You know that old legend about the beginnings of rock’n’roll, the one where Elvis gave birth to the genre when he recorded a record for his mother’s birthday? Well, as far as Lux Interior and Poison Ivy – the founding members of the Cramps – were concerned, Elvis was actually stealing his mother’s pills and handing them out to his band! Elvis wasn’t the sweet guy that the myths would have us believe and rock’n’roll is inherently evil. The Cramps changed the course of history with their screaming guitars, echoing curses, panther print and SM leather, all in the name of never wanting this darkness to vanish.
Their wildly sexy style was born of an undying love that began on a Califonian roadside one day in 1972. Erick Lee Purkhiser picked up a hot redheaded hitchhiker named Kristy Wallace. They both shared the same taste in obscure rock’n’roll, horror B-movies, and cheap comics. The couple moved to New York City together in 1975. She worked in a club and he worked in a record shop with a guy named Gregory Beckerleg, who was also into some pretty wacky stuff. The idea of forming a band to resurrect the golden age started to take hold, with Carl Perkins as the alpha, and The Shadow of Knight as the omega. Gregory got an old guitar and renamed himself Brian Gregory, as a homage to the Stones guitarist who drowned in his swimming pool. Blasé (and relatively undressed), Kristy (renamed Poison Ivy Rorschach) played barred chords on half-box guitars while her darling Erik (renamed Lux Interior after a Chevrolet advert), swallowed the microphone, his grey skin glistening with sweat, his briefs dangling, stiletto heels on his feet. At the back of the stage, silent, Nick Nox thrashed out tribal rhythms with seeming ease.
The Cramps have always been a fantastic live band. You just have to watch the recording of a 1978 concert they performed in a psychiatric hospital in California to see that the band blends in so well with the crowd that it’s hard to separate the inmates from the musicians! The song “Surfin' Bird” in concert stretches out like a black mass and makes the Ramones’ cover sound like The Archies… Their first album, Songs The Lord Taught Us was recorded in Memphis (well, if tradition dictates...) and recreates some of the cathartic violence of their stage performances (it’s like Fun House by the Stooges, but transposed to the fifties).
Bryan Gregory left on the eve of a tour, not to join a black magic sect such as the one Lux Interior was peddling, but to form a new band with his girlfriend. Brian Tristan replaced him at a moment’s notice. A heroin-addict and guitarist, he had been working for Gun Club until then and he was renamed ‘Kid Congo Powers’ for the occasion. Whilst it is less abrasive, Psychedelic Jungle (1981) is rather more bumpy. Having had enough, Brian Tristan left the group shortly afterwards. A Date with Elvis is the work of a trio, Poison Ivy also playing bass. Candy Del Mar, the great gum-loving amazon, was then hired. The zombie drummer Nick Nox left in 1990. Various musicians gravitated towards the Lux/Ivy duo, but fans became increasingly rare as their fervour waned. It took the violence of a cardiac arrest (Lux’s) for the band (and the couple) to die a beautiful death.
Advice for this listener: by the light of a full moon, wearing only your pants or perhaps a leather jumpsuit, drink some strong spirits and listen to the music turned up to 11.