Touch Me, I’m Sick: The Cramps’ Stay Sick! at 30

Basing themselves in L.A., 1990 saw the band usher in the last decade of the 20th century with a renewed vigor and purpose

Cramps denim patches promoting Stay Sick! (Art: Ron Hart)
Poison Ivy on the cover of Stay Sick! (Art: Ron Hart)

When I saw the Cramps in Seattle on July 18, 1986, I feared they might be on their last legs.

They were touring in support of their latest album, A Date With Elvis. I’d seen the band a couple of times before, blissfully pummeled by their distinctive brand of “psychobilly,” a genre they’re credited with creating, a sonic blast that took the primal decadence of rock ‘n’ roll and supercharged it with the abrasive rawness of punk rock. But on this night, it didn’t feel like they were firing on all pistons. They were playing the Paramount Theatre, a gorgeous 1920s-era movie palace, but had only attracted a sparse crowd of a few hundred, which made the venue feel more like a cavernous echo chamber on this night. Towering lead singer Lux Interior seemed a shambolic mess, lurching around the stage, wildly swinging a wine bottle he took the occasional swig from. The band didn’t even have a US record deal; at the time, A Date With Elvis was only available as an import.

So I had a little trepidation when Stay Sick! arrived in 1990 and I placed it in the CD player. But mere seconds into the opening number, “Bop Pills” (Macy Skipper’s sprightly ode to amphetamines) it was clear that salvation had arrived. While Skipper sounds pleasantly genteel as he gives the thumbs up to the wonder drug, the Cramps ramped up the excitement considerably. Interior sounded joyously demented, launched into outer space by Poison Ivy’s propulsive guitar intro, all manic and frantic and never looking back. Whew!

The Cramps Stay Sick!, Enigma 1990

And that was just the opening salvo from a band that was clearly reinvigorated and loaded for bear. On Stay Sick! the band once again pledges their allegiance to the devil’s music, “The kind of stuff that don’t save souls,” Interior snarls in the aptly-named “God Damn Rock ‘n’ Roll.” There are scary monsters (“The Creature From the Black Leather Lagoon”) and the super creeps who vanquish them (“Bikini Girls With Machine Guns”). There are vintage treasures, unearthed from storied record collections, dusted off, and given an indelible, unmistakable, Crampsian buff ‘n’ shine (Jimmie Rodgers’ “Muleskinner Blues”; Carl Perkins’ “Her Love Rubbed Off”).

Just consider the reworking they give to “Shortnin’ Bread,” the folk song that was a staple of children’s cartoons for decades. In the Cramps’ hands, the number starts out slowly, with Interior bawling out the opening lyrics, each line echoed by a lingering strum on Ivy’s guitar. Nick Knox’s drums come in at the end of the first verse, steadily increasing the tempo, until the song spins into a delirious overdrive. Interior’s gulping, stuttering performance is a marvel, becoming increasingly unhinged, until it sounds like he’s collapsed from exhaustion at the end. If you grew up hearing the more anodyne versions of the tune, it’s thrilling to hear Interior delivering the command “Give them brats some shortnin’ bread!” with all the intensity it deserves.

 

VIDEO: “Shortnin’ Bread” feat. Nelson Eddy

But of the holy triumvirate of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, what Stay Sick! celebrates the most is sex, and the more lascivious the better. In “All Women Are Bad,” Interior laments the sorrows the fairer sex has inflicted on men from the days of Adam and Eve, even as he confesses he’ll be forever lured in by their “groovy, wiggly tails” and other forbidden delights. He flirts with S&M in “Mama Oo Pow Pow” (“Girl, you could use a good spankin’/And baby, so could I”), and the trippy, fuzzed-out “Journey to the Center of a Girl” just leaves the boy all undone. In the cover shot, a topless Ivy crouches in front of a zebra-print wall; in the rear cover band shot, the male members indulge in a little cross-dressing (which was still somewhat risqué three decades ago, even for a rock band).

Though they were dubbed “The Addams Family of Rock” for their ghoulish appearance, the band’s aesthetic was no kitschy affectation. They were true believers. For Interior and Ivy, the Cramps’ founding members, in particular, rock ‘n’ roll was sacred, a music that was meant to be dangerous, not something to be diluted down until was defanged enough to use as the backing track for a detergent commercial. The Cramps strove to be “as shocking, sexy and original” as the pioneering rock ‘n’ rollers of earlier decades who inspired them. They were playing for keeps.

The Cramps Stay Sick! alternate cover art

And that devotion comes through on every track of Stay Sick!, arguably their most accomplished record. Ivy had become a superlative guitarist, bassist Candy del Mar added just the right dose of menace, and drummer Nick Knox could hold it all together no matter how much caterwauling Interior was doing down front. It’s a thrillingly wild ride designed to leave you all hot and bothered — and fully satisfied. 

The Cramps were based in L.A. when Stay Sick! was released, and by all rights, this is the kind of record that should’ve blown all those hair metal bands that were so prevalent in the city at the time right off the street. Alas, The Cramps were destined to forever filed in that bin labeled “Cult Favorites.” But their untamed spirit lives once again each time Stay Sick! is given another spin.

 

Gillian G. Gaar

Seattle-based writer Gillian G. Gaar covers the arts, entertainment, and travel.

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