A Journey to the Centre of The Cramps: punk’s forgotten heroes

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The Cramps

In search of the perfect Halloween read, Getintothis’ Del Pike steps away from his cauldron to investigate Dick Porter’s updated biography Journey to the Centre of The Cramps – and picks his top ten tracks.

When charting the New York punk scene of the late 70s, the same names crop up over and again: Blondie, The Ramones, The New York Dolls and Television. The Cramps, who were equally a part of that scene have been largely relegated to the kitsch novelty quarter of the story with their cartoon appearance and penchant for B-movie / sci-fi / horror touchstones. Dick Porter’s recent Cramps biography Journey to the Centre of The Cramps sets out to put this misdemeanor right, and largely succeeds.

The Cramps’ story goes way beyond the weird twilight zone that emanated from their releases and stage performances and Porter ensures that the reader comes away having read a damn good love story. Lux Interior and Poison Ivy Rorsach who began life as Erick Purkhiser and Kristy Wallace, were a pair of out of town misfits whose destiny was meant to be, devoted to each other from the offset, right up to Interior’s untimely death in 2009.

Their story reads like a great road movie as they cruise around America’s Mid-West in search of weird and wonderful 1950s vinyl, meeting some bonafide oddballs en route, creating The Cramps and landing a support residency at CBGB. The first couple of chapters paint Lux and Ivy as Sailor and Lula characters in a raw version of David Lynch’s Wild at Heart.

What struck us here at Getintothis about Porter’s take, which is unashamedly biased due to his open obsession with the band, is how closely the pair adhered to their initial intention of bringing obscure 50s punk and rockabilly to a larger audience but with a more frantic edge. Despite their better known tracks being seen by many as gimmicky, songs like I ain’t nothing but a gore hound, What’s inside a girl? and Can your pussy do the dog? , their entire output was dominated by true reworkings of beloved vinyl and homages to the genres they worshipped.

So devoted to their cause were Lux and Ivy that it was difficult for band members to keep up with their demands. Much like Mark E Smith’s status in The Fall, their personnel continually changed (22 in all) with the duo being the sole constants in the band’s career.  Notable members such as the ghoulish Bryan Gregory and Kid Congo Powers have interesting tales of their own, but Porter’s story figures predominantly around the star crossed lovers.

One of the more appealing aspects of Porter’s book is his mission to place Poison Ivy in the centre of the picture and crush the myths of misogyny that have surrounded the imagery of the band. Indeed, Ivy did play a key role in writing the music, she managed the band, created their image through their sleeve art based mostly on Lux’s exotic, burlesque photographs of her and played the meanest psychobilly riffs since Link Wray.

Lux is portrayed as equally godlike and as a much sweeter character than his onstage persona would suggest. Recordings of studio demos that have appeared as extra tracks on Cramps releases reveal a much darker and aggressive side to Lux, verbally hitting out at studio engineers and band members, but this is certainly not addressed by Porter.

There are some great stories of Lux battering his way through stage floors, eating light bulbs and causing general disarray across the world, which is kind of what you want from a Cramps biography but our favourite tale involves the time The Cramps booked the equally insane Quintron and Miss Pussycat to support them and, following a trademark puppet show, they were bottled off the stage.

cramps lux n ivyWhile the book is a great read for your average Cramps fan, it is a reworking of a previous biography by the same author and this is evident in the rushed nature of the closing chapters. Porter meticulously details the genesis of the band and Lux and Ivy’s relationship, the recording of their first album, Songs the Lord Taught Us, with Alex Chilton at the desk puts the reader right into the studio and dangerously close to the crowd at their notorious gig at Napa State Mental hospital.

He also successfully re-instates them as key players in the NY punk scene. Porter unfortunately seems to put his foot on the pedal from the mid-eighties onward and the albums that we would really love to know more about are skimmed across with only a couple of pages devoted to each. As Lux and Ivy shied away from interviews and publicity to some extent during their later releases, including the brilliant Big Beat From Badsville and the outrageous swansong album Fiends of Dope Island, much needed coverage is not provided. Surprisingly, Lux’s death is also covered with a lack of compassion and almost fleeting regard. This is perhaps the greatest shock as his devotion to Lux is rife elsewhere.

It is difficult to find fault with the first half of this book which makes the skimmed approach of the rest of it all the more disappointing. If Dick Porter has a third attempt at producing the definitive work on The Cramps and puts in a bit more effort at the end, we’ll be first in the queue.

Journey to the Centre of The Cramps by Dick Porter(Omnibus Press) £16.99

Meanwhile Here is our Top Ten Cramps tracks to make your day just a little bit naughtier!

  1. Elvis Fucking Christ from Fiends of Dope Island (2003)

Proving that Lux had lost none of his attitude, this “guaranteed to offend someone, somewhere” nugget from their final album is classic Cramps. Probably the best opening to a Cramps song, you’ll be humming the rest of it all day…

  1. Sheena’s in a Goth Gang from Big Beat from Badsville (1997)

Bridging the gap between psychobilly and goth, this cut from one of the band’s most underrated albums plays homage to the sort of rebellious rantings of The Ramones. Check out Ivy’s wonderful guitar work here.

  1. Like A Bad Girl Should from Big Beat from Badsville (1997)

Another killer track from 1997.  If we didn’t know that Lux and Ivy were so inseparable this video would be sooo wrong but strangely it acts as a fitting tribute to their longevity as a couple. Perhaps this is why it cropped up so much on social networking the day Lux passed away.

  1. Faster Pussycat from Smell of Female (1983)

Taken from the classic live album, recorded specifically for commercial release at The Peppermint Lounge, Faster Pussycat links the band with their beloved exploitation cinema with this cover from the title song of Russ Meyer’s ode to female violence, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! Great companion track to Get Off The Road, their cover of the title song to Herschell Gordon Lewis’s sleaze-fest She Devils On Wheels. 

  1. Goo Goo Muck from Psychedelic Jungle (1981)

Typical of the primitive, pounding B-movie attack of The Cramps early releases, this single appeared on their second album and this clip shows a sweat-soaked Lux interior having the time of his life.

5.I Aint Nuthin’ But A Gorehound from Smell of Female (1983)

Another classic live cut that sees Lux growling through late night horror-movie drenched lyrics with a shaky vocal delivery stolen wholesale from Sun RecordsCharlie Feathers.

  1. Can Your Pussy Do The Dog from A Date With Elvis (1986)

Seen by many as an attack on the King of Rock n Roll, but Lux and Ivy were quick to defend the title of their third and most celebrated album as a tribute, despite its taste-free sleeve shot. This track from A date With Elvis also made it to 7” status and remains a true fans favourite.

  1. Muleskinner Blues from Stay Sick (1990)

A Jimmie Rodgers cover that Lux and Ivy turn into what sounds like a Cramps original.  Lux at his manic best, hee-hawing into a frenzy and proving that there’s no-one better when it comes to sucking a microphone.

  1. What’s Inside A Girl? from A Date With Elvis (1986)

A perennial Cramps classic. Much like a Russ Meyer film, the innuendo that peppers the band’s career never really enters the realm of the pornographic as it is delivered with such good humour. Lux’s questioning here is almost innocent and the song features some of the wittiest lyrics in a Cramps song. This legendary appearance on The Tube also has a bonus of Hot Pearl Snatch (less innocent!).

  1.  (You Got) Good Taste from Smell of Female (1983)

This one goes out to all you Gucci bag carriers out there, its called Goooood taste!” Even the most hard hearted of Cramps naysayers can’t resist this clarion call from the Smell of Female version. An absolute classic in anyone’s book with one of the most infectious guitar hooks of the ’80s. Anyone who survived the wrecking sessions at The State around this time will never forget the thrill of that opening cry and the rush to the dancefloor.

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