The Cramps - Songs the Lord Taught Us Music Album Reviews

The Cramps - Songs the Lord Taught Us Music Album Reviews
Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today, we revisit the debut album by the Cramps, true believers who recast rockabilly in their own outrageously camp image.

Even the Cramps’ covers were original. In August 1980, in a performance filmed at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium for the documentary Urgh! A Music War, they played “Tear It Up,” a cover and a classic from their recent debut, Songs the Lord Taught Us. The first “Tear It Up” is a twangy staple of Memphis rockabilly, recorded by Johnny Burnette and his Rock’n Roll Trio in 1956. The Cramps’ version comes from a different planet: It’s loud, fast, raw, so distorted as to be almost psychedelic. There’s no bass, but it feels like there is.
Six-and-a-half feet tall in heels, Lux Interior looms over the crowd, twitching and thrashing. He doesn’t sing so much as shriek, leaning on the original lyric—“C’mon little baby, let’s tear the dancefloor up”—until it becomes “let’s tear this damn place up.” Poison Ivy Rorschach stands stage left, mirthless, possibly chewing gum, and bends the central guitar riff through the song’s moods: fast to start, slower, fast again, then slower still as Lux sucks the head of the microphone into his mouth, gasping rhythmically and sliding his hands over his latexed crotch.

Normal people can’t do this; couldn’t make it look hot; are too chickenshit to try. If you can, well, welcome to the Cramps: They made sexy music for people who didn’t buy mainstream sex appeal, peering back at ’50s rockabilly and R&B through a big, dirty punk magnifying glass. Even Ivy’s name for the band has a sneer to it, a whiff of “female trouble,” sexual frustration, and constraint. She and Lux were obsessed with early rock’n’roll and all the contemporaneous artifacts of lowbrow culture: B-movie sexpoloitation flicks, serial killers, pin-up girls, the type of comic books that represent a contributing factor to juvenile delinquency. The things they left to the imagination—werewolves, UFOs, man-sized insects—were more fantastic still. And like John Waters or the Rocky Horror Picture Show, the Cramps attracted a cult following. Their work, Lux once said, was “a rallying point for certain kinds of people to come together and for certain kinds of people to stay out.” Songs the Lord Taught Us is the point of no return: the foundational document of psychobilly, a loud, theatrical, noticeably unpolished album with the tongue-in-cheek sense of the macabre that became the band’s signature.

There were always four members of the Cramps, but Lux and Ivy’s bond made everything possible. The couple met in California, where a young Erick Purkhiser claimed he’d picked up Kristy Wallace hitchhiking. They hit on a shared love of the New York Dolls, moved in together, and started collecting records, combing junk stores for ’50s doo-wop, R&B, and the sped-up, country-fried sound of white Southern rockabilly bands. “I’ve just always liked obscure things, strange names—and once I found rockabilly I just couldn’t listen to anything else,” Lux told NME. To Lux and Ivy, early rock’n’roll held mystic power. It was visceral, erotic, almost transcendental. “Rockabilly should have inspired something to happen that was so great, so passionate, so sexual that it should have taken us to another place,” argued Lux. That it had instead faded out, been rendered obsolete by the likes of Pink Floyd and the Eagles, seemed unjustifiable.

Lux could sing deep and smooth, garnering comparisons to the similarly shirtless Iggy Pop, but he studied the judders and hiccups of ’50s singers like Carl Perkins, who wrote “Blue Suede Shoes,” and Charlie Feathers, who wrote “Can’t Hardly Stand It,” another song the Cramps would claim for their own. On Songs the Lord Taught Us, he’s wired and fried, hoodling and howling his way through come-ons that sound like threats. “I use your eyeballs for dials on my TV set,” he smirks on the opener, one of the album’s actual originals. Ivy, a self-taught guitarist, modeled her playing on rockabilly icons Link Wray and Duane Eddy, but her tastes ran deeper. “What I think of as the really raunchy rockabilly most people didn’t hear,” she explained to the Los Angeles Times. “It was underground music. The real wild stuff was either obscene or messy-sounding. I mean it’s beautiful, but I don’t see how anyone could have heard it unless they were in the town where that record came out or where that nut lived. The real filth, that’s what we listen to.”

For Lux and Ivy, rock’n’roll peaked at the moment when the word itself connoted sex, vulgarity, and moral panic. They wanted the Cramps’ blend of rockabilly, garage rock, and blues to inspire the same, and they hit on “psychobilly,” the word Johnny Cash used to describe a crazy-looking mismatched Cadillac on 1976’s “One Piece at a Time.” It was intended as a slogan, not the genre tag it became; as Ivy would point out, “There’s nothing new about combining horror with rockabilly.” Much like the Cramps, early rock’n’rollers gobbled up the babes-and-monsters aesthetic, and for every famous song, like Link Wray’s “The Shadow Knows” or Bobby Pickett’s “Monster Mash,” there were dozens more obscure: Terry Teene’s bone-chilling rendition of “Curse of the Hearse” (B-side: “Pussy Galore”), or Ronnie Cook’s flesh-eating fantasy “The Goo Goo Muck”—better known for a Cramps cover that swaps out the words “looking for a head” in favor of “looking for some head.” Not that the sexual possibilities were a big leap, exactly. “I think that all rockabilly was pychobilly anyway,” surmised Ivy.

The salacious content and crude production of their favorite music convinced Lux and Ivy they could play it, too. The couple were living in Lux’s home state of Ohio when they read about CBGB in a rock magazine and figured they’d found their calling. They moved to New York and started rehearsing cover songs, classics and deep cuts, in the basement of a record store on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where Lux recruited his coworker Bryan Gregory as second guitarist. Gregory had never played in a band before, but his gaunt, skull-like visage ensured he looked the part. “Lux sent me an autographed photo of the Cramps—just the three of them—before there actually even was a band,” remembered record producer Miriam Linna, who briefly served as their drummer before she was replaced by Nick Knox of Cleveland protopunks electric eels.

The Cramps arrived later to the scene than the more famous Ramones and Talking Heads, and New York’s rock cognoscenti viewed them with skepticism more appropriate to a weirdo novelty act with a hillbilly fetish. The band happily returned the favor: In their opinion, rockabilly was misunderstood and under-appreciated, and so, by extension, were they. In any case, after a few years of gigging, they still couldn’t seem to land a record deal. One of the few people to take an interest was power-pop icon Alex Chilton, recently of Big Star, who invited the band to his hometown of Memphis to record. Chilton was more familiar with the Cramps’ tastes and, crucially, less interested in influencing them. When the band returned from its first UK tour with an album deal backed by Police manager Miles Copeland’s Illegal Records, they enlisted Chilton as producer and headed to the studio of Memphis’ legendary Sun Records.

The album sessions were difficult. “We didn’t get any respect by the studio. They’d look at us like we weren’t a serious recording act,” Ivy complained. “The mixing was a problem too ’cos we couldn’t get any engineers that could stand to listen to this music. They’d sit there and say ‘How can you listen to this distortion all day?’ And any time Alex wanted to put his hands on the board to move the faders, it was ‘How dare you?’” In defense of Sun’s engineers, Chilton often appeared intoxicated, demanding multiple retakes and agonizing over the mixes for months after. Meanwhile, Bryan Gregory was growing increasingly dissatisfied with his bandmates and struggling with a heroin addiction; he’d soon vanish from their California tour. In the end, the Cramps were unhappy with some of Chilton’s track selections, and Ivy pronounced the final mixes “too muddy,” though even she had to admit that “it definitely had a creepy atmosphere, and that has a certain kind of appeal to it.” The night before the album was set to be mastered, Chilton called up and suggested they re-record the whole thing; Lux and Ivy turned him down.

The Cramps’ music was familiar, elemental: Nick’s pounding toms, Bryan’s bleating rhythm guitar, Ivy’s prickly rockabilly attack, Lux’s impassioned moan. Their references were clear on purpose, a breadcrumb trail for fellow record fanatics to follow: “The Mad Daddy” (a tribute to Lux’s childhood hero, madcap Cleveland radio jockey Pete “Mad Daddy” Myers) was reminscent of their cover of “Surfin’ Bird,” the unhinged garage-rock classic by the Trashmen, who nicked it from doo-wop quartet the Rivingtons, whom the Cramps also covered. Even the band’s new compositions often adapted a lyric or a saxophone part from a film or a classic 45 record—sometimes three or four at a time. Yet to critics, Songs the Lord Taught Us sounded like nothing else. “It unleashes a noise so loud, so uncontrolled, so jittering and shivering with the nightmares of a thousand-and-one restless nights, that one may be moved to run in panic, switch on the lights, and cower in the nearest closet,” wrote Robot A. Hull for Creem. “These guys play all this trash so deadpan you feel like an anthropologist who’s found an otherworldly culture that’s been developing rock & roll along parallel musical lines but utterly divergent social ones,” quipped Dave Marsh in Rolling Stone.

There are more covers on Songs: Jimmy Stewart’s “Rock on the Moon,” Dwight Pullen’s “Sunglasses After Dark,” the Sonics’ “Strychnine,” Little Willie John’s “Fever,” and a generous quote of Dale Hawkins’ “Tornado” on “What’s Behind the Mask?”—but the other best parts of the Cramps were made-up. “I was a teenage werewolf/Braces on my fangs,” shudders Lux in the opening lines of “I Was a Teenage Werewolf,” reveling in the tawdry, self-evidently ridiculous premise of a 1957 B-movie horror film. Ivy’s surfy melody is sharp enough to sting; Gregory’s second guitar buzzes like a downed wire. The whole band kicks up at the bridge, growling and Link-Wray-rumbling through a distorted blues that’s almost loud enough to conceal the howls. As in the movie, the lupine affliction is a simple metaphor for puberty, but the message arrives with real outsider pathos—which Lux, then in his mid-30s, still plays up for maximum outrageousness: “All my teachers thought/It was growing pain, oh no no/Somebody stop this pain!”

On the frantic highlight “Zombie Dance,” Lux’s arch, clipped vocal sounds a little like David Byrne (the latter co-wrote “Psycho Killer,” the former wrote John Wayne Gacy directly). A song called “Zombie Dance” feels like a gag, same as the “Monster Mash,” and it is, except zombies can’t dance: “They do the swim face-down/Down at the zombie pool!” But Cramps songs are hardly ever just jokes, and these stiff-bodied buzzkills aren’t just a send-up of humorless New York hipsters either. Consider another pun, the one that sounds oddly like a moral judgement: “The kind of life they choose/Ain’t life at all.” It’s language more often used to condemn drug fiends or sexual deviants; here in Zombieland, the Cramps flip it on its head. The zombie dance is the whole wide straight world, the uptight moralizers who don’t know how to let loose, the tragedy of a life lived like you’re already undead.

With the Cramps, it’s less about the shock value than the thrill of discovery, less about the pruriency of the interests than the joy of pursuing them. It’s all there in “Garbageman,” the album’s rudest and sludgiest song and maybe its best. With the sly, bluesy innuendo of Muddy Waters’ “Garbage Man,” a shout-out to “Louie Louie,” and a gnarly sounding toilet flush, the Cramps simultaneously declare allegiance to rock’n’roll and lay out a manifesto for mutant music. “Do you want the real thing or are you just talkin’?” Lux jeers. Against two grinding guitars and Nick Knox’s relentless pounding, his breathless, fourth-wall-breaking verse captures the heart of its own appeal:
Yeah, it’s just what you need
When you’re down in the dumps
One half hillbilly
And one half punk
Eight long legs and one big mouth
The hottest thing from the North
To come out of the South
Do you understand?
Do you understand? Garbage is the best stuff we’ve got. “To us it isn’t garbage,” Lux would insist. “To us it’s the center of what life’s all about.” By now, the Cramps’ take on vintage rock’n’roll is vintage in its own right, but it’s still electrifying, still outré, still underground. It’s the reason their legacy lives in both directions: backwards with the shine they brought to obscure ’50s artists collected on fan compilations like Songs the Cramps Taught Us, and forwards in the prolific career of Bryan Gregory’s eventual replacement Kid Congo Powers and the many psychobilly-styled bands in the U.S., Britain, and all around the world, particularly Mexico and Latin America. Their influence feels present, too, in other power duos whose music only touches on psychobilly yet still hits the same notes: the Raveonettes’ rainy, reverb-slicked bubblegum; the White Stripes’ professionally refurbished, bass-less electric blues; Quintron and Miss Pussycat’s wild-eyed swamp kitsch.

The most important thing about the Cramps: They didn’t play the sideshow. When Songs the Lord Taught Us is campy, exaggerated, and lewd, it’s in the spirit of carnival, the realm of real freaks. It’s a perfect album for Halloween, but it’s true all year: You can gather up the detritus of this rotten culture and invert it, turn it into something that’s both endlessly familiar and terrifyingly new.
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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

Hey, I'm Perera! I will try to give you technology reviews(mobile,gadgets,smart watch & other technology things), Automobiles, News and entertainment for built up your knowledge.
The Cramps - Songs the Lord Taught Us Music Album Reviews The Cramps - Songs the Lord Taught Us Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on Sunday, October 25, 2020 Rating: 5

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