Thursday, February 26, 2009

Busker Days: "Never Again", The Human Condition

There's been a busker dry spell recently.  A few new faces coming and going but no new regulars.  What with the recession maybe the goodwill (i.e. dollar bills) has run thin.  But if you are a busker what else is there to do? Go back to work?  Nah!  The good news is, my very low expectations were blown out of the water yesterday.  A four piece string band was playing at Montgomery station (!) and it sounded good.  There were two guitars, one being parlor size, a mandolin and a stand-up bass, no less, and the vocals were harmonizing nicely.  Have you ever heard Old Crow Medicine Show?  It was kind of like that: aggressive old-timey roots sound with compelling song construction and lyrics.
At this point, if you are wondering whether I risked the ire of my wife, currently waiting with two little kids at a dinner party in the East Bay, and walked up to them to see if they were keen on being recorded, well, stop wondering.  The band in question are SF locals The Human Condition and the first song I recorded is an original composition Never Again.  I hope they come on down again.  They were good!

Here's their website if you want more info.  They are playing on St. Patrick's day at the Hotel Utah Saloon.  I'm going if I can.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Song of the Week: Gram Parsons - A Song For You

"Jesus built a ship to sing a song to." At least that's the way Gram Parsons sees life. It's one of those curious lines from a song that just sticks out to me as being so quizzically beautiful that it makes me smile with wonderment every time I hear it.

This week's installment of Song of the Week is filled with those type of lines. The song is A Song For You from Gram Parsons' first solo album, GP, released in January of 1973. In my humble opinion, the song is the standout on the more than solid album. 

Gram Parsons, like all good musicians who died far too young, has become a bit of a legend. The stories of his multi-million dollar upbringing, his exploits, his death at the tender age of 26 and his bizarre burial have been overstated too many times and I won't bother to repeat them here. If you want to read about that, just go to our friend, señor wiki. What's important here is that Parsons had a major influence on the evolution of music. You need not look any farther than Wilco, Calexico, Whiskeytown or the Jayhawks to see his direct influence. Long story short, Gram Parsons is often credited with creating "country rock" through his groundbreaking work in the International Submarine Band, his stint in The Byrds, his formation of the band The Flying Burrito Brothers with fellow Byrds Alumnus, Chris Hillman, and, of course, Parsons' two solo albums. In fact, he probably gets too much credit, but I digress.

Let's get back to our Song of the Week, A Song for You. The song is simple as could be. This does not succeed because of the stellar musicianship -- which includes James Burton of Elvis Presley fame, Emmylou Harris and Barry Tashian of the Remains fame -- but because of the sincerity of Gram Parsons himself. Parsons was gifted with a sweet voice and the ability to paint a different color on your front door with his lyrics. I always get a sense that his songs are deeply personal but shared with a larger audience as a tool to articulate what he can't say to the real intended recipient: "I loved you everyday, and now I'm leaving. And I can see the sorrow in your eyes. I hope you know a lot more than you are believing, just so the Sun don't hurt you when you cry."

I'm going to cut it off here, and just ask you to stop and really listen to all the lyrics in this song. Pay particular note to how and when Emmylou Harris harmonizes with Parsons, bringing importance to some lines more than others, and how Parsons' voice wavers under the strain of his words.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Song of the Week: "So Long Cruel World", Blanche

The construction of a song is a fascinating thing to deconstruct. I'm not sure that makes any sense but I'll forge on. When one pull's most rock songs apart that person is left with a musical skeleton that generally fits into two broad categories: blues construction or folk construction. Very often the two are the same so even this broad framework is too narrow. So, what, other than the lyrics, defines the character of a song? What makes one song a soul song and the next a blues number? One a country number, the other version a rockabilly number. Often it's the musical festoons, baubles or trinkets that define a song. In other words, it's the little things. Take The Rolling Stones' Satisfaction as an example. Again, we're setting aside the lyrics. The song, at it's heart is 4 chords. Simple as could be. But it's that famous "riff" that everyone humms. The little 3-note blues riff re-imagined from countless Jimmy Reed shuffles. But it's also that 5-beat drum break. And it's those dipped in reverb guitar fills Keith Richards slips between each verse line. Each of those things are as important as the lyrics at making the song more than just a blues based construction.

This is all just a very long winded intro to our Song of the Week, So Long Cruel World by genre defying Detroit-based band, Blanche. If you know Blanche at all, you probably know them because the main dude, singer and songwriter, Dan John Miller, aptly portrayed the stoic Luther Perkins in the film, I Walk The Line

2004 witnessed the release of Blanche's first album, If We Can't Trust the Doctors. It's an interesting stew of bluegrass, country, punk and surf all mixed together into a dark cauldron. In the middle of the album is our maudlin little song (as most of theirs are) entitled So Long Cruel World. It's a prime example, in my estimation, of a song that soars because of it's musical arrangement (festoons?) more than the structure itself. Opening with antimelodic pedal steel, a simple jazzy little bass riff played by Tracee Miller (married to Dan) on a Framus Star Bass (very similar to the one I used to play, by the way!) brings the song into whatever structure it might pretend to have. A simple banjo riff joins as the ethereal pedal steel falls into a melodic riff. Then Dan Miller ads a guitar riff worthy of a Clint Eastwood spaghetti western which twangs us into the whoa-is-me vocals. The band continues to add elements and riffs that lay on top of each other and skitter over the beats like a goony bird trying to stick a landing. There is little to no central musical framework. In between all of this - and it is in-between and not "over it" --  Dan Miller's hillbilly inflected vocals dramatizing one's suicidal yearnings are importantly backed up by the detached vocals of Tracee in a back and forth reminiscent of the work done in the early 80's by John Doe and Exene Cervenka

In the end the lack of structure and the lack of genre (who's in charge here anyway?) to the song is what I think makes the song so interesting. It's not for everybody, I'll admit that. But give the song a few listens and tell me if it doesn't become a way-homer for you.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Remembering the "5" Royales

"Life can never be exactly like we want it to be"

So begins the bridge of Dedicated to the One I Love, a song that is familiar to most listeners from two different but equally popular hit recordings, by the Shirelles in 1961, and the Mamas and the Papas in '67. Both versions are likable enough examples of the quality girl group and LA harmony-pop proffered by those groups, but neither ever impressed me as anything beyond a typical example of Sixties pop fare.

A few years ago I read an interview with the great Steve Cropper, Telecaster master of Booker T and the MGs. When the inevitable "Who influenced your guitar playing?" question was asked, the Colonel was eager to say he basically took his whole early style from a guy named Lowman Pauling, who had played with a group called the "5" Royales back in the Fifties. Well, before long I had tracked down an out of print low budget cd release of the "5" Royales 1957 album called "Dedicated to You." This prize was worth the eight bucks it cost me for the cover alone, which featured four of the red tuxedo jacketed quintet falling like dominos away from the front and center figure of Mr. Lowman Pauling, who practically lunged toward the camera proudly cradling his TV-yellow Gibson Les Paul Special. This was his group.

The "5" Royales hailed from Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The quotation marks around the "5" in their name have at times been attributed to an early dispute with another similarly named group, but it has also been suggested that there were actually six members of the group for a time, requiring the winking quotation marks. Formed in the early Fifties, their initial gospel-influenced doo-wop style occasionally featured saxophone on instrumental breaks. Lowman Pauling sang bass and quickly emerged as a songwriter. This formula yielded moderate success on the R&B charts. But by the time they made the"Dedicated to You" album for King Records in 1957, Lowman Pauling had brought his guitar to the forefront of the group's sound. As it turned out, this phase of the group peaked on that record, and the centerpiece of the new style was a song penned by Mr. Pauling and Ralph Bass: Dedicated to the One I Love. My familiarity with the hit versions of the song did nothing to prepare me for the first listen to the original. The words and the melody, even the harmonies, were in place, but threaded through the whole song was a raw and determined lead guitar that seemed at once completely at odds with the song as I knew it and quite riveting. So this was what Steve Cropper was talking about. The overdriven, obviously cranked tube amp, the aggressive attack, and best of all, the pause at the beginning of the solo, where you can almost feel Pauling take in a breath and dive in; well this is why I collect music. The album features that guitar sound on most of the tracks, which also include Think another Lowman Pauling original that would later be a hit for James Brown. It's not that Pauling's style was particularly complex, or even original. Echoes of T-Bone Walker and Guitar Slim, among others, are clearly there, but the audacity of the playing in the context of a pop-vocal group (as opposed to a blues setting) goes a long way to explaining why I dig this record so much. Apart from the album itself, the best example of Pauling's fierce guitar style is the single, The Slummer the Slum, (great title, incomprehensible song, beautifully distorted guitar sound), which is found on various collections of the group's work.

For some reason the later sides cut by the "5" Royales tended to tone down Pauling's guitar playing, and by the mid Sixties they had faded in the wake of the new soul styles from Atlantic, Motown and Stax. Legend has it that at some point a down-on-his-luck Lowman Pauling sold his interest in Dedicated to the One I Love for a few hundred dollars. At any rate, by the early Seventies he was basically forgotten and worked as a custodian in a Brooklyn synagogue. It was there that he suffered a fatal seizure on the day after Christmas, 1973. He was 47.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Song of the Week: The Violent Femmes - Country Death Song

Some songs just stay with you like syphilis. No matter how hard you want it to go away, it stays and persists. It festers and rattles around the brain and won't go away no matter how hard you wish. That is the case for me with this installment of Song of the Week.

The song is by Milwaukee, Wisconsin's Violent Femmes, a truly original group who wove some heavy threads through the mosaic of independent music in the 1980's. If they had only recorded that one, first album, they would be legendary enough. It's a fantastic album from groove one to groove last. But the Femmes continued to produce and continued to put out remarkable music. In 1984, the year after their self-titled debut took over the college radio stations without mercy, the threesome put out a surprising sophomore effort entitled Hallowed Ground

When this record came out I was working at a record store in Davis, California called Barney's. I put the album on our famous vertical turntable and headed for the bins to file records. It became instantly clear to me that this was not just a resuscitation of the debut. Here the band of teenagers (or maybe they were 20 at this time) expanded the music landscape to incorporate abstract jazz (Black Girls) and Appalachian bluegrass. Religious imagery of death, salvation and redemption stiff armed the college listener. Before the side was out, I was informed that I could not play the record anymore. The record had -- in less than 5 songs -- offended a lesbian coworker, an African American coworker and an Atheist coworker and had garnered an official complaint from a customer. Pretty impressive, huh?

I think you'll see why from our Song of the Week. The song is Country Death Song, the first song on the criminally underrated album. A traditional "ump-pah" beat is importantly colored by minor-key banjo work from Tony Trischka to create an Appalachian folk song mystique. Gordon Gano sings in the first-person narrative as a father who is pushed by famine and isolation to, as he says in the second verse, "start making plans to kill my own kind." Immediately it becomes all to clear as to the depth of his depravity as we listen uncomfortably as he coaxes his youngest daughter to the door late at night: "Come little daughter, I will carry the lanterns/We'll go out tonight, we'll go to the caverns. We'll go out tonight, we'll go to the caves. So kiss your mother goodnight and remember that God saves."

The daughter is blissfully ignorant as to her fate. We are not so lucky. And there-in lies the tension. We are helpless to stop the licentious father and unravel his insanely gruesome demonstration of love. "You know your papa loves you, good children go to heaven." Gano gives us no quarter as he makes abundantly clear what happens as he sings with a cross-eyed whisper. Only the two-note bass riff and a snare drum played with brushes by Victor DeLorenzo provide us any cover.  

"I gave her a push, I gave her a shove. I pushed with all my might, I pushed with all my love. I threw my child into a bottomless pit. She was screaming as she fell, but I never heard her hit."

As we are left to make sense of the unpleasantness in our ears, the repetitive polka beat gives way to a mad crush of chaotic music led by the beautiful acoustic bass work of Brian Ritchie.

Gano returns with the most beautifully acrid line of the song. A song that puts teen angst in it's rightful place: "Don't speak to me of lovers with a broken heart. You wanna know what can really tear you apart? I'm going out to the barn, will I never stop the pain?"

Ain't nothing for a man to do but sit around and drink.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Lux Interior: Requiem for the Undead

On Wednesday night I returned home from a show in Echo Park at around 10:30 and sat down to look up some info on the band I had just seen. As I was was surfing for info on the group at the NME website, I saw a news headline on the homepage that said "Cramps founder dies". I did a quick double-take to make sure I had read this correctly. What? No! This can't be!

Sadly, the news was indeed true that Lux Interior, the lead singer of the pioneering punkabilly group, The Cramps, had passed away early Wednesday morning in nearby Glendale from a pre-existing hear condition. I was absolutely stunned. I had no idea that he suffered from any health problems, but then he and his wife and co-conspirator, Poison Ivy, were always a fiercely private and secretive couple. Also, as a friend would mention to me later, "How can someone who is already dead die?"

This remark would have undoubtedly amused Lux. The Cramps entire image was founded on an obsession with horror films and trash culture of the 50's and 60's. Lux and Ivy looked like the freakiest and most ghoulish couple to ever walk the face of the earth. They could have jumped onto the screen of any zombie, vampire or monster movie of the last 75 years and fit in perfectly. Surely, a rock n' roll zombie can't really die, can he?

Erick Lee Purkhiser was born in Stow, Ohio, a small suburb of Akron, in 1946. From an early age he had a fascination with horror and sci-fi films of the 40's and 50's and EC comic books like, "Tales from the Crypyt" and "Vault of Horror". By his teen years he was also a huge fan of early rock and roll, particularly as it was presented by local Akron disc jockey, Pete "Mad Daddy" Myers. The Mad Daddy mixed horror, rock n' roll and R&B with a rapid-fire delivery that was usually done in rhyme and hipster jive. Another early influence was local late night television host ,Ghoulardi, who introduced horror and sci-fi B-movies on "Shock Theater" with his own hip slang, using catchphrases like "Stay Sick" and "Turn Blue".

After living in the Akron area into his early 20's and trying to avoid the Vietnam draft--mostly by staying unemployed and untraceable---Lux decided to move to California and enroll in college as a way of ducking the draft legitimately. He moved to Sacramento some time in the late 60's and began attending school at Sacramento State. One fateful day he met the person who would become his life-long partner in love, music and other crimes, one Kristy Marlana Wallace, born 1953 in Sacramento. Lux swears that he met her while she was hitch-hiking near campus in 1972. They also were in the same art class together and soon became inseparable,eventually moving into a mid-town apartment together.

Lux was already a fanatical collector of rockabilly, garage punk, surf, and early rock n' roll / R&B records, especially the really rare stuff. Records by regional garage bands that only released one or two 45s in limited quantities or that one rockabilly record that every hillbilly or failed country artist who thought he was going to be the next Elvis made. Ivy was also a big fan of early rockers like Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Duane Eddy and particularly Link Wray. Lux did extensive record rummaging around Northern California, tracking down all kinds of rare stuff before there was a real market for it. It is worth noting that there was no re-issue market and generally no compilations for most of the rockabilly and garage obscurities that we take for granted today on collections like "Nuggets", "Pebbles" and "Desperate Rock and Roll". If you wanted to hear this stuff, you had to track down the original 45. Many of the people who were tracking down these obscure releases were the people who wound up putting together many of those quasi-legal compilations.

One favorite record haunt was the Records shop on the K Street Mall in downtown Sac. Ray, the late owner of the place, befriended Lux and Ivy and was instrumental in turning them onto R&B vocal groups (never say "Doo-Wop"), whose wild vocal gymnastics on up-tempo numbers would also play an important role in the eventual sound of The Cramps.

Tiring of what they thought was the "small town mentality" of mid-70s Sacramento, as were they of a hippie scene they did not feel a part of, the couple briefly moved back to Akron in early 1975, but by the fall, after having seen The New York Dolls perform and being inspired by their look and their desecretion/veneration of R&B, they decided to move to New York City and start a band. It turned out to be a fortuitous decision, as they wound up be at ground zero of the punk movement there, centered around the Bowery dive bar known as CBGB's. It was here that they adopted their new monikers of Lux Interior and Poison Ivy.

The band they put together would be an original amalgamation of all the things that Lux and Ivy had been soaking up for years--Lux was almost 30 at this point. The sound they came up with, to quote Lux, was "A patchwork hybrid with a life of it's own--a rock n' roll Brides of Frankenstein". Rockabilly was only the starting point. Rockabilly was fused with the fat, distorted, fuzztone power chords of Link Wray, the surf riffs of groups like The Ventures and the twangy reverb of Duane Eddy. The guitar playing was simple, but menacing and effective. Lux also said of their nascent sound, "There were all these bands, like The Rolling Stones and The New York Dolls, that took R&B and did something with it, but nobody had done anything with rockabilly yet". As a line in their seminal single "Garbage Man" said, they were indeed "one half hillbilly and one half punk".It was a sound that found room for Link Wray, Sun Records rockabilly singles and Sonics-style garage punk.

One novel approach they had in their early years was that they had no bass player. Instead they recruited second guitarist,Bryan Gregory, more for his looks (peroxide blonde hair combed forward, obscuring half of his acne scarred face, scary-looking face) than his musical ability. Gregory lay on thick sheets of atonal guitar noise while Ivy held down the more traditional, structured guitar licks. The drums would be a primitive, stomping beat (provided by Nick Knox) that was straight out of snarling garage punk classics of the mid-60's.On top of all of this was Lux's echo-drenched vocals and vocal mannerisms that were a combination of rockabilly yelps and hiccups, the nonsense jive of R&B vocal groups and bird calls and animal noises that may have come from Exotica records or Tarzan movies, maybe both.

Lyrics were handled exclusively by Lux and were such marvelously humorous and inventive things. Funny lines that were a distillation of every song lyric, movie dialogue quote,comic book image or Maddy Daddy and Ghoulardi bit he had ever heard or seen, mixed with a twisted sense of the macabre and more than a touch of surrealism. Later in their career he would dive whole heartedly into lewd and racy lyrics that were a product of the sex-ploitation films, such as Russ Meyers', that he became a big fan of, as well the "blue" lyrics of certain smutty, double-entendre jump blues records of the late 40's and early 50's. Here are a couple of examples of Lux's lyrics.

"Well I'm a human flyIt's spelt F-L-YI say buzz ,buzz, buzz, and it's just because..I'm a human fly and I don't know whyI got ninety six tears in my ninety six eyes.I got a garbage brain, it's drivin' me insaneAnd I don't like your ride, so push that pesticideAnd baby I won't care, 'cause baby I don't scare'Cause I'm a reborn maggot using germ warfare. Rockin'Zzzzz..." Human Fly (1978)

"oh baby i see you on my tv set yeah baby i see you on my tv set i cut your head off and put it in my tv set i use your eyeballs for dials on my tv set i watch tv i watch tv since i put you in my tv set oh baby i hear you on my radio yeah baby i hear you on my radio you know i flip flip flip for my radio you're going drip drip drip on my radio am radio pm radio since i tuned you inside my radio... like this! oh baby i see you in my frigidaire yeah baby i see you in my frigidaire behind the mayonnaise, way in the back i'm gonna see you tonight for a midnight snack but though it's cold you won't get old 'cause you're well preserved in my frigidaire" TV Set (1980)

" I been a drag racer on LSD, and i rode bare-assed on top of the shpinx, i even had a gorilla on the slopes of kismet, and man, that was fun for a while you bet but... well i savored many foriegn kinds of delicacies, intoxicated til i can't tell what the hell i could see, had all the violence and liquor within close reach, but all bars, pills and threeways lead me back to the beach and... now they say that virtue is it's own reward, but when that surf comes in i'm gunna get my board, got my own ideas about the righteous kick, you can keep the rewards, i'd just as soon stay sick..." Bikini Girls With Machine Guns (1990)

"Torso tossin'. Shockwave a causin'. A wammy in the boogaloo. Busted up bustle, too. Gear strippin' dynamo. Limbo down kinda low. I can do the camel walk. Torture me. I won't talk. Down in the fashion pits. Girls wearin' tourniquets. Rough and ready riff raff. Straight jacket sneak attack. Wig hat jack knife. Out on bail for life. Sex in the cycle set. Mama don't allow no pets." Dames, Booze, Chains, and Boots (1991)

The Cramps also excelled at covers, unearthing many obscure gems from rock and roll's past like "Goo Goo Muck" (Ronnie Cook and the Gaylads), "Sunglasses After Dark" (Dwight Pullen), "Rockin' Bones" (Ronnie Dawson), "She Said" (Hasil Adkins), "Love Me" (The Phantom), and "Save It" (Mel Robbins) just to name a few. These were never straight covers,but songs given a signature Cramps style, often slowed down, dirtied up and spooked out versions, with bits of other songs sometimes thrown into the mix, like in the case of "Sunglasses After Dark" which is fused with a Link Wray song called "Fat Back". In other cases the band shamelessly stole other songs and created their own. For example, The Busters "Bust-Out' instrumental would mutate into "I'm Cramped", while The Riptides "Machine Gun" would serve as the basis for "Call of the Wighat". There are a couple series of albums devoted exclusively to songs that the band covered or cribbed from, one being the "Born Bad" series and the other known as "Songs The Cramps Taught Us". Both are highly recommended, though not always easy to find due to them essentially being bootlegs. Whatever the case, one of the enduring legacies of The Cramps will be that they exposed many people to a ton of classic obscurities. They were a gateway drug to so much great music from the 50's and 60's.

The first two Cramps singles (Surfin Bird/The Way I Walk and Human Fly/Domino) were self-released in 1977 and 78' respectively and they were soon signed by IRS records where they were to do their most influential ,and many would argue best, work. 1980's "Songs The Lord Taught Us" and 81's "Psychedelic Jungle" are both considered the high water mark in terms of their quality and their hipness. These albums and assorted singles sides of their IRS tenure are still held in high esteem and even gave birth to an entire genre known as Psychobilly, a term they coined but later disowned when they became disenchanted with so many inferior groups trying to copy their style. During the early to mid-80's they were considered as cool and hip as any act out there. Any store selling rock merchandise would be sure to have plenty of Cramps t-shirts, buttons, stickers, and posters, almost always with their trademark dripping band name logo.

A legal fall out with IRS left them without a label for a few years and between 82' and 85' only the self-released (and subsequently licensed) 6 song live EP (of new material) "Smell of Female" came out. During this time they had also moved from New York City to Hollywood, California. By the time the of 1986's "Date with Elvis" album, they had ditched the second guitarist format and had recruited their first in a long line of bass players, for a more conventional set up. From this point forward, the songs lyrics became more sex-obsessed and less horror film-oriented. They became more burlesque ,and some would criticize, more cartoon-y. This may have resulted in a loss of some of the hipster crowd, but their now world-wide cult remained as strong as ever. They toured North America, Europe, Japan and Australia with regularity.

The longer they went on, the freakier their appearance became. What began as a look that was merely dressing in black, eventually became all manner of lingerie, gold lame, latex rubber bondage gear, leopard print pants,shirts and bikini briefs. Lux was known to wear high heel shoes,makeup and maybe a string of pearls on stage, too. Lux and Ivy also had the palest, mostly deathly pallor I have ever seen on two human beings. This just added to the allure and to the enduring image of the scary but somehow adorable freak show they had become over the years.

Live shows were where they were really in their element. A Cramps show was always an event, a guaranteed good time out. Many in the audience would dress as outlandishly as they did. Lux was the consummate showman, always giving 100% of himself and his body. He had a gallery of facial expressions he would pull during a performance as he stalked the stage, often seemingly trying to swallow the mic , dropping to his knees, his latex pants hanging half way down his ass as he would eventually be nearly (and occasionally entirely) naked by show's end and god knows how many mic stands he destroyed over the years.

The show-stopping finale for as long as I can remember was their version of The Trashmen's "Surfin Bird". This began as a fairly straight version of the first half of the song (the "Birds the Word" section) but when it came time for the "Poppa Om Mow Mow" second half, all hell would break loose and Ivy and whomever their bass player happened to be would unleash a wall of distorted noise for 10 to 15 minutes, the drummer (another revolving door after the January 1991 departure of the long-tenured Nick Knox) tried to keep up a relentless beat while Lux went totally berserk. Lux would destroy mic stands, climb all over the speaker stacks, lay on the ground writhing or pouring a bottle of wine over his body while still trying to sing the "Poppa Om Mow Mow" mantra. Words don't do this justice. Lets just say it was as unbelievable a spectacle as your are likely to see on a music stage. Pure theater of course, and heavily indebted to Iggy Pop's performance style,but thrilling nonetheless. One of the six times I saw the band was at a KWOD radio show concert where they were on the bill with The Jesus and Mary Chain and Weezer. Most of the audience were teens there for Weezer. When The Cramps went into their "Surfin' Bird" number, I have never seen so many shocked and baffled faces in my life. I think a number of them actually stepped back, away from the mayhem.

Now back to their recording career, both "Date With Elvis" (1986) and "Stay Sick" (1990) were both excellent albums in their new perverse, tongue-in-cheek style. "Stay Sick" contained the single 'Bikini Girls with Machine Guns', earning them their first national chart hit of any kind--number 35 in the UK. However, with 'Look Mom, No Head' (1991) it was the first time they genuinely disappointed me, though it has a handful of good tracks, especially "Dames, Booze, Chains, and Boots". 'Flame Job' (1994) I thought was a pretty good return to form; having what amounted to a major label deal certainly inspired them to dig a little deeper. However, 'Big Beat From Badsville' (1997) was just an awful piece of crap and it was the point where I stopped caring about them so much. They were back in indie-land and the album was a collection of really generic originals that had no impact. They were masters of unearthing great songs to cover (or steal shamelessly from) , but not on this dud. Not a single track was memorable at all.

The final album 'Fiends of Dope Island' (2003), released a full six years after the last one, was an improvement, but not by much. Ivy was just recycling the same old tired riffs and the Cramps formula seemed spent. They were not a band that was ever going to embrace any changes; it was the antithesis of what they were about in the first place. At least in the past they seemed inspired to write great songs. I guess eventually all artists lose it and become hacks or a shadow of their former selves.So, the last 13 years produced two fairly crappy albums that nobody bought and most people were not aware were out anyway.

Lux and Ivy had moved to Glendale in the late 80's and spent their time ensconced in their home with their massive record collection, their cult films ,Lux's 3-D photography and Ivy's cats. Whether they had a new album and tour or not, they would always emerge from their lair each year for a Halloween show in San Francisco (because they said SF gets into the spirit of that holiday the best) and maybe a New Years show in LA or SF.

They were still great live and could draw crowds world-wide as a cult act. They were a band that always seemed out of sync with what was going on, yet they endured. Bands form and break up, trends come and go, The Cramps outlasted them all. They were so completely original and true to themselves that they were almost beyond reproach, at least as a live act. Most bands develop a fanbase and more or less keep the same one until it dwindles to the select few. The Cramps, on the other hand, were always regenerating their audience. It was always a wide range in ages with many young people at the shows.

Their sound was already out of time with what was considered trendy in the punk/alternative/underground rock world, so they never fell out fashion. Really it was a timeless sound that lasted for over 30 years and will still sound great in another 30.

Hard to believe that the great ghoul of rock and roll is gone. He was a genuinely a hero of mine, from back at a time when I still had those. I never thought he would go this soon. Hell, since he seemed to be amongst the living dead, I wasn't sure he would ever disappear at all. I can't believe there will never be a Cramps show to go to again.

Perhaps Lux took a look around the beginning of the 21st century, found it boring, and went back into his crypt to sleep this one out, waiting to emerge again in the 22nd century to terrorize the world's stages and teach the human race of the future what real rock and roll is. Well, it's a nice dream anyway.

Friday, February 6, 2009

The Flip-Side Original Song Project: "Death Ray Explosion Bomb, Are Go!" -- Morgan Young

Here is a 1:43 second ditty entitled Death Ray Explosion Bomb, Are Go! which I recorded a few months back while the kids were in school. Believe it or not, the inspiration for the song was John Lee Hooker's slow, brooding Gin House Blues. It would be pretty difficult to hear that reference now as this has a much more upbeat country feel to it.

The rhythm and lead guitar parts were recorded using a modified Telecaster. The slide was played on a 1950's Kay made Silvertone. The bass part was played on a 1966 Gibson EB2d and the drums were played on my daughter's toy bongos.