Photographer Derek Ridgers on Capturing a Cramps Concert Filled With Rabid Rockabilly Fans

Derek Ridgers, The Cramps, 1986. Image courtesy of the photographer.

For our Summer 2023 issue, CULTURED asked four iconic photographers to share a music-inspired summer snapshot from their archives.

“This is three-quarters of the rock band the Cramps harmonizing into one microphone. It was Sunday, April 6, 1986. The weather was overcast in Deinze, which is in Belgium. I remember that day very well because our trip was written up in the U.K. magazine Time Out, and I shot this photograph on commission for them. I’d traveled there early that morning from London with a coach-load of rabid, rockabilly Cramps fans.

We headed back to London on the same coach after the gig ended, so it was a round trip of about 26 hours. The headline of the piece was ‘Hell on Wheels.’ It wasn’t really hell for me, but the journalist who wrote it was much less tolerant of spending that long in the company of a lot of over-enthusiastic Cramps fanatics.

I was 35 at the time, and I was very lucky to get the job because I’d only been taking photographs professionally for three or four years. If I’d had a camera when I started going to concerts in my teens—when rock was far more fringe—I could have taken some incredible shots. I saw Jimi Hendrix in December of 1966, and I was so close that I could have operated his pedals for him.

The most challenging part of live rock photography, with a manual film camera, is trying to get the photos in focus. I found that, when I started, I was able to get no more than about 25 percent of my photographs really sharp. With a lot of practice, over 30 years, I managed to get that up to about 30 percent. People with fully automatic, digital cameras will never know how hard it was. You never even have to think about getting your photos in focus nowadays.

The Cramps were a truly fantastic live band—one of the best I’d ever seen. They didn’t take themselves too seriously, but they took the music very seriously. Poison Ivy was hugely interested in vintage guitars. She was a great rhythm guitarist and, I think, still cruelly underrated. In any case, they certainly weren’t an all-ages band. Lux Interior would sometimes disrobe and wag his weenie at the audience.

I’m not sure a 72-year-old ex-rock-photographer is at all qualified to talk about the music scene today, but for me, the heyday of guitar-based rock was really the ’60s, and the genre properly came of age in the ’70s and ’80s. Since then, it’s been in a slow decline, endlessly repeating itself. I hope I don’t sound like an old curmudgeon, but I suspect I do. So much about life now is better than it was. Just not live rock.”

For photographer Ming Smith on a music-inspired snapshot from summers past, click here, or read about Jamel Shabazz's photographic playground, Times Square, here