“Somebody told me you people are crazy, but I'm not so sure about that. You seem to be alright to me.” On June 13, 1978, The Cramps played a riotous gig for the residents of a Californian psychiatric hospital. They didn't want to leave

The Cramps
(Image credit: Target Video)

In 1977, The Cramps were on the lookout for a new drummer. With guitarist Poison Ivy working as an in-demand dominatrix, the task of interviewing prospective candidates - not that the band were overwhelmed with interest in the vacancy - fell to frontman Lux Interior and guitarist Bryan Gregory, who met with fellow Ohio transplant Nick Knox (aka Nick Stephanoff) at a New York restaurant on the recommendation of a friend. Knox barely spoke a word during this interview, focussing instead upon shovelling slice after slice of a dessert pie topped with scoops of ice cream down his neck. 

Thoroughly weirded out, both Cramps members decided that opportunity would not knock for Knox, but agreed to tell the drummer that he had failed to land an audition for the group only because his hair was too long. Later that same day, Lux ran into the drummer at legendary New York nightspot Max's Kansas City, and noticed that Knox had cut his hair. "Now will you give me an audition?" he asked. Impressed by this dedication to the cause, the singer told Knox he could try out for the band.

"Good," the drummer answered, "because if you said, No, I was gonna punch your face in."

This story is included here to illustrate the fact that The Cramps were never like other bands.

"We thought of ourselves as pretty dangerous," Poison Ivy told MOJO magazine in 2003. "And here's this guy who's not really like us, but he was enough of a misfit to totally fit into this band of misfits."

In 1978, after the new-look band had completed the recording of their first EP, Gravest Hits, they were offered the opportunity to perform at the California State Mental Hospital, a psychiatric facility in Napa, California, and duly leapt at the chance. Their performance, on June 13, was captured on a Sony Portapak black and white camera, and a single microphone, by San Francisco-based art collective Target Video. It remains one of the more unusual live recordings in the punk canon.

It's fair to say that a certain mythology has become attached to the gig over the past four decades. In a on-the-spot live review conducted for New York Rocker magazine by writer Howie Klein there's mention of two patients at the hospital breaking out of the facility during the concert: "We don't go after 'em anymore," Klein is told by a staff member. "They don't have any money and they'll be back in a couple of days." By the time Lux Interior was asked about the show by Sounds' writer Peter Silverton in March 1980, the number of escaping inmates on the day had risen to 11: on occasion, Poison Ivy would tell wide-eyed interviewers that 50 patients made a bolt for freedom during their 20-minute set. Why let truth get in the way of a good story?

Really though, the gig needs no embellishment, as it's all there, in black and white.  Following a set by San Francisco band The Mutants, The Cramps kicked off their set with Mystery Plane, after which Lux Interior informed the crowd that the band were from New York City and had driven 3,000 miles "to play for you people."

"Somebody told me you people are crazy, but I'm not so sure about that," he continued. "You seem to be alright to me."

It's immediately obvious that this is not a typical punk rock crowd. There are men in suits bopping alongside the band, several gentlemen sporting cowboy hats, some well-dressed middle-aged women clutching handbags, and various friends of the band, at least some of who have clearly been indulging in some narcotics pre-show. During the performance of the band's second single Human Fly, a young lady begins yelping atonally into Interior's mic, and during the following song, that single's B-side Domino, she's onstage jiving with the singer. It's as chaotic a show as you can imagine.

"It was like going to Mars, in terms of the interaction with the audience," Mutants guitarist Brendan Early told Vice in 2015.

"That's the Cramps show that should've been stopped," Lux Interior told Sounds in 1980. "The audience were doing everything you can imagine. Just imagine something and they were doing it. They were bizarre, dancers like you have never seen before in your life. People lying on each other on the floor. Oh God... We didn't wanna leave.

"They were screaming, 'Ward T, Ward T', like that at us. We found out later that Ward T is the ward no-one comes back from..."

"Both bands agreed it was the best show either had ever done," Howie Klein noted in his review. "The excitement and energy level went sky high and a more appreciative, enthusiastic and open-minded audience will never be found."

You can now purchase The Cramps - Live at Napa State Mental Hospital on DVD, or simply watch the chaos unfold in the video below:

Paul Brannigan
Contributing Editor, Louder

A music writer since 1993, formerly Editor of Kerrang! and Planet Rock magazine (RIP), Paul Brannigan is a Contributing Editor to Louder. Having previously written books on Lemmy, Dave Grohl (the Sunday Times best-seller This Is A Call) and Metallica (Birth School Metallica Death, co-authored with Ian Winwood), his Eddie Van Halen biography (Eruption in the UK, Unchained in the US) emerged in 2021. He has written for Rolling Stone, Mojo and Q, hung out with Fugazi at Dischord House, flown on Ozzy Osbourne's private jet, played Angus Young's Gibson SG, and interviewed everyone from Aerosmith and Beastie Boys to Young Gods and ZZ Top. Born in the North of Ireland, Brannigan lives in North London and supports The Arsenal.