The Cramps. I'm Cramped (and so are you) by Howie Pyro

The Cramps, punk rock band you say?
The originators of Psychobilly you say?

Kinda, sorta, but nah. The Cramps are purveyors of a plethora of pornographic punk pulchritude that, all rolled together, seems to have formed its own lifestyle that includes clothing, hair, glasses, shoes, cars, films, restaurants, books, and music– all referenced in not-so-secret messages in their songs (via titles and cover selections) and interviews (where their inner obsessions are divulged for the rabid rockabilly monster fans to gobble up and spit out in a whole new way that maybe Lux & Ivy hadn’t even thought of… or even liked, for that matter).

But that doesn’t matter.

The Cramps-influenced world has taken on a life of its own, even becoming the inspiration for a doughnut shop in Portland, Oregon, “Voodoo Doughnuts” among so many other things.

There are folks in the modern era who seriously dissect all things Cramps. Every song ever mentioned during interviews with Lux & Ivy has been put into a series of compilations done by rabid fan Kogar The Swinging Ape, a moniker taken from The Lemon Grove Kids Meet the Monsters by beloved cult film director Ray Dennis Steckler—one of hundreds, maybe thousands of obscure films that people like “us” were beginning to discover around the same time as the dawning of the Cramps. This series, “Lux & Ivy’s Favorites,” 16 volumes done with love and made available for free on the WFMU blog, consists of every song title ever mentioned throughout decades of interviews, all read and dissected by Kogar.

Lux and Ivy's Favorites Volume 1 and 2.

As the ’80s and ’90s rolled on, archivists like Mike Vraney at Something Weird Video made a life (and a career of sorts) out of locating the underbelly of bizarro cinema, which has been a huge fascination for Lux & Ivy— and Cramps fans everywhere, in this special context. Many a Cramps song title or lyric can be referenced in the catalogs of Something Weird Video. These things, combined in the Crampsian blender, make a whole much bigger than and very different than its parts, which— I cannot stress enough—have fans and collectors of all kinds that may not know or even care about the Cramps. But no one knew much of this stuff existed before 1976, when these cultural hidden undergrounds started to be shaken up by a select few.

The “stuff” I’m referring to is a cultural wasteland of cheaply-made, forgotten exploitation films that played for a week at some drive-in; mostly-teenage bands that tried to create beyond their musical means (or in some cases, music made by totally insane people); books about the unknown and unmentionable; magazines that, even now, make your head spin; fads that never happened, as they were “inspired” (read: ripped off from other momentary fads) by a quick buck; horror movie hosts titillating teens on late night TV; radio disc jockeys screaming secret teen desires in rhyme through a massive echo machine, things that adults could not process nor understand, even if they wanted to.

The Cramps comic books.

All of these “cultural hiccups” occurred mostly in the ‘50s and ‘60s when an innocent world was spinning in directions never thought of before, or even considered. The yin & yang of good taste; the weird, dark answer to everything that happened in pop culture. As this flip side of Happy Days evolved, the cult of the teenager made its way from cutesy post-WWII marketing scheme to post-apocalyptic robot-consumer and self destruction, reinventing itself over & over again, sometimes by adults.

Still, the “good stuff” stayed hidden.

Much of this ephemera, though generally considered bottom of the barrel, is now much-revered as “folk art” by real people pouring their all into their obsessions. The most obvious case, if I must mention one, is that of Ed Wood Jr. His sad rise to fame as “The Worst Director in Film History” occurred around 1978 with the advent of a stupid put-down book, The Golden Turkey Awards. Well, the book got Woods’ films played and, literally months after he died in squalor, it made him infamous. Therefore, many people never quite got the title of “worst director” bestowed on Wood, because, as far as wonderful low-budget movies go, his are quite entertaining.

Another case is Ed Wood’s musical equivalent, The Shaggs— early raucous punk progenitors. They were an unknown teenage girl group, today loved in a very real way decades after Frank Zappa proclaimed them “better than the Beatles.”

While so many of the punk idols got old and fat and eventually slipped away, Lux & Ivy got younger and weirder and more specific with their public persona: they advocated personal and sexual freedom for legions of people who were mining this bizarre cultural wasteland from the past and making it relevant in the present, all the while warping and perverting in a variety of new and different ways. There are more Cramps-inspired bands than Beatles-inspired bands… or possibly anyone else.

LOTC Cramps buttons

WHY?

Lux & Ivy created a new world, a world they envisioned was made up of all the things they loved and were obsessed with. They were definitely collectors; they knew what they liked (“I don’t know about art but I know what I like” -from “I Ain’t Nothing But A Gorehound.”) The Cramps were one the first bands to popularize “trash culture” with the help of other likeminded folks who were finding this stuff and putting it out in the world so Lux & Ivy could discover it and use it in their “Art.”

Their “Art,” of course, being their lives.

People saw in Lux & Ivy a true freedom; a liberating force that released the weird collector/hoarder geek in all of us and made it okay to indulge in, say, Famous Monsters magazine or the music of Andre Williams.

And we loved them for it!!!

The Cramps were a super-specific, weird little band that never stopped, broke up, or faltered for 33 years, and were only halted by the death of lead singer Lux Interior in 2009. Their name alone could NEVER be one of a serious popular band, which is what they actually became. How many bands thrive and stay popular, without a record deal or support from anyone besides legions of fans that hang onto their every word? The Cramps are a clue in how to be personally successful in whatever freaky form you choose.

So what’s their secret?

Part of it is the fantasy love story that is Lux & Ivy. They just “got” rock & roll; and beyond that some supposed “hip people” think no one else “gets it,” when we are put in front of people like those who are born with that rock & roll beat in their soul (think Joey Ramone and so many other true icons)—and who can translate it into music—it stirs some kind of primitive mysticism; something held high and dear, akin to a profound religious experience.

Rock & roll is an undeniable, magical art form. To see it performed “right” is rare indeed, but not impossible: and when you see it, you know it. I have walked away in a daze from countless performances, from The Cramps to The Ramones to any number of artists on the Norton Record Label.
The Cramps in the graveyard photo.

The Nuggets album, compiled by Lenny Kaye, long-time record collector and guitar player with The Patti Smith Group, was an American garage rock compilation album that was assembled out of love. Lenny’s connections as a rock writer fueled his passion to release the two LP set of mostly-unheard garage punk rock that was released to a mainly uncaring hippie public in 1972—a mere six or seven years after the songs were originally released.

With the advent of punk, Nuggets was re-released in 1977 and actually sold some copies, probably because it was heralded in fanzines of the early 70s by writers like Lester Bangs and Greg Shaw. The primitive thud of bands like The Seeds, The Troggs—and many others—introduced entire generations to what became labeled as early American punk rock. Greg Shaw, an uber-collector and the man behind what is considered to be the first rock & roll fanzine, heard Nuggets and swiftly raised the ante a hundred times over with the release of his Pebbles series of early garage rock that spanned dozens of volumes and even more spinoffs.

Nuggets and Pebbles held many of the songs the Cramps would eventually make their own; as a result, many more labels were created, and ended up thriving by putting out compilation albums (like Crypt Records, which began with what is considered the ultimate ‘60s garage compilation series, Back From The Grave).

The Cramps brand of covering obscure songs and borrowing and rewriting music has been the subject of several articles, and is even the basis of a cottage industry of bootleg compilation LP’s (the main one being the Born Bad/Songs The Cramps Taught Us series, itself ripped off from a mid 80s, one-off bootleg compilation bearing the latter title).
This tradition of recycling the endless interpretations of blues and folk songs is what rock & roll is all about. Look at early Rolling Stones and Beatles: they were both pretty much cover bands serving up their Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry and girl group obsessions with a new flavor.

The Cramps were no different.

Having been a collector since childhood (records, comics, movie posters, etc.), I was always searching for the next great undiscovered moment. I was given a number of tapes in the late ‘70s by a few influential people in my life (Lux Interior; Jim Marshall aka The Hound, a DJ on WFMU doing the original “modern” version of what I do now on my radio show Intoxica; Dave Howard, a clerk at specialty record store Midnight Records; and Michael Weldon, publisher/editor of The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film book and magazine).

From these tapes, I realized that the roots of many of the Cramps songs that I was so taken with (sometimes one Cramps song had its origin in multiple songs) were found in part on these old records—and my true collecting focus, for that time and for quite a while, was discovered. I wanted to find every record that my young ears first heard as Cramps originals. This was at a time when so much musical ground was being broken and I was rabidly taking it all in. For instance, one of the first times I went to a club (Max’s Kansas City, to my astonishment, just let me stroll in at 16 years old!), I saw The Cramps and Suicide and maybe Blondie, none of whom you’d think at the time would have anything to do with each other; but if you look a bit more closely, they are all really rooted in ‘50s and ‘60s music.

It was a revelation to me that such truly bizarre, cutting-edge music was culled from old material that had not, until then, been looked at or discovered by me or anyone I was in contact with. There were all these other worlds unfolding before my eyes and suddenly there were many, many like- minded kids around the world having the same experience.

And all of them were drawn to The Cramps.
The Cramps LOVE ME flyer
The more close-minded people saw their name and just stared at these seeming weirdoes—or just dismissed them as a parody band that, “Can’t play,” some bad joke that only psychos got. But even then, when I had not sorted out what the Cramps were, or why I liked them so much, I soon came to the realization that they were deadly serious.

Serious in their intentions and serious in their influences.

There were certainly elements of parody, Mad magazine humor, and quotes from Lux’s teen obsessions: demented radio DJ The Mad Daddy and wild beatnik TV horror show host Ghoulardi, among other things. Ghoulardi slogans like “Stay Sick” and “Turn Blue” popped up over and over throughout the years becoming Cramps catch phrases, tattoos & LP titles—funny, perhaps, but no joke. Cool? Yes.

There was a fast underground of Cramps fans, and within a couple of years I had pen pals (talk about obsolete!) like Rockin Dez in London (Derek Harris, now owner of Lewis Leathers) and Lindsay Hutton, publisher of great fanzine Next Big Thing, who started his L.O.T.C. (Legion Of The Cramped), even Brian Tristan, soon to be dubbed Kid Congo Powerswhen joining The Cramps on guitar in 1980. This new Cramps network pulled people together from around the world, all of us sharing this same Crampian experience. We started to dissect the songs, the look, the image– studying all of the references and many of us started life long journeys, which informed the up and coming Cramps influences– thus bringing us full circle.

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Lux Interior on stage. © thecramps.com

© thecramps.com

For example, I started a video company in the ‘80s beginning with an ad in the back of Fangoria Magazine, just wanting to share my wild finds and fund my future searches, mostly of 1930s-1970s exploitation films, trailers & shorts. Lux Interior was a big customer, rabidly devouring whatever I would find, as were some heavy hitters that would become friends many years later of Lux & Ivy and myself, separately (Larry Hardy, close Cramps pal and owner of In The Red Records, Mike Vraney who soon after started Something Weird Video, and many others). Being that Lux and Ivy were fans and collectors as much as they were rock n’ roll innovators meant their search never stopped and all these finds, funded by the music, brought more stuff, more influences and more music. A bizarre worldwide collaborative cultural dig with all these people, most never coming into contact, unearthing amazing unknown artifacts that influenced each other and brought full circle many times over, something that has it’s own section in stores, an accepted part of underground culture alongside other well known fetishes (mod, punk, skinhead, or collector/fandom in general).

For you old fans reading this, it can reaffirm what you have known all along and bring a knowing, nostalgic grin. For you newer fans this is a fuzzy highway sign pointing to Weirdsville, a destination with no end as the search for the stuff we love turns up more and more stuff, and I realize over & over again that it is not possible for me or you to see, hear, read, take it all in, ever. Which is music to these pointed ears and cool confirmation that I will never be bored, ‘Till the day I die,” and, “my bones will keep a-rockin’ long after I’m gone.”

Stay Sick!

Howie Pyro
Copyright 2012 pleasekillme.com

Howie Pyro

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