The Cramps rank among the most legendary bands to emerge out of the first wave of American punk. For over three decades, founding members and married couple Lux Interior and Poison Ivy Rorschach influenced the sound (and look) of numerous musical offshoots—garage-punk, psychobilly, horror punk and modern surf rock, to name a few. While Lux’s immediately recognizable vocal delivery and stage antics accounted for much of the band’s subcultural notoriety, Poison Ivy’s guitar stylings helped shaped the sound of punk to come.
Born Kristy Marlana Wallace, the future Poison Ivy first met Lux Interior (born Erick Lee Purkhiser) in 1972 at Sacramento State College. After a brief stay in Lux’s hometown of Akron, Ohio—an American punk hotbed of sorts that also produced Chrissie Hynde and Devo—the pair made it to New York City where they began the Cramps in 1976. The band quickly gained a following as they explored the darker side of ‘50s culture with a rockabilly-influenced sound that blended early rock ‘n’ roll rebelliousness with rural country and blues influences. Working with producer and Memphis rock legend Alex Chilton the Cramps released their first EP, Gravest Hits in 1979, and their debut album, Songs the Lord Taught Us, the next year.
As songwriters and performers, Lux and Ivy exploited the idea that rock ‘n’ roll was “the devil’s music,” first with classic horror movie imagery (“Human Fly”) and later with songs filled with double entendres (“Does Your Pussy Do the Dog?”). While musical trends and tastes changed by the 80s, the Cramps never lost their vision or sense of danger.
In 1980, the band relocated to Los Angeles where they recruited guitarist Kid Congo Powers, and by the mid-80s, they added another new wrinkle, with Poison Ivy briefly serving as the group’s first bassist, both live and in the studio. Although a revolving door of bassists followed, Poison Ivy’s guitarwork remained the backbone of the Cramps’ progressive take on retro sounds.
As the grunge era ushered punk music back into the limelight, the Cramps remained as relevant as ever, finding new listeners among impressionable Nirvana fans and late-night TV viewers. They even appeared on a 1995 episode of Beverly Hills 90210.
The Cramps performing “Mean Machine” on Beverly Hills 90210
In the years that followed, Lux and Ivy kept writing memorable songs, playing raucous sets, and building their cult following until Lux’s sudden death due to a heart condition in 2009. Along the way, Ivy set the standard for many punk guitarists, revving up comparably slow-chugging rockabilly and early rock and pop riffs, first on a 24-fret Bill Lewis guitar before switching to a classic Gretsch 6120.
Along with defining a path for how musicians can revive their favorite elements of rock’s rich past into their own distinctive sounds, Poison Ivy’s prominence as the lead guitarist and songwriter in a co-ed band provided music fans of the 70s, 80s, and beyond a different kind of rock role model. For all of this and more, she ranks high among the most influential punk rock guitarists of all time.