Rock GPA: The Cramps [part 3]

Following their long-playing debut that staked a bold claim in 1980, the problem of following it up reared its ugly head. Up to this time the band’s recordings were produced by cult artist in his own right Alex Chilton of Big Star fame. By the time that Chilton had made his acquaintance with The Cramps, he was moving away from his previous ideals of studio perfectionism to a freer ideal. His recordings with them are seminal low-fi recordings that he would take even further with his 1979 album “Like Flies On Sherbert,” which he recorded with Jim Dickinson. Adding to the circular nature of all of this was that The Cramps and Dickinson would eventually record the track “Red Headed Woman” together by the mid eighties.

Chilton managed to create an incredible sound between the band and the famous Sun studios where they recorded. It’s tough, noisy and somewhat overmodulated in some respects. It thinks nothing of sacrificing clarity for impact; knowing that at the end of the day, clarity and a dollar will get you a cup of coffee! Apparently, there was no love lost between The Cramps and Chilton if contentious studio out takes later appended to the CD re-issue of “Songs The Lord Taught Us” nine years later are anything to go by. Tellingly, when it came time to hit the studios for album number two, not to mention all of their subsequent recordings, The Cramps themselves were in the producer’s chair.

Another major factor in the sound of the band’s development was the defection of Bryan Gregory. His noise/distortion/feedback fills were a bracing component of the early recordings. His spot was filled by Kid Congo Powers from The Gun Club, who took great pains not replicate his sound. This meant that the sophomore album was shaping up to be a decidedly different affair

The Cramps – Psychedelic Jungle | 1981 – 2

There are those who have decried ABC’s “Beauty Stab” as the worst followup by a band to a seminal debut album, but I am not one of those in the chorus of naysayers. I actually loved “Beauty Stab.” Instead, I would point to “Psychedelic Jungle” as a prime candidate for greatest sophomore jinx honors. Oh, it’s by no means an awful album. I find it to be merely average, which for the likes of The Cramps, is about as bad as it gets.

The weaknesses of the album are manifold; the band’s fledgling self-production shows an inadequate grasp of the studio, leaving the overall sound timid compared to the ferocity their fans had come to expect. Guitars are clean and thin. Drums are weak and spindly. Half of the songs are covers, pointing to a dearth of ideas. This is doubly confirmed by the appearance of material written five to six years earlier [“Don’t Eat Stuff Off The Sidewalk,” “Under The Wires” a.k.a. “Subwire Desire”] that didn’t make the cut for the first album and singles. Finally, Kid Congo Powers fails to differentiate his guitar from Ivy’s, leaving the group with twin guitarists who are occupying the same sonic stage – yet still without a bass player. If they had relented and brought in a bass player at this point instead, it might have worked out better for the band.

While the first album made huge strides in uniting rockabilly sounds with garage punk spirit, usually in the same song, the spiritual components of The Cramps sound are compartmentalized here into neat, little boxes. The album opens with The Green Fuzz’s eponymous “Green Fuz” and immediately, the thinness of sound becomes apparent. More fuz would have helped considerably. The single of “Goo Goo Muck” is also thin and trebly rockabilly, but Lux’s delivery takes admirable leaps into overdrive here, even when the instrumental backing doesn’t, and that helps make this cover of Ronnie Cook & The Gaylads ’62 side memorable.

Halfway into side one comes a cover of The Groupies “Primitive” and again, it falls on Lux’s shoulders to carry the song, but he does that magnificently. This is the first song on “Psychedelic Jungle” to be up to the standard that their previous album set. That this song didn’t need any overkill, but in fact calls for subtlety to achieve its goals, is definitely in its benefit. It fills a similar role that their smoking cover of “Fever” did on the first record; namely to showcase the kind of cool that doesn’t need any exclamation points following it. A coolness that’s secure it its self-assessment, with no need for hyperbole.

This is followed by the first original track that sounds like a winner. “Caveman” manages to unite rockabilly with primitive garage stomp for a wicked good time. A good cover of The Novas utterly berserk regional hit “The Crusher” from ’64 also keeps the pleasure needle in the red zone. Then “Don’t Eat Stuff Off The Sidewalk” happens and the momentum is lost. This would be thin B-side material and there’s not much reason for it to be taking up space on this album since it really isn’t much of a song. It sounds exactly like what it is; a tentative attempt by a young band to write a song. That it appears six years later on an album smacks of desperation.

Side two winds down with a few more decent originals amid the covers. “The Natives Are Restless” is a strong original that sounds like cover of a long lost 50s rocker, and if you’re The Cramps, that’s pretty much hitting the mark dead on. In spite of the album’s title, the only time the band gleefully crosses the psychedelic line in the sand is on the penultimate song “Beautiful Gardens.” The song’s bedrock is a wicked fuzztone ascending A-C-D-F riff that attains true psychedelia by never resolving the tension it causes. The false ending with backwards tapes at the end was all but inevitable, in retrospect The venerable Jim Lowe classic “Green Door” symmetrically closes the album with more verdant imagery.

At the time of its release, I found the album to be bitterly disappointing. I imagined that perhaps Bryan Gregory was more intrinsic to the band then time has proven. The intervening 30 years have improved my feelings for the record somewhat, but it still comes off poorly following “Gravest Hits” and “Songs The Lord taught Us.” Did the Bad Ship Cramps run aground on the shores of mediocrity so soon after charting bold new vistas of sneering JD fervor? Join us next time to find out!

Next: out goes H.G. Lewis – in comes Russ Meyer!

About postpunkmonk

graphic design | software UI design | remastering vinyl • record collector • satire • non-fiction
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