The Cramps existed in a completely different sonic plane. They were no mere band; they were a phenomenon. You loved them, or you hated them–there was no middle ground. Frontman Lux Interior‘s antics were matched only by the voluptuous and sultry Poison Ivy, who served as Lux’s creative and life partner. Together, the duo used The Cramps as the vehicle to spread their love of the seedier aspects of kitsch culture–B-movies, obscure rockabilly, film noir, and pulp fiction. It’s this history that is captured so wonderfully by Dick Porter in his new biography, Journey to the Centre of The Cramps, which traces their development from their coming together in Ohio, up to Lux Interior’s sudden death in 2009.
For their love of the kitsch culture, The Cramps were never kitschy. Their style referenced the past, but the references were always a reflection of their pure love. Their career came into shape with a fortuitous meeting with Alex Chilton, who would produce their first records. That debut album, Songs The Lord Taught Us, is a classic of the “psychobilly” genre–although they might not necessarily have found favor with that label, it was definitely a good descriptor for what they did. Though America didn’t initially warm up to them, Europe sure did; not only did their records sell quite well, their shows were sell-outs, their fans were rabid, and that nascent “psychobilly” sound of theirs inspired a new musical movement, inspiring such bands as Demented Are Go and The Meteors.
Lux and Ivy’s vision was their own, and they held strong to The Cramps’ ethos. Stringency is great, but it can be problematic; it can also be difficult to find others who grasp as dearly as you. This unfortunate truth came to pass quite often; as the band progresses–and becomes more successful, especially stateside–their history becomes littered with a frustrating recurring problem: band members come and go, thanks to incompatibility, drug issues, or, in the case of Kid Congo Powers, a lack of work due to their other recurring problem: record label issues. For all their success, they had a rough time finding trustworthy labels, going from I.R.S. to Enigma to Creation to Epitaph, with a whole host of smaller labels in between.
But one constant remained: the music. In the 1990s, they started to see the rewards of their cult status and hard work, becoming a fixture on the LA punk scene, and though their place in the New York punk scene would be neglected, it could not be denied. By the early 2000s, they had retained their music, set up their own label, and were cementing the reigns on their notable and unique legacy; releasing their own music, reissuing their back catalog, and enjoying the fruits of a rewarding and often frustrating career.
Journey To The Centre Of The Cramps does an excellent job in capturing the history of this mysterious band, thanks to Porter’s longtime friendship with Lux and Ivy. He explores the band’s past while retaining the great sense of mystery about the duo; one learns much about the band, but Lux and Ivy retain the air of enigmatic distance that came along with their onstage persona. In other books, that might be a frustration, knowing little about the characters, but in Journey it is the ultimate sign of respect to the band’s legacy.
As it should be.