THE CRAMPS – Songs The Lord Taught Us/Off The Bone LPs
I only bought these about 5 or 6 years ago, and perhaps only for nostalgic reasons. They were secondhand, surprisingly cheap, and I wondered what they’d sound like to a man in his late 20s. Y’ see, when I was about 14, I was a Cramps nut of a fairly high caliber. That’s not meant as a grand boast of what an uber-hipster I was at a tender age, since the Cramps were a goddamn obvious band to be into if you lived in Melbourne as an angst-ridden teen in the mid ‘80s. Maybe it was the same everywhere, I don’t know, but certainly in my home town it was kind of granted that if you lived in the inner Eastern/Southern suburbs and – AHEM! – went to a private school and considered yourself pretty fuckin’ cool, you were into the Cramps.
I blame Nick Cave for such a situation, or perhaps I should thank him. At the time, the Shadow Of Nick still loomed large over the Melbourne scene. That also unfortunately meant a dark cloud of Anglo/goth hoo-ha I never felt any affinity with (and also put off any love I may’ve developed for the Stooges or Birthday Party on the backburner until my early 20s), but there was also the Cramps to contend with. And contend with them I did. There’s still some appalling evidence of impressionable teens in my parents’ photo album; myself, my brother and a friend decked out in op-shop tuxedo jackets, black jeans, a homemade chicken-bone necklace and Cramps t-shirts, but I keep such things locked up in fear of future bribes. I only ever had these on cassette for years, lost them somewhere along the way, and thus I purchased these on a whim and a nostalgia trip.
I can’t say I feel any nostalgia for the band anymore – it seems like a lifetime ago I first heard these – so instead I just listen to them with my mind set on 2005. Having said that, they’ve aged like a fine wine, and that’s probably more than I could say for the rest of their output (bar Psychedelic Jungle and probably a few others). At this stage – and for both discs we’re talking roughly 1977-80 – the Cramps were quite unprecedented in their aesthetic, sound, delivery and overall package as a rock band. The idea of digging up old nuggets from the ‘50s and ‘60s – forgotten surf, trash, rockabilly, swamp rock, garage and psych-rock – and stewing them into a completely contemporary blend of punk/garage-influenced music was a goddamn brave move. That tends to be totally forgotten these days, since such a thing won’t raise an eyebrow in the 21st century. It also unfortunately inspired a generation of dimwits to take the Cramps aesthetic to its lowest possible denominator and run it through the mud with 25 years of worthless idiots, but for that I shan’t blame them.
However, I really do wish they’d split up some time in the 1980s and stopped dragging their own name through the mud (I care not what anyone says: the Cramps have been a walking shell for the last 20-odd years), but the rawness of their earlier works is something which still sends a bug up my backside. The layers of guitar murk on such tracks as “Sunglasses After Dark” and “Human Fly”, the lo-tech two-step drumming and the howl from Lux when he sounded like he meant it: it’s a mix for the ages. So, what happened? I recall Jeff Smith from Feminist Baseball fanzine once noting, in a negative review for a Cramps disc of 10 or so years back, that they by then sounded like a bad Frank Zappa impression of their former selves: all schtick, “zaniness” and no soul. I’ll second that.