They Got the Beat!
The Bongos Take Their Phantom Train Back Down South
“Our first [U.S.] show out of the New York area was in Atlanta at the 688 [club],” reveals Richard Barone, vocalist, guitarist and primary songwriter for Hoboken, New Jersey power pop-rockers The Bongos. “[We] first toured Europe before we left NYC [to tour the United States]!”
This month, the quartet will return to Atlanta for a one-off show at The EARL, their first visit to the city since an awkward gig at Underground Atlanta in 1995. And unlike some of those ’70s/’80s/’90s troupers cashing in on the summer nostalgia package tour circuit, it’s not just “Richard Barone and a backing band calling themselves The Bongos” – it’s the original guys from the 1980s: Barone, bassist Rob Norris, drummer Frank Giannini and guitarist James Mastro, the latter of whom joined the group after the release of their debut album, 1982’s Drums Along the Hudson.
“[Atlanta music promoter] Chris Chandler called me and asked if The Bongos would come down,” Barone says. “He’s the same one who booked me at Eddie’s Attic as a solo act a couple of years ago. It came out of the blue. The thing about Atlanta with us is that when asked, and Atlanta came up, everyone just said ‘Yes, let’s do it!’”
Barone himself is a native Southerner. Born in Tampa, Florida, his immersion in the music biz came quite early when Tampa top-40 AM radio station WALT regularly put seven-year-old Ricky Barone (aka The Littlest DJ) on the air as part of its Sunday afternoon “Beach Party” program. As a teenager, he began producing recordings for local bands, as well as musical oddjob Tiny Tim. (For a fascinating account of Richard’s experience with Tiny Tim and the recordings that emerged from it, read our interview with Barone in the December 2009 issue of Stomp and Stammer.)
“Punk was on my radar when I was in high school,” Barone acknowledges. “I was very aware of The Ramones, Patti Smith and Richard Hell…those three especially. When the Live at CBGB’s – The Home Of Underground Rock album came out [in 1976]…one of the bands on that album was called The Laughing Dogs. And…I liked them – on the album they had a cool song.”
Not long after hearing that compilation album, Davy Jones and Micky Dolenz from The Monkees were passing through Tampa, and Richard and some friends went to the “The Monkees Show.”
“When we got there, we noticed the band behind them was The Laughing Dogs!” Barone says. Managing to get backstage afterward, Barone told The Monkees that he was a Laughing Dogs fan. “They overheard us, and they were so amazed that anyone from Tampa knew who they were,” Barone says. “We became friends and ended up [following] the rest of the Florida tour with them.”
When Richard told them that he wanted to move to New York, The Laughing Dogs said he could stay at their loft in Brooklyn. “I ended up moving here [in 1979],” he says. “It’s [from their loft] that I answered an ad in The Village Voice, quite soon, of a band that was forming looking for a guitar player that was into Television, the Talking Heads, The Velvet Underground and Eno. And I answered the ad and it was the guys who were going to soon form The Bongos.”
But it turned out that Barone’s guitar was damaged on the train ride up from Florida. The Laughing Dogs told him to go to the guitar shops on 48th Street to trade his damaged Gibson for another. This is where The Bongos’ identity with Rickenbacker guitars would begin.
“I walked into one store and in that small tiny shop was Lou Reed!” the musician remembers excitedly. “So, I’m sitting there trying out guitars and I looked at him and went ‘Oh my god it’s Lou Reed.’ Don’t forget I was just out of high school and coming to New York and blah blah blah and I’m a huge fan of Lou Reed. VU and solo…Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal…I just had to go over to him and say hello. And he was nice! He asked what I was doing there, and I told him I was trading in my guitar. He asked what I was looking for and I said I had no idea. He asked me what I liked, and I told him I liked The Beatles and I told him I liked The Velvet Underground. And he said, ‘Why don’t you try that?’ And he pointed over to the farthest and darkest corner of the store and there was that blonde maple Rickenbacker, the 1965 model. I did try that, and it was awesome! I bought it right there on the spot.”
Another Bongos/VU connection is Norris, who in late 1972 toured the UK as guitarist in the last official sputtering-to-the-finish-line lineup (although without Reed, or any original members for that matter) of The Velvet Underground, centered around Doug Yule who’d joined the band prior to the recording of their third LP. “Before [Norris] was a member, he was a big [VU] fan,” tells Barone. “[The Velvet Underground’s] first out-of-New-York-City show was at Summit High School in New Jersey and Rob was a student there. That was always a part of our story. When [The Bongos] first started, we did a lot of covers and we did a whole set of Velvet Underground songs.
“We were formed originally with Glenn Morrow, who later formed Bar/None Records,” remembers Barone. “He’s the one who placed the [Village Voice] ad.”
Calling themselves “a”, the group formed by Morrow, Barone, Norris and Giannini were the first band to play at legendary Hoboken bar-turned-rock-club Maxwell’s. By 1980 Morrow was already focusing on another band called The Individuals, while the remaining three members of “a” became The Bongos, releasing early singles such as “Telephoto Lens” and “In the Congo,” the latter’s B-side being a cover of T-Rex’s “Mambo Sun” that enjoyed significant college radio airplay when The Bongos’ first few singles and EP were compiled for Drums Along the Hudson’s tracklisting.
“When we started, we were very minimalistic,” says Barone. “I was trying to combine what Giorgio Moroder was doing, believe or not…acoustically and combine it with a Buddy Holly strum jangle. How could we have a dance record that still had Buddy Holly’s ‘Peggy Sue’ in it somehow? How can we combine Buddy Holly with Donna Summer? That was really my first goal with The Bongos. We wanted to rock and roll but we wanted to be in dance clubs…we liked dance clubs.”
Drums Along the Hudson led to them signing to RCA in 1983. With its title track and “Barbarella” in heavy rotation on MTV and college radio, that year’s EP Numbers With Wings was a modest breakthrough and remains many fans’ favorite offering from The Bongos. Heavy touring for that EP and 1985’s full-length album Beat Hotel led to regions of success, such as the Southeast and Atlanta in particular, where heavy play on Georgia State’s college station Album 88 allowed for many return visits subsequent to that initial 688 trek.
This writer first saw The Bongos open for The B-52’s in 1982 at The Fox Theatre, an opening gig that just fell into their lap. “We were never really looking for any of this stuff,” Barone says, regarding success. “With The B-52’s, we got a call from the band. We were already on the road doing our own club dates on a double bill with a band called The Rabies. Then The B-52’s called us and asked us if we’d like to join them on tour, so we did… We loved The B-52’s. In fact, our name came from The B-52’s. We went to see them, I think it was at CBGB’s, where Cindy [Wilson] was sitting on the floor playing bongo drums. We were thinking of band names and suddenly ‘bongos’ just came up. And it’s because Cindy was playing them.”
The Bongos embody another flavor of jangle pop, not far removed from those they followed but also spiritually in line with then-contemporaries such as The Feelies, The dB’s and early Yo La Tengo, all of whom along with The Bongos, The Individuals and a few others came to collectively represent something of a Maxwell’s/Hoboken scene/sound during the 1980s.
As with all Golden Ages, that one eventually petered out, as did The Bongos by the end of 1987. In the years since, Barone has released assorted solo albums, toured as a solo act, taught at NYU’s Clive Davis School of Recorded Music, served on the Board of Governors for the Grammys, written a memoir (2007’s Frontman), organized and hosted assorted concerts in New York and released that aforementioned (and excellent) album of Tiny Tim recordings (2009’s I’ve Never Seen a Straight Banana), among numerous other projects and endeavors. Norris has played in various groups (including East of Venus with Glenn Mercer of The Feelies and Stan Demeski of Luna) and produced a couple of EPs for New Jersey band Winter Hours, whose late singer/songwriter Michael Carlucci was also in East of Venus. Giannini briefly played with Winter Hours, while Mastro owns a guitar shop in Hoboken, fronted the New York rock group The Health & Happiness Show during the 1990s and more recently has toured in Ian Hunter’s band and Mott the Hoople ’74.
With the members involved in their own projects, The Bongos as a consistently active band doesn’t really exist, but their strong friendships have kept them close to one another and allow for projects such as the completion of their “lost” final album Phantom Train in 2013, and an occasional reunion gig such as the one in Atlanta later this month. “We never really broke up,” says Barone. “In ’87 I did a solo show acoustically, which became my Cool Blue Halo album. That was a natural thing…The Bongos were in the audience.”
Not only did they never really break up, they didn’t really have a strategy.
“There was never a long-term plan with us,” Barone says. “Commercially, maybe we should have had a plan. With each step, with each album, with each tour, it was just, ‘This is how we feel now.’
“Making music has always been something I’ve done because I’ve felt compelled to do it,” he continues. “So, when people appreciate it and like what I do…it almost amazes me in a way. Because I don’t think of that when I’m writing it or working on it. I never think about how it’s going to be perceived by others. I want to express how it feels…how things feel…what I can do on my guitar to just raise some emotion. And it comes out that way. I love it.”
Photo by Jack Silbert.