I’ve said before that one of my favorite types of music is the chimera, where you take two music styles, usually totally alien to each other, jam them together and make something magical (or really annoying depending on how much of a purest you are). A few examples of this is Electric Swing, Celtic Punk, or the topic of this post, Psychobilly. WTF, you ask is Psychobilly? Well, like I do so often let’s answer your question with a story.
A while back Adam the Master Writer and DM of this site linked to a great article about punk on our shared social network feed. This led an exchange about the nature of punk and how it tended to be long lasting because it could influence so many genres beyond its own. That punk was a recognizable attitude and perspective that fit into literary, musical and social scenes. Later, Steve the owner of my LORS asked “where did punk come from” and I kind of fumbled the question but the answer is actually easy.
The MND’s oft voiced opinion that it was the result of prog rocks excesses isn’t that far off. It grew the same way hip-hop did, part organic, part money (even punk, a movement that scorned money couldn’t escape the corporate influence) and part historic, tapping into a multitude of influences and styles along the way. It had the British influences, then the east coast spreading to the west coast with the fanzines that followed. People would argue for hours about what was the real meaning of punk! Just because a band had become commercially viable were they still punk? Did clothes/hair/politics make you punk or was it something else? I have to admit I wrote for a local fanzine (Warning) and never had a clear answer to many of these questions.
However, I can tell you what Psychobilly is. Imagine the amazing and delicious confluence of Rockabilly and Punk. But not just any Rockabilly, it has to be a certain kind of hard rocking style. For those of you not familiar with the awesome combination of rock-n-roll and country, let’s talk about Carl Perkins (Jive After Five), Jimmy Dickens (I Got A Hole In My Pocket), and Ronnie Self (Bop-A-Lena, Rocky Road Blues, Big Fool). In fact a whole bunch by Ronnie Self, the man needs a lot more recognition. These are songs that kick ass and take names. They are hard driving, loud and without mercy but with the hillbilly/working class style. Which to me, is the perfect definition of punk rock. Is it any wonder that a generation looking for a sound that had the attitude of punk would go for Rockabilly?
I don’t know when The Cramps became part of my musical life, it seems that suddenly they just were in my head. Poison Ivy Rorschach and her husband, Lux Interior, were the heart and soul of The Cramps with a shifting assortment of drummers and guitarists to back them up. Lux was the frenetic voice of the band while Ivy played guitar and occasionally bass. They never considered themselves to be hardcore psychobilly (even comparing it to term used by carnival barkers to draw in the rubes) even though they coined the term on 1976 concert poster. They are certainly considered to be the template for the style. It doesn’t matter if you are listening to Mad Marge & The Stone Cutters, Creep Show or The Meteors, you will hear the influence of The Cramps.
This column took way longer to write than it ever should have for a couple of reasons. First I love The Cramps and wanted to do them justice, they deserve to have the best I can give. Second I’ve been working on collecting their albums on vinyl and lately I’ve been lucky to pick up even more so I’d stall every time another album came in to add it to this piece. There is one thing about being a collector is you want things to be complete.
Songs The Lord Taught Us was their first full length album and came out in 1980. They rip through Sunglasses After Dark four years before Cory Hart wimped up Sunglasses At Night. This album plays heavy on their fascination with old monster movies including songs like I Was A Teenage Werewolf, Zombie Dance and What’s Behind The Mask. Fever and Mad Daddy are just the kind of song that go back to the rockabilly roots with that that all out madness that would become Lux’s trademark.
In 1981 they did a groovy album called Psychedelic Jungle. It’s a little bit easy going compared to Songs but it’s still The Cramps. The cover art was done by the amazing Anton Johannes Gerrit Corbijn van Willenswaard (man, my name is boring) who did most of the visual work for Depeche Mode and U2. They cover Green Door a Jim Lowe song from the 50s and do a few songs that feel like they are from the same time like Jungle Hop and Rockin Bones. Their tribute to professional wrestling The Crusher, is a classic.
There are other albums between Jungle and A Date With Elvis but they consist of a compilation of unreleased material that I have mixed feelings about (….Off The Bone), a live mini-album with six songs (Smell of a Female), and the ultimate shot at the band by the former label I.R.S. after they left 1984’s Bad Music For Bad People. While the last one is a decent enough album it’s just the label’s way of squeezing every last every last penny they can out of the artists who were screwed over in the first place. Lux and Ivy had been producing the albums from the beginning and weren’t interested in sharing their vision with anyone.
A Date With Elvis was a tribute to (ripped off from, appropriated from, meh whatever) Elvis’s eighth album. Originally put out in 1986, this is prime Cramps. Ever since Lux died in 2009, Ivy has been working hard to make sure their music is available and in fine form. She has been running their independent label Vengeance records since 2002, re-releasing the old albums many as limited editions, like my copy which is on orange vinyl. With songs like People Ain’t No Good (and its kids choir backup), Hot Pearl Snatch (which became is one of their standards), and Aloha From Hell (which is about as rockabilly as you can get) this is a must have for a Cramps collection.
The next one on the list was recorded a year later in Auckland, New Zealand. Rockin and Reeling is a live album that actually sounds better than most of their ilk. One of the things about The Cramps was that as good as their music is their live shows were fucking crazy. Lux would go completely over the top, Ivy is beautiful and the two of them together was a combination that made for one hell of a show. Lux was famous for stripping almost naked, maybe matching panties and high heels at the most. He could also deep throat a Shure SM58 microphone. (That picture sticks in the mind,doesn’t it?). They had finally found a permanent bass player who could keep up with them in Candy Del Mar from Satan’s Cheerleaders and the sound is much more balanced because of it. Granted many of the songs on this album are the same A Date With Elvis but it also has an amazing cover of Heartbreak Hotel and another one of the songs that would become a standard Can Your Pussy Do The Dog?
Stay Sick was their way of breaking into the 1990’s and it did a great job of it. This album has the song that this column is named after and was one of their biggest hits, Bikini Girls With Machine Guns. Damned if it doesn’t blow any cock rock song right out of the water when it comes to imagery, speed, and attitude. The crazy part is they also do the classic folk song Shortin’ Bread and go country with Mule Skinner Blues. This album is exactly the kind of magic I was talking about in the beginning of the column. Throw every kind of subject, style and idea into a blender, pour it into a rockabilly guitar and slam it through a stack of punk speakers. Oh, and the clear vinyl sounds amazing
My favorite song from the 1991 album Look Mom No Head is Bend Over I’ll Drive but I’m a sick fuck. The album doesn’t have the variety of Stay Sick but there are certainly some high points. Miniskirt Blues stands outs of course because of the guest vocals of Iggy Pop but you can’t go wrong with having Ry Cooder, Jack Nitzsche, and Paul Schrader backing up on Hard Working Man. This song is the example of everyman punk I was talking about. Of course no Cramps album would be complete without some decent double entendre so you have I Want To Get In Your Pants. It still has the monster movie influences with Two Headed Sex Change.
Flamejob from 1994 was their sixth album and they pretty much have the process down. With Slim Chance on bass and Harry Drumdini (Harry Meisenheimer) backing up, Lux and Ivy did their first album for the Medicine Label. This is where they do such classics as Let’s Get Fucked Up, Ultra Twist (the first song they played on national television for Late Night with Conan O’Brian), and their amazing cover of Route 66. The album I bought was a limited edition on red vinyl but as I’ve said before none of that is important. What matters is the sound and the MND was thrilled at what came off this piece of vinyl. Recorded in analog and mastered beautifully, it is ready to be cranked to the heavens. They keep up the double entendre in a big way with songs like I’m Customized and Inside Out And Upside Down With You. The cover for the album goes all the way back to 1924 and is considered to be a jazz standard, How Come You Do Me Like You Do? The song has been covered by Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Marion Harris, and Coleman Hawkins, but no one did it like The Cramps.
The MND didn’t like the way Big Beat From Badville turned out. Like so many albums cut in the late 90’s, in this case 97, the volume is set way too loud. It is one thing to want to listen to your music loud it’s another to have that level shoved down your throat. I like being able to crank the shit up and not have to listen to distortion (or have the needle jump out of the grooves). There are no covers on this album but there are some classics. Like A Bad Girl Should is one of The Cramps best and pretty much sums them up. Sheena’s in a Goth Gang is the natural progression of The Ramones Sheena is a Punk Rocker. Queen of Pain bookends Bad Girl perfectly. Despite the loudness factor this is one of my favorite Cramps albums.
Fiends Of Dope Island from 2003 was The Cramps last studio album. It feels a lot more like their early monster movie influenced songs and maybe a bit angrier than many of the albums from the nineties. There is still the full tilt boogie sound and rip it up sound especially with songs like Dr. Fucker M.D. (Musical Deviant) but songs like Color Me Black make it clear that The Cramps aren’t just about fun and games. The fact that the album ends with Wrong Way Ticket is kind of an indicator that Lux might have known something was on its way.
They did their last show in 2006 and Lux died of an aortic dissection just a few years later. They met in 1972 in college and stayed together through it all. They produced/wrote/did the art, pretty much creating a new kind of sound and musical style. Here’s to The Cramps.