The Cramps File Under Sacred Music: Early Singles 1978-1981

[Munster; 2011]

Styles: twisted rockabilly punk
Others: Elvis, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Carl Perkins

It’s so FRICKIN’ embarrassing, but here it is: I first heard The Cramps via an episode of Beavis and Butthead, and I thought I hated them. They were extreme yet bare. No bass? Sacrilegious, dude! And who is that Lux Interior guy? Looks like a greaser.

Yep, The Cramps were not happening for me in the early- to mid-1990s. That’s why it’s so great to finally reconnect with them through File Under Sacred Music, a collection of early singles that presents the meat of the matter. Not that I hadn’t already realized their importance; it’s more that I just never had that Cramps-freak buddy to sit me down, smoke a doob with me, and show me the rough, rowdy ropes of the fuse-lit quartet. This CD does just that for me, and I don’t even have to pay it 40 bucks for the “stuff.”

To my ears, the closest thing to The Cramps in the years 1978-1981 would, perhaps surprisingly, be Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, both because I’m too young to have scooped up all the obscure artists of the period (sadly I wasn’t a two-year-old punk hipster), and because a track like The Cramps’ “Fever” bares more than passing similarities to “Red Right Hand.”

The revved up rockabilly fuck-punk side of The Cramps, however, is more of a straight-up beast that owes to Elvis, The Blasters, The Trashmen (“Surfin’ Bird” is covered memorably right out of the gate), Buddy Holly & The Crickets’ “Susie Q,” hillbilly boogie of the 1940s, and maybe even Carl Perkins. They wore leather jackets, shirtless underneath, and probably indulged in Pomade as if they were members of the cast of The Outsiders. If they drove at all, I’m sure the vehicle was cherry-red. Although few probably considered this at the time, to me they seem to be the antithesis to Stray Cats, hearkening to the past for inspiration yet mining the darker territories Brian Setzer would find anathema to commercial viability.

Or maybe it’s not that their influences were dark; maybe they were just dark motherfuckers to begin with and decided to take a (with the hindsight of history) relatively innocent template and horse-fuck the hell out of it. Whatever their aims, the quartet certainly achieved just that. Even their version of “Lonesome Town” — a soundtrack favorite of Tarantino and O. Stone — is caked in grit you can’t scrape off no matter how much you turn down the treble.

“You ain’t no punk you PUNK,” screams Interior at one point… And I tell you, he’s right. Find out just how right, and fill in the gaps in your record collection besides, by giving this hot-rod collection a spin.

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