Here’s the first chapter of our rundown through the deviant discography of The Cramps.
This a re-issue of their first two indie singles with an extra track added for good measure. “Human Fly” is the only original here but it makes a huge impression with its bent, fuzztone majesty. That song, and rockabilly covers of “Domino” [Roy Orbison], “The Way I Walk” [Jack Scott] and “Lonely Town” [Ricky Nelson] were actually recorded at the famous Sun Studios in Memphis with ex-Box Top Alex Chilton manning the boards. The sole non-rockabilly cover is the Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird,” which remained their final encore that closed every show I ever saw. As a statement of intent, this record puts down an effective blueprint. Their twin guitar attack defines a weird no-man’s land between 60s garage punk and classic Sun rockabilly. Slapback echo and fuzztone raunch exist cheek-by-jowl in a blend that Lux defined early on as blending Carl Perkins with Shadows Of Knight. Perhaps that’s more obvious now in the wake of The Cramps, but 35 years ago, it was consider madness.
The moods of “Domino” and “The Way I Walk” are nothing more than the triumph of idiosyncratic individuality over lackluster square-dom. That’s par for course for rockabilly and the band invest the tunes with every inch of swagger and self confidence they can muster. Conversely, The Cramps are able to show the flipside of the emotional coin on their sombre take of Nelson’s “Lonesome Town,” which uses a funereal beat to make its point, juxtaposed with Lux’s finest crooning. By the end of the song he’s broken down into a sobbing wreck.
The cover of “Surfing Bird” goes beyond rock and roll and becomes a shamanistic ritual unto itself. At slightly over five minutes, it’s the longest song The Cramps ever recorded and they needed every second to get the maximum impact out of the berserk layering of Lux’s echoing “pa-pa-oo-mow-mows” and the squealing acid rock feedback solos of Gregory and Ivy on the berserk bridge of the number. They take it way over the top in a way that The Ramones absolutely didn’t that same year. Since both bands were friends and gigged together [Ivy states that they opened many times for The Ramones at CBGB since they admired each other’s approaches to rock and roll] one wonders who thought to perform it first.
The Cramps – Songs The Lord Taught Us | 1980 – 4
Their full length album managed to blow their early singles out of the water. The album opens with a song that makes an impression like nothing you’re likely to hear anywhere. “TV Set” opens with a pounding, insistent beat over which Ivy adds stark, snarling power chords All bets are off once Lux begins wailing the opening verse:
“Oh baby I see you in my TV set, oh baby I see you in my TV set. I cut your head off, and put it in my TV set. I use your eyeballs for knobs on my TV set. I watch TV. I watch TV, Since I put you inside my TV set.”
This is sung with a conglomeration of vocal tics that emulate slapback echo in his delivery for maxumum impact. No one else knew about Hasil Adkins at the time, but Lux and Ivy were serious rockabilly archaeologists who were among the first to pick up influence from this original 1950s “psychobilly” pioneer. This song certainly reminds me of some of The Haze’s more outré output. No one else was performing rockabilly songs about decapitation in the fifties, that’s for sure! It goes without saying that if The Cramps didn’t exist, quite possibly Hasil Adkins might have lived out his life as an obscure, hillbilly musician who might have been discovered one day; who knows when.
The single from this album was “Garbage Man” and the video clip for it was my entreé to Crampdom. The blending of fat, twangy guitar and searing feedback over a solid backbeat made the group sound absolutely unique. The liquid reverb on Gregory’s screeching feedback laden chords makes them sound like cats in heat on this track, but that’s nothing as compared to the next two numbers that follow. “I Was A Teenaged Werewolf” stands as one of the iconic songs on “Songs The Lord Taught Us.” The Herschell Gordon Lewis influence on The Cramps really makes itself apparent on this little number. Lux howls in pain over the gruesome transformations therein and the track’s coda is a still shocking welter of squealing feedback that segue’s into the ultimate Cramps song, “Sunglasses After Dark”
The listener would be excused for not discerning how funny the lyrics to this song is since the tune itself is a dazzlingly wicked vocal adaptation of Dwight Pullens’ original instro song of the same name and Link Wray’s “Fatback.” That’s right. The Cramps invented the mashup thirty years early and didn’t need a computer to do it! “Werewolf”‘ and “Sunglasses” were always best served together and these two songs remained a staple of Cramps setlists until the end.
“Mad Daddy” was a tribute to berserk Akron/Cleveland DJ Pete “Mad Daddy” Meyers whose unhinged airtime antics were profoundly inspiring to the youthful Lux, who soaked the beatnik jive influence up like a sponge. “Mystery Plane” takes the “Mystery Train” rockabilly standard and sends it into the space age with flying saucers taking over for the outclassed iron horse.
Near the end of side two, a trio of cover versions perfectly define the mission and scope of The Cramps at the dawn of their career. “Strychnine,” by The Sonics represents their garage punk ethos. Tellingly, The Cramps take on garage punk is entirely bereft of the misogyny that colors a large swath of that genre. Instead, they are clearly drawn to the self-aggrandizement that the style offered in spades, and this track easily lets the listener know they are dealing with one seriously bad dude.
Next is a cover of the Rock & Roll Trio’s “Tear It Up.” They invest this 25 year old [at the time] song with every ounce of risk and danger possible on vinyl at the time. The Cramps aren’t interested recreating in museum pieces. Their goal was to be as inspirational in their own time as the rock and roll that inspired them as youngsters was in the past. Anyone who has ever seen the film “Urgh! A Music War” will not forget The Cramps spellbinding performance of this venerable classic.
Finally, The Cramps make Peggy Lee’s classic “Fever” their own in a torrid cover that has smoky Hammond organ chords reverberating throughout its length. This is the only time I can remember hearing a keyboard in a Cramps song. Lux dials down the mania of his performance to a razor’s keenness as he delivers the song like the suave vampire you knew he always was. Unsurprisingly, the performance was used memorable in the hell-for-leather classic horror film “Near Dark,” as a pack of hillbilly bloodsuckers drink down breakfast in a biker roadhouse. As his finger snaps fade out, the listener is left with the realization that they have just heard something new in the world, synthesized from rockabilly, horror films, beatniks, sneering garage punks, TV horror hosts and unfettered rock and roll. “Songs The Lord Taught Us” sets the bar of achievement incredibly high and went on to influence hundreds of bands who picked up on what The Cramps were putting down in their wake.
Next: where to go after perfection?