The Cramps, Pt 1.
Becoming Kid Congo Powers and Making Psychedelic Jungle (1980 – 1981)
The following is an excerpt from Kid Congo's oral history of the Cramps (and other things), from New York Night Train. To experience the whole thing, including MP3 downloads, visit:
So I got the blessing from Jeffrey to go ahead and pursue an actual music career (I was not sure we would have that in The Gun Club) and I was a bit frightened. I didn’t know what would happen. To us, The Cramps were big rock stars…a real band that made real records and really played live.
I wasn’t totally sure I could… cut the mustard. So, that was my first reaction…and then I was really shocked and excited that my favorite underground band had asked me to play with them. There was no audition process, they just said, “No, you’re in the band.” They remembered I looked good and they liked what they saw in The Gun Club and that was enough for them. So I was initiated into the world of The Cramps (which was a very tightly knit kind of world and a very tightly run ship…and very focused). That was something new to me. Before, it was very much about certain records and certain types of records like rockabilly, like garage rock (stuff I was already into), but now, I was going to have to dive much deeper into this world. The B-movie world…the horror movie world. Another chapter in learning about sub-culture started.
They immediately said that I had to have a different name. So we went along the process of thinking of different names for me. That was the first thing I had to do…change my identity. So we came up with a whole long list of different things… things I thought of, things they thought of… I had all my friends writing lists of different things it could be. We were thinking first since my actual name is Brian I should be “Brian Gris Gris” - instead of Bryan Gregory. They didn’t go for that. They wanted him gone. Then there was Mr. Tristan, and then there was “Thing”. Then one day, I think Ivy and Lux came up with “Congo Powers” because they had the Congo voodoo candles, Santeria candles (I think it was called the “Congo” candle). On it, read, “When you light this candle, Congo powers will be revealed to you”. So we liked that. Congo Powers sounded really good. Kid was another name that was floating around…”The Kid”, ”Kid Murder”, “Kid” this and “Kid” that. And I actually liked kid a lot Kid was my idea because I thought it either sounded like a boxer or a pirate. So we thought Kid Congo Powers had a nice ring to it. It went along with Ivy’s name at the time (Poison Ivy Rorschach)…a three-word name, Lux Interior (who got his name from and ad from a car with a “luxury interior”) and Nick Knox, (who I’m not sure where his name came from…but it’s a great name).
So, I got my name and I decided I needed to look the part and so I started to get looks together…and clothes. I was already quite a sharp dresser and that was quite of the attraction to them. I had kind of messy messy greasy greaser hair- kind of punky greaser. They told me they were impressed that I had a gold blazer from Lansky brothers in Memphis (where Elvis did some of his shopping). And that was the clincher for them…that I actually had a gold blazer from Lansky Brothers. So I was allowed to wear that. I started getting my look together.I got my tattoo. I went to Hollywood boulevard and went to this Filipino tattoo artist and I looked over to what they had and I saw this shrunken head on the wall and it really reminded me of a Korean War marine’s tattoo. Like some vet who had gone insane and probably chopped peoples heads off and then got a tattoo of it to remember. And when I got that tattoo, I started to feel a little more “Cramps-like”. I started hanging out with them, listening to records, watching movies, and getting influences that they had.
I decided to start growing my hair longer…I decided I wanted to look something like Ronnie Spector (that was a big influence on my look at the time – I was a big Ronnie Spector fan). I wanted to look something like Ronnie Spector and Ronnie Spector’s boyfriend put together. The thing is that I knew I had big shoes to fill, because Bryan Gregory was so iconic in the band…and such a face of The Cramps. And they had already made their mark and toured the world and he was a big favorite in the band so I knew I had to step up to the plate – as far as image was concerned - as well as musically.
I started to focus on kind of an “anything goes” kind of look - really mix the feminine with the masculine and make it sexy. The Cramps were so much about sex. Almost more than anything. So it had to be a sexy look. I think at first I wore a turban and wrap around sunglasses - that was my first look. I thought that was pretty great and I probably should employ that again - very “Screaming Jay Hawkins” sort of thing. I immediately went into rehearsing with them. They were getting ready to make the Psychedelic Jungle album. They had the songs and they had been playing some old songs and some cover versions. I really loved Bryan Gregory and so I wanted to do what I loved about him - which was that oozy fuzz bassy sound. It was also one of the first times I started experimenting with sound as sound. They gave me my first fuzz pedal. I’d never used a pedal before -- I just played straight into the amplifier with The Gun Club. I started learning songs and trying to add my own version of what I would like it to sound like. They were going through a period of more psychedelic than “burn them out rockabilly” and they were also quite oozy and sexy. There was no bass guitar. I went for that really fat “RRRRRrrr” kind of sound. It was all about having the beat come down and then slide some and then go into the next one. That’s what I decided to make my root bassyness.
I wasn’t a really proficient guitar player at the time. The good thing is that Ivy taught me a lot about rockabilly rhythm and blues scales because I had to play things with a lot of bass lines. So I practiced a lot. I remember thinking, “God, these songs are so hard how am I ever going to remember all of them! I look at it now and I’m all “Ha-ha, how am I going to remember E-A-G? How am I going to remember the same pattern every time?” I learned a lot about blues actually with them too. They were very bluesy at the time. Very slow as molasses.The first show I played with them was in London at The Lyceum. It must have been the end of 1980 - I think we were probably very under-rehearsed. I really didn’t know about having sound at concerts and stuff. And even though we made it through the concert and I was a big hit with the fans and the London press, it was kind of a diabolical concert. We went back, practiced and started recording Psychedelic Jungle at A&M studios in Hollywood. It was my first recording experience. So that was a pretty posh thing - a big recording studio. We were on I.R.S records, run by Miles Copeland and the company was on the A&M lot - the company was a subdivision of A&M records. We had a lot of amps and a lot of different things and I learned a lot fast. That’s when I really had to pay attention to Ivy a lot and she was actually a really good teacher. She showed me what to do. They knew I had no experience when they got me in the band, but I think they liked having a slave in their band. They knew they could make me a slave - and I was more than willing.
When we recorded Psychedelic Jungle, it was recorded at A&M studios which was a different thing for The Cramps to do. They had recorded with Alex Chilton in Memphis at Sam Philips Studio and everything had been quite historic with that, so this was like going into new territory. I think that choice had to do with “That’s where the Doors were” - and I think that’s even where The Stooges were. And it was also because of the record company, I.R.S, and how Miles Copeland got a good deal. I don’t know if it was a conscious choice to have a cleaner sound or not. I think that’s just where we were and it was time to make a record.For that song “Don’t Eat Stuff Off the Sidewalk”, I remember the engineer saying, “Karen Carpenter has the most perfect crash cymbal. I have to go to Karen Carpenter’s locker and get her crash cymbal!”. And I thought that was really good ironic choice for a song called “Don’t Eat Stuff Off the Sidewalk" - to use Karen Carpenter’s cymbal. So that is her crash cymbal on that song. We did lots of different weird experiments like taking lots of speed so we would be like ghosts when we played. I think that worked sometimes - but I don’t remember because you really can’t remember things when you’re on speed. I remember when we did that song “She Said,” Lux, to get that correct Hasil Adkins sound and phrasing, he stuck a whole styrofoam cup in his mouth and sang the entire song chewing on a styrofoam cup. So this is where I was learning what recording technique was all about. And then we just ran around throwing ashtrays and screaming.
And I was really happy with the sounds. I really like "I Can't Find My Mind." Maybe we did become ghosts because you could hear these really weird overtones and things in my guitar and every time the guitar stops you could hear these breaks – you could hear these squeaks like…these amazing sounds. So songs like “Beautiful Gardens” was a totally improvised song. We had a riff I kept playing this crazy riff and again, that was one of our ghost songs where we completely improvised the song. So we would play a riff and a beat and then Lux would go off and it went wherever it went (it went into some beautiful gardens). And there’s a backwards vocal on it - and at one point it fades out and comes back in and you hear this backwards weird sound and its Lux saying, “If you knew what I knew about this record company, this place would be a parking lot”. What I really always loved about Songs the Lord Taught Us and Gravest Hits was Bryan Gregory’s guitar solos. They were just pure weird sound. So with "Caveman," I got to make a sound like a caveman - and I think quite successfully.
Some of the cover versions I heard at their house (part of my training) in the tape they gave me (that’s how you train new band members – you give them tapes of influences). I had known the songs from live and did my research in the original versions of them…and that was the great thing about The Cramps is that they turned a lot of people into older music that you otherwise wouldn’t have known about, because they had such obscure choices. I actually brought “The Crusher” to them. I was a big fan of the song and I thought that was the perfect Cramps song…I used to hear it a lot on the Dr. Demento show when I was a teenager (I would listen religiously).
I was really impressed with Lux and Ivy’s record collection. I was a record collector myself, me and Jeffrey and all our friends (as most people who play music should be) and they had one of the biggest record collections I had ever seen and very well catalogued by style, year - and even label. With that came the right look. And the right look was black…black and shiny and sexy. We would have clothes made a lot. There was an allowance for getting our clothes done. The Cramps were a fully formed vision, it wasn’t just like - whatever. It was all very focused, a strict vision, a true vision…nothing ironic about it in the least. People think, “Ooh horror movies, and Ooh black”. But no, it’s so much more than that…it was a whole lifestyle. A manifesto.