In Praise of The Cramps, the Scariest Band of All Time
The Cramps made looking spooky an entire lifestyle.
The Cramps in 1998. Photograph by Eric Catarina for Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images.
The hardest part about being a rock star is that everybody gets old. For a rock star, that can a fate worse than dying—no wonder all those lyrics and legends are about dying young. If you stick around longer, those little pants don’t fit so right, and you have to do adult stuff like pay taxes, and you look dumb being a jerk when you have a loving wife and kids. Looking rebellious, at a certain age, is the kind of thing that can’t be fixed by a facelift.
Unless you’re the Cramps. The witchiest band to ever do it, the Cramps emerged out of CBGB in the mid-’70s with a twangy and spare rockabilly sound and campy lyrics howled out by lead singer Lux Interior. Lux was married to the band’s other founding member, Poison Ivy, who played guitar and wrote growly bops and looked great. They stayed together for 33 years, only breaking up when Lux died in 2009.
A video of the band performing live at the Mudd Club in 1981 shows their raw mutant appeal. A sweat-slick and shirtless Lux screams and howls lyrics like, “I was a teenage werewolf / Braces on my fangs.” The fly of his skin-tight pleather pants comes unzipped; he puts his microphone in his mouth and zips them back up and adjusts an otherwise pointless studded belt; he plunges the mic back in his mouth and breathes heavily and screams and rolls around on the floor and his black hair springs out like he’s just post-electroshock therapy. As a foil for this primal psychosis, Poison Ivy stands just behind, snapping gum with her hair teased big and her black dress tight—the perfect cool customer bad girl villain.
The band was all about trash and lowbrow, but Poison Ivy and Lux always looked so beautifully groomed: Her animal dresses tight in all the right ways, her hair mussed just so, and her cat-eye glasses the perfect “no pictures, please” mask. Lux Interior once appeared in an interview in a shocking pink cat suit and matching heels with pearls. “This is some stuff,” Lux told the interviewer. “These are not-so-high heels, and this [cat suit] is acéré nylon—it’s French.”
They were like their own entry into the genre of the cheap exploitation films they so admired and pulled from, not with a bigger costume budget but a better art director. Their most famous concert—the Woodstock of the Hot Topic set, I guess—was at a California mental hospital (about 100-200 patients watched).
The Cramps are so camp that they could have been just a novelty band. But they developed such a full and sincere visual language that they proved that the look could be as integral to the sound as the notes. So much of punk is about making your own reality through clothing—without the look, it’s just a few chords played badly. The Cramps are special because they really lived it—it wasn’t just about being cool or rebellious but about going through life by your own rules. Loads of weirdos made garage rock that sounded like the stuff the Cramps cranked out, but only the Cramps made being creepy goth freaks an entire lifestyle.
In the early ’90s, Lux and Poison Ivy appeared on the alt music talk show 120 Minutes to discuss their new album and mentioned that they’d recently bought a house in Glendale. “The Cramps are now homeowners?!” the incredulous host said. “Say it isn’t so!” They nodded spooky, placid nods. “We live right by a cemetery,” said Poison Ivy. “It’s a perfect setting.”
The host, stumbling over this breach of punk etiquette, in which the ultimate sell-out is anything adult, said, “It’s okay to own your own home as long as it’s by a cemetery.”
“It’s in the woods by a cemetery, so it’s alright,” comforted Lux.
“Yeah,” said Poison Ivy. “It’s spooky.”