Music Therapy: The Cramps, Songs the Lord Taught Us

MUSIC THERAPY is an ongoing series in which Cult Critique digs through the record crate to find the perfect vinyl antidote to whatever ails you. If the state of the world has you down, congratulations, it’s probably because you have a functioning central nervous system. So, take an hour to escape from the impending Water Wars and enjoy…

The Cramps, Songs the Lord Taught Us (1980)

It’s just what you need / when you’re down in the dumps

One half hillbilly / and one half punk

Got eight long legs / and one big mouth

The hottest thing from the North / to come out of the South

–The Cramps, “Garbageman”

As we Americans find ourselves swept up in an unending deluge of assaults upon the sanctity of our personhood and the democratic institutions we once relied upon, many of us still struggle to make sense of our condition. In the deadening fog of fresh disgrace and national crisis we now scarf down with our morning bourbon and cornflakes, the very idea of enjoying something as fun and frivolous as a kickass rock band seems almost unthinkable. Forbidden. A dangerous indulgence in a time of constant vigilance.

Well, fuck that.

Ladies and gentlemen, the Cramps are the band we need right now, and Songs the Lord Taught Us remains the perfect distillation of their grimy charms.

The band formed in the mid ‘70s when singer and recent Akron, Ohio transplant Lux Interior (né Erick Lee Purkhiser) met guitarist Poison Ivy Rorschach (then Kristy Marlana Wallace) at Sacramento State University. The two fell in love, moved to New York, and formed what was to become one of the most influential and long-lived rock bands of all time, still terrorizing squares until Lux’s untimely death in 2009. The group’s B-movie horror-in-leopard-print aesthetic even formed the foundation of a new rock genre: psychobilly.

Songs the Lord Taught Us emerged from a toxic cloud of late-‘70s malaise and mistrust in cherished governmental norms not so different from the skewed dimension we find ourselves in now. In response, it offers the aural equivalent of a reckless endangerment arrest—a rollicking, teeth-rattling good time.

The all-thrills, no-frills sound of this unhinged quartet has its roots in punk and rockabilly. The Cramps look back with affection on early blues-inflected rock ‘n’ roll, filtering it through unique obsessions such as drive-in creepshows, juvenile delinquent panic, Times Square sleaze, and punk theatricality. The result is music that lives up to the direst warnings of every 1950s scold who ever burned an Elvis record.

The Cramps got a lot of mileage out of the contrast between Lux’s deranged, sweaty antics and Poison Ivy’s ice-cold dominatrix persona, a dynamic that gives Songs the Lord Taught Us its sticky film of eroticism. While her husband writhed onstage in purely perfunctory leather pants, she would lean back with a perfect bad-girl slouch, snapping her gum and setting the rhythm. Her guitar tone is warm and clear, her playing metronomic; it’s the rock ‘n’ roll flux capacitor that makes the Cramps’ brand of time travel possible. Bryan Gregory’s revved-up guitar mingles with Ivy’s to create a sound that is at once nostalgic, modern, and endlessly cool—no bass required.

Nick Knox’s earth-rumbling drums open “TV Set,” a lighthearted ode to a serial killer set to meaty licks of Poison Ivy’s surf guitar. “Rock on the Moon” is a loose, toe-tapping bit of camp energized by Lux’s cattle prod yelps.

“Garbageman” arrives as the band’s statement of purpose. Goofy sound effects of revving engines and breaking glass soften brutal guitar attacks that are more Manchester than Memphis, before the chorus quoted above lays out the band’s philosophy in Lux’s patented twang, all blues braggadocio and clever double-entendres. Lux then brings his considerable talent for vocal histrionics to “I Was a Teenage Werewolf,” a tune that is hugely enjoyable whether or not you’ve seen the MST3K fodder of the same name.

By the time the gloriously silly Link Wray cover “Sunglasses After Dark” rolls around, you feel like you’ve chugged a fifth of moonshine and gone tearassing around town in a stolen T-bird. Lux unleashes a torrent of tongue-speaking on the pure rockabilly romp “The Mad Daddy,” and while “Mystery Plane” and “Zombie Dance” don’t reinvent any wheels, they keep the party going until “What’s Behind the Mask” introduces a winsome slither-and-shake. The band’s head-pounding version of the Sonics’ “Strychnine” leaves an indelible hangover before “I’m Cramped” bounces along on Knox’s rattling toms like a hot rod on bad shocks.

At last, the legend arrives: “Tear It Up.” The song is pure rock ‘n’ roll boiled down to its jangling essence. Poison Ivy lays down a punishing blues walkup, building in speed as a crazed Lux struggles to keep pace, jabbering “Come on, little mama, let’s tear this damn place up” over and over again until the words lose all meaning. Surviving live recordings of the song famously feature Lux in nothing but heels and lingerie, committing obscene acts with a microphone or climbing a wall of amps like a gangly King Kong.

Finally, Lux brings his atom bomb sexuality down to a smolder for a breathy cover of the lounge hit “Fever” popularized by Peggy Lee. It’s a cover that cracks open the original standard to reveal the beating pulp of danger inside. Taken as a whole, Songs the Lord Taught Us evokes nothing so much as the aftermath of a wild house party, as familiar fixtures of the rock canon are turned on their heads to become fascinatingly strange.

Lux Interior and Poison Ivy Rorschach’s band of misfits created the perfect music for the moment not just because it’s incredibly fun—any number of bands can say the same. No, it’s their embrace of delinquency that makes the Cramps the perfect soundtrack to combat our increasingly alarming moment in history. It’s that punk edge of rebellion behind the warped Americana that makes Songs the Lord Taught Us go down like a taste of sweet strychnine.

After all, if we’re facing down a nightmare, might as well tear it up with the scariest band of all time.