The Bongos – Phantom Train

As he tells the story, Richard Barone first met RuPaul around 1985 in New York City. The lead singer for The Bongos had already been told about RuPaul – who, back then, was a young man rollerskating around in a mohawk. In fact, a writer at Rolling Stone had told Barone that RuPaul should cover one of The Bongos’ songs. In that first conversation, Barone suggested that RuPaul cover an older tune called “In The Congo.”

RuPaul didn’t hear correctly. “What was that?” asked RuPaul. “‘Run to the Wild?’”

“Yes,” said a suddenly inspired Richard – who then ran home and wrote a song called “Run to the Wild” that was so good that he decided to keep it for The Bongos.

Barone should’ve given the song to RuPaul. “Run to the Wild” ended up recorded for what might have been The Bongos’ debut album for Island Records. The tapes ended up locked away after somebody decided that the RCA label had the right idea about dropping the band. At least The Bongos got to enjoy one last exotic recording session in the Bahamas.

A lot of Bongos fans would never even know about the unreleased album. Richard Barone wrote about it in his Frontman autobiography, which was published in 2007 – but that wasn’t a big enough deal to send anybody looking for lost Bongos gold. But now we have Phantom Train freed from the vaults as a really interesting addition to a discography that doesn’t hold many people’s interest.

If Phantom Train had been released, though, it would’ve been considered a real comeback after the stumble of The Bongos’ proper major-label debut. The band had scored some attention when the PVC label released Drums Along the Hudson as a compilation of EPs and singles. Those songs were a mix of nervous pop and bold new wave, which added up to stripped-down glam.

RCA launched them with 1983’s Numbers With Wings EP, which showed the Bongos maturing into suave rockers with a sense of humor. Tears for Fears were taking off around the same time, and RCA probably saw a bright future for the band right up until 1985‘s Beat Hotel – which somehow captured The Bongos’ experimental pop spirit without a single memorable melody.

It made sense when Richard Barone reemerged as an orchestral-pop romantic with the live Cool Blue Halo in 1987. Casual fans outside of New York City (and The Bongos’ home base in Hoboken) probably figured that Barone needed to ditch the trappings of a rock band to find his latest sound. Phantom Train proves that Barone couldn’t have gotten there without his old band. The album is full of songs from his later solo career, and the Bongos really nail the tough trick of rocking out to ambitious and mannered melodies.

The cover of “Sunshine Superman” was probably a commercial calculation, but the song perfectly fits into Phantom Train’s heady world. The band was all set with another album’s worth of sharp tunes, and producer E.T. Thorngren – who was a big deal back then – navigates with the deftness of a man who’s fluent in pop, reggae, and disco. Thorngren certainly fulfilled his role as a hitmaker for a band that didn’t know they were doing demos for their frontman’s solo career.

Barone’s autobiography covers the story of how the Bahamas (plus lots of cocaine) really put an end to The Bongos. The physical release of Phantom Train doesn’t even have liner notes. It does have great lost songs like “Saturn Eyes” and “Diamond Guitar.” “Run to the Wild” turns out to be The Bongos’ sole stab at ‘60s biker psychedelia. It’s pretty great. The sole clunker is “My Wildest Dreams,” which is okay, but not much of a lead track. Phantom Train would’ve suffered for that one.

And the punchline – which a project like this needs – is that guitarist James Mastro has his swell “Town of One” treated here as a bonus track, and it’s the kind of sweeping heartland rock that was about to become huge on the charts. The song’s a little skewed in The Bongos’ tradition, but it was still the sound of the future. It just wasn’t the future of a futuristic pop act.

The Bongos
Phantom Train