The Cramps - Smell of Female

The Cramps
Smell of Female

Released 1983 on Big Beat
Reviewed by alKmyst, 17/04/2003ce

1. The Most Exalted Potentate of Love
2. You Got Good Taste
3. The Call of the Wighat
4. Faster Pussycat
5. I Ain't Nothin But a Gorehound
6. Psychotic Reaction

Poison Ivy Rorschach (lead guitar), Lux Interior (singer), Nick Knox (drummer), Congo Powers (guitar)

NB: This is a review of the original release of Smell of Female on 12" vinyl. It has since been re-released on CD with three extra tracks.

There are few finer examples of both the shamanic and the barbarian spirit of rock'n'roll than The Cramps. They've got a goddess incarnate on guitar and are so Odinist that their drummer was one-eyed and their lead singer has subconsciously named himself for Lugh (though so full of trickster spirit is Loki Interior that he'd rather have you believe it was for a car advert). If you like your rock'n'roll seedy, low-down, unrighteous and dangerous then how does the idea of a band lead by a convicted speed dealer and a one-time professional dominatrix strike you? Or a record recorded live in a "world-famous" lapdancing bar, New York City's Peppermint Lounge? The Cramps are that band and Smell of Female is that record.

The Cramp's unique sound has been so influential that it has defined (or, rather, re-defined) an entire musical genre: rockabilly, which became known as psychobilly under their perverse influence. Here's how Nick Kent described rockabilly music in the NME, June 23rd 1979 CE:

"It is simply rock primitivism at its most blazingly illogical, at its most 'crazed', at its most gone. Lyrics are of minimal importance, for example. Instead, the music is a psyched-up shuddering splurge of adrenalin-pumping dementia, with the singer spewing forth reams of garbled rant so brain-bell whacked out he sounds like he's facing off all the demons Robert Johnson had driving him down, down, down to the murky depths of hell."

In the hands of The Cramps the already deranged sound of rockabilly has only become more frenzied, more crazed, more full on, more, more, more. Their music is powered by full-lead high-octane gasoline of which it guzzles a gallon every mile, every minute.

Smell of Female is a truly devout homage to the goddess as Hoeur/whore disguised in The Cramps' tricksterish humour. Now let's not misunderstand this. Both Lux and Ivy are REALLY keen to point out that their music is not ironic. It surely isn't - they mean every word. They really are that low! But they disguise the deadly earnestness of their trip by making out that they have absolutely nothing of importance to say at all. The truth is, though, that their music is about all of the most important things in life: sex, love, death and fun, to name only the most obvious. Smell of Female is a beautiful piece of such trickery. Just look at the cover. Can you see past the whore to the Hoeur? Is that really a lapdancing bar or a temple of the goddess?

The first sound we hear from these rites of Hoeur is the sound of frenzy: the crowd screaming in excitement, anticipation and abandon like the Galli of Cybele and Attis. A gong rings out - "Ladies and Gentlemen, live from the Peppermint Lounge, the Cramps". And in it lurches with a sound like the Creepy Coup from the Wacky Racers driven by Dervishes fresh from a heavy all-night drinking session in, well, in the Peppermint Lounge. The Most Exalted Potentate of Love is an unashamed declaration of sexual potency, the music hulking, looming, ramshackle and raw. A sound so powerful that its hard to believe there's no bass guitar. Singing so breathless that it simply must be inducing an altered state in the singer. Sex and death all wound into one like fucking in the graveyard.

Trickster Lux introduces You Got Good Taste by trying to throw us off the scent (or is that taste?), disguising what he's really about to say, deliberately misleading the audience: "this one's dedicated to all you Gucci bag carriers out there". This is pumped-up, amphetemine-fuelled blues driven by heavy slabs of rhythm guitar that hit you like punches in the face, tough as leather. Lux is screaming at one moment and gutturally growling the next, the frenzied crowd howling in his every pause, responding to him like a demented multi-limbed puppet. They are absolutely lapping it up, hanging on his every word, his every wordless grunt. And such a song! Such devotion, even addiction, to the feminine. Such depraved NEED for his goddess muse Ivy.

Now I may be showing my naivety here but I have to confess that I haven't got a fucking clue what The Call of the Wighat is about. At a guess, I'd say its about insecurity and the stupid things that insecurity makes people do. But I get the feeling I'm probably wrong. This song, I suspect, is solely intended to give you that feeling: they know something that you don't. I mean just look at these lyrics: "How do you keep a moron in wighat suspense? / I'll tell you that later, but first I'll tell you this...". Truly this song is a lyrical feast. Its got everything from the brutal ("My momma had twin babies on one sweet summer day / She beat one in the head and I'm the one that got away") to the just plain ridiculous ("My grand jumping catfish do the limbo on my face / But no-one seems to notice when my wighat is in place"). There's even more subconscious invoking of primal deities ("HU!") thrown in for good measure. And a delicious humour throughout. As for the music, its completely out of this world. Its got a drum sound that I absolutely adore, primitive and hypnotic, dusty. And such a punk ethos (which all of this music has): its just one endless, trance-inducing chord all the way.

Faster Pussycat is a wonderfully quirky song with incredible unexpected chord-progressions. Its all unbalanced, as though it were about topple over at any moment, yet you know at all times that its completely under control and that you are in the hands of experts. The rhythm guitars are like slabs of lead, yet in the instrumental break in the middle they are beautifully complemented with the tiny twinkle of a glockenspiel. Once again, this song is pure devotion to the female, the untouchable goddess: "If you think that you can take her / Well just you try".

I Ain't Nothin' But a Gorehound is about being in the gutter and loving it there. Its like George Clinton said: "All that is good is nasty". Its a straightforward power-driving blues. There's a wonderful moment in it where Ivy makes the guitar sound like a cartoon character's jaw dropping and drooling, eyes popping, at the sight of the opposite sex. Enough said.

Smell of Female draws to a close with the wonderfully frenzied Psychotic Reaction. This is a song sung by someone who NEEDS the female so badly that it hurts. If Lux is Odin then Ivy is Frigg, for she is quite clearly the source of his insane amount of energy. Just a short verse ("I can't get your love I can't get satisfaction") and the whole thing goes whirling off into the eye of the maelstrom, spinning like a dervish, staggering like a drunk. Have I mentioned that Ivy is quite possibly the best female guitarist alive in the world today? Listen to her playing in this song and tell me its not so. Don't be fooled by the punk philosophy - like Lux blowing his one piercing note in his harmonica "solos" in this song, the Cramps would always prefer to play something ludicrously simple than be technically accomplished. But there's simply no disguised Ivy's musical genius in these raging instrumental whirlpools.

The shaman in rock'n'roll? Shit, Lux & Ivy met on a college course entitled "Shamanism & Art" and have been known to describe the entrancing frenzy of their live shows as Voodoo. What more could you possibly ask for?

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