Recently, I walked into a bougie health food store (it wasn’t Whole Foods, but a large local competitor) to the strains of a song I never expected to hear over their speakers: “Human Fly” by the Cramps. It was far from the first time I’d heard a punk-adjacent song in this kind of store. When I lived in Portland, there was roughly a 50/50 chance I’d hear X, Television, even the Minutemen (and not even just “Corona,” AKA The Jackass theme) at the local New Seasons Market.
Still, this one had me a little perturbed. The Cramps, as carriers of an immutable, inexorable sleaze, were something different, wholly inappropriate for yuppie consumption alongside their $8 bags of organic chips and $40 shampoo. My partner, though, was unmoved. “What do you expect? It’s Halloween.”
She’s right, of course. For square America, Halloween is the only time to dress up in wild costumes, act out, cause trouble, and, apparently, listen to the Cramps. It may seem odd to those of us who always have room in their diet for the late Lux Interior, Poison Ivy Rorschach, and whomever they’d roped in to joining them in their cavalcade of debauchery, but most people simply don’t have the intestinal fortitude to live the Cramps life the rest of the year.
What exactly makes the Cramps the most perfect Halloween music, though? More especially, how dare I come into this famously Misfits-positive space and suggest that there is a band more deserving of the Ultimate Halloween Band mantle than them? They, after all, made Halloween the subject of one of their more beloved songs, and horror movies the subject of most of the rest of them.
A fair question, but let me start with a question of my own: have you ever been scared of the Misfits? Yes, they’re a band that wears creepy makeup and loves scary movies, but are they truly frightening themselves? With all love and respect, I’m going to say the answer is “no.”
Now, imagine running into these weirdos in a dark alley:
If you didn’t run the hell back out, you’d at least be certain that you were about to see some unwelcome hog that evening (seriously, how did Lux Interior keep it in those little pants that barely cover half his ass?). The terror is in the danger, in not knowing what to expect.
That kind of looming dread is unusual, but not altogether unique, in rock & roll. What, then, makes the Cramps a better Halloween band than, say, the Stooges, history’s greatest rock & roll band, with a frontman who put his audience in genuine danger many times over? How about Suicide, whose “Frankie Teardrop” is one of the most genuinely unsettling songs ever put to record, and who legendarily locked their audience in a room and menaced them with a length of bike chain? Industrial/noise bands like Wolf Eyes or Pharmakon, who sound like the soundtrack to the queasiest of nightmares—so much so that the former’s music was once used as part of a joke on a Halloween episode of The Office?
All good options, and all will be on my Halloween mixtape. However, I also think that Halloween is not really about that kind of discomfort. After all, we are talking about a holiday that (at least for the last century) is primarily targeted at children, and generally not with the goal of traumatizing them.
Halloween is for things that are fun scary, not harrowing. Jump scares, ghost stories, pranks, sneaking up behind someone and shouting “BOO!”—Universal Monsters stuff. It’s not for fight-or-flight abject terror, and it’s sure as shit not for “elevated horror”. You should be able to laugh 5-10 seconds after being scared.
That, my friends, is why the Cramps are the Real Halloween Deal: they’re scary, but you’re whoopin’ along like a bedsheet ghost at the same time. They have songs about monsters, but they’re party monsters. Lux and Ivy had a shared love of EC horror comics, low-budget horror filmmakers like Herschell Gordon Lewis and Ed Wood, and the wild costumed TV and radio personalities that dominated local airwaves in Lux’s native Ohio in the 1950s/60s, like The Mad Daddy and Ghoulardi. Stuff that may be gross or scary, but also deeply silly and quintessentially American in the best way possible.
It also helps that they were 100% committed in a way that makes any pretenders to the throne completely embarrassing. Take another look at that live clip above. Lux looks awesome, but not at all cool. If he meant it any less, if he were any less possessed by the spirit, he’d be making a fool of himself. You may only see half of his ass in those pants, but to paraphrase Homer Simpson, Lux Interior was using his whole ass when he performed. Which is why something like this video of Muse covering the Cramps a few years back looks so cheesy and dumb; when Lux did it, it was the greatest.
Rock & Roll, from Screamin’ Jay Hawkins to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, has always been at its best when it splits the difference between scary and fun, a banshee wail from the depth of America’s id. In putting the music of Link Wray, the Trashmen, and a litany of unhinged rockabilly bogeymen through the punk meat grinder, the Cramps took the “scary/fun” dyad and cranked both dials until the knobs ripped clean off. As far as I’m concerned, there is no more perfect a Halloween band than the Cramps. If that means I have to hear them in an inappropriate venue every October when I’m spending an exorbitant amount of money on organic grapes, then so be it.