Without many other options, The Cramps were most commonly cited as a punk band back in the late 1970s and early ’80s. That’s because the psychobilly genre that they helped pioneer had yet to find its common usage as a genre tag, and a ragtag group of aggressive musicians playing songs at breakneck tempos could only be seen as punk at the time.
But anyone expecting traditional punk music at a Cramps show was sure to be confused when the band launched into songs that had more to do with Gene Vincent and Vincent Price than Johnny Ramone and/or Rotten. Dual-wielding classic 1950s guitars like the Gibson Explorer and getting some spanky reverb rather than the more punk-like distortion, Poison Ivy and Julien Hechtlinger crank out chugging guitar riffs as drummer Nick Knox gets a not-so-wonderful view.
That’s because lead singer Lux Interior is wearing pants that somehow, by the grace of God, aren’t constantly falling around his ankles. One slip and Interior goes away for indecent exposure. It’s not like he’s standing still either: hops, jumps, leaps, and microphone fellatio (most infamously) were all a part of Interior’s stage act, and with the incredible low cut of his leather pants, it’s a miracle that the entire audience didn’t see all of what Lux had to offer. But Knox certainly got an eye full of Interior’s back end.
As Interior stalks the stage like a man possessed, Ivy retains her icy and detached cool, barely showing any emotion as her husband adds an ever-increasing number of scratches and scars to his already beat up chest. Almost every punk attempted to emulate Iggy Pop’s unhinged frontman abilities, but Interior was one of the few who actually managed to reach that same level of palpable danger. The perfect counterpoint was Ivy, always looking on like she was bored and had a costume party that she was dying to get off the stage and go to.
What the crowd almost assuredly didn’t know was that Interior and Ivy were a bit older, and a bit more experienced, than their punk counterparts. Initially hippies in the late ’60s, the duo’s shared love of record collecting, B-movies, and humour made them gravitate towards each other and eventually move up to New York City to start a band. By the time they got themselves up there, the hippie ideals had been shed in favour of the Gonzo sensibilities of New York street kids, who Lux connected with despite being approximately a decade older than most of them.
All told, The Cramps brought a unique sensibility that none of their peers could match. If you combined the kitschy and campy aesthetics of The B-52’s with the raw power and rancid horror of The Misfits and the old-timey twang of Carl Perkins, the result would be The Cramps.
Check out The Cramps performing ‘Tear It Up’ live in 1980 down below.