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"Nothing we do is meant to be a parody or campy joke." Or so says Cramps frontmanimal Lux Interior in the liner notes of the band's latest rarities CD, How to Make a Monster (Vengeance). This may be something of a revelation since the Cramps have become icons of kitsch kookiness. With an ability to write tunes called "It Thing Hard On" and "Journey to the Center of a Girl" while wearing vintage bondage gear, and enough focus to sustain their status as the house band of the dilapidating American Dream for 30 years, the Cramps aren't so easily diagnosed as just trashy fun -- though they sure as hell are.
The Cramps' gag was a flat failure at first. When they started out, Genesis scoring laser beam exhibitions was considered proper musical work. Meanwhile, the Cramps were assuming guitars tuned themselves, ripping off Charlie Feathers B-sides, and trying desperately to look like sexy, decomposed '50s B-movie starlets. There was also the fact that Lux's main inspirations were Cleveland media pioneers/wackos like Alan Freed, Mad Daddy, and especially Ghoulardi. "Man, those DJs were as crazy as the records," Lux recalls. "The beginning of the counterculture of the '60s, really."
The Cramps were way ahead of the curve when it came to embracing the underbelly of pop culture.
"When we first started out, I didn't know anybody who even heard of Bettie Page," Lux explains. "It's hard to imagine that now, because there's such a strong, I don't know -- trash culture, custom car culture, whatever. It's so omnipresent now. Before we started our band, we'd tell people we were going to play rockabilly, and they'd say 'What the hell is that?'"
It was an odd ambition born of the boredom of the Rust Belt that Lux and guitarist Poison Ivy settled into by the early '70s. No good clubs or art galleries, but a gold mine for junk collectors such as these.
"Man, the junk stores in Cleveland in the '70s when we lived there! It was like buried treasure," Lux exclaims. "Plus, if you're finding records, you find all kinds of other crazy crap."
The obsessive activity of slobbering over a box of 45s found under a pile of equally desirable talking dolls, Mexican movie posters, and other "useless" ephemera is the universally recognized disease of most altlifestyle types today, and the Cramps were the template.
Now the Cramps act as their own crap consultants with the release of Monster, a tasty collection of unearthed early demos and live tapes. The live stuff shows how the band progressed from its slop start once it nabbed former Clevelander and Electric Eels drummer Nick Knox. But most revealing are the surprisingly candid (for such reclusive types) liner notes, and the 1976 demos that prove Lux had to come around to his petrified Presley persona. No, Cramps fanatics, he did not pop out of his mommy's uterus sporting lamé undies and a pompadour. Turns out the Echoplex machine the band was using to make Lux's vocals sound all Sun Studios warbly broke down, and the Cramps were too penniless to fix it. So Lux tried to imitate that echo, and that's how the vibrating vampire vox emerged.
We also learn some more details about how Ivy came from the left coast, how Lux lured her back to his Akron hometown, and about the various drummer ins 'n' outs. The band finally came together in 1975, within the New York City CBGB's scene, then dragged its makeshift museum of dime-store relics and fright-flick garb out to the most suitable resting place, the Hollywood hills, where it resides to this day.
But in compiling their past, is there a danger of dismantling the mystery that is half the fun of the Cramps?
"There's a little concern," admits Lux. "We didn't want anybody who maybe always heard about the Cramps but never bought any of our records thinking, 'Hmm, I'll check this one out.' So we put a disclaimer on the back that says, 'For Cramps fiends only.' Our fans are so maniacal, and there's so much misinformation out there, we thought it's a good idea to do something like this."
The way Lux sidesteps the question suggests that the Cramps are happier without the answers. What they're not happy about is the runaround of dealing with major labels. After years of bouncing from one to the next, Lux and Ivy decided to buy back their catalog from all the parties in 2001 and start rereleasing it on their own Vengeance label.
"We've got an Egyptian curse on us," explains Lux. "Every time we put a record out, the record company goes out of business or something. Like when the head of Epitaph said he'd spend every dime he had to break the Cramps. And I know he would've, but he was arrested a week after the record came out. The guy who took over wanted us to give back our advance because he didn't like the Cramps. So stuff like that would happen. Then you spend the next two years with lawyers getting another deal. And it's just a big waste of time. So now we can control that stuff. But any time you're in a rock 'n' roll band, instead of pop or commercial or whatever, you're going to have a tough time."
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