Lorde isn’t the only big-haired artist making her Rolling Stone cover debut on the new issue. That’s because the leering, high-coiffed, emaciated ghoul on her T-shirt belongs to another band: the Cramps. The group, which used the T-shirt illustration on their cheekily titled 1984 comp Bad Music for Bad People, pioneered its own brand of sinewy, rockabilly-inspired garage punk that was perfect for the dinge of its native New York City when it formed in 1976 (or a little over two whole 17-year-old Lordes ago).
With a smarmy sense of humor and an arsenal of quivering, lascivious guitar lines, the Cramps laid groundwork later exploited by a wide array of artists, from noisy alt-rockers the Jesus and Mary Chain (who covered the Cramps’ “New Kind of Kick”) to metal steamrollers White Zombie (whose bassist joined the Cramps in 2006). They dabbled in all of the same quirky horror kitsch as the Misfits, but where those punks oozed machismo, the Cramps exuded seedy, sexy camp. Frontman Lux Interior acted like a possessed madman onstage – gyrating, twirling, occasionally destroying drum heads (one of which is on display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) – while his foil and wife, a statuesque, scantily clad, bouffant-coiffed redhead, who went by Poison Ivy Rorschach, wiggled as she coaxed rock-and-roll Armageddon from her guitar.
They had a mien that wasn’t quite right for the Billboard chart (only the 1990 single “Bikini Girls With Machine Guns” charted), but it was enough to make for their own legend. They filmed concerts in mental hospitals and they coined the term “psychobilly.” By 1995 they were guest stars on Beverly Hills 90210’s Halloween episode (which is only available to watch online dubbed in French). The group broke up in 2009, when Interior died after suffering an aortic dissection. Here are five essential tracks.
1. “Human Fly”
With references to fellow weirdo rockers ? and the Mysterians (“96 tears and 96 eyes”) and the 1958 Vincent Price creature feature The Fly, the swampy 1979 rocker “Human Fly” shows off everything great about the Cramps. Interior buzzes, Ivy flails shimmery guitar lines and drummer Nick Knox nailed the post-surf-rock shuffle.
2. “Bikini Girls With Machine Guns”
The group’s only track ever to make it on the Billboard chart finds the Cramps at their campiest. Poison Ivy starred in the video, doing retro go-go moves in a tasseled bikini. Ivy is the highlight, musically, too, thanks to a guitar solo that owes a debt to Fifties rock.
3. “I Was a Teenage Werewolf”
Another homage to Fifties sci-fi schlock, the 1980 track is notable for Interior’s proclamation: “I was a teenage werewolf/ Braces on my fangs.” More impressive is how the frontman sounds genuinely disturbed by his newfound lycanthropy.
4. “Sheena’s in a Goth Gang”
The Cramps duked it out in the early CBGB punk scene alongside the Ramones, so it wasn’t total blasphemy when they appropriated the Ramones’ favorite young punk rocker for their own nefarious desires 20 years later. Not much has changed though, since Sheena might well have had black lips and toenails in the Seventies, too.
Far from a throwaway, the 1979 track “Garbageman” was first the B-side to the Cramps’ take on “Fever,” but was later released as its own single. It’s the perfect representation of the group’s modern take on rockabilly, between its lyrical homages to “Louie Louie” and the “Surfin’ Bird” (the latter of which they covered on their debut Gravest Hits EP) and Ivy’s jangly and noisy guitar riffing. “Do you understand?” Interior asked. Their fans did.