The Cramps: Live at the Napa State Mental Hospital [DVD]

The Cramps
Music Video Distributors

The Cramps are undeniably one of the most important bands to come out the US during the 1970s. They all but single-handedly invented the so-called “psychobilly” scene, which would go on to inspire folks ranging from the Flat Duo Jets to the Reverend Horton Heat. But their presence on DVD has been decidedly limited… until now. The folks at Music Video Distributors have just released the Target Video production of The Cramps: Live at the Napa State Mental Hospital.

Given that the concert took place in ’78, it’s no surprise to learn that most of the songs appear on the band’s earliest recorded work. “Mystery Plane”, “What’s Behind the Mask”, “Twist and Shout”, and “TV Set” are all found on Songs the Lord Taught Us. “Human Fly” is found on their Gravest Hits EP, as are the cover songs “The Way I Walk” (Jack Scott) and “Domino” (Roy Orbison). “Love Me”, a song originally done by the Phantom (and masterminded by Pat Boone, but that’s a story for another time), can be found on Off the Bone, a collection of the band’s early work, but it and several of the other tracks can also be heard on the band’s kick-ass compilation Bad Music for Bad People, featuring one of the most memorable album covers of all time.

The band’s line-up for the show isn’t identified anywhere on the packaging or on the disc itself, but, given the time frame, it’s very likely the classic Gravest Hits line-up of Lux Interior, Poison Ivy, Nick Knox, and the late Brian Gregory, who died in early 2001.

The concert begins with the following message being plastered across the screen: “The following video tape was a free concert given for the patients at the California State Mental Hospital in Napa, California, on 13 June 1978, by the Cramps, who were on tour from New York, and the Mutants, from San Francisco.”

Unfortunately for the curious, however, there is no further reference to the Mutants beyond this offhanded mention. The Cramps don’t make any reference to them onstage, and, when the show ends, although a final few phrases appear on the screen, they’re dedicated to regurgitating part of the pre-concert message, then declaring that the concert is meant solely for documentary purposes and revealing that the whole thing was filmed on a 1/2″ Sony Port-A-Pak black and white camera and single microphone.

So if anyone knows anything about the Mutants and why they’ve been wiped from history, please drop me a line here at PopMatters, okay? I’m a little worried about them.

The concert begins abruptly, with “Mystery Plane”. As the psychobilly mayhem continues onstage, the camera pans across the crowd in a decidedly herky-jerky fashion and it becomes obvious pretty quickly that this isn’t a joke.

The band really is playing a mental hospital.

There’s a fellow off to the side of the stage who’s rocking back and forth like an autistic. The fashion statements in the crowd range from cowboy hats to a suit and tie. There’s a decidedly mannish looking woman in a flower-pattern dress who’s jumping up and down, though not particularly trying to match the rhythm whatsoever. One fellow who gets a few seconds of camera time here and there looks suspiciously as though he might have Down’s Syndrome.

One has to wonder exactly what kind of shoddy care the facility took of its patients that they would allow the Cramps to play there, let alone with as little supervision as there appears to be. No one ever shows up on film who resembles anyone of authority, no guards or nurses or anyone of the like. In fact, the one woman who I was convinced was a bouncer for the band, because of the manner in which she sits on the edge of the stage and helps remove the more unruly sorts from the band’s way, later turns out to be a patient!

“We’re the Cramps”, offers Lux, upon the completion of “Mystery Plane”, and we’re from New York City and we drove 3,000 miles to play for you people.”

At this, a grateful patient can be heard screaming, “Fuck you!”

Undaunted (or perhaps further inspired), Lux continues, “And somebody told me you people are crazy! But I’m not so sure about that; you seem to be all right to me.” And without so much as a pause for breath, Lux and the band then lunge into “The Way I Walk”.

There’s quite a lot of mental patient dancing throughout the band’s set, as well as more than bit of uncertain shambling about, but, during “Human Fly”, there’s one particular patient who adds a bit too much to the proceedings, grabbing the mike from Lux and howling painfully into it. She’s helped off stage by the aforementioned bouncer/patient, but, by the time “Domino” is on, she’s back on stage, dancing like nobody’s business.

Finally, after “Love Me”, she and Lux settle to the floor together, both pretty much laid out.

“How do you like the Cramps so far, baby?” asks Lux.

“I got Cramps!” shrieks the patient, sounding for all the world like Nancy Spungen… or, at least, Chloe Webb’s portrayal of her in “Sid and Nancy”. “What am I gonna do about it?!?”

“That’s your problem, honey”, replies Lux. “I got ’em myself, and I can’t do anything with ’em, either!”

“Twist and Shout” follows the witty repartee, and, the next thing you know, the band is closing their show with “TV Set”. Lux thanks the crowd, and the camera cuts off a few moments later.

So is Live at the Napa State Mental Hospital worth owning? Sure, if you’re a Cramps fan. And folks who have an interest in music history would do well to check it out, as, in addition to this decidedly unexpurgated performance, there’s also a sampling of other items in the Target Video vaults, though whether or not any others will be released by Music Video Distributors remains to be seen.

If you’re not in it for those reasons, though, it’s hard to imagine that anyone would be transformed into a Cramps fan simply by watching this DVD. The performance is sloppy (fun, yes, but still very sloppy), and the sound and picture is about what you’d expect from one guy holding a video camera and a microphone, which is to say, it ain’t real hot.

Surely there are other Cramps concerts captured on video somewhere and one of them has got to look and sound better than this one. Keep your fingers crossed that one of those turns up someday.