Sunglasses After Dark – An Appreciation of Drummer Nick Knox

Remembering the original Cramps drummer

Songs The Lord Taught Us by The Cramps, released on IRS Records in 1980

If one of rock’s greatest prerequisites is affecting an unflinching sense of cool, Nick Knox may have been the most rock n’ roll drummer to emerge from the nascent American punk scene of the late 1970s. Knox (born Nicholas Stephanoff) died Friday at the age of 60 from cardiogenic shock and left behind a sometimes-unheralded legacy as one of punk’s preeminent time keepers. Crawling out of the Cleveland punk scene of the mid-70s, Knox got his start behind the kit for proto-punks the electric eels (yes, all lower-case!). Contemporaries of such Buckeye State luminaries as Rocket From The Tombs and the Dead Boys, the eels cranked out fuzzy, overdriven stompers like “Agitated” (posthumously released as a single by Rough Trade in 1978) before acrimoniously imploding in fisticuffs in late 1975.  

Known for his bullshit-free, four-on-the-floor pounding, Knox seemed a natural in 1976 to assume the position behind the drums in the Cramps, the now-legendary NYC-via-Akron psychobilly band.  Knox fit right in with the band’s horror-misfit vibe. He leant a sense of classic, greaser cool to a band that very desperately needed balance – front man Lux Interior prowled and howled like a rabid, sex-driven preacher man and guitarist Poison Ivy Rorschach looked like she’d seduce you on a bet to see how much you would bleed from the switchblade raked across your throat.  And the less said about ghoulish, skeletal second-guitarist Bryan Gregory, the better! Knox provided some normalcy. He looked like the third lead in a 1960s Corman film about the Hells Angels. And that is exactly what the band needed – a quietly menacing badass propelling their din forward. The Cramps were butchers of rock and roll. If Ivy and Gregory’s guitars cut like knives through the sinewy muscle of their songs, then Knox’s no-nonsense drumwork was the mallet that tenderized them.

Bludgeoning. Unrelenting. Satisfying.

To truly appreciate the man, though, was to see him live. Hiding behind the darkest of sunglasses, a cigarette dangling from between his lips, Knox played sparingly but insistently and not always in perfect time. His drumming felt, at times, like it could fall apart at any second and Knox looked like he couldn’t possibly give less of a fuck. It’s said that he would rest his foot on the stand of his hi-hat, not deigning to put the weight of it on the pedal unless absolutely necessary. Part of his genius was this very ambivalence. Just listen to the lope of “I Was a Teenage Werewolf” or the bash and shuffle of “(Hot Pool of) Womanneed” and you hear the imperfect heart of rock and roll beating under each crack of the snare or thud of the kick Nothing wasted. His pervasive, insouciant cool forgave a missed beat or a flubbed (rare) drum fill.  On a stage populated with an S&M Elvis, a vampire, and a sex kitten, Nick Knox somehow managed to be the coolest of them all. He wasn’t a great drummer, perhaps, but he was perfect.

After leaving the Cramps in 1991, Knox largely shied away from the spotlight but recently re-emerged as a champion of (and de facto mentor to) up and coming Cleveland punkers Archie and Bunkers. He’ll be remembered best, though, for those tremendous Cramps recordings and shows. As Lux himself would command in 1980’s “Garbageman”,

“You gotta beat it with a stick
You gotta beat it ’til it’s thick
You gotta live until you’re dead
You gotta rock ’til you see red.”

God bless ya, Nick Knox, you did just that.

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