Sure, the origins of punk are steeped in grimy backstreets, cigarettes, alcohol and hard drugs taken in the hubbubs of pubs, and being assertedly in-yer-face enough to rally those that love a scrap. But punk was always, and still is, way more than that. It’s a narrow-minded view to deem its proponents as a bunch of hedonists attempting to leave their parents’ garage with a lack of musical talent but enough gusto to warrant stage time. After all, Johnny Ramone’s staccato barre-chord attack, while simplistic enough, has never been truly replicated. Johnny Rotten had a vitriolic snarl that’s so damn musical it makes it completely acceptable for anyone to proclaim themselves the son of Satan on a Tuesday afternoon. The best punk music bursts with shining melodies, especially so when it’s borne from the gutter.
Fittingly, San Francisco’s Spiritual Cramp has been honing its own melodic singalong sound for the last few years, now presenting a second full-length distilling their craft with surgical precision. Vivid scuzz remains the name of the game: the soundtrack for high-school dropouts and young punk revellers getting off by the dustbins in San Fran’s underbelly, which plays as the band’s seventh member (hear: Tenderlion from 2018’s Television). The band’s roots see them even more fucked off by the Bay’s growing gentrification, criticising the notion that anything can be so cool that it’s out of reach. That seems wholly ironic from the group’s genuinely slick presentation: their logo being graffitied across an old TV in live settings, while a dub-soundtracked fake commercial for “Spiritual Cramp Television” funnels this album’s tracks into some sort of concept around channel surfing. They’ve even supported the world’s coolest cat Iggy Pop. Yet it all feels clear of any pretension, just a group making tunes for the thrill and joy of sharing it. Take, for instance, percussionist Jose Luna skanking and shaking a tambourine like Bez or the Bosstones’ Ben Carr.
And like the best renegade musicians pointing an autobiographical learned finger at the shit state of things, the band carry lay on thick personal misery with music that’s sardonically joyous. They channel Iggy himself with a quirky swagger on Slick Rick, a garage-rock belter that packs in so many layers of melody that it’s a wonder it never feels convoluted, discussing jet setting and king-sized beds with clear smirks strewn across their faces. The irresistible catchiness of Can I Borrow Your Lighter? evokes the dimly lit street dwelling of its cigarette-stealing namesake, while Michael Bingham’s stressed-out mindset is boppily presented through onomatopoeia, recalling the jaded feeling of being “always a-n-n-n-n-noyed” or “t-t-t-t-tired”. The frontman’s earnestness about everyday worries feels completely relatable. For one, the lack of social action to police brutality and war blaring across our screens on City On Fire, while opening up the battleground to the digital sphere; Talkin’ On The Internet chats about being let down by your heroes posting terrible shit online. God knows we’ve all been there.
Not that it’s all doom and gloom. Indie-tinged highlight Herbert’s On Holiday is an ode to the singer’s wife saving him from rock bottom, as lovely in shimmering sound as it is in sentiment. In true Spiritual Cramp fashion, that plays in direct opposition to the album’s more shady personas. “I’m always lying to my wife, I’m always shortening my life” he clamours on Catch A Hot One, while listing off abusive substances and, almost chirpily, repeating the refrain “it’s all enough to make you wanna die”. Truly, its backbone is groovy, dancey, and driven by chiming guitar licks supplied by Jacob Breeze and Nate Punty like the most saddening post-punk disco. Blowback’s pulsating drum machine style carries throughout too. On top of homages to late ‘70s Manchester, there’s new wave and an array of reggae influence brought by bassist / producer Michael Fenton whose posture and playing style does resemble a prime-time Paul Simonon. OG three-chord punk is available across single Better Off This Way, which proves that, when done right, the tried and tested format reaches ecstatic levels of fun. Here, even more than ever, Bingham’s gutsy howls provide glowing charisma, like the type of vocal we all think we’re able to do up on the stage when slightly inebriated. We can’t.
The number of times you can recall a clear influence with a self-affirming ‘bingo!’ is obvious, from The Clash to Interpol (both being present in Clashing At The Party), but Spiritual Cramp are reinventing the punk subgenre handbook in all manner of surprising ways. Ultimately, their self-titled collection explores their idiosyncratic craft while maintaining the core belief that the scene’s love-for-music ethos will never go anywhere. Especially when you can dance your arse off to it, no matter how shady things get.
For fans of: Militarie Gun, Drug Church, High Vis
‘Spiritual Cramp’ by Spiritual Cramp is released on 3rd November on Blue Grape Music.
Words by Elliot Burr