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Music. Reviews. Reminiscences.

Get the Cramps

If Elvis Presley were to have had illegitimate children with both Vampira and Bettie Page, the result still wouldn’t have come close to spawning THE CRAMPS.

LUX AND IVY
The Cramps, circa 1990

Influenced by early rockabilly, rhythm and blues, garage rock and surf music, THE CRAMPS unofficially began when Lux Interior (born Erick Lee Purkhiser) and Poison Ivy (born Kristy Marlana Wallace) met in Sacramento, California in 1972. A mutual admiration for the rockabilly of Ricky Nelson (to whom every CRAMPS album is dedicated), the surf sounds of Dick Dale, garage bands like The Standells and The Gants, and the glam rock of the New York Dolls and T. Rex, would turn into a lifelong love affair for the pair, lighting the spark for a new kind of music that they coined as “psycho-billy” (or “voodoo psychobilly” as the term would appear on their early fliers). Though soon abandoned by the band themselves (and picked up quickly by an act called The Meteors that have claimed ownership of it ever since) the label “psycho-billy” stuck. But with Ivy’s Carl Perkins-esque guitar and Lux’s near inhalation of the microphone, THE CRAMPS became something other than the sum of their influences.

NOTHING BUT THE GRAVEST OF HITS

Releasing their first EP, Gravest Hits, in 1979 (which included a cover of The Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird”), THE CRAMPS were well cemented in the CBGB punk movement of the late seventies and early eighties, playing alongside bands like Television, Blondie, The Damned, The Ramones, and The Talking Heads. But unlike some of these other American punk rock acts, THE CRAMPS were never to surface with a hit song until well into the nineteen eighties.

Poison Ivy of The Cramps. Photo Credit © Demed L'Her
Poison Ivy of The Cramps. Photo Credit © Demed L’Her

First came  “Can Your Pussy Do The Dog?” followed by “Bikini Girls with Machine Guns”. But while both songs charted (well in the UK), THE CRAMPS remained little more than garage band. Punk gave way to the new wave, with bands like The Smiths — who once opened for THE CRAMPS at the then recently revamped 40s swing club “The Meadowbrook” in New Jersey — rising to a level of popularity that Lux and Ivy would never attain. But an extremely dedicated cult following — coupled with Lux and Ivy’s passion for the music and each other — carried the band through the nineties playing smaller venues, and then well into the first decade of the twentieth century, where younger and younger crowds came out in increasing numbers, recognizing Lux and Ivy as punk rock progenitors.

LONGEVITY

Appreciated by fans and critics alike for all things kinky and campy (never better expressed than in 2003’s fetish-filled  “Like a Bad Girld Should“), THE CRAMPS continued strong well into the twenty-first century until tragedy struck on February 4, 2009 when Lux suddenly died due to aortic dissection at the age of 62.

The Cramps: Lux and Ivy (Photo Credit © Steve Jennings)

In the end, beauty is in the eyeliner of the beholder. And while it would be hard to classify the music of THE CRAMPS as beautiful, the love shared by Lux and Ivy — the very heart of the band — may be one of the more beautiful love stories in all of rock and roll history. His worship of her and her playfulness with him kept the pair forever young.

Though they may not be remembered for much in the years to come, three events certainly solidify THE CRAMPS‘ place in rock and pop culture:

 

Chameleons, Comedians, and Caricatures

June 6, 2012 marks the 40th anniversary of the release of David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

A landmark album in the history of pop music, Ziggy Stardust is arguably among the best of early seventies glam rock, but its lasting appeal has always been rooted in the iconic character of Ziggy himself — one the earlier and more outlandish alter egos that Rock’s master chameleon has assumed over the years.

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars

The human form of an extraterrestrial sent to earth in its final five years to deliver a message of hope, Ziggy ascends to great heights of stardom only to crash and burn in what becomes both a celebration and condemnation of  rock n’ roll excess and the elevation of pop idols to godlike stature.

The nature of the character has been well documented by Bowie in interviews given over the years (most notably, in conversation with William S. Burroughs as moderated by writer Craig Copetas in an article in the February 28th, 1974 issue of Rolling Stone). Likewise, Bowie has been very forthcoming as to the real-life models that inspired the character.

Part Iggy Pop, part Marc Bolan, a bit of the Legendary Stardust Cowboy (if in name only) with shades of Syd Barrett, Ziggy’s musical and cultural influences can oddly, forty years on in the context of pop music history, seem somewhat obvious. Yet among the many inspirations for Bowie’s rock star alien prophet is a little known British born Elvis Presley wannabe named Vince Taylor.

Vince Taylor

Superstar to some (Joe Strummer of the Clash, who covered one of Taylor’s few original compositions Brand New Cadillac, once called him “the beginning of British rock’n’roll,” adding that “before him, there was nothing”), Vince Taylor was an odd European mutation of the American rockers he emulated. From the late nineteen-fifties through to the British Invasion of 1964 ushered in by the Beatles, Taylor’s eccentric but earnest imitations of Elvis Presley, Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis and others earned him notoriety in the UK and on the continent, especially in France. But his reputation for unpredictable mood swings and overindulgence in drugs and alcohol — coupled with an almost fetishistic ever-present uniform of head-to-toe black leather complimented by a large Joan of Arc medallion — made Taylor an outsider. Almost alien.

By the mid sixties, Taylor was regularly dropping acid, and the LSD was affecting his mind. On one occasion, he told an audience he was the Apostle Matthew. At another show, he claimed to be the son of God. Bowie met Taylor in 1966, at Vince’s lowest point.

“Just the weirdest kind of creature… in his own mind he did become the Messiah… He used to hang out on Tottenham Court Road and I got to know him then. And he had these strange plans, showing where there was money buried, that he was going to get together… he was going to create this new Atlantis at one time… and he always stayed in my mind as an example of what can happen in rock n roll. I’m not sure if I held him up as an idol or as something not to become. Bit of both probably. There was something very tempting about him going completely off the edge. Especially at my age, then, it seemed very appealing… Oh, I’d love to end up like that, totally nuts. Ha ha! And so he re-emerged in this Ziggy Stardust character.” — Bowie on Taylor sometime in 1990 (quotes widely circulated but source unknown)

It is generally now believed by critics, biographers and fans alike that this fascination with, yet fear of mental illness is at the core of Bowie’s eventual discomfort with the character of Ziggy. A little over a year after the album’s release, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars would play their final concert at the Hammersmith Odeon (captured in Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture) and Bowie abandoned his alter ego, never to become him again.

After a couple of attempts at comebacks in Europe through the late nineteen seventies, Vince Taylor lived in Switzerland and worked as an airplane mechanic. He died of cancer in 1991 at the age of 52.


Postscript:

On recent tours, Morrissey uses footage of Taylor performing “Whole Lot of Twistin’ Going On” as part of his pre-show audience warm up.

The title of my post is taken from a lyric in David Bowie’s “The Bewlay Brothers” from Hunky Dory (1971), the album preceding Ziggy Stardust (the entire line is “Chameleon, Comedian, Corinthian and Caricature”). It was written, in part, for his brother Terry who suffered from and ultimately succumbed to schizophrenia. Mental illness ran in David’s family, and he forever wondered if he, too, would one day go mad.

For more on David Bowie’s fear of mental illness and relationship with his schizophrenic brother, read Mikal Gilmore’s excellent article “How David Bowie Changed the World” in the January 18, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone (click here for an excerpt).