A Date With The Cramps
Shake, rattle and howl: The Cramps are back with a bang. Facing them, with nary a whimper: Tony Reed
America's premier Rock and Roll resurrectionists have returned, dragging the sounds and the gear of the '50s with them.
Saturday night in the gods at Hammersmith Odeon. Second night of a 60-date tour. Down below, the etiolated figure of Lux Interior advances on all fours along the stage's stubby centre catwalk toward the nearest knot of audience. Sweat gleams on his naked torso, follow-spot glares off his gold lame trousers. His microphone all but swallowed, clenched between his teeth, the Odeon resounds to the sound of gobbling, whooping lust.
'Can your Pussy do the Dog?'
Behind him. Poison Ivy Rorsarch, piled hair and harem Pants, She-Ra on speed, wrings supercool, supercontrolled chaos from her semi-acoustic. No question: her's can.
Stage right, and newly-drafted bassist for the tour Fur is putting her pink Precision Bass through the grinder, bottlenecking fuzz and feedback beyond the bounds of reason, a Punk cartoon in leather jeans and fur-edged bra; a gum-chewing, gyrating bad girl.
Behind 'em all, solid as a rock, Nick Knox lays down his big, big beat on a Gretsch four-piece. Clad in black, raking the stage with shaded eyes, truly Sunglasses After Dark. The beat goes on.
Frenzy. Hampered by Hammersmith's seats and ham-handed security, the fans stand and flail their arms – just their arms – in spastic celebration. Cooler-than-thou Camden Towners, original Blitz kids, flat-tops, spiky tops, mop tops and more wig out one by one; a nodding head, a twitching arm, and they're gone. It's eerie. Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers. Or just the Return Of The Living Dead? The Cramps are back.
When I die don't bury me at all, just nail my bones up on the wall. Beneath my bones, let these words be seen: 'this is the bloody gears of a bopping machine.'
Backstage, and those bloody gears are showing some signs of wear and tear. The previous night, Lux's enthusiastic fucking of the floorboards during Most Exalted Potentate resulted in a near-rupture; tonight, it's his ankle, swathed in bandages, slightly sprained. The gold lame trousers aren't wearing too well, either. After all, April '86 marks 10 years together for The Cramps. Perhaps they're getting too old for all this stuff; a bit jaded perhaps?
Lux gives the idea serious consideration for about a third of a second: "You're right. Hey, fuck it!"
Maybe just a few more years, and it'll be time to buy that nice semi-detached...?
"I think we'll buy the semi-detached as soon as we get back from this tour... er, what is a semi-detached?"
Let's change tack slightly: is it hard, after playing for so long, to avoid getting any better – 'cleverer' – in your playing?
Nick Knox, a man of few words, turns his impassive, still-shaded gaze upon me: "Don't get no better'n this."
Newest recruit Fur puts it even more succinctly: "Jazz sucks."
A-ha. While I think of it: Fur, how come you got to join the band for this tour anyway?
"Oh, it was a real hard audition."
Conspiratorial grins all round.
Poison Ivy amplifies: "We knew Fur a long time – she was playing in a real crazy band called The Hollywood Hillbillies – good stuff."
"Unusual for this day and age" adds Lux, waggling his finger portentiously.
"...when we recorded the album, we'd wanted a real big sound," continues Ivy, "...so I'd played a lot of Fender five-string bass on it – so we needed a bass player for the tour."
The first, in fact, in the band's history. Fur's place in the scheme of things had previously been filled at various times by Bryan Gregory, Julien Bond, and Kid Congo (twice), all playing bass-heavy rhythm guitar ("Because no-one wanted to play bass."); but there's no doubt that Fur's beastly treatment of the bass is a big asset to the band sound – and her collection of over 60 outrageous outfits to their look.
The clothes come from Ha...Ha...Hollywood, where else? But where does that vile, bowel-liquidising sound come from?
"You really think it's vile? Great! The bass itself is a reissue of a Fender '57 P Bass, which sounds exactly like the real thing, but's a whole lot more reliable. That goes through an SWR amp – they're the first company that ever made amps just for bass, and you can go from A to Zee on it, old sound, new sound, you name it. I use an old 60's fuzz pedal, vibrato, bottleneck slide, feedback... I got a real cool reverb too – a 1950s Premier reverb. Nothing new can touch it."
It quickly transpires that this love affair with original equipment is shared by the whole band. Lux explains: "We comb the Universe for our equipment! All this stuff is real old, unless by some – fluke! – it sounds good... Everything that's made today is dogshit compared to what was made 30 years ago, and that's the truth."
True to form, Ivy spent 'literally years' searching for her present guitar, a 'bizzarely rare' 1958 Gretsch 61-20 semi-acoustic. Previously a player of solid-body guitars, she's now a firm convert to the semi:
"I couldn't go back to that... when Lux sings I can feel air shoot out of that f-hole. It hums, it's like an animal..."
"...it howls," adds Lux, grinning.
That howling is helped along by generous feedback from Ivy's Fender Pro Reverb amp ("The gain control goes all the way up to 11"), and a further assortment of original 60's effects. Any drawbacks to the set up?
"Yep – old stuff breaks."
Fortunately, a member of the road crew is well-versed in ancient effect lore, and keeps the show on the road. One inevitable compromise has been made, though, in the choice of the bath-tub echo which is an intrinsic part of Lux's vocal style. His favourite machine is an early Echoplex tape echo, used in the studio, but too delicate to survive the rigours of the road. Reluctantly, for this tour, he's settled for a Roland Space Echo – though persuading FOH engineers to use that in the way he would like is still uphill work:
"In the 50's everyone had it, all the time. I'm a prima donna rockstar who demands echo on my voice, but for some reason these days, people think I'm insane to ask for it."
It's an attitude of mind which, in the studio, has led the self-produced Cramps to sack a lot of engineers. Ivy again.
"A lot of engineers don't know how to get – experimental. I think their careers depend too much on getting an immediately commercial sound, but I like a drum kit to sound like a drum kit – nota bunch of separate instruments, or a drum machine."
The search for an authentic Rock 'n' Roll sound also influenced the band's choice of studio for the recording of their latest album, A Date With Elvis:
"Yeah – Ocean Way, in Hollywood," Lux smiles. "...It's great – a real old studio. They keep old equipment if it still works – they've got mikes there from the 30's! I know of no other studio in America that does that. It's got real history about it – most of the Beach Boys' stuff was recorded there, Elvis... Jimi Hendrix did Are You Experienced there."
Fur's eyes widen in surprise.
"That was recorded there? Cool!"
"The live area in Studio A is big enough for us to perform live – we put Nick in a big room by himself, and played right along," continues Ivy, "...Lux'd do a reference vocal, cos you play differently when there's a singer – often as not, the reference'd end up being the final take, it was so good."
A band with a sense of history, The Cramps are a part of history themselves now, and have been a massive influence on hordes of young bands both sides of the Atlantic. How do you feel about that Lux?
"I like that – I like it any time my name gets mentioned."
"...It seems to me a lot of bands don't know anything past four years ago, but good Rock'n' Roll is timeless. If it was exciting in 1956, it's still great now – maybe greater, since there's so much dogshit around...'
"People giving blowjobs to the right producer."
Thank you, Fur. Time's running out, it's time to dish the dirt. Is it true that The Cramps are out of their heads most the time on PCP?
"Why – you got some?"
Lux starts punching himself in the face. I leave.
'How far, baby? How far can too far go?'
10 years, so far. And no sign of stopping yet. Hallelujah.
Interview by Tony Reed
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