Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre, series, or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Geek obsession: The Cramps
Why it’s daunting: Among the many glaring oversights of the new film CBGB is its exclusion of the pioneering garage-punk band The Cramps. That may be for the best, all things considered—not that a case of Hollywood miscasting could have diminished The Cramps’ fuzz-damaged, slime-slathered infamy. Formed in Akron, Ohio, in 1976 before moving to New York at the height of CBGB’s infamy, Interior and Ivy remained the core of the band—partnered both romantically and musically—until the former’s death in 2009. Interior’s howling vocals and Ivy’s raggedly distorted guitar evoked the trashy, bygone era of B-movie horror and rockabilly wildness—but there was always something more than mere camp to The Cramps’ eerie, garage-rock abandon. The band became massively influential on everyone from The Misfits to fellow Akron-spawned act The Black Keys—but The Cramps have remained a cult act, relegated to the dimly lit fringes of the rock world thanks to an uncompromising devotion to obscurity and exotica.
Possible gateway: Bad Music For Bad People
Why: The Cramps released eight studio albums during its career, but much of its lengthy discography is made up of live albums and compilations. The definitive collection of early Cramps material—and the source of its most iconographic cover—is 1984’s Bad Music For Bad People. Compact and potent, it’s a whittled-down, slightly different version of the 1983 U.K. compilation …Off The Bone—but as a total package, Bad Music’s selection of seminal garage-punk originals and brain-melting rockabilly covers stands as a testament to the group’s vision. It also represents the classic lineup of The Cramps, which included guitarist Kid Congo Powers, previously of blues-punk legend The Gun Club and later of Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds.
Next steps: Bad Music For Bad People contains three songs from The Cramps’ first two studio albums, 1979’s Songs The Lord Taught Us and 1981’s Psychedelic Jungle. But owning Bad Music is no excuse for not working backward and wallowing in the full, swampy glory of this pair of masterpieces. Not only do they each stand alone as spooky, hackle-raising exemplars of minimalist filth, they connect the dots between vintage Americana—in particular the unhinged stomp of The Sonics’ 1965 song “Strychnine” to the surreal kitsch of Jim Lowe’s 1956 song “The Green Door”—and punk rock. The garage-rock revolution would have happened without template laid down by The Cramps’ opening salvo of full-lengths, but it would have looked vastly different.
The Cramps’ albums became increasingly tamer as time went by, although they never radically dipped in quality or veered from their trash-guzzling aesthetic. There’s a sinister, sinuous sensuality to Interior’s writhing performances and Ivy’s deadpan vampishness, though, that propelled albums like Stay Sick!. Released in 1990, it was an attempt to court college radio, and as such it’s a shade less murky and imposing than prior Cramps output—but it still gleefully trucks in the detritus of the collective American unconscious, up to and including the would-be hit, “Bikini Girls With Machine Guns.”
Where not to start: There isn’t a release with the name “Cramps” on it that isn’t worth owning. Novices, though, might want to steer clear of most live albums, compilations, bootlegs, and latter-day releases until getting acquainted with the basics. On the periphery of the group’s discography is the anthology series Songs The Cramps Taught Us, which collects many of the original, obscure, ’50s and ’60s songs that The Cramps unearthed and championed on record. And some Cramps collections, like 2004’s sprawling How To Make A Monster, are packed with outtakes and rehearsal sessions that ought to be saved for the advance listener—that is to say, one whose brain has been sufficiently rotted by The Cramps’ prime material.