Rating: 4.5/5A large component of the story of punk rock is that it was an effort to return to the simplicity of early rock ‘n’ roll, an attempt to break down the walls of pretension the rock scene of the ’70s had erected, with the seemingly unending flood of prog rock outfits trying to make the genre respectable. Of the proto-punk ensembles that called CBGB’s home, the Cramps stood out as perhaps the greatest example of this line of thought, even more so than their bubblegum peers in the Ramones. Founded by punk’s first royal couple, Lux Interior and Poison Ivy, the Cramps were a rotating cast of freaks, burn-outs and fuck-ups that centered around the star crossed lovers, united in a love of kitsch, reverb and the Sun era of rock
Their devotion to those trashier fringes of rock history could have made the Cramps a short lived novelty, but their love for the sounds they’re repurposing allowed them to become an especially influential cult band. As a result, there’s no dearth of material chronicling the Cramps’ oeuvre, particularly their late ’70s to early ’80s material, from the IRS Records cash-in Bad Music for Bad People to more obscure compilations like the relatively recent How to Make a Monster. But the new Munster Records singles collection File Under Sacred Music is something a bit different, an updated take on the early UK compilation …Off the Bone. Sharing 15 tracks with that prior introduction to the band, File Under Sacred Music may not be as appealing for longstanding Cramps fans but it is a great leap forward in quality (though that’s arguably a totally irrelevant trait where the Cramps are concerned) and it’s an excellent gateway for prospective new fans.
Mostly that’s because like so many of their punk followers, the Cramps were especially suited to the single format, which allowed them to unleash quick bursts of personality and aggression without the pressure of a full length. In the case of the Cramps, it was also a fitting nod to the culture they were turning into their own, and File Under Sacred Music suitably also functions as a Cramps-curated glimpse at the junk 45′s they loved so much. The Cramps never shied away from covering others’ material but at the beginning of their career that was particularly true, with their early work with Alex Chilton dominated by covers of trash treasures like “Surfin’ Bird” and “The Way I Walk.” Even their first original recording from this period, the classic “Human Fly,” references ? and the Mysterians’ “96 Tears” with its refrain of, “I’m a human fly/ And I don’t why/ I’ve got 96 tears/ And 96 eyes.”
The Cramps were likewise unafraid to take on more respectable numbers and it’s in these covers that the durability of the signature Cramps sound is perhaps clearest. From the opium haze they smear all over “Lonesome Town” to the reverential yet psychotic twist on the standard “Fever,” the Cramps were crafty enough to use covers as calling cards, a sampling of their roots and a clear sign that they were too distinct to get lost in the mix. But some of their greatest triumphs came from resurrecting campy forgotten numbers, like their would-be hit “Goo Goo Muck” and the murderous wrestling anthem “The Crusher,” two singles that helped craft the band’s image as rock’s preeminent purveyors of goofy sleaze.
Not that the band’s original material couldn’t hold its own, though, but much of that which is collected here shows off the more sinister side of the band. “Garbageman” still sounds terrifying, Lux’s vocals a maelstrom of yelps and howls and borderline nonsensical ranting as Bryan Gregory’s guitar work channels some hideously malfunctioning garbage truck. “New Kind of Kick” takes it further, adding an undercurrent of Sonics rhythm to make the guitar noise danceable like a seizure, Ivy ditching her signature single string hooks in favor of a fistful of chords that let Lux do his psychopathic thing front and center.
That’s the sound of a band with a startling grasp of its own identity and all the ways it could be exploited, from the kitschier end of the spectrum to the darker, more horrific edge. File Under Sacred Music is an impeccably timed and well-crafted introduction to a band that somehow managed to make forgotten garbage bin relics and B-movie culture into something timeless and unique, and it serves as one of the best Cramps collections yet.