Monday, 31 December 2012

Happy New Year!

/ Nothing to wear on New Year's Eve? Don't worry about it! /

Quickie! On Saturday night (29 December 2012) I finally launched my long-threatened club night Lobotomy Room, at Shoreditch’s hippest new undiscovered venue Paper Dress Vintage. And it seemed to go OK! Phew! Fingers crossed, it will become a regular thing in 2013. A follow-up blog with a set list and photos from the night will follow shortly. At the moment, I am feeling pretty lobotomised myself!

In the meantime ... Happy New Year!

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Mixed Bag O' Shite Updates: Part Two! Last Blog Before Christmas

Tom of Finland Christmas

Things have felt rushed and chaotic since Autumn 2012. First DJ’ing at Bestival, followed by a long weekend in Paris in September 2012, then two weeks in Canada (I got back 2 November). A couple of draining weeks of jetlag and cold ensued after that.  Next thing I know, we're hurtling towards Christmas!

My mind has felt fogged-over and distracted lately, but there is a backlog of stuff I want to blog about. So this entry will be a bit of an epic catch-up about various random (schizophrenic?) things that have preoccupied me over the past few months.

/ Gee: Do you think he dresses to the left? /

Friday 19 October 2012 was the opening night launch party for an exhibition of the red-hot 1950s beefcake / physique pin-up photography of John Palatinus at the Space Station Sixty Five gallery in London. Needless to say my friends and I were there. I’ve long been an admirer of Palatinus’s work, and photos of naked men and free booze are two of my favourite things in life. As a bonus, Palatinus (now an impressively dapper 83-year old) and his curator and archivist Alan Harmon were there in person (and very articulate and affable they were, too). Anyway, the party was a blast.
John Palatinus Exhibition Party 001

/ Photographer John Palatinus and curator Alan Harmon /

John Palatinus Exhibition Party 005

/ Christopher and I in front of one our favourite shots /

Palatinus’s 1950s bodybuilder rockabilly pin-ups may be slathered in baby oil and virtually naked except for engineer boots or a sailor's cap, often with ropes or chains coiled around them, but they still retain a sweetness and naivety which would be impossible to capture today.  (This is the same quality that also makes mid-century female cheesecake photos of, say, Bettie Page or Jayne Mansfield so beguiling. It’s hard to define: an un-ironic lack of self-consciousness?).

More examples of Palatinus at his best, all taken circa the late 1950s

I find this model (apparently named Bob Ireland) particularly heart-melting. He looks so au courant with his sexy, scruffy little beard. If he rocked up to The Joiner’s Arms or The George & Dragon in Shoreditch looking like that, he wouldn’t be buying his own drinks all night

Palatinus was arrested on obscenity charges in 1959 at the height of the McCarthy witch hunt era. Most of his work was seized and destroyed. What was especially fascinating about the exhibit (which closed on 18 November 2012) was its inclusion of contemporary newspaper articles covering Palatinus’s arrest: the press didn’t just publish his name and home address – it also detailed the full names, addresses and occupations of his mail order clientele! It makes you shudder thinking about the shame and destroyed lives of these presumably closeted men all over the US in the repressed 1950s, for something so innocuous. We’ve come a long way, baby!

Afterward, my friends and I continued the party at ultra rough, old-school boozer The Little Apple nearby in Kennington. Christopher embraced the spirit of things by donning a sailor cap. (The cap is actually mine! I lent it to him; Christopher was going to be playing a sailor in a pop video).
 John Palatinus Exhibition Party 011

Read more about John Palatinus on his official website. Alan Harmon's V-M-P Vintage Male Physique blog is a real treasure trove; I highly encourage you to check it out. You can see more of my photos from the night on my flickr page.

I avidly follow Decaying Hollywood Mansions  in all its manifestations (it's a Facebook group, a tumblr page and a blog). Think of it as a guide to the haunted, eerie and crepuscular subterranean underbelly of Old Hollywood, in the vein of Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon. A few months ago they posted some intriguing photos of the actress Merle Oberon in the long-forgotten, very kitsch-looking 1946 Technicolour exotica oddity A Night in Paradise. (It looks like the cinematic equivalent of Yma Sumac's delirious music). 

Merle Oberon in A Night in Paradise (1946)

I hadn’t thought of Oberon in ages and it reminded me of her strange, secretive life story. Her exact origins will always be clouded in mystery, but it appears the Anglo-Indian Oberon was born in 1911 in Bombay of mixed race heritage (her mother was Indian, her father British). For the entirety of her life (she died aged 68 in 1979) Oberon denied her biracial background and “passed herself off” as white. When her dark-skinned and sari-clad mother eventually moved with Oberon to her Hollywood mansion, Oberon told everyone she was her maid! Oberon was widely regarded as one of the great beauties of her era; apparently even Marlene Dietrich was jealous of her. To modern eyes, she certainly looks like an exquisite Asian woman (film historian John Kobal would accurately describe her exotic beauty as “jasmine scented”).

Nonetheless, it wasn’t until years after Oberon’s death that her secret was unmasked in a biography I remember reading as a teenager. (In this regard, her story echoes that of musician Korla Pandit's).
An almost scary 1930s portrait of Merle Oberon. The lighting makes her look like an escapee from a Josef Von Sternberg film

Who are we to judge? In the 1930s miscegenation was strictly taboo; a biracial race actress could never have become a mainstream star. Oberon emerged from an impoverished background and apparently had a steely determination to succeed. It could be that Oberon was a far better actress in real life than she ever was onscreen. The great irony is that if Oberon is remembered at all today (she’s mostly not, except for playing Cathy opposite Laurence Olivier’s Heathcliff in the 1939 adaptation of Wuthering Heights), it’s not for any of her film performances but for being the half-Indian actress who painstakingly concealed her ethnicity – the one thing she didn’t want anyone to know about!

The great Self-Styled Siren film blog devoted a whole entry to Oberon’s story a while back, comparing her to the doomed and conflicted mixed race character Sarah Jane in the 1959 Douglas Sirk melodrama Imitation of Life. It’s the balanced and ultimately sympathetic account that Oberon deserves.

Halloween in Canada 2012 057
Coco and I at my mother's place. Re her green-ish paws: my brother-in-law had just mowed the lawn, the grass was damp and Coco ran through it

Since moving to London twenty years ago now, I make an annual trip back to visit my family in Canada. I usually aim to get there around the beginning of September when "peak season" is over but the weather is still relatively summer-y and I can swim (my mother lives walking distance from the beach). This year the airfare was so prohibitive I had to wait until late October (I was there 22 October – 1 November), which meant I was home for Halloween. I divided my time between my mother’s place in Norway Bay, Quebec and my sister’s in the suburbs outside Ottawa, and spent most of it sleeping (averaging 11 hours a night), eating (I’ve gained about ten pounds), playing with my nieces (Maya, 10 and Miranda, 8) and getting to know their new dog – an adorable Shih Tzu called Coco.
Halloween in Canada 2012
My mother and I

I’d forgotten what a big deal Halloween is in North America. Check out my flickr page for how elaborately the people of suburban Ottawa decorate their houses for Halloween (and loads of shots of the many moods of Coco).
Halloween in Canada 2012 114
Vampire princess Miranda in her front yard on Halloween night

Halloween in Canada 2012 124

Miranda and I

Halloween in Canada 2012 125

Maya and I. (Her costume was "bloody nurse")

Leee Black Childers Book Launch Party 5 December 2012

Portrait of Warhol drag queen Jackie Curtis by Leee Black Childers. No one documented the iconic Warhol drag Superstars (Curtis, Holly Woodlawn and Candy Darling) better than Leee

On 5 December 2012 my friends Christopher, Mari and I went to the launch party for Leee Black Childer’s book Drag Queens, Rent Boys, Pick Pockets, Junkies, Rockstars and Punks at The Vinyl Factory (a chi chi art gallery in South Kensington). In case Leee needs any introduction: In the 1960s he was one of Andy Warhol’s assistants; later on he was involved in the management of the music careers of the likes of David Bowie, Iggy and The Stooges, The Heartbreakers and Levi and The Rockcats. Throughout, he was photographing everything: the Warhol Superstars, the whole decadent Max’s Kansas City and Chelsea Hotel milieu, glam rock, and the emergence of punk on both sides of the Atlantic. A natural raconteur, in the essential oral histories of punk (like England's Dreaming and Please Kill Me), Leee is always interviewed as one of the key witnesses and scene makers. His wonderfully grainy, gritty and evocative portraits of the Sex Pistols and Warhol drag queen Superstars in particular are like cat nip for me.  (Obviously there were other photographers documenting the Warhol scene at the time, but Leee’s photos of Curtis, Candy Darling and Holly Woodlawn have a real intimacy and rapport). I’ve known Leee for several years now via mutual friends and usually wind up seeing him when he comes to London (he’s based in New York). It was really gratifying to finally see his work get the deluxe coffee table book treatment (and accompanying exhibit) it merits.

Needless to say, I snapped a few shots on the night.Before heading to Leee’s party, we assembled for Happy Hour drinks at Simmons Bar in Kings Cross (great place; I highly recommend it. It has a skull-shaped disco ball!). They had a lurid hot pink (or should that be fuchsia?) acrylic Christmas tree in the corner that transfixed us. So artificial! So Jayne Mansfield! And so futuristic: it was like a Space Age Barbarella Christmas.  

Leee Black Childers Book Launch Party 5 December 2012

Christopher and the glamorous Mari
Leee Black Childers Book Launch Party 5 December 2012

Christopher and I

Leee Black Childers Book Launch Party 010

Mari and Leee

Leee Black Childers Book Launch Party 008

Leee, Mari and novelist / journalist Rupert Smith


Leee and I way back in September 2008 at Cockabilly at The Moustache Bar in Dalston


I can claim to actually have been photographed by the great Leee Black Childers myself, once! He took this shot at the club night Polari at the sadly now defunct Trash Palace bar on Wardour Street. This was also taken in September 2008. Left to right: Rupert Smith, Christian Rodrigues and me

Check out photos from the last time Leee Black Childers was in town on my flickr page

I held my annual Christmas cocktail party on 5 December. As promised (threatened?) on the Facebook events page:

Right: Am thinking of having another intimate Christmas cocktail party chez moi again this year. For those of you who came last year, you know what to expect: I live in a shoe box! Seating is minimal, so you will have no choice but to stand and mingle for the most part (or sit on the floor). The couch represents the elite VIP area. Kitsch and abrasive 1950s and 60s Christmas music will be cranked up LOUD (my CD player is fixed!). I don't "do" food, so eat beforehand, although there will be olives and crisps! (I make these things sound so tempting, don't I?). I will be making snowballs, but I only have one bottle of Advocaat and I ain't buying another one, so if you want snowballs, arrive early to avoid disappointment. After the snowballs, am thinking oceans of icy Cava and maybe Prosecco!
Anyway, the party really swung. In fact it rocked! A week later I was still finding stray bits of broken glass, wasabi peas and roasted peanuts under the sofa bed. Here are a few shots from the night (there’s loads more on my flickr page). Look at these and try to imagine how hung-over I felt that Sunday. Then multiply that by ten.

Christmas Cocktail Party 2012 007
Paul smoking his head off

Christmas Cocktail Party 2012 009

Sally and Paddy

Christmas Cocktail Party 2012 034

Lauren and I, Part 1

Christmas Cocktail Party 2012 035

Lauren and I, Part 2

Christmas Cocktail Party 2012 018

Marlene Dietrich, Eric and Divine: all in one shot

Christmas Cocktail Party 2012 023

Eric and Sally

Christmas Cocktail Party 2012 054

Christopher and Lauren. They are in a band together called Spanking Machine, by the way, destined to be big in 2013. (Don't you love how the red dumb bells in the corner match Lauren's dress perfectly? What's that about?!)

Christmas Cocktail Party 2012 095

Dez and Paul. I love this shot of Paul: at his most louche, gesticulating wildly, smouldering cigarette on the go

Right: I’ve pretty much brought things up to date. There was no Dr Sketchy at all this month, so I didn’t DJ any Christmas music which felt a bit sad. The most exciting but nerve-wracking bit of upcoming news is that I’m launching my club night Lobotomy Room on Saturday 29 December 2012! It’s happening at Paper Dress Vintage in Shoreditch. The organiser / promoter Steve is going to be away that weekend, he had nothing scheduled for that night and offered it to me, to launch my night in a low-key, no pressure way. (I know it’s very likely loads of people will be away for the holidays. London can be quiet the week between Christmas and New Years). Fingers crossed, if this goes well Lobotomy Room will become a regular monthly occurrence in 2013. Wish me luck: I’m shitting bricks / sweating bullets / having kittens trouble-shooting all the things that could go wrong! Hopefully my next blog will be posting the set list from the first night of Lobotomy Room.

Lobotomy Room ... it's coming!

Anyway, this is almost certainly my last blog before 25 December, so Merry Christmas to everyone! I know I post this pic of Jayne Mansfield every year but it never gets tired.

Christmas Cocktail Capers 2010: A Jayne Mansfield Xmas

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Paper Dress Vintage DJ Set List 1 December 2012

/ Pretty, pretty? In an ideal world, she would be the official “face” of Lobotomy Room. All women should have this photo taped next to their make-up mirror as a reference guide! (Are there hairs growing out of her Liz Taylor "beauty spot"?) /

Saturday night marked my DJ’ing debut at hip new Shoreditch fleshpot Paper Dress Vintage. It was a bit of a trial or audition for possibly doing my own heretofore jinxed club night Lobotomy Room there. After Lobotomy Room’s botched “non-launch” last summer (it was bedevilled by chronic venue problems), I put the whole idea on ice for a while. But recently I've been testing the waters and shopping my sleaze / trash night concept around again and I'm hoping to unveil Lobotomy Room somewhere suitable early in 2013.

Anyway, Paper Dress Vintage: by day it’s an ultra chi chi and frou frou vintage clothing boutique and cafe. By night, they clear some space, darken the lights, start serving beer and cocktails and it’s transformed into a bar/nightclub/performance space (there’s a makeshift stage in the shop window for musicians, and a DJ area to the side). The place definitely has a beatnik / Boho vibe that appeals to me.

I didn’t actually DJ for very long: there were three bands on the bill and I played in brief snatches between them while their gear was being set up. The highlight (for me!) was the last bit when the bands were finished and I got to do a stretch of uninterrupted DJ’ing. By then I’d had a few beers, got my head screwed-on tight and was feeling more relaxed.  Early on I was rattled with nerves and my set was pretty disjointed. One of the bands was quite Mumford & Sons (beard-stroking folkies, banjo, sea shanties): I probably sounded jarring playing right after them. My priority was to do a kind of compilation / greatest hits version of what I tend to play at Dr Sketchy, to give the promoter of Paper Dress Vintage a sampling of what I’d play if I did Lobotomy Room there: so a mix of rhythm and blues, rockabilly, tittyshaking instrumentals, weird kitsch stuff and punk.

Anyway, the place was packed-out and the crowd proved to be really fun, open-minded and good-natured. Towards the end, they even danced, which is always gratifying even for a non-people pleaser like me. They were up for dancing to everything, including stuff they almost certainly weren’t familiar with (Hasil Adkins, X).

Speaking of weird kitsch stuff: I played (and people danced to!) “Elle est terrible”, Johnny Hallyday’s French-ified reinterpretation of Eddie Cochran’s “Somethin' Else.” (I followed it with Sid Vicious's snarling punk cover of  "C'mon Everybody", so it was a bit of a mini-Eddie Cochran tribute). Below is a strange, frantic 1960s clip of Hallyday performing "elle est terrible" -- featuring at least two blatant crotch shots!

While I was searching for the above, I stumbled across this gem: a very young Catherine Deneuve in her early 1960s ingénue days being serenaded by Gallic heartthrob / "faux Elvis" Hallyday. Who knew the inscrutable ice queen of serious European art cinema, who worked with great auteurs like Luis Bunel and Roman Polanski, ever appeared in kitsch teenage drive-in schlock like this? I love the moment when she unpins her beehive and shakes it loose. (With her bouffant hair, pussybow blouse and tartan skirt, Deneuve looks like an escapee from the Sterling Cooper typing pool in Mad Men. Hey, you could probably piece together her outfit at Paper Dress Vintage). To be fair, Hallyday and Deneuve look adorable together (and they were romantically involved after she split from film director - and ex-Mr Brigitte Bardot - Roger Vadim).

Deuces Wild - Link Wray
Muleskinner Blues - The Fendermen
Shortnin' Bread - The Readymen
Boss - The Rumblers
Funnel of Love - Wanda Jackson
Jim Dandy - Sara Lee and The Spades
Strange Love - Slim Harpo (Played in error; all due regards to Slim Harpo, but I don't even like this song and it was entirely wrong tempo)
Chop Suey Rockn'Roll - The Instrumentals
Little Queenie - The Bill Black Combo
What Do You Think I Am? Ike and Tina Turner
Beat Party - Ritchie and The Squires
Suey - Jayne Mansfield
Pass the Hatchet - Roger and The Gypsies
I Love the Life I Live - Esquerita
Vesuvius - The Revels
Dance with Me, Henry - Ann-Margret
Handclapping Time - The Fabulous Raiders
Beat Girl - Adam Faith
Elle est terrible - Johnny Hallyday
C'mon Everybody - Sid Vicious
Breathless - X
Chicken Walk - Hasil Adkins
Chicken Grabber - The Nite Hawks
Crawfish - Johnny Thunders and Pattin Palladin
Ring of Fire - The Earls of Suave

Sunday, 25 November 2012

22 November 2012 Dr Sketchy Set List

/ On the Beach: Ultra-sultry cheesecake shot of Bettie Page /

For this Dr Sketchy we were back at The Royal Vauxhall Tavern (for me, Dr Sketchy’s ideal venue and spiritual home, maybe because of its cabaret / musical hall history). It felt like a lifetime since the last Dr Sketchy (there wasn't one in October), and I was itching to get back behind the DJ booth. Sharp-tongued homme du monde Dusty Limits was on emcee duties, while the effervescent Frankie Von Flirter modelled and performed (she did two acts; for the last one, she reprised her drag king Top Gun act she’s done at a Dr Sketchy once before. It ends with Frankie stripped to her underwear delivering a blistering feminist diatribe, singing "I'm haemorrhaging from my vagina ..."). As an added bonus, we also had male model Grant, making his Dr Sketchy debut. And Dr Sketchy’s glamazonian promoter Clare Marie unveiled her new long black mane of hair extensions (very Morticia Addams).

For his poses, Grant wore a pristine vintage sailor uniform. It was undoubtedly the furthest thing from Grant’s mind, but of course the image of the uniformed sailor is one of the most potent and enduring homoerotic archetypes. With his sailor uniform, wavy quiff and rugged and chiselled Lil’ Abner profile Grant nicely evoked a whole range of Jean Genet-Querelle / Kenneth Anger-Fireworks / Pierre et Gilles fantasies in one package! Sadly, there were no photographers snapping pictures that night, but just for the hell of it here is some sailor-inspired vintage beefcake to give you a taste of what Grant looked like.

About 40% of the night’s set came via faithful Bitterness Personified reader Kevin Allman, a music journalist and DJ based in the steamy voodoo realm of New Orleans. In October 2012 he very kindly posted me a CD packed full of the kind of musical vintage sleaze that makes my toes curl in ecstasy:  volume six of Las Vegas Grind (the Las Vegas Grind series of obscure titty shakin’ rhythm and blues instrumentals is one of the bedrocks of my Dr Sketchy sets, and I didn’t have that volume) and a compilation of tunes from John Waters films.  The track “Egg Man” is essentially the dialogue of Edith Massey as Mama Edie (ranting about eggs! Eggs! Oh, god – EGGS!) from Water’s notorious 1972 celluloid atrocity Pink Flamingos sampled over a soundtrack of finger snapping 1950s jazz. The crowd looked pretty nonplussed by it, but it just may be my favourite songs of the moment! If any other Bitterness Personified readers would like to follow Kevin's generous example and send me some music, please be my guest!

"I'm starvin' to death for some eggs!" Edith Massey as Mama Edie in Pink Flamingos

Read Kevin’s excellent interview with one of my all-time punk heroines – Exene Cervenka, front woman of the mighty Los Angeles punk band X – here.
When Dusty made one of his forays into Beat poetry, I employed the city-of-night film noir big band Lydia Lunch instrumental “A Cruise to the Moon” (from her essential 1979 Queen of Siam album) as the background. The songs midway down the track list (from Mildred Bailey’s military-inspired ode to Sado-masochism “I’d Love to Take Orders from You” downward until “Boy from Ipanema” by Eartha Kitt), with yearning female vocalists channelling their inner hot pool of woman need, were the aural backdrop for Grant’s pose. The male and female duets (Shirley and Lee, Elvis and Ann-Margret, Serge and Brigitte) towards the end were when Grant and Frankie posed ensemble.

Black and Tan Fantasy - Duke Ellington
Ain't That Good? George Kelly and Orchestra
Egg Man - Edith Massey
Beaver Shot - The Hollywood Hurricanes
Endless Sleep - Jody Reynolds
Church Key - The Revels
Jim Dandy - Sara Lee & The Spades
Little Queenie - Bill Black Combo
Madness - The Rhythm Rockers
Tear Drops From My Eyes - Ruth Brown
Gettin' Plenty of Lovin' - Esquerita
Frenzy - The Hindus
Kansas City - Ann-Margret
It - The Regal-aires
Town without Pity - James Chance
I Was Born to Cry - Dion
Night Walk - The Swingers
Beat Generation - Mamie Van Doren
Viens danser le twist - Johnny Hallyday
Storm Warning - Mac Rebennack
Wimoweh - Yma Sumac
Coconut Water - Robert Mitchum
Safari - The El Capris
Night Scene - The Rumblers
Slow Walk - Sil Austin
Fever - The Delmonas
Trashcan - Ken Williams
Woo hoo - The Rock-A-Teens
Love Potion # 9 - Nancy Sit
La Valse des Si - Juliette Greco
Jaguar - The Jaguars
Little Miss Understood - Connie Stevens
The Sneak - The Towers
My Pussy Belongs to Daddy - Faye Richmonde
The Slouch - Ray Gee and His Orchestra
A Cruise to the Moon - Lydia Lunch
Welfare Cheese - Emanuel Laskey
Sick and Tired - Lula Reed
I Stubbed My Toe - Bryan "Legs" Walker
Wiped Out - The Escorts
I'd Love to Take Orders from You - Mildred Bailey
Hard Workin' Man - Captain Beefheart
Give Me the Man - Marlene Dietrich
I Want a Boy - Connie Russell with Orchestra
Boy from Ipanema - Eartha Kitt
Margaya - The Fender Four
How About It? Big Bo Thomas and The Arrows
Pass the Hatchet - Roger and The Gypsies
Roll with Me, Henry - Etta James
Crazy Vibrations - The Bikinis
The Flirt - Shirley and Lee
You're the Boss - Elvis Presley and Ann-Margret
Je t'aime, moi non plus ... Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot
Intoxica - The Revels
Hand-Clapping Time - The Fabulous Raiders
Club Delight - Jack Jolly
Suey - Jayne Mansfield
Ring of Fire - The Earls of Suave

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Reflections on Anouk Aimée (and her sunglasses) in La Dolce Vita

/ Marcello Mastroianni, Anouk Aimée and Federico Fellini on the set of La Dolce Vita /
Federico Fellini’s carnival-esque and hallucinatory epic masterpiece La Dolce Vita (1960) takes a state of the nation overview of Rome’s post-war upheaval. The themes of alienation and collapse of conventional morality are personified by the existential angst of Marcello Mastroianni, torn between art (writing the Great Novel; the world of poetry, philosophy and spirituality espoused by his intellectual friends) and commerce (his job as a sensational tabloid journalist writing about debauched cafe society and shallow show business, materialism and decadence). In other words, it’s what Pauline Kael jokingly dismissed as one of “the sick soul of Europe movies”, although for me La Dolce Vita remains a vital and profound film and has lost none of its capacity to thrill.  

But hey, I’m also very superficial, and enjoy La Dolce Vita primarily as an exercise in high style. That’s not meant as a diss: what style! La Dolce Vita captures the acme of Italian glamour and design: the glistening cars (and the Lambretta scooters the paparazzi zoom around on), the elegant clothes, the nightclubs (no one films decadent nightclub, party and orgy scenes like Fellini in his 1960s pomp). And the sunglasses.

/ Marcello Mastroianni in La Dolce Vita: Was any man ever more handsome?! /

In particular, the severe black cat’s eye sunglasses as sported by French actress Anouk Aimée. La Dolce Vita is episodic, loosely structured around the series of beautiful women Marcello encounters on his nocturnal travels around Rome in the space of a week, including his anguished and neurotic fiancée Yvonne Furneaux; visiting buxom Hollywood starlet Anita Ekberg; and statuesque Nordic fashion model Nico (a dazzling and very funny young pre-Velvet Underground Nico essentially playing herself).

The most complex and elusive of Marcello’s women is Aimée as wealthy, jaded nymphomaniac heiress Maddelena. When we first see her, Maddelena is lounging moodily against the bar of a nightclub, her insolent and inscrutable sunglasses clamped-on. Later we will see her wearing them even while driving her Cadillac at night.

“Everything is wrong tonight,” she kvetches, petulant and unsmiling, to Marcello. Socialite Maddelena is clearly in the grips of an existential crisis. “I’d like to hide, but never manage it ... Rome is such a bore ... I need an entirely new life.”

Aimée as Maddelena is the epitome of early 1960s chic: stark black cocktail dress, upswept bouffant hair, those killer shades. She drifts through La Dolce Vita with the hauteur of a catwalk fashion model, or a fashion illustration come to life (angular, willowy and wasp-waisted, Aimée is certainly emaciated enough to be a model; Tom Wolfe would describe her as “starved to perfection”).

The opacity of her black glasses renders Maddelena totally expressionless, emphasising how seemingly dead (or blank or “pretty vacant”) she is inside. Her tangible depression is like a fashion statement.

The rich playgirl gets a perverse erotic charge from slumming it amongst Rome’s demimonde: Maddelena and Marcello impulsively pick up a prostitute on the street and go back with her to the whore’s decrepit flood-damaged basement apartment for a sexual assignation. Maddelena is clearly excited to do it in a prostitute’s bed. For the first time, she looks genuinely relaxed and smiling.

(In her brief screen time, Adriana Moneta imbues the role of the middle-aged prostitute with a gritty, Anna Magnani-ish earth mother warmth. She’d play a similar role the following year for Pier Paolo Pasolini in his debut film, Accattone).

/ Mastroianni, Adriana Moneta and Aimee in La Dolce Vita /

In another kinky and unexpected touch, while in the prostitute’s bedroom Maddelena finally removes her signature sunglasses ... to reveal she’s been hiding a black eye behind them all along. The moment is devastating, revealing a whole other side to Maddelena’s haughty demeanour: a secret troubled and seedy life of depravity and sadomasochism. The viewer can only suspect Maddelena craves violence to snap her out of her terminal ennui.

Punk poetess Patti Smith has always been voluble about the influence of 1950s and 60s nouvelle vague and European art cinema on her artistic worldview.  Interviewed for Circus magazine in 1976, Smith described the seismic impact of seeing Aimée in La Dolce Vita as a teenager:

“Besides me wanting to be an artist, I wanted to be a movie star. I don't mean like an American movie star. I mean like Jeanne Moreau or Anouk Aimée in La Dolce Vita. I couldn't believe her in those dark glasses and that black dress and that sports car. I thought that was the heaviest thing I ever saw. Anouk Aimée with that black eye. It made me always want to have a black eye forever. It made me want to get a guy to knock me around. I'd always look great. I got great sunglasses.”

Anouk Aimée (born 1932 as Francoise Sorya Dreyfus. The surname “Aimée” translates as “Beloved”) has been described as “the French Audrey Hepburn”, which only hints at her allure.  While Aimée is every bit as gamine-like and ethereal as Hepburn, she’s far darker and more interesting than that implies. To me, she’s always been one of the great beauties and most haunting actresses of French cinema. By La Dolce Vita, Aimée was already a veteran (she made her debut as a teenager in the 1947 film La Maison sous la Mer). Fellini must have liked her; he cast Aimée again in his film 8 ½ (1963) three years later. With her Modigliani face, feline and inscrutable bearing and whisper-soft voice (her voice in La Dolce Vita was dubbed by an Italian actress), Aimée invests every performance with a remote Garbo-like mystery and capacity for tragedy.  Her melancholic dark eyes evoke graceful, stoical suffering. Certainly her Maddelena is complex, lonely, and even tragic. Fellini implies Marcello and Maddelena would be ideal for each other, if only they were capable of change. “I would like to be your faithful wife,” Maddelena laments to Marcello towards the end of La Dolce Vita, “and have fun like a whore.”

In a long and distinguished international career, the character of Maddelena is one of Anouk Aimée’s greatest accomplishments.

Anouk Aimée in La Dolce Vita

A few years ago fashion designer Tom Ford launched his retro-looking cat's eye sunglasses which he called "Anouk": clearly a tribute to Anouk Aimée and the sunglasses she wears in La Dolce Vita. They come in a choice of black or tortoise shell.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

A Date with Poison Ivy: My Epic Cramps Post

I just got back from ten days in Canada on Friday 2 November. There’s not much to do in rural Quebec besides eat and sleep (I was averaging 11 hours a night), so at the moment am looking and feeling fat’n’sassy, albeit jetlagged to hell and fighting off a cold.
Anyway, I’ll probably post something about my trip to Canada another time. (There’s actually quite a backlog of stuff I want to blog about – it’s been a while). My “art project” while I was in Canada was experimenting with my mother’s photo scanner and transcribing my 1990  interview with Poison Ivy Rorschach of The Cramps to post as a blog. Virtually all of my music journalism from the 1990s isn’t online, so I thought I’d better start rectifying that. Over the years younger friends would look dazzled when I’d tell them about the punk royalty I managed to interview in the old days, especially when I'd namedrop The Cramps, but I didn’t have much convenient evidence to back it up! (I’ll eventually upload my Lydia Lunch interviews from MAXIMUMROCKNROLL, Flipside, etc too).

Needless to say, The Cramps were and  are heroic figures for me.  As a teen in small town Quebec I discovered their albums roughly around the same time as the cinema of John Waters, both of which definitely shaped (warped? Twisted?) my worldview and aesthetic. Like a lot of people, The Cramps provided my entry into the dark art of rockabilly. Before that I was into punk, but then I found myself irresistibly drawn to how The Cramps and the equally important Los Angeles band X  melded frantic punk with twang-y, rhythmic rock’n’roll. And it was via The Cramps’ cover versions I was introduced to the music of the likes of Charlie Feathers, Hasil Adkins and The Phantom. It sounds corny, but you could say The Cramps set me on my path.

Some background: I interviewed Poison Ivy in Montreal in 1990 when The Cramps played at The Rialto. (I'd ultimately be lucky enough to see The Cramps perform three times: twice in Montreal and once in London. Each time was pretty damn exhilerating). I was then a student at Carleton University at Ottawa, Ontario; the article was for Trans-FM, the “house paper” of CKCU, Carleton’s campus radio station. (Doesn’t the title Trans-FM imply a "specialty publication" for cross-dressers?). The Cramps were touring in support of Stay Sick!, their first album of new material in four years (they’d been mired in an ugly legal dispute with their previous label IRS). I’ve already blogged a bit about that day before to mark the anniversary of Lux Interior's death (4 February 2009), so I won't go into detail again. Read it here.

/ The Stay Sick! line-up of The Cramps I saw in Montreal in 1990: Drummer Nick Knox, bassist Candy Del Mar, guitarist Poison Ivy and frontman Lux Interior /

Re-visiting these articles, it sure was tempting to tweak them in places, but I resisted it. I cringe at how jejune and callow I sound (I sure was fond of the expression "amphetamine-induced". I must have seen it used in CREEM magazine and it left a vivid impression). In June 1990 I would have been twenty one years old (two years later I would split for London). For better or for worse, below is an accurate depiction of how I wrote at the time!

The glamorous and charismatic Ivy was incredibly courteous with me; I’m sure my interview with her ran well over the allotted time. There was so much good material from that afternoon that I was able to cannibalise it into several separate pieces: the original Trans-FM article, then one for Ghastly magazine (a Californian goth zine; for them I also interviewed Alien Sex Fiend!) and still have enough left for a proposed interview for Montreal punk zine RearGarde (they didn’t use it; I can’t remember why).

In my university days, I would routinely review shows or interview musicians passing through Ottawa or Montreal for my student papers (including Henry Rollins, Chris Isaak and Divinyls) and my then-flatmate Shawn Scallen would take the accompanying photos. We were the dream team! The multi-talented Scallen is a bit of a renaissance man: he also DJs and is a punk gig promoter. I contacted Scallen (who's still based in Ottawa) via Facebook begging him to go through his files, dig up the negatives from that Cramps gig and send me high-res scanned attachments so I could use them in this blog. (Yes, I am a demanding mofo). He admitted he hasn’t kept his archives in any kind of order or gone digital with his old pics – which horrifies me, as he has a treasure trove of punk history which really should be out there and accessible! So instead I did my best to scan the photos from the original articles. I didn’t do a great job; if I can get better versions I’ll replace them.

/The Cramps tearing up "Bikini Girls with Machine Guns" and "Muleskinner Blues" on British TV in 1990. The glistening black rubber and PVC fetish wear, the pallid complexions illuminated by livid green lighting:  It gives you a pretty good taste of what their sleaze-tastic Montreal performance was like (although Lux definitely wasn't wearing a bra at the Montreal gig!) /

The Cramps Stay Sick! (June 1990 issue of Trans FM)

/ Photo by Shawn Scallen /

Call it psychobilly, punkabilly or shockabilly, The Cramps have been snarling out their reverb-drenched surf/punk/psychedelic voodoo garage rock for almost 14 years now.

In the process they’ve acquired a hardcore cult following and made a career out of giving bad taste a good name. Newest release Stay Sick! keeps up the tradition. I talked to Cramps co-founder and guitarist Poison Ivy – a vision in leopard skin and cat glasses – prior to their soundcheck at Montreal’s The Rialto.

We reminisced about The Cramps’ early days. Ivy first met cadaverous lead singer Lux Interior in Sacramento in 1972 when he picked her up hitchhiking. They’ve been a couple – onstage and off – ever since.

“He was actually in his friend’s car, his friend was driving and Lux was in the passenger’s seat. I had seen him around town before and was already impressed, so I was really glad to meet him that way.”

/ In the beginning: The unrecognisable young Lux (when he was still Erick Lee Purkhiser) and Ivy (Kristy Wallace) in 1972. Photo courtesy of the awesome Dangerous Minds blog /

They went through their hippie phase together (“I guess we took a lot of acid together. That’s probably considered a hippie thing”) and listened to a lot of T Rex and New York Dolls. “We also dug early Alice Cooper. Anybody who was just sexy and wild and played rock’n’roll, we dug it.”

They also discovered 1950s rockabilly.

“When we were living in Sacramento we met this Mexican guy who collected black vocal groups (records) and he turned us onto that. That’s what started us collecting records from junk stores, getting doo wop records.

“Then we just sort of discovered rockabilly that way, because there were no reissues out then, like there are now. The only way you could get it was to find the originals and learn about it that way. And so we just learned about that music and fell in love with it,” says Ivy.

By ’76 they teamed up with poker-faced drummer Nick Knox and Bryan Gregory (first of many guitarists / bassists, the most recent being the gorgeous gum-cracking Candy Del Mar) and made their debut as The Cramps at New York’s CBGBs. Legend has it they were out of tune for the first 45 minutes.

"Yeah, we were because we didn’t want to break strings so we put brand new ones on our guitars right before we stepped onstage. We were too naïve to know they would go out of tune instantly! So they were totally out of tune and we thought, we can’t stop now, we’re out there so we’d better keep playing. We got encores, so I think everybody just couldn’t believe we had the guts to stay up there. And some people thought we were doing some avant garde atonal thing.”

Through the years, from Songs the Lord Taught Us to A Date with Elvis and Stay Sick!, The Cramps have stayed true to their original trash appeal vision. Now that rock has become respectable and even virtuous, with musicians preaching about saving the rain forests, The Cramps stubbornly resist current trends and make bad music for bad people by taking rock back to its wilder outlaw roots.

I was curious, then, what a retro purist like Ivy thinks of the compact disc’s sweep of the music industry.

“I actually love the way they sound. I think they sound amazing. They made a mistake in the packaging – there’s no reason they can’t be packaged in a big package like a 12-inch vinyl disc. And they shouldn’t make vinyl obsolete. If anything, it’s the cassette that should be. What’s scary is that cassettes outsell even CDs, and pre-recorded cassettes sound crummy and they’re really disposable. I think they should be put out CDs with the 12-inch package, then I’d be happy.”

You don’t think it’s ironic, the grungy-sounding Cramps on pristine CDs?

“I don’t think it’s pristine, I think it’s powerful. It’s the closest to how it sounded in the studio, it’s the most dynamic it can sound, on a CD, and I think that’s good for rock’n’roll.”

/ Photo by Shawn Scallen /

(Yes, I know -- what a crazy note to end the article on! But at the time CDs were a controversial new format, it was then au courant and topical!)

The Cramps: For the Love of Ivy in Ghastly Magazine (circa 1990/1991)

/ Photo by Shawn Scallen /

Walking into Montreal’s The Rialto for their soundcheck, The Cramps are instantly recognizable, all zombie-pale, lean and uniformly clad in basic black.

For thirteen years now the ultimate cult band has conjured up their amphetamine-induced voodoo-hillbilly black magic on classic albums like Songs the Lord Taught Us, carving a niche for themselves by taking rock back to its lowest, wildest, outlaw form.

Their Montreal performance established that The Cramps are still a force to be reckoned with in the 90s, their most recent LP Stay Sick! blending seamlessly with old favourites. On stage ghoulish singer Lux Interior is a frothing mad man, a cross between Elvis and Iggy in black vinyl g-string and spike-heeled women’s pumps (the 6’3” Lux wears size 13). Snarling scantily clad hellcat guitarist Poison Ivy sneers and grimaces, slashing out reverb-drenched chords while pouty bassist, Betty Page-style brunette Candy Del Mar cracks gum and drummer Nick Knox, looking like the ghost of Roy Orbison, provides a suitably stark, primitive backbeat.

I interviewed the ageless, seductive Ivy prior to the show. We talked about The Cramps’s well-documented love of the macabre. They signed their new contract with Enigma Records over the grave of actor Bela Lugosi.

“We did! The Holy Cross Cemetery happens to be practically in the backyard of Enigma in Culver City. There’s a lot of celebrities (buried) there – Sharon Tate, Rita Hayworth. It just seemed like an appropriate thing to do.”

I ask what the inspiration was behind Lux and Nick posing in drag with Ivy and Candy on the back cover of Sick!

“It arose out of Halloween. We did this photo spread for a magazine called Rip and they wanted us to dress like monsters, a kind of more clichéd thing, for the Halloween issue. We didn’t want to do something so obvious, so we decided that since it’s also the drag holiday, that would be our Halloween testament. The wig Lux is wearing, the white one, is the A Date with Elvis wig. We recycle our clothing! I like wigs.”

Ivy and Lux also like horror movies, a prime inspiration in their songwriting, evident in titles like “Creature from the Black Leather Lagoon.” She tells me her favourite is Herschell Gordon Lewis ’s 1963 proto-slasher gorefest Blood Feast. We agree that a low budget is essential to any good horror flick.

“Somehow that makes it even sicker. It’s people trying to do the most with the least: they’re wearing their own clothes, talking in the way they really talk, with their own dialogue, so you can see what life was really like in that year, 1963. They couldn’t afford to get actors, so that’s how people really talked in ’63, that’s how they wore their hair, that’s how they really were. It’s usually filmed either in someone’s home or in a hotel room – that’s kind of cool.

“I like really stark, simple, scary films. Neither Lux nor me are much impressed by realistic special effects, which I think most movies put all their efforts into now. I think Blood Feast, even though it’s funny, is also still horrifying if you think about it, even though you can look at it and say, that looks like ketchup and it’s unrealistic. The idea of it all is horrifying. The guy who thought it up first, just the notion of what’s going on, makes you horrified of the guy who made it, even. Yikes! Who set him loose?!”

The guitar that Ivy wields so impressively onstage is a 1958 Gretsch 6820 Chet Atkins, “the coolest all-purpose guitar there is!”

“It’s orange – Halloween orange. It matches my hair. And I’ve got another guitar that matches my car, a gold and white ’56 Dodge Golden Lancer. And then I’ve got this ’52 Gibson, it’s like a gold-topped Les Paul but it’s the same colour of gold that the car is, so it matches. And it’s got this ivy motif on it, with ivy leaves! But I got it for the sound,” she enthuses.

Being hardcore rockabilly authorities, Lux and Ivy like to pay homage to their roots by covering their favourite 50s obscurities. Sick! keeps up the tradition with re-workings of “Muleskinner Blues” and “Shortnin’ Bread.”

“Lux and I have been talking off and on, probably since The Cramps started, about doing “Muleskinner Blues.” That was the other thing besides “Surfin’ Bird”, that was a wild song originally. It took us this long to figure out how we would do it.

“”Shortnin’ Bread” sounds like a peculiar choice but actually there’s a tradition in the early 60s; a lot of surf bands covered “Shortnin’ Bread.” I don’t know why, but you find a lot of versions if you look in surf discographies. We do a stomp and surf version.”

The Cramps actually scored a surprise Top 30 hit with the single “Bikini Girls with Machine Guns” in the UK. I suggested the unlikelihood of that happening in the playlist-regulated North America where acts like The Cramps are still relegated exclusively to campus radio. This sparked a discussion on the differences between European and North American radio.

“There are weird reasons why you can’t get played on the BBC. Suicide is something you can’t mention. The strange thing is “What’s Inside a Girl?” got played there. You can have a title or reference that has a double meaning, but you can’t just come right out and swear or something. You can be filthy in a way that’s convoluted and that’s fine, whereas I don’t think that’s true here.”

/ The Russ Meyer-esque video for "Bikini Girls with Machine Guns" /

Finally, I had to ask Ivy about the old Gun Club song “For the Love of Ivy” in which singer Jeffrey Lee Pierce pledges his undying passion. Ivy played coy.

“I’m probably as mystified by it as you are. It was printed in a English paper that one time onstage he got real gone and started ranting and raving about how he wanted to murder Lux! That’s all I know. I’m afraid to ask him about it!’

/ Bassist Candy Del Mar. Photo by Shawn Scallen /

Cramps profile submitted to the Montreal punk zine Reargarde (never used! Previously unseen!)

/ The Stay Sick! line-up of The Cramps: Candy Del Mar, Lux Interior, Poison Ivy and Nick Knox /

Anyone who saw punk veterans The Cramps – the band for whom words like “psychobilly” and “shockabilly” were invented – at The Rialto in April know they’re as fierce as ever. The Munsters / Addams Family of rock are currently riding high with Stay Sick!, their first studio LP since 1986’s A Date with Elvis.
At a pre-soundcheck meeting guitarist Poison Ivy Rorschach made for a funny, articulate and gracious interview subject (she got me coffee!). Wrapped in leopard skin (ersatz), black velvet (crushed) and her trademark glitter cat glasses (drop-dead cool), Ivy spoke in a bewitchingly slurred, flat voice, saying “git” instead of “get” and “real” instead of “really.”

She first met Cramps co-founder, vampiric vocalist Lux Interior, in Sacramento in 1972, when he picked her up hitchhiking. They’ve been a couple – musically and romantically – ever since. Together they discovered 1950s rockabilly and, with original guitarist Bryan Gregory and drummer Nick Knox, formed The Cramps in ’76. Legend has it the band made a suicide pact: if they failed they would jump off the Empire State building.

Ivy: Yeah, that’s what we said ...

Me: Fortunately that never happened ...

Ivy: Yeah, we’re lucky. I’m glad. I don’t want to die! (Laughs).

Since then, with their ghoulish image, white trash / John Waters / trailer park aesthetics and amphetamine-induced rockabilly thrash, The Cramps have become darlings of the hardened British music press and perhaps the ultimate cult band.

It hasn’t always been easy. They’ve never been able to keep a steady second guitarist / bassist, for example. Ivy and I go through the list: Gregory, Congo Powers (later of the Gun Club and Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds), drummer Nick’s cousin Ike, the pink Mohawked woman named Fur ...

“It’s hard to be in our band,” Ivy admits. “We are demanding, but what we’re trying to do is special. It seems like we’ve always had this one member, kind of flaky, who’s just not into the music. Anybody can be a Cramps fan, but they don’t always understand the music that influences the music that we make. They might not like Jack Scott, but they like our version of “The Way I Walk”, but we need people who like Jack Scott to be in our band. To make our music, you’ve got to take it back that far.”

I suggest how intimidated new members must be, joining such a close-knit, firmly-established band.

“That might make it harder. Maybe that is intimidating, but we try to be nice! We can be very friendly. We don’t mean to be mean!”
They’ve finally found some stability with most recent member, the luscious bubble gum-cracking brunette bassist Candy Del Mar.

“She’s been with us almost four years. We met her in Hollywood – she’s lived in the LA area all her life. We met at The Liquor Barn, this huge discount liquor store. It’s the cheapest plus the biggest selection. There’s only about two parking spots for The Liquor Barn and we were both coming from different directions and we were about to challenge each other for this spot and she said, “Oh, my God! It’s Lux and Ivy!” We’d already heard about her from someone else, a friend of ours knew Candy and said she’d be good in our band. At that time she was still in high school and we thought we’d had enough goofy people in our band! But it worked out.

“It’s the longest any of the – I hate to say fourth member – but the longest any of them have been in, the guitarist-slash-bass players.”
Ivy also feels she still hasn’t gotten the recognition she’s due as a female guitarist, co-lyricist and producer for The Cramps in the male-dominated music industry. We talk about how rare it is still for women to play guitar.

“I’ve never understood that. There’s no reason except some kind of strange Mafia thing! I’ve played since I was a little kid, eight or nine. (Guitar playing) is a creative art. In a way, it’s even a delicate thing, playing these little strings. I don’t understand why it’s seen as something you need all this brute strength for.”

Ivy describes her reverb-drenched, slashing surf guitar style as feminine.

“It’s unique. I don’t hear men playing anything similar. The girl that interviewed me yesterday for TV (MuchMusic’s Erica Ehm) said that she’d heard of this theory that girls hear differently. I’d never heard that before, so I don’t know if that’s true either ....”

I tell her Ehm has a reputation for being a ditz.

(Laughs). “I’ve been around a while, and I’ve never heard of that theory, and I usually seek out strange theories!”
A constant factor running through The Cramps’ work is their black humour and love of kitsch and horror movies, which sometimes leads to the uninitiated not taking their highly original music as seriously as they should. Up until recently, for example, there was no bass on their records.
“When we didn’t have a bas it wasn’t a radical concept to us – neither me or Bryan wanted to play bass. He mainly functioned as bass player: he played bass lines on guitar, he’d tune it down real low and play bass lines. The first record to have an actual bass line was “Surfin’ Dead.” I don’t think it’s made that big of a change. If anything, we sound more primitive (now). We were naive in the past. I think bass gives us a starker sound. We were always kind of stark and austere-sounding.”

The nineties look rosy already for The Cramps. Their legal problems with former record label IRS have been cleared up. Ivy apologises but can’t discuss the details.

“I can’t say a lot because we were involved in a lawsuit and we did get a settlement in 1983 and the terms of the settlement are that we don’t talk about it.”
They’re happy with their new record deal with Enigma (they signed the contract over the grave of Bela Lugosi), and have scored a Top 30 hit single in the UK with “Bikini Girls with Machine Guns,” a first for the band. Ivy for one is unsurprised with underground legends like The Cramps getting such commercial exposure.

“We’ve always thought of ourselves in a commercial way. We thought we were wild, but not doing anything “obscure” – it is rock’n’roll. I never understood why record companies were afraid to push wild rock’n’roll: Little Richard was wild, there’s wild stuff in the 60s. Wild rock’n’roll isn’t uncommercial necessarily. We haven’t changed anything we did to get that hit. I think it was just having the distribution, having the record available. We never had that, ever, before. Our records weren’t that easy to get.

“Our music is rebel music, but 1 % of the population is millions of people! If they can make these records available, people will come out of the woodwork to find them.”

/ The deliciously lurid video for "Creature from the Black Leather Lagoon." Once seen, that grotesque opening image of a grinning, afterbirth-covered Lux Interior being born will never be forgotten! /

A Psychobilly Freak-Out in Montreal from The Charlatan (circa 1991-1992)

Legend has it The Cramps made a suicide pact before their 1976 debut at New York punk club CBGB’s. If they flopped they would jump off the Empire State building.

Thankfully, they went on to become the beloved Addams Family / Munsters of punk and perhaps the ultimate American cult band with their amphetamine-induced, lust-charged psychobilly thrash.

Their latest release Look Mom No Head! brought the outlaw rockers to Montreal’s Le Spectrum last week. Look Mom showcases a still uncompromisingly vicious band. “Dames, Booze, Chains and Boots” confirms feral singer Lux Interior’s grasp of life’s priorities is still in order. Song titles alone (“Two-Headed Sex Change”, “I Wanna Get in Your Pants” – actually about the joys of cross-dressing – and “Bend Over I’ll Drive” are indicative of The Cramps’ lifelong preoccupations.

/ Portrait of Ivy and Lux on the back cover of Look Mom No Head! (1991). For me, this was the last truly great Cramps album /

Pre-concert songs played over Le Spectrum’s sound system – obscure 50s rockabilly, surf guitar wipe-outs, cuts from the Hairspray soundtrack, Elvis Presley’s “Crawfish”, Peggy Lee’s “Fever”, Johnny Thunders doing “She Wants to Mambo” – set the tone for the music ahead.

Sub-Pop’s rockabilly band Reverend Horton Heat gave a raucous warm-up performance climaxing in the evangelical singer’s impassioned prayer for the souls of Michael Jackson and his chimp Bubbles.

And then the black curtains parted to reveal The Cramps in their debauched, pasty-faced splendor. The ever-perverse Lux, resplendent in skin tight, genital clinging red rubber bondage wear and matching women’s spiked pumps (size 13), and a string of pearls around his neck, was reliably frenzied. He paused only to uncork and chug from several bottles of red wine, spitting the cork into the audience, and systematically destroying his microphone stand.

Casting an expressionless feline eye over her husband’s id-fuelled antics was Poison Ivy, Lux’s female equivalent. The inscrutable, beauteous hellcat guitarist snarled while abusing her whammy bar, tarted-up in a fringed black bikini, gold go-go boots and red Cleopatra wig.

Aside from original members Lux and Ivy, The Cramps have hosted a revolving rhythm section over the years. This tour witnesses the debut of new bass player Slim Chance and drummer Jim Sclavunos, who replaces long-time drummer Nick Knox. The astonishingly pretty and androgynous blond male bassist, an ideal poker-faced counterpart to Ivy, was especially well-received. Both additions played as if born to join The Cramps.

The set list drew heavily from Look Mom and 1990’s Stay Sick! Surprisingly absent were “Can Your Pussy Do the Dog?” and “Bikini Girls with Machine Guns.” However, sentimental favourites “Human Fly” and “Goo Goo Muck” warmed the hearts of those slamming in the pit. The lingering smell of vomit coming from the dance floor only added to the atmosphere.

Unfortunately, The Cramps didn’t play their new album’s biggest surprise, "The Strangeness in Me." It’s a relatively subdued slab of brooding, finger snapping Twin Peaks-style eeriness that sounds like it could wake Laura Palmer from the dead.

Lux and Ivy met in 1972, making this their 20th anniversary, putting both firmly on the wrong side of 35. Still juvenile delinquents at heart, age has only given The Cramps a conviction and authority that makes today’s decades-younger hardcore bands sound ineffectual, undisciplined and babyish by comparison.

The vibrant bad taste, rebel spirit and low-life charisma of The Cramps are as vital as ever.

/ Photo by Shawn Scallen /

Cramps: Bad Music for Bad People – Songs the Cramps Taught Us Review for Nude Magazine (2009)
Call it psychobilly, punkabilly or voodoobilly, The Cramps was the band who initiated punks into the subterranean realm of 1950s rockabilly.  Formed in 1976 by husband and wife duo Lux Interior and Poison Ivy, the black leather jacketed Addams Family of rock’s kinky, everyday- is-Halloween trash aesthetic hotwired 70s punk with primordial first generation rock’n’roll – because what were Charlie Feathers, Hasil Adkins and Link Wray but the original punks?
Proving that juvenile delinquency is a state of mind, The Cramps seemingly would have lasted forever if the cadaverous Interior hadn’t died aged 60 in February 2009. But their impact lives on. Perhaps their greatest legacy is that you can go to any rockabilly weekender and see fresh generations of The Cramps’ spiritual progeny: sullen greaser punks characterised by their black t-shirts, werewolf sideburns and tattoos.
This compilation goes back to the raw source, trawling through the original vintage songs that The Cramps gleefully tore apart, plagiarised, re-interpreted and deconstructed over their long career. While genres like tear-jerking doo wop (“Death of An Angel” by Donald Woods and The Belairs), blues (“It’s Mighty Crazy” by Lightnin’ Slim) and raunchy Rhythm &Blues (“Baby Let Me Bang Your Box” by The Bangers) are represented here, unsurprisingly the emphasis is on rockabilly.
Songs the Cramps Taught Us is a reminder how 50s rockabilly at its wildest still sounds stark, strange, threatening – almost futuristic, like science fiction. Rockabilly is a glimpse into Weird America, made by amphetamine-crazed hillbillies with names like Vern, Hank and Dwight. Take Charlie Feathers’ wracked, sensual, atmospheric and eerie “Can’t Hardly Stand It”, his hiccoughing, lecherous vocals wreathed in echo. “Her Love Rubbed Off” by Carl Perkins packs a sinister throb, while the anguished thrashing of “Love Me” by The Phantom is a frantic howl of lust, checking in at only one minute and 32 seconds.

To be fair there is no shortage of Cramps-inspired compilations of this type featuring many of the same songs (In the 1980s there were the 6 volumes of the Born Bad collection; there’s already a compilation called Songs the Cramps Taught Us, Vol. 1).  To paraphrase Mae West, though, too much of a good thing can be wonderful. The tunes compiled here are lurid stabs from the jukebox jungle, an irresistible invitation to swallow a fistful of bop pills, drag a comb through your Gene Vincent pompadour and hit the dance floor.

/ One of my all-time favourite photos of Lux and Ivy at the height of their mature, debauched beauty /