Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

The Cramps - Fiends of Dope Island

The Cramps
Fiends of Dope Island

Released 2003 on Vengeance
Reviewed by alKmyst, 06/05/2003ce

1. Big Black Witchcraft Rock
2. Papa Satan Sang Louie
3. Hang Up
4. Fissure of Rolando
5. Dr. Fucker M.D. (Musical Deviant)
6. Dopefiend Boogie
7. Taboo
8. Elvis Fucking Christ
9. She's Got Balls
10. Oowee Baby
11. Mojo Man From Mars
12. Colour Me Black
13. Wrong Way Ticket

Poison Ivy Rorschach: guitar
Lux Interior: vocals
Harry Drumdini: drums
Sugarpie Jones: bass

The world has been waiting for the Cramps to release a new album since the last millennium. Because this is their first new release in over five years its tempting to begin this review by waxing lyrical on the subject of how the Cramps still haven't lost it after all this time. But fuck that - every sound that I have ever heard them produce has been so consistently appealing to me that I never for one moment expected Fiends of Dope Island, self-produced & released on their own label, to be anything but a record to love. Having listened to it regularly for approaching a month now I can say, without surprise, that my always-high expectations of the Cramps have, once again, been more than met. There are few musicians who I can honestly say have never let me down but I have no hesitation at all in proclaiming them amongst their number.

"Satan, baby - Satan" are the words that open this album. You have to ask yourself, when a band summons the devil with such prominence, exactly to what end they're incanting his name. The worry is always that they may be stuck in a Christian frame of reference: it was the Christians who invented the devil, after all. But I really don't think that this is the case with the Cramps. Their tricksterish humour is most certainly at work. Once again, let me point out that this is not irony. From the point of view of your average Christian the Cramps (ie. Lux & Ivy) are, without doubt, extremely satanic in the way that they live and the experiences they have had. I don't believe they really think of themselves as evil, however. Their references to the devil are not a declaration of satanic worship or anything of that kind. They are, rather, poking fun at the mentality of the people who would think of them in that light. From the very first moment of this record they want the squares well and truly offended.

And then there's the whole horror B-movie trip - which self respecting hammer horror, for instance, doesn't summon the devil? So many great rock'n'rollers have contacted the highest truth through the trashiest, campest and most ridiculous horror and science fiction films, particularly those of the 1950s. Roky Erickson most certainly did, for one. A quick glance at the cover(s) of this album should be enough to reveal just how completely the Cramps are on this trip! The reason why rock'n'roll should be fascinated with B-movies in this way is simple: B-movie horror and sci-fi is riddled with the highest truth. The highest truth in the most meaningless, banal and ridiculous disguises. Take Godzilla, for instance: a monster born of radioactive pollution in the seas that wreaks wrathful vengeance on our cities. On one level its obviously just a man in a suit stamping on buildings made from Weetabix boxes, laughable and rather silly. But at heart it is a potent myth for the modern age, and one which would make the world a far better place if our leaders only had the ears to hear the monster's hideous call. The highest truth cloaked in clownish garb - surely we wouldn't want it any other way. The paradox fascinates me and too many people take themselves too seriously in any case.

The first track is "Big Black Witchcraft Rock", which pounds powerfully in on drums alone. The familiar, lurching Cramps sound is soon taken up by the guitars and bass, Ivy riffing like Duane Eddie and the Beach Boys lying in a whisky-stinking gutter. This song is glamorously heathen, and like so many Cramps songs has the simplest structure imaginable: the standard 1, 4, 5 chord progressions of traditional 1950s rock'n'roll. The beauty of their music does not usually lie in its sophisticated song structures but in the ferocious, deranged energy that they manage to express through those simple frameworks. Its all in the barbarian feeling of it, not in complicated "intellectual" musical forms. There is an unquenchable, lusting energy in this music - "no-one round here gonna make me stop". And of course a defiant contempt for the lifestyles that our culture holds dearest - the line they rhyme it with is "supermodel head on the chopping block"! Such a powerful sound, and such powerful singing/shouting/screaming, raw, primal, excited, animal.

"Papa Satan Sang Louie" sounds like a Chuck Berry song played by the cast of the Adams Family. Ivy's guitar is spidery and energetic. The lyrics are childishly simple, ridiculous, horrific: "I used to be a human, but I don't know why / I fell in love with a dead pig's eye". The main lyric (and title) celebrate the badness, the rebelliousness, of rock'n'roll. I've already devoted at least one paragraph of this review to the subject of Lucifer so I'll not go there again. Let me instead ask why it should be that the name "Louie" sounds so great howled over the top of pounding rock'n'roll? I'll let you decide.

"Hang Up" is low-down and ramshackle. Lux Interior is, like Julian Cope, a man of many voices. This song features the whining, "kick me while I'm down why don't you", snivelling, crawling Lux: "Baby you know that you(ooooooooooo) have done me wrong / Why you gotta be so mean?". It begs and croons, sobbing and moaning. Boo hoo.

"You must do what the thing says" commands the voice (of reason?) at the beginning of "Fissure of Rolando". And then in bursts one of the most joyous, exuberant riffs that ever there was, pumped up to the eyeballs with lust for life (and the goddess knows what else), brimming over with fierce happiness like an overflowing cup. It has the endless maniacal, manic energy that lies beyond the lowest depths of the most debauched pits of excess. Its like William Blake said - "The road to excess leads to the palace of wisdom". It has an unquenchable, defiant spirit, a revelling in self-destruction: "As the sinners rot in the sulphur pits of hell / Yeah you'll hear me laughing, ringing death's doorbell... DING DONG! LET ME IN!". Its a truly impassioned vocal performance from Lux: husky as a sleepless, 40-cigarette night; raw as the wet meat of a hung-over brain; experienced as Blake's Tyger.

"Dr. Fucker Rock'n'roll M. D. (Musical Deviant)" continues the same theme:

"Well nitro-meth and brain death got their fangs in my vein
But medicine for acrobats alleviates the pain
Got the oversized spark-plugs and a governmental warning
Take 2 weeks worth of drugs and call me in the morning"

The drums in this have the hypnotic sound I so love, completely dominated by trance-inducing tom-toms, dry as a desert. It is as driving and relentless as amphetamine, lurching, spaced, unstoppable. The guitar solo is beautiful: Ivy's style is so simple, yet so hard to imitate. It ends with Lux's patent medicine salesman routine and fades on his husky, deranged laugh.

By the time "Dope Fiend Boogie" begins a fierce energy has been built up. Let me take a moment to describe this energy. Imagine the most hopeless alcoholic junkie in the world. I mean someone that is truly hell-bent on self-destruction, filled with the deranged, ecstatic happiness that belongs only to those who have genuinely ceased caring about whether they live or die. Now imagine this person on the bender to end all benders. They've been going for days now without sleep yet still they're screaming out for more, onward, onward. Its that insane, irrepressible energy that this album captures. The manic power that descends like a divine frenzy upon those who really have given up hope completely. Like Jim Morrison: "I'm gonna get my kicks before the whole shithouse goes up in flames - awl-right!".

"Dope Fiend Boogie" brings this energy to a peak, allowing it to express itself at its most extreme, freeing it to plunge laughing crazily into the abyss. The song begins with Lux describing to us the place where such frenzy will inevitably lead you, sooner or later:

"Face down this morning
Dawn of the damned
Bullet in my pocket
My brain was jammed"

And off it whirls into a frenzied one chord burn-out, the intensity building, building and CRASH! - verse two. The horror and hunger of an addict without a high: "got the shiverin ills like a snowball in hell". The terrible pain of a metabolism so dependent that tolerance has set in and the drugs won't even do the trick any more: "more more more more more more more more medicine but I ain't gettin well". And again, off it whirls into the one chord frenzy, ever faster, rawer, more discordant.

This song is a rare achievement. It deals with all the pain and misery of drug addiction without ever being miserable. Quite the contrary: it is an ecstatic celebration of these things. Nearer the end of the song Lux manages to get a hit, and that's when you realise that without the raw bleeding hunger that he was describing up until that moment the (half-laughed) words "lets do some dope now - I can feel it!" just wouldn't be the same. The music was telling you this all along in any case, and off it spins into that life-affirming, hollering, howling homage to one chord again, Lux laughing "O man I'm feeling better now... You know I wanna stay outta trouble but trouble is too much fun". It ends with him asking how much your stereo cost and promising not to steal it, fading with a scream of "I love this stuff, I could do it every night! (gimme a shot)".

And so on to appetites of another kind. "Taboo" is a cover of a song by Les Baxter, a musician who I have to confess to having never heard of before in my life. A quick trawl of the internet informs me that Mr. Baxter is "the godfather of Exotica", Exotica being (apparently) a Polynesian music loved by people in lounges wearing Hawaiian shirts sipping elaborate cocktails mixed according to elaborately occult and cultishly secretive recipes. Voodoo seems to be involved somewhere along the way. Beyond that I don't know. What I do know is that this is a beautifully written song with a mysterious, erotic sound. Ivy's guitar smoulders yearningly and Lux sings like Dorian Gray in a psychedelic Les Liasons Dangereuse: "Who can say what's taboo / What's for me ain't for you / Taboooooooooooo". This is a beautiful, glamorous and haunting song both written and performed with impressive musicianship.

In "Elvis Fucking Christ" (what a wonderful title!) Lux proclaims himself the (unrecognised) rock'n'roll messiah (amongst other things, which include "captain of the cavalry", "queen of outer space" and "evil heart throb"):

"Well I fell outta bed this morning
Saw what the guy on the TV said
The big rock awards crowned a brand new king
It shoulda been me instead don't they know that I'm
Elvis Fucking Christ"

Listen to this song and tell me he's wrong. What a wonderful combination of bitterness and self-confidence! A mixture of pride and frustration to be a dancer on the edge of the world. "The poison of the honey-bee is the artist's jealousy" - William Blake. And there's simply nothing else to say about it: "it's obvious - Elvis Fucking Christ".

If truth is always stranger than fiction then all I can say is that the Cramps must know some very strange people. Their songs are peopled with half-sketched comic-book characters that pinball around one another in some lunatic scene like Beefheart's "Party of Special Things To Do". "She's Got Balls" ("solid brass like the Taj Mahal") is a straightforward rock'n'roll description of such a character, probably some relation of Ivy's: "Dragon Lady Godiva", "they call her Skinny Benzine when pushin pills comes to shove". The guitars scratch around all over the place like a flea-ridden tramp. The drums mow everything down in prolonged bursts of staccato machine-gun fire. Ivy's solo is loose and chaotic, feedbacking. It is pumped full of testosterone: "burning nitro-meth, naked, faster, higher".

"Oowee Baby" is tuneless horror-rock lurching dark and sinister like some deranged (Transylvanian) experiment in gothic architecture. Its got my favourite tom-toms and, startlingly for a band famed for having no bass player, a wonderful bass solo that rattles like dusty old bones. No Cramps album is complete without a song that simply says "I NEEEEEEEED you so badly", Odin's need for the goddess, the cosmic attraction between male and female. "You make me laugh you make me weep you make me talk in my sleep / Oowee baby what you do to me".

And then in comes the Mojo Man From Mars and his weird scene populated by the Cramps' usual surreal characters, "Mustang Sally" and "Big Boy Pete" prominent amongst their number. Lux is making it clear, as usual, that he's the king of this whole crowd, the freakiest of freaks, the weirdest of the weird, the wiredest of the wired. 'Cause for all that he's surrounded with such an exotic and colourful cast of characters "there's nobody who can hold a candle to the Mojo Man from Mars". The guitars are bright and restless, the low distorted bass notes hanging and looming menacingly, like a hoodlum. There's a breathtakingly unpredictable solo from Ivy. And it all ends with Lux reminding us all that he's still "mashing potatoes at the Peppermint Lounge" by indulging us in one of his favourite passtimes, the invention of bizarre new dance moves: "Mashed Potatoes! Hot Pastrami! Cold Turkey! Stinking Chicken! Rigor Mortis! Dirty Sanchez! Jerk! Screw! Ultra-Twist!".

"Colour Me Black" is mean and moody and you'd better get out of its way cause its pissed off and looking for somebody's head to bite off. It is steady paced, feedbacking guitar chords crashing like the confident footfall of a swaggering young man, a rebel without a cause. This song is a Bad Day At Black Rock, and it was Born Under a Bad Sign. It'll "probly stab you in the back". He "ain't talkin bout no pigmentation". There's a sort of resignation in it, or maybe the desperation of a doomed man. Ivy's solo is filled with stabbing bursts of truly frenzied strumming, like an ice pick in the ear. There's a wonderfully timed pause in this song (and in "Elvis Fucking Christ"), one of those little touches that demonstrates true musicianship: the Cramps, for all their noise and uproar, are expert in the use of silence. Lux moans and groans, his vocal ending in a scream of sheer frustration. The song fades on Ivy's unpredictable guitar.


"Wrong Way Ticket", the last (and possibly the best) song on this album begins with a primal, life-affirming, deranged howling laugh of joy. Quickly followed by a cry of "get high somehow! anyway you can!". It's faster than a rocket and the drums, once again, fire great swathes of machine gun snare-bursts through it, laying waste to all. Lux's singing is such a full-on scream that language itself breaks down, words reduced to inarticulate holler. It's a furious two-chord frenzy, and it's got unique guitar sounds in it that I cannot even begin to describe to you here but which are, on their own, more than enough reason to beg, borrow or steal this album from wherever you can find it. This is a track to eat you alive, to chew you up and spit out the crushed splinters of your bones. It is a channel for a ferocious power, the fury of obsession run wild. Unstoppable lust for life, lust for lust, hunger, frenzy, joy. It ends messily, crashing, tripping, stuttering, and those who are left alive will probably have to be cut bleeding from the warped wreckage.

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