Saturday, January 26, 2013

Day Twenty-Six: The Boomtown Rats - Mondo Bongo


Columbia Records ■ PC 37062

Released January 24, 1981¹
Produced by Tony Visconti and the Boomtown Rats
Engineered by Chris Porter and Tom Winter
¹Original tracklisting; UK release


Side One:Side Two:
  1. Mood Mambo
  2. Straight Up
  3. This Is My Room
  4. Another Piece of Red
  5. Go Man Go
  6. Under Their Thumb...Is Under My Thumb
  1. Please Don't Go
  2. The Elephant's Graveyard
  3. Banana Republic
  4. Don't Talk to Me
  5. Hurt Hurts
  6. Up All Night
Anyone who knows this album (and let's be honest, that's probably zero people I know, and thus zero people reading this) might see something a bit peculiar above. And there is something peculiar. Anyone who has done much research into British music in the 1960s--and it doesn't take much--will start to see a large volume peculiarities. There was no Yesterday and Today, no Beatles VI, no Who album titled Happy Jack--and the list goes on, and on, and on, and on. Even AC/DC (who were only British by birth, and even then only 3/5 of them) suffered this with the weird melding of the albums T.N.T. and High Voltage, with some tracks from these scattered around, and others lost until the release of the '74 Jailbreak EP in 1984, four years after the death of Bon Scott in 1980--to say nothing of the more minor fiddlings with the other albums cannibalized to encompass that release. Bewildering re-arrangements and tossed-in-a-blender releases are a hallmark of U.S. releases of artists from other countries, and often done in fashions more like High Voltage, where the title stays the same and nothing else does--the tracklisting, the cover art, even the placement in the chronology of release. This is actually another tiny part of my frustration with blogs setting out to cover 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die: if you are unaware, you may not actually be listening to the recordings you are being directed toward. If you are told to listen to Raw Power in the modern age, chances are you aren't going to hear David Bowie's mix, unless you know to seek it out. If you are told to listen to a number of Frank Zappa's albums with the Mothers of Invention, censoring, strange mixes and other alterations will occur (though you can be forgiven, in that case, for thinking perhaps they are intended in some cases).

The original UK release of Mondo Bongo had a matching first side, but the second varied significantly, as "Don't Talk to Me" was instead later released as the B-side to "Never in a Million Years" (a single from follow-up album V Deep), "Up All Night" was from V Deep and released as a single, and both "Fall Down" and "Whitehall 1212" appeared on the album instead. In the US, these tracks were released on V Deep ("Whitehall 1212"), and, well, not at all ("Fall Down"). I was aware of these changes by the time I picked this up, but I didn't really expect to run into the original UK tracklisting at any point. Bob Geldof (writer/vocalist) and Pete Briquette (bassist and occasional co-writer) rearranged the tracks again for the 2005 remaster series, wherein everything went absolutely bonkers, "Straight Up" opening the album and being followed by "The Elephant's Graveyard"--and more shuffling all the way through². If I didn't give you any of that background and you decided to listen to this record, you'd have a good chance of finding yourself mightily confused--especially if you were to download or purchase it on CD. If you find something interesting here, keep all that in mind: this listing isn't hanging around except on used vinyl!

"Mood Mambo" is a peculiar choice for an opener: jittery bongos, a thumping bass kick, and Geldof in his story-telling mode, the beat rapid enough that you aren't going to mistake that arrangement for a beat poetry session. "I'm in the mood to--" he says, and the band comes in with just backing vocals, singing "Crazy bongo!" as Pete Briquette's bass enters, with a line that seems vaguely detached from the frenetic bongo playing. The band's backing vocals continue, as does Geldof telling his story. Short blurts of electronic noise (likely at the hands of the band's keyboardist, Johnny Fingers) and an echo on Geldof's lines on occasion keep us floating entirely outside the punk/new wave sound the Rats originated in, or even the less punk realms they'd begun exploring most thoroughly on The Fine Art of Surfacing the year prior. Eventually everything hushes and Geldof whispers, too, but as he says, "You see, they're in the mood to..." his voice returns to its normal volume, as does the rest of the band. Repetition of the backing lines with Geldof improvising elaborations and nothing but bongos behind them fades the song out.

Actually a clever choice for an opener on the remastered CD, "Straight Up" starts with yo-yoing drums from Simon Crowe and riffs from Gerry Cott and Garry Roberts. Fingers enters in the background on an organ, but after the initial sting of those riffs, the bassline tries to drag the song through a descending spiral, eventually succeeding and taking over the song with a propulsive line that acts as a more distinct backing for Geldof's vocal. Fingers moves to piano and adds only intermittent force to the rhythm, catching more of the melody as they run into the chorus, where the organ holds and wails, but turns back to a piano that now follows the speeding bassline of Briquette to enforce its rhythm. Synth-inflected keys and varied drum fills mark a brief interlude, before the original bright, strong riff comes back. After the final verse, the song fades on the sounds of the interlude, which runs over Pete's downward spiraling bass.

Almost absent of any lyrics at all, barring the title, "This Is My Room" is practically an instrumental song. A slow, bell-jingling introduction gives way to a harp-like cascade of electric keys from Fingers that slowly shuffles, gathering its force into a steady beat moved more by bass than melody. On piano again, Fingers drops the odd fluttering melodic line, the song running through a rise a few times with non-verbal vocals from Bob and the rest joining it. A solid chord from the piano is answered by thunder and the song changes, allowing a synthetic line to define it. "This is my room/Oh yeah/This is my room", Bob sings, over dramatic rolls and rhythmic strumming of guitar. "I can sleep alone/I know how/I stay here on my own/And now/I wake from sleep with little rest/It's 10 by 9 and in a mess/A window shut but facing west/A worn out rug, an old address/And.../This is my room". Rolling timpani and emphatic guitar riffs give a huge weight to a simple, descriptive song.

Though I've seen it maligned on occasion, I've always liked "Another Piece of Red". Fingers uses a pretty piano intro that morphs briefly into a musical quote that I couldn't name if I tried (and I tried) but that is often used to "announce" a scene is set in Britain. I'd be quite grateful if anyone can in fact give me a title! [Update: It's "Rule Britannia", which I was convinced was the piece in question, but was deflected from when I heard how it starts. Probably should have listened to more of it! Thanks to Liam for this clarification] Anyway: Geldof begins singing about watching Zimbabwe fall from British control in the 1980 elections there that removed Ian Smith. Over nothing but Johnny's piano, Geldof sings of the slow descent of British imperialism, pausing before the chorus for a rising drum roll from Crowe, and the addition of Briquette on bass for the following verses that list the countries falling away from the British Empire, Crowe contributing a light rhythm.  At the next chorus, the song is returned to just Geldof and Fingers, with the briefest addition of whistling and martial drumming, ending the song with a drum roll crescendo.

Huge drums--timpani in part--and Pete's bass open "Go Man Go!" with a steady pace, but a very big sound. Fingers adds synthetic keys in a more bright melody that gradually pulls Crowe into a more rock-ish drumbeat. A very up-front-mixed vocal from Geldof (who answers himself in backing vocals) runs the vocals over a rhythm section almost alone, though a whirling organ line from Fingers brings the song to its chorus, which is primarily call-and-answer where the answer is always the title of the song, punctuated by the rhythm section. Synthesizer lines and Geldof's back-and-forth with himself are expanded a bit in the following verse, later leading to a repetition of the chorus briefly delayed by a saxophone solo from Dr. David Machale (later immortalized in "Dave" on In the Long Grass, though the song was changed to "Rain" in the US, allegedly because some radio executives were concerned a man singing to another might be a bit "too gay"--always good to know the reasons behind those decisions are not irrational so much as stupid). The song ends with a long outro, then a squawk from Machale that Geldof responds to by saying "One more time", but he earns instead a synthetic sting from Fingers.

Geldof re-arranges and re-works the Stones' "Under My Thumb" into "Under Their Thumb...Is Under My Thumb", a thumping beat and a reggae rhythm matched to a great beat from Crowe. An echo on intermittent drum hits and Geldof's own voice echoes (ahem) the production techniques of the greats of dub. The pace and the peculiar key solo from Fingers keep the song firmly grounded in the Rats' musical aesthetic though.

A peculiar percussive solo opens "Please Don't Go" before turning into a more frantic and clear but difficult to separate rhythm motion added to by upward slides from Briquette, though the song breaks into more comfortable territory when Machale's sax joins and Geldof begins telling another story, backing himself with the title of the song for a second time. While his story-telling is casual, and even his more distinctly sung backing, as well as Machale's sax are relatively easygoing, Crowe and Briquette thunder onward underneath him, though Crowe's drumming remains wild and varied, too, further emphasizing its difference from the rest of the song. There's a momentary relent that allows Briquette to take control, giving Bob the opportunity to sing scat (!) for a few measures. An overlay of electronic keys from Johnny is allowed to shine over it all for just a moment, but the drums regain control, eventually crossfaded into another mechanical and rhythmic sound, which is eventually left in isolation: the tapping of a typewriter.

The biggest single from the album in the U.S. (I believe, at least--this band is not loaded with information around the net, and what's there is often conflicting, at least in part, and they were never near as big in the U.S. as anywhere else) is "The Elephant's Graveyard", which is perhaps the most normally Rats song, with hints of Steve Nieve-y-circa-This Year's Model³ organ from Fingers, which is followed by a more grand line on piano for a moment. Ever energetic Pete and Simon keep the song moving through either as Geldof sings about Miami, Florida, and Florida's nature as "retirement state", balanced against the riots that were incited by the death of Arthur McDuffie there. "Guilty, 'til proven guilty/Isn't that the law?/Guilty, 'til proven guilty/That's what we all saw", goes the chorus--seemingly speaking for the jury that acquitted the accused police officers, but ending by turning it on them for a moment, exiting on calls of "Shame, shame, shame-y shame".

On the other hand, the more definitive biggest single in the U.K. was "Banana Republic", Geldof's acerbic and acidic, but relatively casual description of Ireland, the band's home country, from which they were banned from performing. A reggae-style bassline, the scratching, palm-muted guitar and the basic drumbeat adding up to the same give the song a rather odd opening, a drum roll seeming to announce the song proper, but instead leading to a repetition, over which Fingers vamps in a more organ-like keyboard line. When the song does begin, it speeds its pace and shifts entirely, to a  more full sound, with even faux accordion moments. The burbling, bubbling Briquette's bass keeps the sound of the introduction, though, and the near-falsetto backing of the chorus and Bob's own subdued reading of it--especially contrasted with his emphatic though seemingly jaded and unemotional (in tone, though not word) delivery of the verses. Partway through, Bob's voice repeats the description of who he thinks controls it all--"The black and blue uniforms/Police and priests" and then echoes into the distance. We come back to the introductory reggae style, which continues of a lengthy outro, slowly breaking down until Briquette is left repeating his part alone at the end.

A very rough guitar and Geldof give a completely different impression of "Hurt Hurts" than the song itself bears out. Crowe's huge drum sound announce the song's title with handclaps and more volume and emphasis than the opening of the song. The movement in the pseudo-chorus is full and rhythmic, with an unusually low piano riff defining much of it. The crash and thump of Crowe's drums, though, is the signature of the song, pounding out under the lightly echoed calls of "Hurt hurts" from Geldof, interestingly outshining the chorus proper as a hook.

Inserted from a b-side for the U.S. release, "Don't Talk to Me" is perhaps the most "normal" song on the entire album, with Bob doing his best Buddy Holly impersonation (think "oh-ho-ho"), with a nicely backed chorus performed by him with the rest of the band, a load of handclaps and a bit of semi-standard guitar. There's even a hint of some 60s (surfish) guitar sound, and an actual guitar solo.

"Up All Night" is on loan from another album entirely, though thankfully at least one produced by the same people. It's also not too far off in sound from the rest of Mondo Bongo, so its appearance isn't entirely unwelcome. Bass-dominated, the song is almost nothing else, though bongo-based percussion is also present. Guitars are all texture and often not present. Johnny's fingers are also intermittent at best. The echo on Bob's answering lines in the chorus are also reminiscent of the peculiar production choices on Mondo Bongo that set it so distinctly apart from its predecessor, The Fine Art of Surfacing. Fingers does get a solo, and the "Say it ain't so, Joe/Say it ain't so, Joe-woah-woah-woah/Oh-woah-woah-woah" bridge actually make for a solid ending to the album, even if the changes inherently raise my hackles.

Of course, hiding after this is the "hidden track" "Cheerio": a very rough, live acoustic guitar backs Geldof through a very short song. "You'd better hurry up and say something/Or else I'm gonna go", he sings, and the album ends. Ah, wait, no: "Okay./That's fine by me./Cheerio!" Geldof sings with an angelic chorus of the rest of the band behind him, repeating it to the end of the album.

The Rats are one of my favourite bands. To many, that goes without saying. It shouldn't be too much a surprise--even in the future, looking at past polls you can see what a volume of their stuff I have as compared to effectively any other artist (and it doesn't include my double 7" for "Charmed Lives", either). I own all six albums on vinyl and CD, and scattered bits and pieces outside of that. They hit my sweet spot, really: a professional, unusual, but pop-oriented band. There's a sensibility to Geldof's songwriting that is easily seen in the choice to label a Rats-plus-Geldof-solo compilation Loudmouth, and in songs like his "Great Song of Indifference", a live take of a first world occupant talking about their callous disinterest in suffering around the world. As with many things Geldof sings and does, there's no sense that he's preaching with a fuzzy head or cynicism about the cause: he never pulls punches (though he occasionally plays politics) about what he thinks is important--when he wrote a song about the man who took his wife away from him and later killed himself, it's neither devoid of sympathy nor maudlin: "What the fuck's goin' on inside your head?" Frustrated, angry, but not dismissive, it's the nature of Bob's approach to things. He's jaded and arrogant, but not without awareness of the fact that he's limited. Matched to his musical sensibilities (steeped in punk, but later let dry out in other genres, most clearly starting with this album), it's a great mix.

I've always thought of Mondo Bongo as "the experimental album", with their self-titled debut being the most "punk", A Tonic for the Troops building that sound into their own--often the moment I like most in bands--and The Fine Art of Surfacing putting a finish on it. I'm not left with that opinion changed, but as with every time I listen to one of the last three Rats albums, I'm reminded that I often sell them short. I'd still recommend a few of the others (Tonic, Fine Art) first, but this isn't the failure some make it out to be.

²If you want specifics:

  1. "Straight Up" – 3:15
  2. "The Elephants Graveyard" – 3:43
  3. "This Is My Room" – 3:35
  4. "Another Piece of Red" – 2:35
  5. "Hurt Hurts" – 3:05
  6. "Please Don't Go" – 3:34
  7. "Fall Down" – 2:26
  8. "Go Man Go!" – 3:52
  9. "Under Their Thumb" – 2:41
  10. "Banana Republic" – 4:55
  11. "Whitehall 1212" – 3:43
  12. "Mood Mambo" – 4:06
  13. "Cheerio"

³Steve Nieve is and was the keyboardist for Elvis Costello, first with the Attractions and now with whatever the heck he's calling his band.
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