❉ This wonderful compilation perfectly captures the spirit of The Cramps’ gleefully chaotic, seedy glamour.
“What we have here is definitely the musical soundtrack which suits such sleazy, no-nonsense weirdoes as Lux and Ivy down to the ground. It’s the ultimate juke box selection in that strange little diner at the very edge of town, on the wrong side of the tracks, stuck in permanent twilight inside and out”
STAND BACK, BARNEY, WHILE I PLAY A TUNE ON MY STONE-O-PHONE!
Many words have been penned on the power of the correct cover art for albums over the years: unlike the proverbial book, you can frequently judge the contents by what you see. Neither the late Lux Interior nor ‘Poison’ Ivy Rorschach, the tawdry-yet-fascinating power couple at the heart of The Cramps, is anywhere to be seen on the cover of this compilation, but what we do see somehow captures the spirit of their gleefully chaotic, seedy glamour to perfection.
In nudie-cutie black and white photography, two nubile young dancers – one blonde, one brunette – gyrate energetically in their underwear in what looks like the ballroom of a small but respectable hotel. The blonde, twisting over backwards in sensual abandon, hair flying wildly across her face: the Raquel Welch-esque brunette observing with a huge, proud laugh on her face – you can all but hear the throaty, Bronx holler of ‘you go, girlfriend!’ Behind them sits a respectable-looking older couple, probably husband and wife, dressed in formal black dinner dress. The woman is half-turned away from the spectacle before them, her face perfectly caught between ‘disgusting young floozies, flaunting their bodies like the Whore of Babylon’ and ‘what wouldn’t I give to be up there with them’: her balding, bespectacled man, looking very like Ronnie Barker, with an expression similarly trapped in the instant where ‘yes, darling, how absolutely shameful, you’d never catch our Betty doing that’ barely hides an appreciative smile at the Bacchanalian display before them, his cock involuntarily jerking into its first hard-on in decades. The whole thing looks like footage from some Mickey Rooney or Cliff Richard ‘let’s do the show right here!’ wholesome musical, twisted into something joyously abandoned and carnal. The sort of musical, in short, that The Cramps themselves really should have starred in.
Sometimes, the cover art really does tell you all that you need to know. At which point, the only question which needs concern us becomes, ‘but can the music live up to that?’ And the only answer can be, ‘yes’. Don’t get me wrong – the sheer amount of tracks included here on this two-CD collection means that there are some pieces that will wash over you and leave you unmoved, but even they aren’t longueurs: every tune here is short and sharp, quick musical blasts which never outstay their welcome. At their worst, they’re playful little breathers for the JD in all of us to head to the bar for another bourbon or beer, and very often they’re much more than that, however ephemeral they may initially seem. Perhaps the best way to approach this is to single out the recurring themes that the multitude of artists touch on, and give my personal favourites from those.
Potentially the most awkward area is what can best be called ‘exotica’: the tunes that reflect upon other cultures, in ways that may raise a disapproving eyebrow or two today. But many of them still remain undeniably infectious – The Scouts’ Mr Custer Stomp, heavy with war drums and battle whoops, rumbling irresistibly onward: The Scholars’ Kan-Gu-Wa, an insistently-paced piece which describes the birth of rhythm and blues in a land far, far away; Boots Brown’s Cerveza, a twangy ode to the pleasures of beer which owes a lot musically to The Champs’ Tequila; and Eddie Atwood’s Hot Saki, which, under its cod-oriental plinky-plonky, is the sort of thing that you can imagine Tura Satana’s Varla shimmying to in her bulging sequinned bra before a cheering crowd, the look on her face making it very clear that any joke here is definitely on you.
The flipside of exotica, of course, is the decidedly ‘down-home’, the everyday tales of life in Smalltown, USA, filled with the preoccupations of any self-respecting teen: school, cars, clubbing, and fashion. Here we find the marvellous cautionary tale of Dicky Stop’s Class Cutter, a feckless fellow with a taste for dodging education any way he can, full of crass but effective humour: the joys and tribulations of automotive coitus interruptus in Roy Tann’s Your Driver’s License, Please, a call-and-response piece reminiscent of Summertime Blues; the hedonistic pleasures of John And Judy’s Hideout, which, even in just a couple of minutes, sounds like the nightclub where all of your dreams do come true; and Cindy Malone’s Weird Beard, the story of how a high school girl finds that her boyfriend’s unsuccessful attempt at growing some manly facial fungus pays unexpected amatory dividends. This last song, more than any of the others named in this section, segues neatly into the next category…
…which is that timeless hold-all entity of lightning-catching and innovation, the novelty song. Among them, Billy Davis And The Legends’ Spunky Onions, a snappy, Johnny Bravo-voiced paean to the power of…root vegetables, presumably: Frankie Davidson’s tribute to his enjoyment of The Flintstones (decades before Green Jelly), filled with surprisingly good vocal impersonations, in Yabba Dabba Doo; Conny And The Bellhops’ frantically vocally sound-effected Shot Rod, a piece of raspberry-blowing, sputtering delight; Dore Alpert’s declaration to avoid unwelcome romantic entanglements by seeking sanctuary in a Fallout Shelter; Lyn Earlington’s updated take on an old blues classic for the new technological dawn, DDT And The Boll Weevil; Janie Grant’s perky warning about incorrect hair care products, Greasy Kid Stuff, which traces the history of such mishaps back to Samson and Delilah and up to Kennedy and Khrushchev; and the almost Thunderbirds-like derring-do of George, Johnny And The Pilots’ Flying Blue Angels, very much the Barry Gray end credits song which never was.
That, in turn, brings us up to the dawn of the Space Age, and several pieces which point forward to a weird and wonderful Future – Lisa Anders And The Victory Five’s Space Monkey, a tribute to simians in Space which includes beeping Morse code signals and frantic ape jabbering, as well as a spectacularly dead-pan punchline: Johnny Walsh’s Girl Machine, a comical yet unsettling distaff version of Connie Francis’s Robot Man in which a teenage genius resolves to construct himself the perfect woman; Frances Day AKA Gale Warning’s downright odd yet winning Met Rock/Heartbreak Hotel, segueing from a musical shipping forecast to a haunting snippet of covered Elvis, the clipped and clinical giving way to a creepily-soulful snatch of balladry; and The Zanies’ slowed-down, shivery, cod-sinister deep-voiced cover of The Five Blobs’ warning song about that most archetypal of celluloid Space monsters, The Blob.
Which leads, inevitably, to that most fitting of categories for The Cramps and all who love them – the realm of cheesy, glorious comic Horror. Rod Willis kicks things off here with his almost EC Comics-like yarn of a feline encounter in a night time graveyard, The Cat: The Instrumentals chip in with a shuddery, further re-working of the Tequila vibe with Are You Nervous?; The Surfmen hit us with an echo-drenched, John-Barry-Meets-The-Shadows-Meets-John-Smith-And-The-Common-Men guitar piece, The Ghost Hop; and The Zanies – in a quick and welcome return – give us a fine creepy comedy rendering, with plenty of cornball cross-talk (‘Boy, is he nuts!’ – ‘Ha ha ha ha ha haaaa! They said, it couldn’t be done…’), of the very Monster Mash-meets-Screamin’-Jay-Hawkins-like tale of The Mad Scientist.
In addition, you’ll find a whole batch of instrumentals which are hard to clearly characterise as any of the above, but which have their own urgent, upbeat power – the frantically Hammond organ-driven cover by Cherry Walmer of Money (That’s What I Want): Rusty Isabell pounding out The Blast, which lives up to its title; and Eddie Cochran and Ernie Freeman showing us, in two high-octane minutes, what Fast Jivin’ is all about.
What we have here is definitely the musical soundtrack which suits such sleazy, no-nonsense weirdoes as Lux and Ivy down to the ground. It’s the ultimate juke box selection in that strange little diner at the very edge of town, on the wrong side of the tracks, stuck in permanent twilight inside and out: the malted milks have been laced with something which you can’t quite place the taste of, but are certain isn’t legal in any of the fifty states; the burgers are delicious, but you don’t know what the chef’s putting in his secret sauce (those mysterious spunky onions, perhaps?), and maybe it’s best that you don’t ask. Whatever the sinister, illegal, licentious ingredients, all that really matters is that they do what you need, and give you the best night out that you’ll ever have. In the final reckoning, what else does matter?
The sleeve of this wonderful compilation also contains a superb quote from David Cronenberg – ‘Everyone is a mad scientist, and Life is their lab.’ This music is, in places, as esoteric, as threatening, as comedic, and as thrilling as such a philosophy could desire. The potion’s all mixed. Drink it down.
❉ ‘Fast Jivin’ Class Cutters High On Booze – Spellbound Cavemen and Mad Scientists’ (Righteous PSALM23101D) is available from Cherry Red Records, RRP £10.95. Click here to order directly from Cherry Red Records.
❉ Ken Shinn is a lifelong fan of all things cult and is a regular contributor to We Are Cult. His 55 years have seen him contribute to works overseen by the likes of TV Cream and the British Horror Films Group, as well as a whole batch of short stories of the fantastic, with his first novel on the way. Whatever the field, he intends to enjoy Cult in all its forms for many years to come.