- Bongo rock
First of all, this record is a classic with a capital c. nobody doubts it. I think there is not much people who hasn’t heard anything from this album nor anything it has spawned. wittingly or unwittingly. It basically started the whole hip hop movement and still remains as one of the most played record throughout the hip hop community. Most of the people know the record but the story behind it isn’t that widely known.
It all starts with a b-class horror comedy movie called The thing with two heads. It’s a movie about a dying redneck racist who wants his head to be pllaced into a healthy body so he can go on with his life. After things evolving really quickly, the only remaining option to save him is to place his head into a body of a black inmate. The things will never be the same again as the body with a white and a black head start it’s partly hilarious adventure. During the time of the movie a guy named Michael Viner (pronounced Vee-ner) was in charge of Pride, a subsidiary of MGM records. Viner used to work for MGM, but he was so effective and produced so many hit records, that they gave him an own label, Pride. He was given a task to oversee the soundtrack for the upcoming movie The thing with two heads. He did put there the cream of Pride’s hottest acts, such as The Sylvers, Billy Butler, Ollie Nightingale, Sammy Davis Jr. and Jerry Butler, but it seemed to be lacking something. The intelligentsia at MGM decided to put one more car chase to the movie and they needed music for that. And that was a task for mr. Viner. He then started to gather studio musicians for the session where the remaining songs were supposed to be recorded. Viner rounded up his favorite session musicians and they cut two songs. “Bongo rock ‘72″ and “Bongolia”. They also needed a name for the band so they made it The Incredible Bongo Band. MGM liked the two chase anthem tracks so much that they paired them up to a single release. To everybody’s surprise, it sold furiously. After a while MGM even put extra money in and printed a photo of the band as a cover of the single, but as soon as people saw the pic with white guys smiling there, the sales decreased dramatically. So they removed the pic, returned to plain sleeves and it started to sell again. The single sold eventually over two million copies and spawned a demand for a full length album. A filler became an entity.
Los Angeles based Viner made a strange decicion to pack his stuff and session musicians and go to Canada to cut the album. Eventually the reason was the money. Canada was way cheaper than the States so it was worth flying there to record than to stay in L.A. They arrived at CanBase studios in Vancouver in 1972 and started to bang. After few days of hard work of him, his studio group and some additional Canadian musicians, the album was ready. It was released next year with a reflective silver sleeve made with foil. It sold pretty well, but not even close to the sales of the single. The follow-up, The return of the Incredible bongo band, was released in 1974 and it sold poorly. Thus ended the story of the band. But back to the Bongo rock. Who were the infamous session musicians Michael Viner chose to his mission?
On drums was an L.A. player Jim Gordon (born James Beck Gordon) - once considered as one of the greatest rock drummers in the world. He got his skills under Phil Spector and played also on sessions for the Beach Boys and Duane Eddy. During the 1970s he backed The Byrds, Eric Clapton, George Harrison Merle Haggard, The Monkees, John Lennon, Minnie Riperton and countless others. He was a member of the group Derek and the Dominoes (along with Eric Clapton) and he co-wrote their big hit “Layla”. in 1970s Gordon toured as the drummer of Frank Zappa and what’s better, he was the drummer for Animal in the first Puppet movie. Gordon’s faith was however the drugs. In the late 1970s he flipped and started to hear voices inside his head. His purgatory finally ended in 1983 after several visits to mental hospital. He killed his mother with a knife and a hammer and was sentenced for life from a second degree murder. Currently he is imprisoned in State Medical Corrections Facility in Vacaville, CA and he is still collecting royalties for “Layla”. Steve Douglas (born Steven Douglas Kreisman) played saxophone. He was a pretty popular session musician and worked with many of the big names - Eric Clapton, Beach Boys, Keith Moon, Nilsson, Bette Midler, Bob Dylan, Ramones, Aretha Franklin and the king himself, Elvis Presley to name a few. During the time of Bongo rock -sessions, he was living and working in Vancouver. Douglas lived and literally died as a session musician. During a Ry Cooder session in 1993 he collapsed and died due to a heart failure. On guitar was Mike Deasy, also a very popular session musician in L.A. who was used by everybody from Billy Joel and 5th Dimension to Cannonball Adderley and Solomon Burke. He got his practice in same sessions that Jim Gordon did, with the Beach Boys and Duane Eddy. Born in the Bahamas, percussionist King Errisson (born Errisson Pallman Johnson) was also a top class session musician and his merit list contains sessions with a wide range of artists, including Bobbi Humphrey, Lenny Williams, Quincy Jones, Z.Z. Hill, The Four Tops, Cannonball Adderly among many many others. Remember the voodoo conga player in James Bond movie Thunderball? That was Errisson. Along drummer Jim Gordon, King Errisson played the key part in The Incredible Bongo Band. During the 1970s he was propably the best conga players in the world. Motown founder Berry Gordy even referred to him as “the unsung hero of Motown” for his contribution to Motown recordings. The other percussionist Michael Viner recalls from the sessions was L.A. based session musician Bobbye Hall. There was also some Canadian session musicians involved, most likely percussionists, but nobody remembers who they were. Michael Viner himself played on the background pretty much what he could get into his hands, from cymbals to drums and percussion. Arrangements on this album were made solely by Perry Botkin Jr.
And what about the music itself? As one can conclude from the name of the band, it is indeed very much percussion driven, and very much incredible. With Dick Dale‘ish surf guitars, tight percussion, heavy drumming and catchy horns it’s a mix of styles that is unique among the funky records throughout the history. First track, “Let there be drums” was originally a Billboard top 100 hit by Sandy Nelson, released in 1961. It was a guitar/drums-duet and it’s a pretty good example of early surf rock. The Bongo Band version has also quite banging surf rock drums with really nice backing with percussions and a catchy psychedelic surf guitar riff. And of course the break. Kind of laid back song “Last bongo in Belgium” sounds almost like they were trying to generate the mandatory ballad that appeared in almost every album that time. It follows the line of the album with it’s surf guitars and quite heavy drum-percussion beats having also some additional horn melodies. I’m not sure if they tried to resemble “Last tango in Paris” with the name but it’s however quite weird - at least for guys from L.A.. Needless to say, there’s a long phased drum-percussion break too. “Dueling bongos” is a sort of a version of “Dueling banjos”, an instrumental banjo composition from 1955 by Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith. It’s an accelerating three minute bongo frenzy - or should I call it a bongo mayhem. “Raunchy ‘73″ is a cover of Bill Justis‘ US chart hit “Raunchy” from 1959. It’s a nice (again) updated percussion driven version with no particular break, but really strong uptempo beat and catchy surf guitar melodies. Another updated cover is the one from The thing with two heads, “Bongo rock ‘73″. It was originally a top 40 hit recorded by Preston Epps back in 1959, but Bongo Band made it a heavier, more psychedelic and more banging. Uptempo beat, really catchy horn riffs and the break, what more do you need? The other one from the previously mentioned soundtrack is “Bongolia”, again a very heavy percussive track with psychedelic surf guitars, horn melodies and a long percussion break. In other words very similar to the other uptempo tracks on the album. Then there’s “In-a-gadda-da-vida”. A classic song on psychedelic rock scene. Original was a seventeen minute psych monster that was recorded by the legendary Iron Butterfly in 1968. Originally the title was supposed to be “In the garden of Eden” but the singer Doug Ingle was so drunk or high on lsd - or both - that “In-a-gadda-da-vida” was the only thing he could mumble. Therefore the title stuck and the song has been covered several times. Bongo Band’s version starts with a haunting melody and then turns into a banging midtempo track that follows the melodies of the original but is otherwise way more heavier on drums. There’s also a long, one and half minute break in the middle. Last but definitely not least, there’s the most important, and the most played track of the record, “Apache”. Originally first recorded by UK guitarist Bert Weedon in the spring of 1960, but as his single release was delayed several months, the version by the very well known UK surf rock band The Shadows was the first release of the song. The track was however written by songwriter Jerry Lordan way earlier and he used to play it on gigs with his ukulele. That’s where The Shadows spotted the song and made it a hit. It was a hit only in UK until 1961 when Danish jazz guitarist Jørgen Ingmann hit US charts with his version. Originally it’s a western movie themed song inspired heavily by the 1954 movie Apache (starring Burt Lancaster). Bongo Band’s version is totally different. It gets a point-blank start with heavy percussion with tight drumming before the riff joins in. The melodies are a true classic, from the laid back version of Jerry Lordan to this uptempo percussion frenzy of Bongo Band they have remained the same. But here everything else is different. And then there’s the break. A one and half minute combination of drums and percussion that has been one of the most re-used drumbreak in the history along James Brown’s “Funky drummer” and The Winstons‘ “Amen”. Short after the release of Bongo rock, a New York dj called Kool Herc discovered it and started to play it heavily. It was the first record he got doubles of and started to spin the doubles. In that magical night when he first played doubles of “Bongo rock” and “Apache” using only the break - in 1974 or 1975 Herc recalls - basically two things happened. First, people went crazy on the dancefloor and secondly, hip hop was born.
Let there be drums
Last bongo in Belgium
Bongo rock ‘73