Ah, The Cramps. The cooler kids at school all seemed to get into them at exactly the same time, flashing their records about and drawing that classic logo on their bags.
It looked like my interest in punk and obsessive viewing of b&w re-runs of The Munsters and Addams Family all wrapped up in a perfectly kitsch package…
A great band who had a strong aesthetic and produced a mutant strain of decades old musical DNA – bang up to date stuff, not a tribute act. Just like The Specials with ska and two tone, The Cramps revved up obscure rock ‘n’ roll from the fifties and spawned (for better or worse) the whole psychobilly movement.
I think some people see them as a bit of band for poseurs, but for me their first three albums: “Songs The Lord Taught Us”, “Psychedelic Jungle” and especially the “Off The Bone” compilation of early singles and EPs are pretty much unassailable.
CDs (for yea, I have recently rediscovered them long after the C90 cassettes have perished) to dig out now and again when I need a breather from all things JA and East London. Maybe it’s my musical equivalent of escapist schlock like Barbara Cartland? I’d never really thought about the band very much which is unusual for an arch-spotter by me, so I was surprised when my spidey sense started tingling recently.
The first thing that did it was a long car journey with Andy from Giant Paw during which he played a whole welter of mad stuff including many original versions of songs covered by The Cramps. They were uniformly excellent – little blasts of intensity with a wicked pop sensibility hiding some 50s sleeeeeeeze. I hadn’t realised I was so familiar with the versions by The Cramps, but hearing the originals was as pleasantly jarring as the first time I stumbled on the full vocal version of a dub by Scientist.
Smith3000 who does Expletive Undeleted also came up trumps with this great entry about “Off The Bone” – which like many of his posts manages to combine some top writing about music with reminiscences about times, and girls, gone by.
By this point I was cursing myself because I could feel that disembodied love for The Cramps beginning to move into a zone of analysis and trainspottery. I started thinking about them, the whole mondo gothic pinup schtick. Remembering when I’d seen Poison Ivy Rorschach on the cover of “Smell Of Female” in Our Price and my adolescent eyebrows tried to hit the ceiling.
I wanted to know more about them, what made them tick. All the while realising that this might mean that I could never “just” like their music again. Like a dog eating its own vomit.
So that’s how I ended up going digging in the boneyard of The Cramps’ back catalogue and associated world of fannish obsession. My first stop was a thread on Dissensus, followed by all this lot:
Lindsay Hutton – Rocking Bones / Legion of the Cramped 1979-1983
Rocking Bones was a fanzine which became the official Cramps fan club newsletter for a period. The Legion of the Cramped was administered by Lindsay Hutton (helped initially by one Stephen Morrissey, – yes that one). The fan club was terminated by the band in 1983, Ivy’s letter was the main content of the 7th issue.
I quite like “ziney” feel of it – the usual apologies for lateness, gig reviews, gossip, press cuttings etc. Lo-fi but undeniably enthusiastic.
Thomas Owen Sheridan – The Cramps (Savoy, 1990) 60pp
A bunch of photocopied of press interviews and reviews, mainly from the UK, up to and including mid 80s. Includes quite a few photos (tho not exactly great quality given the medium) but feels very much like a scrapbook – quite “bitty”. “For die-hards only”.
Kris Guidio – Sinister Legends (Savoy, 1988) 112pp
A collection of drawings and cartoons by “The Cramps’ favourite artist”. Guidio’s later work Lord Horror and Meng & Ecker is now notorious for riling Manchester’s newly formed Obscene Publications Squad, headed up by Chief Inspector James Anderton.
The book includes all of the cartoons featuring the Cramps which appeared in Hutton’s The Next Big Thing zine as well as a bunch of artwork relating to a whole constellation of post-punk and quasi goth figures. There is also an interview with Guidio himself about his early life, heroin addiction and more besides, some fiction, some (ugh) poetry.
I’m not a big fan of his artwork here. It’s a personal thing but for me it veers too far away from the Cramps’ kitchy Americana pin-up aesthetic into gothic. Lux Interior likes it though: “This was rock ‘n’ roll. I loved the stuff he did for us”.
Ian Johnston – The Wild Wild World Of The Cramps – (Omnibus, 1990) 128pp
Exhaustive, but now expensive. Ian has read every single thing ever written about The Cramps, so you don’t have to wade through it all!
It’s really well written and each page has a shed-load of graphics – flyers, photos, posters etc. The visual appeal of the band is so strong that you feel that this was both a labour of love and also the sort of book the band might like.
The book relies a lot on music press coverage and interviews but the process of distillation is done really well (and it’s basically how a lot of stuff on this blog is done, so what the hell!).
There are also a fair few original quotes from people like Lindsay Hutton, especially in relation to the band’s decision to close down the fan club he was running because Ivy felt they “shouldn’t be pinned down and defined”. Which is kind of what I was trying to do, ah well.
The book tells the story up to 1990 and it is a great story to tell. If you find this cheap, snap it up.
V.Vale (ed.) RE/SEARCH #14 – Incredibly Strange Music vol. 1 (RE/SEARCH 1993)
Difficult to argue with RE/SEARCH, really. Full marks for thoroughness and presentation every time.
The interview with The Cramps is the first in the book and focuses on them as record collectors and curators of a bygone age. Lots of cool tales of record digging (they broke an axle on their car returning from a sale at the Sun Records warehouse…) and general enthusiasm about finding mad records cheap.
Other highlights include interviews with Earth Kitt, the Norton Records label (co-run by Miriam Linna, an early Cramps drummer) and Martin Denny.
The irony here is that many of the people interviewed are cursing Record Collectors who go around with price lists rather than just trusting their ears – but RE/SEARCH has always worked as a populist force for underground subcultures (their “Modern Primitives” especially being the book which launched a million identical “individualist” tattoos and piercings). This book and ebay and healthy bank balance may be your passport to cool. Or maybe not.
Ignacio Julia – The Cramps: Jolis Monstres (1995) 64pp
On the upside, this has a whole heap of photos in – many in colour. On the downside, all the text is in French.
Dick Porter – The Cramps (Plexus, 2006) 144pp
The most recent addition to the bookshelf and therefore the most up to date. Perhaps predictably, the bulk of the book still focuses on the period up to and including the mid-80s. Admittedly this is the most interesting era of the band – including their formation and classic releases. The early years are now given more attention because of quotes from Lux and Ivy reflecting on that period which were not available to Ian Johnston for his book.
For example there is more detail on Lux’s former incarnation as a hellraising hippy who changed his name by deed poll to “VipVop”.
And this from Ivy:
“The failure of outsiders to acknowledge the influence of blues and R&B on The Cramps is an omission bordering on racism. Rockabilly is rooted in the blues and we consider ourselves a blues band.”
Actually she comes across as amazingly talented (and hard nosed) in most of the books. It’s cool that she taught herself to produce records and run a business. It’s also cool that virtually all of the album covers have been shot in Lux and Ivy’s front room – that says something quite good about them in my world.
Porter’s style flows slightly better than Johnston’s as I think he is less hidebound by covering things in as much detail as possible.
On the visuals front, Porter’s book has a few photos reproduced in high quality and is still widely available. “Wild World” has superb illustrations and photos on every single one of its glossy pages but will cost you in the region of 30 quid on ebay, or less if you are prepared to wait and seek a bit deeper (as I was).
I think I’ve got most of it out of my system now though…