The Cramps have been a fixture on the fringes of the punk-alternative scene for almost two decades, and the band has long been heralded for their blend of rockabilly-style guitar noise and screwball humor. Often called the original progenitors of the musical genre known as “psychobilly,” they think they may have even coined the term themselves. With their seminal 1976 debut EP, Gravest Hits, the Cramps attempted to explain their unique inner vision: “While the jackhammer rhythms of punk were proliferating in NYC, the Cramps dove into the deepest recesses of the rock ‘n’ roll psyche for the most primal of all rhythmic impulses—rockabilly—the sound of Southern culture falling apart in a blaze of shudders and hiccups,” they stated in the album’s liner notes. “The Cramps also picked and chose amongst the psychotic debris of previous rock eras—instrumental rock, surf, psychedelia, and sixties punk. And then they added the junkiest element of all—themselves.”
The Cramps formed in the New York City area around 1976 with original members Lux Interior on vocals and Poison Ivy Rorschach and Bryan Gregory on guitar; behind the drum kit sat Miriam Linna. Interior and Rorschach were natives of Cleveland, Ohio, and later married. Of the lack of a bassist, Rorschach explained years later to New York Newsday writer Ira Robbins, “We weren’t trying to do anything radical. None of us wanted to play bass. We collect a lot of old records, and if they have bass on ’em I can’t hear it. It didn’t seem essential.” The combination of the two females, Rorschach and Linna, already made the Cramps unique in the testosterone-fueled Greenwich Village punk scene. But their particular brand of campy theatrical excess and undress combined with ear-splitting sonics gave them an edge the more cerebral bands couldn’t muster.
Gravest Hits helped usher in the Cramps’ cult following among music aficionados. The band was invited to open for the Police during their 1979 U.K. tour, with Linna replaced on drums by Nick Knox. In a 1979 profile for Melody Maker, writer Penny Kiley called them “America’s rockabilly solution to the New Wave.”
By this time the Cramps were known for outrageous onstage theatrics and a retro-outré look that seemed to combine the punk ethos with trash-culture tack. References to B-movies and a slightly sadomasochistic air infiltrated both lyrics and performance—an inevitability, so Rorschach explained in Melody Maker.”You can’t separate music and other cultural things; what we do isn’t just music. Everything I ever saw on TV, everything
For the Record…
Original members include Bryan Gregory, guitar; Lux Interior (born in Cleveland, OH; married Poison Ivy Rorschach ), lead vocals; Miriam Linna, drums; and Poison ivy Rorschach (born in Cleveland, OH; married Lux Interior), guitar. Later members include Slim Chance, bass; Candy Del Mar, bass; Harry Drumdini, drums; Nick Knox, drums; and Congo Powers, bass.
Band formed in New York City, c. 1976.
Addresses: Record company —The Medicine Label, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, 21st Floor, New York, NY 10019.
I ever ate, everything I heard on the radio is an influence. We’re celebrating pop culture.” In the same spirit, the band was one of the earliest to exploit the then-new medium of video to fully bring their unique vision to fans, filming a four-minute takeoff on the classic ’50s-era horror film as promotional material back in the late 70s.
Sometime in the ’80s the Cramps’ lead guitarist dropped the “Rorschach” and became known as Poison Ivy. Meanwhile, husband and creative partner Interior earned a reputation for sporting latex and stiletto heels onstage. As Chicago Tribune contributor Greg Kot pointed out, “This yin-yang relationship … [is] far from a traditional one: with the male as sex object and the female as lead guitarist, it subverts decades of rock stereotyping.” More albums followed throughout the ‘80s— Songs the Lord Taught Us marked the Cramps’ debut on IRS Records in 1980, prompting Rolling Stone reviewer Dave Marsh to liken them to “an otherworldly culture that’s been developing rock & roll along parallel musical lines but utterly divergent social ones.” Psychedelic Jungle followed a year later, marked by the defection of guitarist Bryan Gregory and the addition of Congo Powers on bass.
In 1984 IRS issued Bad Music for Bad People, a collection of previously released material from Gravest Hits and Songs the Lord Taught Us added to other tracks that had only been available as British imports. MTV news personality Kurt Loder—still writing record reviews for Rolling Stone at the time—was a big fan of the Cramps during this era. Critiquing Bad Music for Bad People, Loder declared, “This is rock & roll the way it never really was on the radio, but the way you always dreamed it could be.”
Such dreams never translated into financial success, however. For many years much of the vinyl output by the band was self-financed; Interior and Ivy would then try to sell the finished product to record labels. A Date with Elvis was the Cramps’ fifth release and third full-length album. The creative inspiration behind the 1986 work was the media madness over what would have been Elvis Presley’s fiftieth birthday the year before. As Ivy explained to Kiley in Melody Maker, “It’s our tribute album to Elvis…. Elvis has always been on our mind but he was especially on our mind last year because it was just like national Elvis year or something.”
A Date with Elvis met with some criticism for its uninhibited lyrics in songs like “Hot Pool of Womanhood” and “Cornfed Dames.” Simon Reynolds reviewed it for Mel-ody Maker and found “few surprises here, none of the little touches of musical radicalism” that surfaced on the Cramps’ earlier releases, and lampooned the more misogynist tracks as displaying “a relentlessly crude, stunted view of sex.” Ivy, whose stage garb of bustiers and other provocative apparel belied her creative and decision-making status in the quartet, dismissed charges of sexism. “I think it’s an unbelievable joke people saying we’re sexist…. I create this music. I co-write these songs, how can I be sexist? Sexism to me is when you’re blinded to seeing certain people and the accomplishments of certain people because you’ve got them tuned out. Paying attention to a girl isn’t sexist at all, that’s just animal.”
During the late 1980s the Cramps took a hiatus from releasing new material, although imports and compilations appeared intermittently. Soured deals and lawsuits provided additional distractions. For 1990’s Stay Sick!, the band—now joined by bass replacement Candy Del Mar—kept up their own unique blend of covers of obscure rockabilly tunes and female-worshipping originals like “Bikini Girls with Machine Guns” and “Journey to the Center of a Girl.” Evelyn McConnell gave it an enthusiastic review in Rolling Stone, noting “Rorschach’s guitar is all burr and bristle; the ghost of Roy Orbison hiccups and growls through Interior as though the singer were swallowing hot tar in hell.”
More lineup changes followed the release of Stay Sick!. Del Mar left, replaced by Slim Chance; longtime drummer Nick Knox also exited and Harry Drumdini took over. Both new members played on the Cramps’ 1994 release FlameJob, their major-label debut after signing with the Medicine label, a division of Warner Bros. The band seemed at ease at their new corporate home. “Some labels in the past said, ’We don’t have a pigeonhole for you’ or ’You should be doing a rave record’ or ‘You should give your multitrack to a DJ and let him make a new mix out of it’—all these horrible ideas,” Interior told Boston Globe writer Jim Sullivan. “We had to spend a lot of time in the past saying, ’No, no, no, no…’ feeling like we were from Mars because of it.”
FlameJob boasted the usual psychobilly vortex of the Cramps with tracks like “Swing the Big Eyed Rabbit,” Sado County Auto Show,” and “Ultra Twist.” Rolling Stone reviewer Paul Evans noted that this psychobilly twang and the Cramps’ original trash-culture ethos had become familiar musical territory for several other contemporary acts, like White Zombie. In the months between 1994 and 1995, the Cramps played several successful shows in major cities. Journalist Lorraine Ali reviewed their sold-out concert for the Los Angeles Times and asserted that their “enthusiasm, coupled with its freakish edge, is the key to the band’s longevity.”
A refusal to capitulate, despite the many obstacles encountered over the years in a notoriously fickle industry, may also have played a part in the Cramps’ success; in the 1994 interview with Sullivan for the Boston Globe, Interior offered a reason why he and Ivy never decided to call it quits: “Probably we would have if we knew something else to do that was as fun.”
Gravest Hits (EP), Illegal Records, 1976.
Songs the Lord Taught Us, IRS/A&M, 1980.
Psychedelic Jungle, IRS, 1981.
Bad Music for Bad People, IRS/A&M, 1984.
A Date with Elvis, Big Beat, 1986.
Psychedelic Jungle/Gravest Hits, IRS/A&M, 1989.
Stay Sick!, Enigma, 1990.
Look Mom No Head, Restless, 1992.
FlameJob, Medicine, 1994.
Billboard, August 20, 1994; October 15, 1994; November 19, 1994.
Boston Globe, November 18, 1994.
Chicago Tribune, November 13, 1994.
Guitar Player, March 1983; December 1994.
Los Angeles Times, January 30, 1995.
Melody Maker, June 9, 1979; February 22, 1986; March 29, 1986.
New York Newsday, November 25, 1994.
Rolling Stone, July 24, 1980; March 15, 1984; May 3, 1990; March 9, 1995.
Variety, January 19, 1977.
Additional information for this profile was taken from promotional material provided by the Medicine Label.