Six years ago today, Lux Interior, the legendary lead singer of The Cramps, cast off this mortal coil. In commemoration, Retro in the 90s will review a different Cramps album from the 1990s for each of the next four years.
But, first a little background.
In the spring of 1976, The Cramps began to fester in an NYC apartment. Without fresh air or natural light, the group developed its uniquely mutant strain of rock n’ roll aided only by the sickly, blue rays of late night TV. While the jackhammer rhythms of punk were proliferating in NYC, The Cramps dove into the deepest recesses of the rock n’ roll psyche for the most primal of all rhythmic impulses – Rockabilly – the sound of southern culture falling apart in a blaze of shudders and hiccups.
As late night sci-fi reruns coloured the room, The Cramps also picked and chose amongst the psychotic debris of previous rock eras – instrumental rock, surf, psychedelia and sixties punk. And then they added the junkiest element of all – themselves. Nick Knox, stoic drummer with the history of the big beat written in his left hand. Ivy Rorschach, voodoo guitarist with the rhythm method down as pat as her blonde beauty. Bryan Gregory, flipping cigs and fractured with Vincent Price and decent folks ask, “What hath God wrought?”
The Cramps don’t pummel and you won’t pogo. They ooze and you’ll throb.
Dr. J. H. Sasfy, Professor of Rockology
American Rock n’ Roll Institute, Washington D.C., USA
One of the more interesting facets of the 1990s retro boom was the presence of so many different potential gateways leading Gen X youths to discover the recent past. However, for individuals immersed in the punk rock, hardcore or skateboard subcultures of the late 1980s and early 1990s, The Cramps were a very common portal. A recurring theme of all things retro in the 90s was “initiation through ironic distance”. Although we loved their music dearly and took it seriously, the antiquated slang and B-movie aesthetic often produced reactions ranging from strange intrigue to debilitating laughter. Of course, that was all part of their unique charm, and The Cramps never came across as ironic or corny. Of questionable sanity? Quite possibly. Demented? Sure. Perverted? Most definitely. Yet, generally they projected a calculatedly menacing aura. They looked, talked and moved like a hot rod gang who would have served as the antagonists to Steve McQueen or James Dean in numerous golden age exploitation films. Sure they were smart, funny and charismatic, but you just knew they were all carrying switchblades and lots and lots of pills.
While chart topping mainstream success on the level of Whitney Houston may have eluded them, The Cramps were a very important part of 1990s retro. Maybe they didn’t spend as much time on MTV or the cover of SPIN as Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, but they did wind up on a very special Halloween episode of the most conspicuously 90s of all television shows, Beverly Hills, 90210 (unfortunately, I could only find a clip with French over dubs). That was certainly more than one could say for Pearl Jam. Those Chuck Taylor-wearin’ low- self-esteemers couldn’t even stop moping long enough to bother with dating Shannen Doherty. Chalk another one up for The Cramps.
Let it be known, that in 1990 The Cramps sired a psychobilly magnum opus titled Stay Sick! This title is a tribute to the legendary, undead, beatnik, horror host Ghoulardi, who would routinely sign off from Cleveland’s Shock Theatre in the early 1960s by imploring his audience to, “Stay sick.” Lux Interior was a native son of Akron, Ohio and well within the broadcast range of WJW-TV, Channel 8. Thus, Ghoulardi’s shtick, as well as the B-movies regularly featured on Shock Theatre, had a profound impact on not only The Cramps choice of subject matter, but also their stage personae. This, right here, is one of the many things I absolutely love about The Cramps. We’re not even past the title and I’ve already explained Ghoulardi.
As for the musical style of Stay Sick!, the song structures, rhythms and melodies used classic rock and roll and rockabilly as a foundation, yet the execution gave an obvious nod to the ethos, attitude and general bombast of punk rock. Poison Ivy’s twangy guitar riffs and leads were reminiscent of Duane Eddy, Hasil Adkins and Link Wray. Drummer Nick Knox laid down steady and simple beats that would have sounded perfectly at home in the catalog of Buddy Holly or the Big Bopper. Unlike the vast majority of psychobilly bass players, Candy Del Mar eschewed the upright bass for an electric Höfner Artist model. Though purists may have blanched, the crystal clear tone allowed her crawling bass-lines to effortlessly carry each song. Of course, Lux Interior’s hilariously clever lyrics and larger-than-life delivery were the icing on the cake. Instead of opting for lo-fi engineering, the album was recorded with the standard technology available at the time, which made for a clean and modern sounding record without sacrificing any savage vitality. The twelve tracks of raucous retro revival were as follows;
- “Bop Pills”
- “God Damn Rock & Roll”
- “Bikini Girls with Machine Guns”
- “All Women Are Bad”
- “The Creature from the Black Leather Lagoon”
- “Shortnin’ Bread”
- “Daisys Up Your Butterfly”
- “Everything Goes”
- “Journey to the Center of a Girl”
- “Mama Oo Pow Pow”
- “Saddle Up a Buzz Buzz”
- “Muleskinner Blues”
Stay Sick! opened with “Bop Pills”, a rambunctious rock n’ roll number originally written and recorded by Macy Skipper, an obscure rockabilly singer, whose claim to fame was recording some demos in the mid 1950’s for Memphis, Tennessee’s legendary Sun Studio. Allegedly, “Bop Pills” referenced the widespread amphetamine consumption amongst early fans of rockabilly, rock and roll and long haul truckers. I’m not sure whether rockabilly’s institutionalized tradition of covering older and very obscure blues/country/rock and roll artists originated with The Cramps, or if they simply perfected the art. Regardless, after hearing a new Cramps album, the listener would be exposed to a handful of great old music to which they otherwise never would have heard. An argument could easily be made that as a band, this was The Cramps’ greatest achievement.
“God Damn Rock & Roll” gave Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band’s 1978 hit “Old Time Rock & Roll” the metaphorical and philosophical beat down it so richly deserved. While not quite parody, The Cramps used Seger’s hit as a reference point, stripped it down to its frame, completely rebuilt it, and carried it through to the logical point of absurdity. “God Damn Rock & Roll” sounded simultaneously more old-timey, primal and threatening. Obviously, The Cramps loved old time rock and roll as passionately and deeply as anyone. They just took a much more intense and badass approach to it. God bless, ‘em.
The most well-known track from Stay Sick!, if not the entire Cramps’ discography, was “Bikini Girls with Machine Guns”, which hit #35 on the UK Top 40 chart. This wasn’t so much a song as it was a mid-century B-movie gone sonic. The Cramps laid down some righteous rockabilly riffage while channeling liquor and drug fueled drag races, beach movies, and the films of Russ Meyer. The video featured the band performing the song, interspersed with shots of gorgeous guitarist Poison Ivy go-go dancing dressed in her trademark pin-up girl finery amid a sea of vintage neon signage. Nick Knox stoically laid down the beat and Candy Del Mar played her swingin’ bass-lines while simultaneously chomping bubble gum like a juvenile delinquent straight out of an Ed Wood movie. Lux Interior sang the track with a joyous sincerity that channeled some bizarre hybrid of Elvis Presley and Frankenstein’s monster. Needless to say, when compared to the cheesy, overproduced R&B of Boyz II Men or the pretentious socially-conscious status-whoring of R.E.M. that was popular at the time, “Bikini Girls with Machine Guns” stood in stark contrast both aurally and visually. The retro-pulp shock and awe invited the listener back to a time when rock and roll was a lot more dangerous and a hell of a lot more fun.
“All Women Are Bad” was a tongue-in-cheek misogynistic ode to original sin, beginning with Adam and Eve, continuing on to Sampson and Delilah, and ending in a fit of shudders and hiccups. “They’ve got groovy wiggly tails and horns on their heads, all women are bad.” Indeed. In a sane and just world “The Creature From the Black Leather Lagoon” would be the official go-to Halloween FM radio staple instead of Michael Jackon’s “Thriller”. Lux Interior name checks the eponymous Universal Studios Gill-Man, It Came from Outer Space (1953), James Dean’s infamous chicken run from “Rebel Without a Cause”, and even …..Satan. As fate would have it, the video was banned from MTV, I suspect by whomever it is that lobbies on behalf of playground equipment manufacturers.
Somehow, The Cramps managed to transition seamlessly into a stompin’and barnburnin’ rendition of “Shortnin’ Bread”, a folk song dating back to 1900. Now THAT’S retro. While treated with all due respect, the vocals were performed with such over-the-top monstrous bravado that one just couldn’t help but smile. “Daisys Up Your Butterfly” was a mid-tempo, blues-derived tune brandishing some of Lux Interior’s finest poetic grandiloquence. “Now you might believe the world is sweet and fine and sugar candy. But, I, myself, believe in whatever comes in handy. Now you’re whistling past the graveyard, hoping for the best. But a humjob at the K-Mart just might wreck that party dress.” The Bard himself would be envious of such silver-tongued humor. “Everything Goes” moved the album into an even more blues-laden direction, while clearly staying within the confines of rockabilly proper. In the aforementioned sane and just world, “Everything Goes” would be a staple in every strip club juke box. “No holes barred, watch your toes. Look out, baby… everything goes. You got your g-strings and gin and nylon hose, chicken pot pie… everything goes!”
The next two songs were even more overtly sexual and pleasantly sleazy, while staying within the bounds of (semi) good taste and early 1960s movie rating codes. “Journey to the Center of a Girl” combines references to science fiction gems such as Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959) and She Beast (1966) with Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats’ “Rocket 88”. There were even a few subliminal backwards messages thrown in for good measure. “Mama oo Pow Pow” inverted the second half of The Trashmen’s 1963 classic “Surfin’ Bird”, and created an epic tribute to the Bettie Page style of “cheesecake” and bondage girly magazines which had a substantial underground following in the latter half of the 1950s. Once again, Lux Interior is in rare form, “I don’t wanna be your dear sweet friend. I just wanna beat your little pink rear end.”
“Saddle Up a Buzz Buzz” was the last original track on “Stay Sick!”, and it was a beautiful conglomeration of everything that made the entire album great. Obscure historical references, deviant sex, B-movies, Tarzan, Corvette Stingrays, Rat Fink and surfing were all combined into an ultra-potent cocktail of awesome. In the opinion of your humble narrator, some of Poison Ivy’s best guitar work is found on this track. The album ended with a positively ass-kickin’ cover of Jimmie Rodgers’s bluegrass classic “Mule Skinner Blues”. It was almost too loud, too harsh and too chock full of hillbilly swagger to be contained by the fragile vinyl grooves of a mere record album, yet verily it was.
One of the best things about The Cramps was their de facto historical approach to rock and roll. Instead of being concerned with the “Next Big Thing”, The Cramps’ time-preference was almost on a “geologic” scale. When the average Gen-Xer got to the end of Stay Sick!, he was suddenly aware that he had missed an incredible and very substantial portion of the history of rock and roll. There were amazing things to seek out and forgotten secrets just waiting to be rediscovered. Every quest for such knowledge begins with the sudden realization of what one does not know. To paraphrase the venerable philosopher SO-crates, “To know, is to know that you know nothing. That is the meaning of true knowledge.”
On that distinctly profound note, we’ll let the cosmic wisdom of Lux Interior speak for itself.
Remember this! Everything that you have ever experienced in your entire life has brought you to this instant. All things now are possible in the limitless void of counter-actuality! All things, too, that are knowable will be realized in this new dimension of BIKINI GIRLS WITH MACHINE GUNS!
Rest in peace, Lux Interior. You are missed.