When Lux Interior brought his dual lineage of Cleveland-bred Screamin’ Jay Hawkins perversity and post–Manson Family California lysergic desperation to Taxi Driver–era Manhattan, he would dreamily spout about “starting a band that sounded like the Shadows of Knight and Carl Perkins.” In the Cramps, co-founded with guitarist Poison Ivy, that apparently oppositional mixture not only succeeded — as the 1980 debut Songs the Lord Taught Us and the stunning 1981 masterpiece Psychedelic Jungle proved — it also allowed Lux and Ivy to chart exotic reaches of the rock & roll dimension that no one suspected were even there.
The pair promoted their mystique by veiling their private lives: What other punk-era performers would actually disguise themselves in public? But with the new retrospective How To Make a Monster, the Cramps finally lift their skirts to reveal, in surprisingly intimate detail, how this extraordinary musical force came to be.
Out of their cobwebbed stash box, Lux and Ivy have pulled two CDs of unreleased recordings, the first disc a fascinating 23-track tour through rudimentary jam/rehearsal tapes and demos, the second a pair of live shows — the Cramps’ third-ever live performance, at Max’s Kansas City in January 1977, and a CBGB date a year later. Monster demonstrates the Cramps’ evolution from weird experimentation to explosive bandstand apocalypse, all of it fraught with the urgent zeal for the strange and the alchemical blend of miscegenational underground influences that have endeared the band to misfits worldwide. Though by no means complete (only half of the choice 1982 A&M studio demo session is included), the set develops a hypnotic chronology.
The Cramps’ very first attempt at song finds a capably primitive garage combo banging out a cover of the 1968 Kasenetz-Katz hit “Quick Joey Small” in early 1976. But they soon start tracing a more adventurous course, as the rockabilly transmogrifications “Domino” and “Love Me” stagger along on a dynamic blend of Ivy’s and Bryan Gregory’s chaotic guitar distress and the psycho-metronome pounding of drummer (and Gregory’s sister) Pam Balam. The summer of ’76 finds Lux giving “Sunglasses After Dark” a tentative, drawling Andre “Bacon Fat” Williams–style recitation, but by October he’s using the serrated sardonic shout that has served so well for almost 30 years. Just as with the ’58 American International B&W horror flick from which this collection cops its name, the final reel is Superama Technicolor: The January 1978 CBGB set is full-blown cataclysm — the band Ramones-ferocious, the audience chicks’ nonstop screaming as shrill as fireworks at a Friday the 13th celebration in hell.
That exhilarating manifestation of deviant intent and skull-denting impact remains Lux and Ivy’s exclusive domain. Where punk rock was a barrage of refutation that fomented rabid exultation, the Cramps reclaimed the hillbilly power long since flushed down the Mersey. Through a self-stated “disdain for the myth of musical progress,” they melded their mutant propensities to emerge as a guiding voice in the wilderness, a commanding force that redefined the rock & roll spectrum while outgunning almost everyfuckingbody in the game.
The Cramps’ modus operandi has never been a mere stroll down memory lane. Lux’s delayed entry into rock & roll (he was almost 30 when the band first gigged) was time valuably spent as a quasi-anthropological researcher who aimed not only to reveal rock & roll’s obscured history but to control its very destiny — an undertaking as audacious as it was perilous. An ingenuous fan, Lux is also an Iggy-intense showman and a man of peculiar instinct whose innate pathology was coaxed into far weirder contours by the unhinged disc jockey Mad Daddy, the Cleveland airwaves’ primary spiritual guide. When Lux finally assumed the shaman’s mantle, it was with a graceful authority.
How To Make a Monster illuminates the Cramps’ self-sustaining mixture of noble lineage and individuated ill inspiration. Now touring with drummer Bill Bateman, former traps destroyer for the Blasters and the Blue Shadows, the band promises an even more lurid extrapolation of rock & roll’s racial and regional fundamentals.
Lux and Ivy characterize it far more simply: “Fucked-up music — the kind you like.”
THE CRAMPS | How To Make a Monster (Vengeance)
The Cramps play the Hollywood Athletic Club on Saturday, October 30.