Tag Archives: Rockabilly

009. The Cramps – Stay Sick!

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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;

  1. “Bop Pills”
  2. “God Damn Rock & Roll”
  3. “Bikini Girls with Machine Guns”
  4. “All Women Are Bad”
  5. “The Creature from the Black Leather Lagoon”
  6. “Shortnin’ Bread”
  7. “Daisys Up Your Butterfly”
  8. “Everything Goes”
  9. “Journey to the Center of a Girl”
  10. “Mama Oo Pow Pow”
  11. “Saddle Up a Buzz Buzz”
  12. “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.

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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.”

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“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.

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008. The Reverend Horton Heat – Liquor In The Front

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Elvis Costello once said that, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture – it’s really a stupid thing to want to do.”  Yet, somehow music journalists have always found the wherewithal to scrawl volumes of Tolstoy-length pieces on almost anyone with a microphone or guitar.  Thus, it absolutely boggled my mind that so little had been written about rockabilly virtuoso James “The Reverend Horton Heat” Heath and his merry men.  You, dear reader, know darned well that I enjoy doing my homework and digging deep into the subject matter behind each post.  How else can one wring meaning from a topic like blood from a stone?  This due diligence not only reflects my commitment to intellectual honesty, but often leads to the blogger’s delight of the posts virtually writing themselves.  Thus, I was confused, befuddled and kind of appalled to see that no one had given The Reverend Horton Heat’s 1994 masterpiece, Liquor in the Front, sufficient consideration, much less a proper analysis.  Even the All Music Guide’s snippet of an entry led me to believe that their reviewer just didn’t get it.

Needless to say, this post certainly did not write itself, and I was forced to utilize the Charles Bukowski method of getting drunk and listening to the album whilst writing.  Fortunately, this technique cured my writer’s block, and all things considered, I’ve certainly had worse evenings.  Regardless, the criminal under-appreciation of Liquor In The Front and dearth of thoughtful examination seemed even more egregious due to the weighty amount of personal significance that I placed on this album.  Yes, this was personal.  For The Reverend Horton Heat’s Liquor in the Front was the first album that metaphorically grabbed me by the lapels and hollered in my face, its’ breath pungent with the juniper-and-lime-infused stench of one thousand gin and tonics, “YOU HAVE MISSED AN INCREDIBLE AND VERY SUBSTANTIAL PORTION OF THE HISTORY OF ROCK AND ROLL!  REPENT, MOTHER****ER, FOR THE END IS NIGH!”

  1. “Big Sky”
  2. “Baddest of the Bad”
  3. “One Time for Me”
  4. “Five-O Ford”
  5. “In Your Wildest Dreams”
  6. “Yeah, Right”
  7. “Crusin’ for a Bruisin'”
  8. “I Could Get Used to It”
  9. “Liquor, Beer & Wine”
  10. “I Can’t Surf”
  11. “Jezebel”
  12. “Rockin’ Dog”
  13. “The Entertainer”

Liquor In The Front (surreptitiously subtitled… Poker In The Rear) was jointly released by both Sub Pop and Interscope Records, as the band was transitioning between contracts and labels.  This was a very interesting juxtaposition, as Sub Pop was an independent label verging on major label status, and Interscope (which I covered earlier with Big Bad Voodoo Daddy) was a major label posing as an independent.  In the early 90s, Seattle-based Sub Pop was known as THE grunge label, having signed and introduced the world to the likes of Nirvana, Soundgarden and Mudhoney, long before they were considered cool.  Sub Pop also released the first two Reverend Horton Heat albums, Smoke ’em If You Got ’em and The Full-Custom Gospel Sounds of the Reverend Horton Heat in 1990 and 1993, respectively.  Interscope heard something they liked, and added The Reverend Horton Heat to their ample stable of potential next big things. 

The sudden injection of major label dollars to the album enabled both prettier production and packaging than the Rev’s previous projects, which was entirely expected from any de facto major label debut.  The production was handled by Al Jourgensen of Ministry fame.  Prior to Liquor In The Front, modern rockabilly, psychobilly and surf rock albums were intentionally lo-fi, either due to budget constraints or an artistic decision to pay homage to the recording technology of earlier decades.  Jourgensen was renowned for pioneering what at the time were considered avant-garde and cutting edge engineering techniques used mostly, if not only, within the industrial genre.  However, rather than trying to make Liquor In The Front sound like The Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Taste, Jourgensen simply produced a fantastic sounding album, by bringing Jim Heath’s raging Gretsch guitar front and center, and then surrounding it with crystal clear drums and bright upright bass.  If one concentrated, one could hear every note played by each musician on every song.  This is one of the primary reasons why Liquor In The Front appealed to fans of alternative rock, grunge, metal and hardcore.  Instead of making the 90s equivalent of an old, worn out, scratchy LP, he made one that sounded every bit as good and clear as any other record of the era.

Liquor In The Front started off with what in my opinion was the greatest opening one-two punch in the history rock and roll; “Big Sky” and “Baddest of the Bad”.  One could easily argue that they were one epic song, with “Big Sky” serving as an extended introduction then transitioning seamlessly into “Baddest of the Bad”.  (To lend further credence to this assertion, the band always played both songs back to back during live sets.)  Musically, “Big Sky” was a western-tinged psychobilly instrumental played with the velocity, intensity and technical proficiency of speed metal.  The minor-chord progressions and riffs were similar to those found in western swing and countless spaghetti western soundtracks, complete with copious reverb twang.  Somehow the songs managed to incorporate metallic double kick drum, blast beats and blistering guitar solos without losing even a hint of that cowboy/greaser aesthetic.  While Elvis Costello was right, and it’s exceedingly difficult… and stupid… to even attempt to describe the feelings music elicits, I’m too dumb to know when I’m beaten.  Thus, “Big Sky” evoked emotions associated with magnificent multicolored sunsets over desert canyons, herds of wild mustangs running at top speed whilst kicking up clouds of dust, mysterious and tragically beautiful women whom you’ll never even know, and moments in time that are gone forever.  Whether or not you believed in Carl Gustav Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious, “Big Sky” seemed to capture the archetypal sense of regret found in the dark recesses of the American psyche.  “Have we strayed too far from our roots?  Have we lost something vital?  Is it too late to get it back?  Such is the fundamental essence of the siren call of all things retro.  Oh, and you could totally mosh to it.  “Baddest of the Bad” carried on with the basic sonic structure laid down by “Big Sky”, only altering itself slightly to accommodate the Reverend’s lyrics about love gone rotten.  At first listen, it seemed impossible to believe that something so melancholy could kick so much ass?  Yet, verily, it did.

“One Time For Me” started off moody, slow and sexy, thus providing the perfect background to the Rev’s lyrical plea for some special girl to do something especially naughty.  The song’s momentum built and eventually climaxed at punk rock warp speed.  Unfortunately, “One Time For Me” was only released as a CD single in Australia.  As for the reason, I can only surmise that the bastard public had better taste down under?  “5.0 Ford” was crafted around a riff that sounded like “Hot Rod Lincoln” on a heavy dose of steroids and amphetamines.  The lyrical content revolved around the most conspicuously rockabilly of all topics; drag racing one’s hot rod.

At this point, Liquor In The Front downshifted dramatically with the exotic and lounge-worthy “In Your Wildest Dreams”.  The right Reverend’s romantic crooning along with the bossa nova rhythm would not have been out of place on a Dean Martin or Frank Sinatra record.  A recurring theme of all things retro in the 90s was “initiation through ironic distance”, and this song was a perfect example.  At the time I first heard this album, I wouldn’t have been caught dead listening to jazz, Latin or otherwise, but eventually I became acclimated to the intentionally schmaltzy “In Your Wildest Dreams”.  After I stopped chuckling, sat down and listened, it wasn’t long before I was buying up Ultra-Lounge compilations like there was no tomorrow.

“Yeah, Right” upshifted into sludgy, mid-tempo I-IV-V blues progression backed by a hybrid industrial/surf beat and lyrics about a wannabe model who done the Reverend wrong.  In all fairness, “Yeah, Right”, with its slightly distorted vocals and mechanical drum sound was the only track on Liquor In The Front bearing any of the hallmarks of producer Al Jourgensen’s beloved industrial genre.  Regardless, no one would have ever mistaken it for a Nine Inch Nails outtake.

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“Cruisin’ For A Bruisin’” shifted the album back into high gear, with a psychobilly barn burner which centered around defending one’s girl, car and guitar in no particular order.  Lyrically, in an era that was renowned for alt rock wimps, it was refreshing to hear a band other than Pantera threaten to kick someone’s ass.  “I Could Get Used To It” was a very traditional and raucous rockabilly tune about a fine, fine woman.  “Just one taste and that’s all it took.  I’m like a big bass on your fishin’ hook.”  It should go without saying that popular grunge bands of the early 90s like Alice In Chains didn’t make many bass fishing references.

The album switched gears yet again, with the unapologetically country “Liquor, Beer & Wine”.  Much like the lounge-influenced “In Your Wildest Dreams”, “Liquor, Beer & Wine” again strategically implemented “initiation through ironic distance”.  At the time I first heard this album, I wouldn’t have been caught dead listening to country or western, but there was no turning back after being confronted with sheer brilliance such as this, “The doctor says I’m livin’ on precious borrowed time, with all the time I’m givin’ to liquor, beer and wine.  The x-rays of my liver look like molded old Swiss cheese, my heart pumps blood and alcohol through hardened arteries.”  Soundgarden only dreamt of such eloquence.  After I stopped laughing, sat down and listened, it wasn’t long before I started checking out all those old Johnny Cash albums that my Grammy always insisted I’d like.

Aside from a couple of chanted gang choruses, “I Can’t Surf” was an instrumental tour de force of everything that was wonderful about surf rock; speed, intensity, minor key riffs, crawling bass lines, middle-eastern-sounding scales, and reverb galore.  I hadn’t been so floored by a guitar solo since the first time I heard “Battery” off of Metallica’s Master of Puppets.  Aside from the virtuosity, “I Can’t Surf” was a track that made many an aspiring musician ask themselves, “Where the hell did these guys learn to play like that?!?  What phenomenal influences have I overlooked?  If I really wanted to write a song like that, could I even do it?”  Listening to this track was simultaneously inspiring and humbling.

“Jezebel” was an amped up version of Frankie Laine’s 1951 hit, which had been covered by everyone from Desi Arnaz and The Everly Brothers to Herman’s Hermits and Sade.  The melody, though both moody and vaguely exotic, lent itself readily to the band’s muscular musical style.  Obviously, this was the most authentically retro track on the album, hearkening back to a tale of man’s ruin from the Old Testament.  “Rockin’ Dog” was another traditionally crafted mid-tempo rockabilly tune about the Rev battling his reputation as a womanizer whilst attempting to overcome his date’s last minute resistance.  The entire song is riddled with enough antiquated Happy Days slang and righteous rockabilly guitar work to make both The Fonz and Bill Haley green with envy.  The self-assured and good-natured humor of the song stood in stark contrast to the mopey alternative rock that pervaded the airwaves of the day.  If one lyrically compared The Smashing Pumpkins“Despite all my rage, I’m still just a rat in a cage” with The Reverend Horton Heat’s “I’ve got to stop sittin’ like a bump on a log, I’ve got a reputation as a rockin’ dog”, it was immediately clear to the listener with which band one would rather split a bar tab.  The album closed with sixty-six seconds of Scott Joplin’s classic piano rag “The Entertainer”, and the band acting like drunken jackasses in the studio.  It was one thing to finish an album with a smile on your face, but quite another to finish an album laughing like an idiot.

In conclusion, The Reverend Horton Heat’s Liquor In The Front purveyed a variety of retro musical styles including rockabilly, country, surf and lounge.  Al Jourgensen’s stellar engineering and production made the album eminently listenable to a generation raised on cassettes and CDs.  These factors combined with the band’s outstanding musicianship and novel sense of humor made for an extremely potent and enjoyable gateway drug.  From that gateway, the listener could travel freely through a virtual universe of previously undiscovered audio retro delights.  Subjectively, one could make an argument that Liquor In The Front may not have been the best neo-rockabilly album of the 90s, or even the best Reverend Horton Heat album of the 90s.  Yet, attempting to quantify such a statement would be “like dancing about architecture”.  I think it’s sufficient to say that in the 90s there were many available gateways into retro forms of music.  But after walking through this particular gateway, I never looked back.

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Lux Interior Memorial 2014

“The rock n’ roll daddy has done passed on, but these bones’ll keep a-rockin’ on after I’m gone….”

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It’s hard to believe that it’s been five years since The Cramps lead singer Lux Interior cast off this mortal coil.  For those of you not in the know, The Cramps were active between 1976 and 2009, and they not only provided the missing link between punk rock and rockabilly, but were equally beloved by both subcultures.  They introduced several generations to classic rockabilly and obscure garage rock whilst howling odes to Universal monsters, vintage sci-fi, b-movies, exploitation films, hot rods, highways, booze, pinup models, girly magazines and other mid-century perversions.  Lux’s lyrics were simultaneously clever, hilarious and memorable.

I plan on writing posts for each of their retro-loaded 1990s albums;

  • Stay Sick! (1990)
  • Look Mom No Head! (1991)
  • Flamejob (1994)
  • Big Beat from Badsville (1997)

But for now, let’s hoist a martini (garnished with an eyeball, of course), toast The Cramps and enjoy the music.

Rest in peace, Lux Interior.

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