis Presley, Sherlock Holmes, and Sigmund Freud.
# 9 – Bikini Girls with Machine Guns
Candy Del Mar’s rockabilly boogey bass provides the bouncing backdrop to “Bikini Girls with Machine Guns” from Stay Sick! (Enigma Records, 1989). Drag racing, drugs, surfing, and dangerous women crown this psychobilly classic.
# 8 – The Most Exalted Potentate of Love
The first live album, Smell of Female (Enigma Records, 1983) was recorded over two nights at New York City’s Peppermint Lounge. Egyptian-themed overtones grace this heavily fuzzed, swinging tune that was later covered by Queens of the Stone Age. Buried in the lyrics, Lux salutes Hank Williams with his promise of big fun on the bayou.
#7 – TV Set
From the original set list of their CBGB’s audition, “TV Set” (Songs the Lord Taught Us, I.R.S. Records, 1980) summed up the Cramps from the very beginning. Its beach movie beat and surf sound are coupled with buzzy, fuzzy guitar grind. The horror show lyrics and the simulated saw sound bring it home for b-movie fun.
# 6 – Mule Skinner Blues
This classic 1930s country song written by Jimmie Rogers and George Vaughn was originally titled, “Blue Yodel #8.” Somewhere down the line, the moniker changed as it has been covered by artists in every single decade since its inception. The Fendermen’s 1960’s version is likely the one that inspired the Cramps to follow suit. Hopped up and electrified, the Cramps put their version on Stay Sick! It’s the perfect showcase for Lux’s psychobilly pseudo-yodeling skills.
# 5 – Garbage Man
“Garbage Man,” from Songs the Lord Taught Us, is the Cramps throw down to posers and a love letter to sixties garage bands. Backed with classic garage band sounds, Lux demands your attention, asking and answering the question, ” Louie, Louie, Louie, Lou-I, the bird’s the word, and do you know why?” The lyrics also serve up the description of themselves as “one-half hillbilly and one-half punk, eight long legs and one big mouth.”
# 4 – Creature from the Black Leather Lagoon
Another entry off of Stay Sick! is “Creature from the Black Leather Lagoon.” The song itself is rockabilly horror punk at its best. However, it’s most well known for the video directed by Rocky Schenck. Banned from MTV, the video is a nostalgic look at classic horror movies while showcasing sexy, cross-dressing camp in full Cramps glory.
# 3 – Tear It Up
The Cramps took Johnny Burnette and the Rock and Roll Trio’s rockabilly classic “Tear It Up” and did just that. They tore it up, had their way with it, and left it panting, begging for more. While it was released on Songs the Lord Taught Us, it’s arguable that the best recording of the song came from the music documentary, URGH! A Music War. Recorded in the Cramps pre-bass days, their version doesn’t miss it at all. Showcasing Lux’s howls and screams, he kicks it up with bouts of hardcore heavy breathing and moans accomplished with his signature microphone mouth play.
# 2 – Human Fly
Booming with eerie twang and vocal sound effects, “Human Fly” has the quintessential back and forth of the rhythm guitars fuzz and Ivy’s lead guitar twang. Showing love for sci-fi horror movies with the lyrics, Lux buzzes his way through their first single on Vengeance Records (1978). Legend has it the recording session was financed through Ivy’s work as a dominatrix.
# 1 – Goo Goo Muck
The slow, sultry beat sends this Psychedelic Jungle (I.R.S. Records, 1981) track on the prowl. Chock full of teenage hormones, the Cramps go on the hunt in this cover song turned Cramps anthem. The original by Ronnie Cook and the Gaylads (single, Audan Records, 1962) featured burlesque-like sax. Lux and Ivy gave it a surf feel, culminating in bird calls and drag race squeal vocals.
Top 10 Songs From The Cramps article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2022
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