Music by VICE

The Guide to Getting into The Cramps, Garage Rock's True Freaks

Poison Ivy, Lux Interior, and their cast of collaborators left behind a legacy of heavy, horny, and horrifying songs. Here's where to start.

by Leah Mandel; illustrated by Tara Jacoby
May 2 2019, 12:02pm

When performing for an audience of patients at Napa’s California State Mental Hospital, The Cramps addressed the crowd as only they could. A frenzied-looking Lux Interior, alluring and irreverent as ever, shouts: “Somebody told me you people are crazy, but I don’t know about that. You seem to be alright to me.” It’s June of 1978, and Lux, his partner in crime, Poison Ivy, and an early lineup of their band, have just played “Mystery Plane,” a buzzing song about alienation and UFOs. “Now I just can't identify / With this world / So I don't try,” Lux wails, as the crowd shakes, struts, and pogos. The performance, immortalized on grainy black-and-white film by San Francisco collective Target Video as Live at Napa State Mental Hospital, recalls Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison—only, maybe a little more twisted. That was The Cramps’ style.

The late Lux Interior, born Erick Lee Purkhiser, and his future wife and life partner Poison Ivy Rorschach, fka Kristy Marlana Wallace, met as students of Sacramento State while Wallace was hitchhiking in 1972. Both raving music nerds with an affinity for the bizarre and a passion for obscure singles, horror comics, and early sci-fi, they hit it off immediately. Soon after, they began their 33-year journey as the rockabilly-loving, sex-obsessed, B-horror-fanatic honky tonk punk group The Cramps.

In 1975, they moved to New York and became entrenched in the city’s galvanizing punk scene—in the pits with all the big names: Dead Boys, Blondie, Talking Heads, and the like. They played regularly at legendary downtown haunts like CBGB, Max’s Kansas City, and Mudd Club. Lux, usually with his hair wild, in nothing but skintight leather pants slung just above his groin (or just undies, and often heels), sweaty and moaning, would jerk around and suck on his mic. Poison Ivy, with her flaming locks, would stand stoic and shredding in animal print, patent, sequins, or simply a sheer bodysuit. Always dressed to the trashiest of nines, like characters from a John Waters movie.

Fellow punks were into camp and horror, too, no doubt (see Ramones’ “Chain Saw,” Buzzcocks’ “E.S.P.,” X-Ray Spex’ “Genetic Engineering,” and literally everything by Misfits), and pulled from the sounds of early rock and country—naturally. The resurgence of primordial rock and roll in the ‘70s had a lot to do with clowning ‘50s squares for branding it the “devil’s music,” and the way that backlash was mirrored in the mainstream’s fear of punk’s rage.

But The Cramps were freaks’ freaks. They even had a fan club called “Legion Of The Cramped,” but requested it be shut down because, they said, they were “real loners.” They stood out from the rest of the scene with their particular, playful concoction of rockabilly, surf rock, garage, and blues, and their world-building fascination with monstrous retro imagery and raunchy, pin-up style innuendo. To listen to The Cramps is to enter a gooey old sci-fi movie, invaded by booze hounds, brace-faced werewolves, and whip-cracking dommes stomping around in leather bikinis.

In interviews, which they gave often, Lux especially liked to refer to ‘50s idol Ricky Nelson’s influence on their music. But other innovators from that time, such as surf rock king Dick Dale, macabre shock-rock pioneer Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, proto-punks The Standells, power chord popularizer Link Wray, operatic rock legend Roy Orbison, and kooky rockabilly outsider Hasil Adkins were strong inspirations, too. They made that very clear with their multitude of covers. Lux and Ivy also claimed to have owned everything ever released by Sun Records.

The Cramps themselves are credited not only with vaulting a garage rock revival (would The Gories exist if not for Lux and Ivy? Oblivians? Black Lips? Oh Sees?), and being godparents to horror punk along with fellow mutants the Misfits—but also with coining “psychobilly,” and spawning the niche genre, a hybrid of punk and rockabilly exemplified by The Meteors and Batmobile. They actually nabbed the term from Johnny Cash’s 1976 song “One Piece At A Time,” in which he refers to a “psycho-billy Cadillac”; they used to put the word, along with “rockabilly voodoo,” on their show flyers. After the fact, Lux said he didn’t think of The Cramps as psychobilly at all: “We were just using carny terms to drum up business.” Classic!

In 1978, The Cramps released their first two singles, produced by Big Star’s Alex Chilton. Those four tracks later ended up as the I.R.S. Records-released compilation Gravest Hits, with the addition of that mournful Ricky Nelson cover, “Lonesome Town.” The Cramps recorded their first proper full-length, Songs The Lord Taught Us, in Memphis with Chilton in 1979. Psychedelic Jungle came out in 1981 on I.R.S. before a royalties dispute with its owner prevented the band from releasing anything until 1983. The label also notoriously released its own, skimpier version of the UK singles comp Off The Bone (1983) , called Bad Music for Bad People (1984), which was described as “pick[ing] the carrion of their former label mates even cleaner.”

By the time Smell Of Female (recorded live at the Peppermint Lounge in New York) came out on UK’s Big Beat Records in 1983, Lux and Ivy had moved to Los Angeles, a city that suited their affinity for the glam and theatrical. (They famously bought a house in Hollywood Hills, right near the Forest Lawn Memorial Park cemetery.) It was after Smell, too, that The Cramps style shifted a bit. They acquired a bass player, Candy del Mar, who came to them from Satan’s Cheerleaders, and they soon became increasingly enamored with X-rated euphemisms. Shockingly, The Cramps had issues with the US market. Even though they were selling thousands of copies of 1986’s A Date With Elvis—which included the tracks “Can Your Pussy Do The Dog?" and “The Hot Pearl Snatch”—in Europe, they didn’t find an American label to release the record until 1990. “In Greece there were folks masturbating in the front row, so that’s a little different from here,” Lux told an interviewer in 1990, grinning and wearing a hot pink catsuit and pearls, with a patent leather-clad, cat-eyed Poison Ivy beside him.

Despite squeamish squares, The Cramps were more than active right up until the death of Lux Interior in 2009. (Lux even provided the voice for an animated band called Bird Brains on Spongebob Squarepants in 2002.) In total, there are nine records, three live albums, twelve compilations, and at least 41 (documented) bootlegs. It’s a lot to parse, this sticky icky world Lux and Ivy built. That’s why we made this guide.

So You Want to Get Into: B-Horror and Sci-Fi Cramps?

The most recognizable Cramps song is probably “Human Fly,” one of their very first singles. It’s an eerie, creeping song that Lux called “an anthem about being a human monster," and conjures images of the 1958 Vincent Price horror classic The Fly (not the Goldblum one, it hadn’t come out yet!). “I've got 96 tears / and 96 eyes,” Lux stomps. “I've got a garbage brain / it's driving me insane.”

It’s an aesthetic frequently associated with The Cramps, for good reason. Lux and Poison Ivy consistently referred to themselves as weirdos, and what’s a more fitting analogy for feeling like an outsider than literal monsters? Songs The Lord Taught Us is chock full of freak anthems: the classic “I Was A Teenage Werewolf,” aforementioned “Mystery Plane,” the bopping “Zombie Dance,” the murderous “TV Set”—I’d even say “What’s Behind The Mask," on which Lux pleads, “Is it a skin condition? / Or an extra eye? / Surgical incision?” fits this category. In the following albums, they move away from straight-up sci-fi in that way; the horror inclination becomes more leitmotif than fixation.

But there was always a sprinkling: “Surfin’ Dead” and “I Ain't Nuthin' but a Gorehound” on Smell Of Female; the excellent “The Creature From The Black Leather Lagoon" (whose out-of-control video was banned on MTV) on 1990’s Stay Sick!; “Eyeball In My Martini” from Look Mom No Head!; Big Beat from Badsville’s “God Monster”; and a handful on their final record, 2003’s Fiends of Dope Island.

Playlist: “Human Fly” / “I Was A Teenage Werewolf” / “The Creature From The Black Leather Lagoon" (video banned on MTV) / “Zombie Dance” / “Goo Goo Muck” / “The Green Door” / “Eyeball In My Martini” / “Dr. Fucker MD (Musical Deviant)” / “Mystery Plane” / “What’s Behind The Mask" / “The Crusher” / “Surfin’ Dead” / “TV Set” / "Mojo Man from Mars" / “God Monster”

So You Want to Get Into: Lusty, Bad Girl Cramps?

In my humble opinion, the very best thing about The Cramps is that they loved sex. And I mean loved it. Almost all of their songs, it seems like, are at least a little bit about fucking—or being seriously turned on. They flaunted it. And Lux and Ivy positively exuded sexual energy; it’s been said Lux was witnessed climaxing onstage at least a few times.

The very best of these is “Queen Of Pain,” from 1997’s Big Beat From Badsville, a hip-swinging track about “block and tackle exploits,” marks that will be hard to explain, and stains that will be hard to clean. “What you gonna do with that cane?” Lux yelps, and it can only be assumed he’s asking Poison Ivy; she did, after all, support their early years with her dominatrix work, which she enjoyed very much. (“She was always in control of Lux,” Lissa Rivera, photographer and curator of the Museum of Sex’s Punk Lust exhibit, recently remembered.) “Like A Bad Girl Should,” from the same album, is equally as lusty for a “sick” and “nasty” domme (the video for that one is hot). The Scream of the Butterfly-referencing “Mama Oo Pow Pow,” on the other hand, woos with lines like, “Girl, you could use a good spankin’,” and “I've got these heart-shaped handcuffs that will really knock you out.” I bet they liked to switch it up, if you catch my drift.

As well as venerating dangerous, powerful women, The Cramps were also cunnilingus enthusiasts, rightfully so—evidenced by the not-so-subtly euphemistic “You Got Good Taste,” and the fact that Lux would stick his face between Poison Ivy’s legs during performances. Songs like the sci-fi-tinged “Journey To The Center Of A Girl,” “What’s Inside A Girl,” and “Hypno Sex Ray,” the careening “Dames, Booze, Chains and Boots,” and the drag-race-set “Bikini Girls With Machine Guns,” are fun because they make the romping extra campy, exploitation flick style. (Lux used to brag about their massive movie collection—the latter was inspired by a video called “Sexy Girls with Sexy Guns,” discovered while digging through a survivalist catalog.) “Bend Over, I’ll Drive,” has death fetish vibes, like the Cronenberg movie Crash. Sweaty, panting Cramps classics, “I Can’t Hardly Stand It,” “Psychotic Reaction,” “I Wanna Get In Your Pants," and “Love Me” are more straightforward cravings. I find it all very romantic.

Playlist: “You Got Good Taste” / “Queen Of Pain” / “Bikini Girls With Machine Guns” / “I Wanna Get In Your Pants" / “I Can’t Hardly Stand It” / “Can Your Pussy Do The Dog?" / “Psychotic Reaction” / “The Hot Pearl Snatch” / “Journey To The Center Of A Girl” / “What’s Inside A Girl?” / “Love Me” / “Miniskirt Blues (feat Iggy Pop)” / “(Hot Pool Of) Womanneed” / “Sheena’s In A Goth Gang” / “Bend Over, I’ll Drive” / “Hypno Sex Ray" / “All Women Are Bad" / “Mama Oo Pow Pow” / “Dames, Booze, Chains and Boots” / “Like A Bad Girl Should” / “Thee Most Exalted Potentate of Love” / “It Thing Hard-On”

So You Want To Get Into: Country, Rock, and Blues Covers Cramps?

There is a cover on every single Cramps record. On Songs The Lord Taught Us, there’s a wild version of Johnny Burnette & The Rock 'n' Roll Trio’s “Tear It Up,” an interpretation of Jimmy Stewart’s 1959 “Rock on the Moon,” and an eerie adaptation of the R&B standard, “Fever.” It was a signature of Lux and Poison Ivy’s, a tribute to their love of early blues and rock n’ roll crate-digging.

There are Cramps tracks I’ve been surprised to learn aren’t actually originals: “Goo Goo Muck,” from Psychedelic Jungle, for instance, sounds distinctively Cramps, but was in reality a flop novelty song about a teen monster written for Ronnie Cook and the Gaylads in 1962. And “Green Fuz,” the ominous-sounding second song on Psychedelic, was the 1969-released sole single of garage group The Green Fuz.

“Domino,” one of The Cramps’ very first releases, is the perfect example of how Lux and Ivy transformed old songs. It’s a 1961 Roy Orbison tune, but you might never know listening to the Cramps version; they added a banging beat, sped it up a little, and Lux’s gasping, growling vocals are almost the complete opposite of Orbison’s romantic crooning. With their iteration of The Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird,” however, they stay almost true to the original, as if to express that they just really wanted you to hear this sick track by a ‘60s group you might not otherwise have known about.

It’s a similar vibe with “She Said,” by rockabilly weirdo Hasil Adkins (who was sprung even further into cult legend status by this Cramps cut). The song is classic Adkins quirk; a bouncy, yelping bop about a girl who “Looks to me like a dyin' can of that commodity meat” and “like a dinosaur 'bout to jump outta that seat.” Legend has it Lux stuffed a styrofoam cup in his mouth to replicate Adkins’ voice. He “sang the entire song like that,” writer and musician Pleasant Gehlman remembered, “drooling spit uncontrollably and spewing out pieces of crumbled styrofoam as he sang.” Even when staying faithful, there was always a Cramps twist.

Playlist: “Tear It Up” (Johnny Burnette & The Rock 'n' Roll Trio) / “Rock on the Moon” (Jimmy Stewart) / “Fever” (Little Willie John) / “Goo Goo Muck” (Ronnie Cook and the Gaylads) / “Green Fuz” (The Green Fuz) / “Domino” (Roy Orbison) / “Surfin’ Bird” (The Trashmen) / “She Said” (Hasil Adkins) / “Lonesome Town” (Ricky Nelson) / “Faster Pussycat" / “Love Me” (The Phantom) / “Uranium Rock” (Warren Smith) / “Strange Love” (Slim Harpo) / “I Walked All Night” (The Embers) / “Strychnine” (The Sonics)

So You Want To Get Into: Gettin’ Effed Up Cramps?

Lux and Ivy were, in essence, hedonistic. They liked what they liked and didn’t ever, not once, apologize for it. (“There’s nothing that I’ve done that I’m ashamed of,” Poison Ivy said in a 1997 interview.) And one of the things they liked very much was to get fucked up. (“We’ve taken every drug in the book,” Lux noted, in the same conversation.) Sometimes, during shows, Lux would drink alcohol from someone’s shoe.

Obviously, “Let’s Get Fucked Up,” is a prime example; a pretenseless cut from 1994’s Flamejob, on which Lux sings about getting “keyed up” to “go to town and get beat up,” going to amateur night to “do some purple haze” and “probably lose some fight,” and getting “really sent” to “dig some cruel and unusual punishment.”

“New Kind Of Kick,” a thrill-seeking single from Psychedelic Jungle that’s almost like a perverted version of “I Get A Kick Out Of You,” is possibly their best known of this ilk—although the Elvis, Freud, and Sherlock Holmes-referencing cross-country “Drug Train” comes close. All aboard!

Playlist: “Let’s Get Fucked Up” / “Drug Train” / “Dopefiend Boogie” / “New Kind Of Kick” / “Strychnine”

So You Want To Get Into: Swaggering Cramps?

The Crampsiest Cramps song of all time is “The Way I Walk.” It’s a lusty swagger track, an unapologetic anthem that is, of course, ideal for walking with that Lux and Poison Ivy-type confidence. “The way I walk is just the way I walk,” it goes. “The way I talk is just the way I talk / The way I smile is just the way I smile / Touch me baby and I'll go hog wild.” Swoon.

Likewise, the songs “Garbageman” and “Rockin’ Bones” are proclamations of unwavering self-worth, no matter how monstrous. “Beneath these bones let these words be seen: ‘This is the bloody gears of a boppin' machine’,” Lux asserts on the latter. On “Garbageman,” he declares he’s “One half hillbilly and one half punk / Eight long legs and one big mouth,” and demands, “Get outta your mind or get outta my way.” Basically, if you can’t get with The Cramps’ nasty ways, you can leave town, thanks.

Playlist: “The Way I Walk” / “Mad Daddy” / “Rockin’ Bones” / “Garbageman” / “Sunglasses After Dark” / “Tear It Up” / “Don’t Eat Stuff Off The Sidewalk"