The Bongos (L-R): Richard Barone, James Mastro, Frank Giannini, Rob Norris
|Origin||Hoboken, NJ, USA|
|Genres||Power pop, New Wave, Alternative rock|
|Associated acts||Richard Barone, The Health & Happiness Show, East of Venus|
|Past members||Richard Barone
The Bongos are a rock band from Hoboken, New Jersey, primarily active in the 1980s, led by Richard Barone. With a unique blend of British Invasion-flavored power pop, jangly guitars, and dance beats they made the leap to national recognition with the advent of MTV.
The Bongos grew out of a band called, "a", which had included the three original Bongos and Glenn Morrow, who later formed The Individuals and helped found Bar/None Records. "a" was the first band to play Maxwell's, a rock and roll club in Hoboken.
The group was led by Richard Barone on vocals and guitar and included Rob Norris, formerly of the Zantees on bass and Frank Giannini on drums. James Mastro, later of The Health & Happiness Show, joined the band as a guitarist after the release of their first LP. The group played extensively in Hoboken and New York City and toured the U.K. and Europe before touring in the U.S.
The Bongos emerged from Hoboken, and Manhattan's New Wave and No Wave venues such as Tier 3 and the Mudd Club, with a guitar-driven pop that belied a strong influence of the avaunt-garde. What set them apart from other such groups of the era were their sudden guitar outbursts or saxophone improvisations that echoed the work of Lou Reed, Ornette Coleman, or Captain Beefheart within the context of a pure, melodic pop song. In addition, unlike many of their peers, the group explored unabashedly sensuous dance rhythms that made their recordings dance-floor favorites. The Bongos recorded their early singles and their well-received debut EP for UK-based Fetish Records. Their debut U.S. album, Drums Along The Hudson, compiled from the band's British singles, was released in 1982 to widely favorable reviews on both sides of the Atlantic. While Trouser Press suggested that the group "may trade a certain amount of substance for easy appeal," it added that "there's no better musical equivalent of whipped cream anywhere." Writing in the Village Voice, Robert Christgau dryly commented that "for all their jumpy originality [the songs are] still slight, and Richard Barone's lyrics are so oblique you have to wonder what his angle is." In 2007 however, Jim DeRegotis wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times: "The initial impression of naivete is offset by deceptively simple lyrics that actually hint at deep, dark mysteries and unfathomed mystical enigmas." The group's cover of T. Rex's "Mambo Sun" reached No. 22 on the Billboard Dance Chart. A thriving Hoboken pop scene emerged, triggered by the Bongos and Maxwell's, which gained national media attention, and drew many bands and fans to the city. An August 1, 1982 article in the New York Times Real Estate section hinted at the scene's popularity as an influence on increasing rents and property values.
In 1983, the group was signed to RCA Records, which subsequently released the album, Numbers With Wings. New York Times' critic Robert Palmer — himself a former Hoboken-based musician with The Insect Trust — marked this as the beginning of the Bongos' creative decline, lamenting the "slick, overproduced records which vitiated the raw vitality the group had originally displayed." Regardless, the album spawned a popular and inventive MTV video of the title song (nominated for 'Best Direction' on the 1984 MTV Video Music Awards, while the song itself remained at the number one spot on the College Music Journal (CMJ) chart for six consecutive weeks). The album also included the tribal, dance-floor hit "Barbarella." A hectic tour schedule of over 300 shows sustained support at radio and MTV. Their Brazilian-influenced follow-up album, Beat Hotel, along with relentless touring (now with a further-expanded lineup including percussionist Steve Scales from the Talking Heads), raised the Bongos' profile further and continued to increase their devoted cult following. It was in the midst of recording an album for Island Records that the band split up in 1987, with each member pursuing solo interests.
Richard Barone has subsequently released a series of well-received solo albums, including one, Glow released on September 14, 2010 on Hoboken's Bar/None Records, and a major 3-disc live collection "'cool blue halo' 25th Anniversary Concert" on the DigSin label in 2012. He has also established a career as a producer of recordings and major concert events and, since 2011, is a professor at NYU's Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. James Mastro owns a popular guitar shop in Hoboken ("The Guitar Bar") and tours regularly as guitarist for Ian Hunter. Bassist Rob Norris plays in numerous groups including some offshoots of The Feelies, while drummer Frank Giannini pursues other interests and continues drumming on various projects.
In 2006, the original three Bongos re-entered the studio with longtime fan Moby producing to create bonus material for a CD reissue of the group's debut album. The remastered, 27-track special edition of Drums Along The Hudson, which was released internationally by Cooking Vinyl Records in June, 2007, includes rare, live bonus tracks and new studio recordings. An accompanying video for "Bulrushes 2007," a reprise of the band's early single, "The Bulrushes" featuring Moby, was released simultaneously on iTunes.
The original three Bongos also reunited for two shows at Joe's Pub at The Public Theater in Greenwich Village in October 2006, and two more in February 2007. On September 30, 2007, the foursome played again in Hoboken for the first time in twenty years to an overflowing and appreciative crowd, and received a Proclamation from Mayor David Roberts commending them for their substantial contributions to Hoboken's culture and heritage. They headlined a day-long bill that featured the Chris Stamey Group, Glenn Mercer (formerly of the Feelies) and The Health and Happiness Show.
In Spring, 2008, Sony/Legacy re-issued the Bongos RCA catalog for the first time to iTunes and other digital retailers.
On March 11, 2009, the Bongos performed a full concert set at The City Winery in NYC following an R.E.M. tribute concert held earlier that evening at Carnegie Hall to benefit music education programs. On October 22, 2009 the group returned to Maxwell's for the first time since 1986, and subsequently performed at Manhattan's Hiro Ballroom, during the CMJ Music Marathon 2009 that same month (with longtime friends The Fleshtones). On January 25, 2010, The Bongos reunited once again at the City Winery, this time to benefit Emergency Earthquake Relief efforts in Haiti. Various members have joined Richard Barone onstage for his solo performances.
The Bongos came together again on July 31, 2013 to perform the final concert at their home club, Maxwell's where the original members had also performed the venue's first show. From the stage Richard announced that the group's unreleased album Phantom Train, recorded in Compass Point, Bahamas in 1986, would finally be released on October 1st, 2013. The group also promised a series of reunion shows to celebrate its release.. Marty Scott, co-founder of Jem Records announced that Phantom Train would be the first release of the reconstituted label. The album was remixed and prepared for release in summer, 2013 by Richard Barone.
- The Bongos EP (1980, Fetish Records)
- Drums Along the Hudson (1982, PVC Records)
- Time and the River (1982, Fetish Records)
- Numbers With Wings EP (1983, RCA Records)
- Beat Hotel (1985, RCA Records)
- Drums Along the Hudson - Special Edition (2007, Cooking Vinyl)
- Phantom Train (2013, Jem Records)
- Start Swimming (1981, Stiff Records) ("Telephoto Lens" and "In the Congo" appear on this live recording from London's Rainbow theatre. The band, then still a trio, was joined on "In the Congo" by members of Bush Tetras and Throbbing Gristle.)
- "Numbers With Wings" and other songs appear on numerous 80s compilations on a variety of labels.
- In The Congo - Directed by Ed Steinberg
- Mambo Sun - Directed by Ed Steinberg
- The Bulrushes - Directed by Phil Marino
- Numbers With Wings - Directed by Juliano Waldmann
- Brave New World - Directed by Juliano Waldmann
- Bulrushes 2007 (with Moby) - Directed by Richard Kerris
- The Nomi Song - Directed by Andrew Horn