(Article to be published in the forthcoming April 2009 issue of ROCKABILLY Magazine, www.rockabillymagazine.com.)
If the creatures, monsters, demons and derelicts that haunted many of the classic B-movie horror films of the 1950s came to life, invaded the Memphis recording studio of Sun Records, and partied with Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis, the end result of those sessions might have sounded something like the Cramps.
For more than three decades, the Cramps unleashed their fiendishly twisted and mutated style of rock ‘n’ roll on an unsuspecting world—surviving revolving door line-up changes, disastrous record label deals, and a myriad of obstacles that would have caused any lesser group of musical monsters to drive a stake through their own heart—but through it all, the mainstay devilish duo of Lux Interior on vocals and Poison Ivy on guitar proved that staying sick (and true to their ideals) pays off in the long run.
That explosive mixture and one of a kind presence unfortunately came to an end on February 4th, 2009, when Lux Interior (born Erick Purkhiser) passed away from an aortic dissection in Glendale, California. When news of his passing at age 62 began spreading, fans from around the globe began an outpouring of love and support for both him and his wife Poison Ivy (born Kristy Wallace), showing how much he and the Cramps had meant to several generations of music fans.
Although the initial press release from the band’s publicist said Interior died due to a pre-existing heart condition, the Cramps’ official website was later updated to state that his death was “sudden, shocking, unexpected, and totally devastating.” Poison Ivy had requested that fans allow her to grieve in private, and asked that instead of sending flowers, Lux would have wanted them to send a contribution to his favorite charity, Best Friends Animal Society.
How To Make A Monster
Taking the raucous sound of classic rockabilly, adding a shot of nitro-glycerin fueled energy, and injecting a sexed-out sci-fi serum that would have made Dr. Jekyll OD, the Cramps began making their glorious noise back in 1976, quickly making a name for themselves with outrageous gigs at punk institutions CBGBs and Max’s Kansas City. In the years since then, the band amassed a devoted cult following, and released several seminal albums such as “Gravest Hits,” “Songs the Lord Taught Us,” and “Bad Music for Bad People”—touring relentlessly and putting on some of the craziest live shows in the history of rock n’ roll.
When the group’s 30th year of existence was rapidly approaching like a spectral banshee over a mist filled cemetery, the Cramps released “How To Make A Monster,” a two disc collection of demos, rehearsals, and live performances from the early days in their musical laboratory. The accompanying liner notes served as a history lesson for those not familiar with the band’s music, or the story of how they came to be—which has often been a little unclear, with different rumors and tales circulating over the years.
In late 2004, shortly after the release of “How To Make A Monster,” Interior had the following to say about the collection, and also shared his thoughts about the Cramps’ career up to that point.
“It’s very weird because sometimes we thought we should write a book or something, but after writing those liner notes, we decided, ‘no we don’t want to do that,’” he laughed.“It’s kind of this like intense experience—you know some of it was fun, and some of it we just prefer not to go back and dredge that stuff up. There’s always too much talk about us, and most of it is inaccurate all the time, so it kind of gives us a headache. There’s that book ‘The Wild World of The Cramps’ that came out, he’s a big Cramps fan and everything, and it’s a good spirit to that book, but it’s just mostly wrong, and it gets quoted a lot.”
In addition to detailing how the band really started out, the set also provides a glimpse into the way some of the Cramps classic songs came to life, including the pulsating “TV Set” and creepy crawly “Human Fly”—tunes that helped form their now signature sound—a sound which they initially coined the term “psychobilly” for, when they made flyers to put up around town advertising their shows. Interior said that they no longer liked to use “psychobilly” to describe what they did, however.
“We don’t use it to describe ourselves anymore because it’s become a different kind of music from what [we do]. I wasn’t aware of anybody else using that before we used it, we were using in February of ’76. There’s a poster for our audition at CBGBs in one of the back pages of the booklet that says ‘psychobilly wildcats’ and we’d been putting that picture up since early in the year all over New York, we’d been calling ourselves that then, and we had different terms, it was just kind of a carnival thing to get people to wonder what it was and come and see it.”
“Later on there were all these people that played this really fast punk –rockabilly thing and that became known as psychobilly, I wouldn’t really describe us as what’s become known as psychobilly.”
“It’s kind of like when we started out, punk rock was Television, Blondie, the Talking Heads, us and the Dead Boys—it was a big mix of music—but what punk rock is known as today is kind of a real narrow thing. I think psychobilly [today] kind of takes the sexual-ness out of rockabilly and that’s what the main ingredient was to us, you know, the groove and the backbeat and everything.”
Those key ingredients that Interior cited as being most influential on the Cramps’ musical style came from a wide variety of sources, though he did have a few particular favorites when it came to naming record labels and musicians that had shaped his sonic outlook.
“Sun Records in Memphis and Starday Records in Texas are the two labels that seemed to be really pure rockabilly labels, rockabilly and blues—some of the smaller labels had maybe some pop things or a mix of things, but those were two pretty hardcore labels. For myself, if I had to pick somebody that stands out it would be Charlie Feathers, just because he really kind of invented the rockabilly vocal, he’s often credited with inventing the rockabilly hiccup, and I think that’s true, he was really a wacky guy.”
A fiercely independent spirit always drove the Cramps, and the band ended up starting their own label, Vengeance, to put out their material, the result of decades’ worth of bad luck with the record business—and they were adamant about doing everything themselves, and their way.
“It really is our own label, sometimes bands have labels, and they say it’s their label, but it’s just part of a major label. We do everything with this, we get the stickers printed up that are on the vinyl LP, every single thing about it, so it’s been a lot of work, but we kind of found that we had to do it,” said Interior.
“I don’t know if we have an Egyptian curse on us or something, every single record company we’ve been with [has had problems], IRS, there was always a problem with them with all the bands on that label, and the next label we were on, we went out on tour and they went out of business. When we got on Epitaph, the guy that signed us, Brett, he said, ‘I’m gonna spend every dime I got and break the Cramps,’ and he meant it, but then he was arrested a week later, and the guy that took over wanted us to give our advance back. And it just goes on and on like that—the label we were on after that, for Flamejob, they went out of business while we were on tour, so evidently we must have mistreated a bunch of Egyptian slaves of something when we were the Pharaoh a million years ago.”
“We got tired of it; three years would go by between each album because we’d have to get off of the other label because they were going out of business or they were trying to sell us to someone else, and we’d have to find a new label, we were spending all of our time getting a label instead of being a band.”
Keeping with the dark and spooky, yet still seductive and fun-loving themes of their songs, the Cramps made several music videos over the years, paying homage to the underground and under-appreciated monster, science fiction, and horror movies of the past. Unfortunately, most of these videos have not been seen by too many people themselves, as they were often only aired a few times late at night on MTV. Interior had wanted to release a DVD compilation of these clips, because he felt so strongly that they deserved to be seen by a wider audience, and rightly so.
“Some of the videos we’ve done are kind of a part of history now, just because they were made so long ago, and no one’s seen them. It could be like discovering some old lost movie, which is always fun.”
If a compilation is indeed ever released, fans will be able to enjoy the brilliantly twisted and warped visions such as “Garbage Man,” “Creature From The Black Leather Lagoon,” “Bikini Girls With Machine Guns,” and “Naked Girl Falling Down The Stairs,” among many others. For now, several Cramps fiends have posted clips of some of these videos on internet sites such as Youtube, which will have to do until a proper release is hopefully done in the future.
Beat Out My Love
As any Cramps fan who saw the band live knows well, Interior brought an insanely intense energy and spirit to performing on stage; at times he slithered about the floor, or got intimate with his microphone, other moments would catch him climbing stacks of amplifiers and P.A. speakers or smashing his head through the front of a bass drum. These wild antics and performances would often come at a price—Interior himself said that he ended up at the hospital at least once during most tours over the years.
One particular episode that Interior recalled involved the Cramps’ gig at the Hootenanny in Orange County, California in 1998.
“I had a hernia, and I couldn’t get it operated on before that show, because then I wouldn’t have been able do that show, so I had to wear a corset so I could do it—and then two days after that I had the operation. It was really weird because I was laying there on the operating table, they don’t put you out…actually I fainted, so I was out, that was good, normally they just give you some sort of tranquilizer.”
“When I woke up on the operating table it was like a surrealist dream, because they were holding this newspaper in my face, the L.A. Times, and it had a picture of me and a picture of Buck Owens next to each other, because he was also at that show, and they were saying, ‘Is this you?’ and I’m like coming out of a stupor and looking at me and Buck Owens and trying to figure out ‘who are all these people?’ ‘what am I doing with Buck Owens?’ it was really weird.”
The worlds of rockabilly, psychobilly, punk, and rock n’ roll in general have lost one of the true originals and path blazers with the passing of Lux Interior. No one else will ever be able to replicate the sound and style that he forged with Poison Ivy and the Cramps; his unique vocal delivery, out of this world lyrics, and one of a kind stage presence will forever be enshrined and beloved in the ears and hearts of his fans around the globe. His influence and impact on the underground and independent music scene can probably never be properly measured; there are likely hundreds, if not thousands, of bands and musicians out there who probably wouldn’t be performing today if it weren’t for Lux and his incredible vision of what rock n’ roll can and should be.
Lux Interior may be gone in the physical sense, but fans can take comfort in knowing that much like one of the creatures that he wrote about in his songs, the supernatural beings that can never die, his music will always be with us to enjoy.