I cannot exactly explain why this is my only album by The Cramps. I have had it forever. I have always loved it. I used songs from it to fill various mix tapes throughout the ‘80s. And yet . . . this is the only one I have.
I may have mentioned before that one of the benefits of working for a college newspaper was that record companies routinely sent free albums in hopes that the paper would review them and introduce bands that weren’t likely to get any airplay to a college audience. I’m betting if I had a stack of 100 of the records sent to us, I wouldn’t recognize the names of 10 of them at this point. There was a lot of garbage sent out. And, naturally, the people who got the first pick of these free records were the ones who wrote for the “Focus” or lifestyles section of the paper. Editors and reviewers got first pick, other lifestyle reporters got second, and whatever was left over would go to the rest of us if we wanted them. We usually didn’t.
However, in the summer, there was a skeleton crew that put out a weekly summer edition of the paper, five or six of us at most, which considerably reduced the competition. That’s probably how I got access to The Cramps’ first release, and I loved it. Honestly, I had never heard anything like it — it certainly sparked my love of garage that would be be seen in collecting the Back From the Grave series. This was rough, wild, insane rock ’n’ roll (I don’t think the term “psychobilly” had yet been invented) and omigod did I love it.
I was, I believe, alone in that assessment among the people with whom I shared living space. It was dark, mysterious, monster-movie inspired roots rock of a kind that simply didn’t exist at the time, but was what would have happened had Eddie Cochran been bitten by a werewolf. It introduced me to “Strychnine,” which I didn’t understand until years later was actually a cover! From the ‘60s! In the middle of the goddamn 1960s, The Sonics had been singing about loving a taste of straight strychnine! It also had an amazing cover of “Fever,” the old Peggy Lee joint redone with blues and menace.
This came out in May 1980, and whenever I think of playing this record, I think of the cramped little efficiency my roommate and I shared starting that month in a building we referred to as “The Embassy” because it was favored by foreign students. We favored it because it was relatively cheap (two living in space for one, but we were accustomed to that) and closer to campus than anything else we could find, a key aspect for an architecture student and a newspaper staffer, both of whom often had to stumble home in the wee hours of the morning, and being relatively close to the places we had to stumble from was important.
This record was my only exposure to The Cramps — there wasn’t really video yet, they weren’t playing Syracuse, and I just had no idea of what they were really about. I’ll admit from looking at the cover art and listening to the music, I may have been a little . . . scared would be too strong a word. But I had a sense that they weren’t kidding, that the darkness wasn’t an act. And so although I loved this, I may have thought one of this kind of thing was plenty for my own increasingly dark brain. I don’t know if I ever even saw their second album, “Psychedelic Jungle,” and by the time “A Date With Elvis” came out in 1986, I was heavily into the “Back From the Grave” records and probably gave it a pass for not being the genuine ‘60s garage article and for the Elvis reference. And now that I’ve heard a number of songs from both of those (and picked up a bunch of their other tracks digitally), I’ll say that I still prefer that premiere album and its dark monster sound. But, now seeing some of their live performances, I see that I was missing out on something quite amazing. I’m still a little mystified that I could love a band’s first album so much and never buy another album by that band — and yet, here I am, not filling in my collection even 40 (!) years later. So, I guess this was The Cramps album for me.