Metro, July 13

By Frank Youngwerth

The distinction between rock and rock ‘n’ roll might at first seem fuzzy (and bringing it up fussy), but where a band like the Cramps are concerned, it’s everything. The Cramps have endured for almost two decades now as fish out of water: a fine, committed rock ‘n’ roll band in a rock culture where they’re considered little more than a joke.

After the Beatles’ Anthology 2 came out, I heard a lot of fans say, “This is good, but the first one sucked!” Which translated means, “I like rock, but I’m not big on rock ‘n’ roll.” You could watch the Beatles become the first true rock band (endlessly inventive, sophisticated, and self-conscious) during the period covered by Anthology 2–hell, you could argue that, along with Bob Dylan, they invented rock.

Before that the Beatles mainly just played rock ‘n’ roll, where it hardly matters whether you or Chuck Berry or Irving Berlin (whose “White Christmas” as sung by the Drifters is considered rock ‘n’ roll) wrote the song–just so long as it was rockin’. You don’t need headphones to hear rock ‘n’ roll properly, and bands didn’t require the full length of an album to say what needed to be said. Nor did they have to be especially accomplished at their instruments, beyond executing the chords, riffs, and rhythms of relatively simple songs: “Mony Mony,” “Woolly Bully,” “Louie Louie,” “Wild Thing.”

This makes Poison Ivy Rorschach, who after 20 years as guitarist of the Cramps still plays like an inspired amateur, laughably inadequate by rock standards yet perfectly wonderful at rock ‘n’ roll. She never plays solos, just the various parts a Cramps song might call for–basic Bo Diddley-like rhythm, a pulsating four-note riff, the occasional high, string-bending climactic wail leading into a final chorus. The band’s current rhythm section, bassist Slim Chance and drummer Harry Drumdini, like their numerous predecessors, carry out the mostly simple maneuvers required to make the engine run. Unlike Ivy, these two could function in a lot of different sorts of bands, yet their relative lack of limitations probably would prevent them from ever coming up with one as distinctive as the Cramps.

The Cramps opened with “I’m Five Years Ahead of My Time” (“I’m doing exactly what I want to / Society can’t play with my mind”), a cover (albeit a fitting one) of an obscure mid-60s single by the Third Bardo. By rock standards, the Cramps rate as a hopelessly derivative band. In fact, every song they played at Metro was either a cover or an original you’d swear was a cover. That’s purely intentional, since the whole point of the band has always been to celebrate the weirder side of rock ‘n’ roll and show-business culture. “I Was a Teenage Werewolf” demonstrates this perfectly: while singer Lux Interior acts out a parody of 50s monster movies (“I was a teenage werewolf / Braces on my fangs”) Ivy pays tribute to her guitar idol Link Wray’s classic “Rumble.” Meanwhile most of the audience doesn’t know or give a damn about any of this, and yet they get the point, moshing around like they were in a rumble.

In their rock ‘n’ roll days the Beatles got famous as much for the wild, hysterical response they provoked from fans as for their music. The significance of the Cramps lies not in what they’re doing but in how they pull it off. The feeling you get at a Cramps show is probably the closest you’ll come to being at one of Alan Freed’s Moondog balls, when rock ‘n’ roll was a fresh, strange, slightly dangerous form of novelty entertainment rather than the ritualistic worship of egos it has become. Even if the Cramps’ act is mostly shtick, it’s no bullshit.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photographs of 2 Cramps (singer, Lux Interior and guitarist, Poison Ivy Rorschach) by David Kamba.