Saturday 22 June 2024

"From the subterranean vaults of New York City..." 45 years on: The Cramps at the Nashville Rooms, 22 June 1979

On the evening of the 21st June 1979 I was at the Marquee in London's Wardour St, for the first of two gigs on consecutive evenings by The Human League. I'd seen 'The League' once before, at the infamous Lyceum Ballroom gig in March of the same year; notorious not because of anything the boys from Sheffield had done, but actually down to an incident involving near bottom of the bill band that evening, the legendary The Fall. The line up was extraordinary - from Stiff Little Fingers via The Gang of Four to the South Yorkshire electro-pioneers - offering something for everybody; but it seemed that nobody wanted The Fall's cantankerous racket. 

So as the band played on, pissing off increasing numbers of the audience, a guy next to me became particularly vexed. History has probably caused my memory to do funny things, but in my recollection I recall this guy being so enraged with what was happening in front of him ("You don't love repetition") that he pushed his way to the front of the auditorium, leapt over the barriers (the Lyceum being an old school dance hall, the stage was pretty high) and slugged singer Mark E. Smith a few times. In a rather balletic (or should that be bathetic?) move - I kid you not - the guy then jumped off the stage again and landed pretty much where he'd started from. "I'm going to get the keyboard player next" he shouted to his mate (the petrified Yvonne Pawlett, who would leave the band later the same year) but didn't - contrary to some reports though, the lad involved did not get 'twatted', such was the level of indifference to The Fall.

I want to digress again at this point (don't worry, I'll get to The Cramps). the 21st of June was the last day of my seventeenth year. What was I like as a person at that point? Well I'd been in my first full time job for seven months, so on the one hand I was feeling quite grown up; I had money in my pocket and had been seeing bands regularly from mid 1978 onwards. But on the other hand I was really just a 17 year old kid. The DIY ethos of punk rock, rather than the music itself, appealed to me, but I sought out the weirder end of things - Cabaret Voltaire, Throbbing Gristle, The Residents - and nightly listens to Radio 1's John Peel show provided loads of prompts for my weekly forays to the Rough Trade shop in Westbourne Park Road.

I also loved monster movies. LOVED monster movies. Of course in 1979, pre streaming and a revolution in physical media - even before VHS started to serve up its roster of dubious horror titles - it was far harder to see these movies than read about them (it was also decidedly uncool to be a creature feature fan). And it was because of this that the 'idea' of the monster movie, fed by endless stills of films in books and magazines, created something in me which watching those films almost couldn't match. 

So back to 21st June, the day before my 18th birthday. The Human League were, at that point, exemplars of the 'other' music that I loved; it's hard to believe now, watching footage of their revival gigs, that the band were then considered obscure and, well, revolutionary. 'The League' had been a highlight of the March Lyceum gig (in fact I went home after their set, congratulating the chaps afterwards as they attempted to cram their not inconsiderable gear into a waiting car in The Strand) so I was looking forward to seeing them again in the more intimate setting of the Marquee.  

Unexpectedly I someone at the gig who would be instrumental in what was to happen next. Her name was Jane and I recall her appearing rather indifferent about the prospect of seeing the electro trio (who were good, as I recall, but not great that night) and rather surprised that I intended to return on the 22nd for their second London date. "You should come and see The Cramps," Jane remarked as we waited for the 'band' to come on stage. "I saw them when I was in New York and they're crazy. They're playing tomorrow at the Nashville [a long gone club in West Kensington, although the venue still stands]". Now I had the first two singles by The Cramps (wish I had them now; they're worth a fortune) and thought they were ok, grungy but basically rockabilly. which I wasn't really into.

But, as the next day was my 18th birthday (and without a planned party) I reasoned that I was free to do what I wanted, so I accepted her invitation, and bade farewell to 'The League'. 

The first thing I remember about the night of the 22nd was the crowd. Support came from Vermilion and the Aces (Vermilion Sands was a biker girl who worked for Illegal Records, UK distributors of The Cramps, and the Aces were former members of punk group Menace who had just lost their singer; that band would split just under a month later, As V at A went through their paces the numbers in the room increased exponentially. Jane and I did that thing where you locate yourself at the front of the stage when the venue is fairly empty, then stand your ground as it fills up, to the point where you basically can't move. That was our position when a voice over the PA announced the headliners..."From the subterranean vaults of New York City...The Cramps!" 

OK let's stop there. Three of four years after this gig I was in a car crash, in which I was a back seat passenger in an old Mini Cooper. The car was a write off (we had swerved off the road in the rain, jumped the kerb and ended up in the middle of a newly built mini roundabout) but I and my fellow passengers/driver remained largely - and amazingly - unscathed. As The Cramps began their set, with the deafening guitars winding into the opening tumult of 'Mystery Plane',  I had a foretaste of those same joint feelings of fear and elation which I'd experience years later mid flight in the Mini. I have never, before or since, experienced a band so immediately exciting. Singer Lux Interior, dressed in what I think was a dinner suit (and more on that in a bit) blessed the audience with a chicken foot dipped in white wine, and then howled into the song, bending low to the audience as he delivered the first line "My daddy drives a UFO, drops me off and then he goes" and giving us a whiff of cologne. 

Within two songs the following had happened; firstly Lux had managed to almost completely disrobe. The Nashville stage wasn't that big and the sleight of hand involved in divesting himself of an evening suit was evidently impressive, although I don't recall those details. The second was the lights; he had trashed most of the lights at his feet, the broken shards covering the stage. Meanwhile the passive backline of Nick Knox's drums, Bryan Gregory's fuzz guitar and 'Poison' Ivy Rorschach's demented Duane Eddy riffs just kept going, song after song, as Lux hiccupped through a cover of Roy Orbison's 'Domino', then 'Weekend on Mars' and 'Garbageman'.

By this point the crush of the audience was so immense I think Lux may have tried to manage some crowd control. In any event Jane, being a little under 5 ft, was really struggling at the front of the stage; a roadie noticed this and cleanly plucked her out of the crowd, plonking her down at the side where, lucky her, she had a full view of the proceedings without the fear of being bisected.

By the time the band were coasting to a finish, via a cover of the Ronnie Dawson song 'Rockin' Bones' and the triple whammy of 'Human Fly', 'I Was a Teenage Werewolf' and 'Sunglasses After Dark', I'd got it. Witnessing the ferocity of their melding of punk/ down 'n' dirty rock and roll was itself a revelation, but it was the embracing and celebration of horror and trash, bundled up in this maelstrom of noise out of which came perfect three minute crowd pleasers, that pulled it all together for me. You could like the kinds of movies I liked, and noisy music, and knit them together. That they were not mutually exclusive was a revelation to me. It was fitting that I'd made the connection while still an actual teenager.

The Cramps went on through a number of incarnations, but always with Ivy and Lux as the core, for the next near thirty years, until the latter's tragic death in 2009 (it didn't occur to me that he would have been 33 years old when I saw him that night, not much older than my mum at the time). In that time they'd defined and refined their mix of trash and rock 'n' roll to an almost parodic degree, shaping as they went the whole 'psychotronic' movement in which, dear reader, I was a more than willing participant.

As a footnote, nearly 40 years after this event I managed to acquire a vinyl recording of this evening. Horrendous though the bootleg sound is, on first spin it was quite the aural Proustian moment to hear that moment of history again; remembering being stood, crushed at the front of the stage, my whole life about to change. It's a shame I can't find any photos of that gig (the one on the cover of the album is, I'm fairly sure, from another event). But also maybe that's a good thing; what's held in the mind remains a precious thing.

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