by Paul Fontana

Since distinguishing themselves on the stages of CBGB and Max's Kansas City in the late '70s, the Cramps have suffered through the original wave of punk pretenders, but they've also endured the early-'80s rockabilly revival and the recent "rebirth" of garage rock. These assaults--more accurately tepid dilutions, really--on the traditions that have provided the lifeblood of their original primal stew make the above lyric no less relevant today than when they first sang it nearly 25 years ago. In terms of sheer commitment to a singular artistic vision, the Cramps--founders Lux Interior and Poison Ivy, at least--are arguably as genuine an article as you'll find.

That said, there's no premise in rock criticism more troublesome (or boring) than what is or isn't "real." A decent case could be made, and has been, that the Cramps' outlandish personas and B-movie fodder render them little more than caricatures. And while I'd argue that it's a huge mistake to underestimate the significance of the band--they after all have recorded one of the most perfect albums of all time, Songs the Lord Taught Us, not to mention a truly classic single in "Human Fly" (that "I've got 96 tears and 96 eyes" line still gets me every time)--I wouldn't completely disregard the charge. In fact, one of the very best things about the Cramps is how artificial the enterprise really is.

The Cramps thrive upon an aura of degeneracy. According to legend, the band's first recordings were funded by Ivy's gig as a dominatrix; countless ditties involving whips, chains, and mutant genitalia have followed through the years. However unlike Ozzie and Harriet they may be, though, Lux and Ivy aren't necessarily the sexual deviants they pretend to be. Instead, they're actually rock 'n' roll's most charmingly devoted couple (together now some 30-plus years). Differing versions of their first encounter exist, but they all rely on an age-old love-at-first-sight spin.

Just as crucial to the image is the rampant drug iconography; "Let's Get Fucked Up" has served as one of the band's favorite rallying cries. The latest Cramps release is entitled Fiends of Dope Island, something of an ode to pharmaceuticals. Some past dabbling may be assumed for sure, but I'd bet the farm that Lux and Ivy don't have firsthand experience in current dope fiendom. Rather, if someone told me that they got up at 6:00 a.m. every day to do Pilates, I wouldn't blink--you just don't get to be fiftysomething and look and move as well as they do without taking awfully good care of yourself.

On stage, the Cramps' antics are at their most over-the-top. The costumes, the shtick, the groping, etc., might be superfluous to some, but I'd argue that the carnival is part of something too many artists fail to grasp: showmanship. The stuff is supposed to be fun--and a little subversive too. That Lux can simultaneously channel Iggy, the Sonics, and Charlie Feathers is astounding and still one of the great stage spectacles on the planet.

Sure, for a few, the window of depravity offered by the band is perhaps a little too real. The first Cramps show I attended featured a truly terrifying drug-addled dude staggering about with the word "EVIL" tattooed on his forehead. (Another favorite Cramps moment was a time in Texas in which I hopped into a cab to find the driver transfixed by a bootleg tape of the band; he averted himself from the music just long enough to identify the prison on our immediate left as a very recent residence.) For most, though--including the band itself--a Cramps show is simply the perfect arena to pretend that you're just a bit skuzzier, harder, and sexier than you really are--some unscientific data reveals that attendees of Cramps shows boast rock 'n' roll's all-time highest rate of post-concert coitus.

Simply put, any band boasting songs with titles like "Can Your Pussy Do the Dog?" "Bikini Girls with Machine Guns," "Bend Over, I'll Drive," and "She's Got Balls" will always remain a novelty act to some. Listen--and for the love of God, please watch--and you may find that there's an awful lot more going on than meets the eye. As the band itself asks, "Do you want the real thing, or are you just bluffin'?"