The Bongos’ planned March 20, 2020, concert at the Outpost in the Burbs was the first show the Outpost postponed because of the pandemic. And The Bongos will perform at the first in-person show the Outpost is presenting since then. It will take place on Sept. 19 — almost exactly a year and a half after the original date — outdoors at Montclair’s Van Vleck House and Gardens.
That 2020 show was going to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the band, which came together in Hoboken in 1980 and started releasing singles that year. So consider this show a belated 40th anniversary celebration, or an advance 40th anniversary celebration of the release of the band’s brilliant first album, Drums Along the Hudson, in 1982.
Singer-songwriter-guitarists Richard Barone and James Mastro form the band with bassist Rob Norris and drummer Frank Giannini. (Mastro was not an original member but joined soon after Drums Along the Hudson came out.)
Before forming The Bongos, Barone, Norris and Giannini were in a band called “a” with Glenn Morrow (who later formed the bands The Individuals and Rage to Live and has been running the Hoboken-based Bar/None record label for decades). “a” was the first band to play at Maxwell’s, which opened in 1979 and soon became a sort of home base for The Bongos and other bands.
I talked to Barone and Norris shortly before the 2020 show was postponed — there was no indication, at the time, how deadly and disruptive the pandemic would become — but have held off on writing up the interview until now.
Q: Did you guys know each other well before the start of The Bongos, or did you kind of form a band and then get to know each other?
Norris: Frank and I were playing in a couple of bands before that, one with Glenn Morrow, and Richard met Jim at CBGB, I think the same week that Frank and I met him. That’s how “a” got going. Frank and I knew each other a long time. Jim was a fan of our band, Tin Can, which preceded “a.” And he was also a fan of “a.” Richard just sort of arrived from Tampa, and we connected pretty quickly.
Barone: Within a really short time, I met everyone really quickly, and separately. But they all knew each other. I met Jim and his brother. They had a band called Fast Car. He was still in high school. So I went backstage and I said, “I really like you guys, I’d love to work with you in some way, at some point.” So we exchanged phone numbers right away. And in that same week, I met Rob and Glenn Morrow. It came together very quickly.
The Bongos’ story, actually … all of it came together quickly. Each part of the story, in our early days, came together extremely quickly, it seems.
Norris: Our first single (“Telephoto Lens,” see video below) just launched. It was like, “Okay, hold onto your hats. Here we go.”
Barone: The reason … we met the guy from (the British label) Fetish Records — Rob, you can correct me if I’m wrong, ’cause sometimes I’m vague on how that happened. But Rod Pearce, who started Fetish Records — a young guy, he was 21 years old — he had signed, from New Jersey, WKGB, a band with Dennis Kelley, and he had put out a single with them. And then Dennis said, “You should go see The Bongos.” I think that’s what happened. And we had just started.
Norris: Yeah, I think he was at Maxwell’s to see them.
Barone: Right, and I think Dennis also said, “They’re great, you should stick around to see them.” Something like that, you know.
Norris: And he made us an offer that night and wrote it down on a napkin, as I remember.
Barone: Yeah, we did a napkin deal and then we signed it right there at Maxwell’s, in the restaurant area. And pretty soon we were making our first recording.
The very first demos were actually recorded … remember, Rob, who we were working with? People forget this part of the story, but it really is important to me, and I’m sure to you, but it was Helen Hooke, who was from a group called The Deadly Nightshade. Did you ever hear of them, Jay?
Q: I don’t think so. But I do remember Helen Hooke was in (the band) Strange Cave with Jim.
Barone: Yes she was. But that (The Deadly Nightshade) was her band in the ’70s … we didn’t really know them that well. But she was in a band with women — three women (Hooke, Anne Bowen and Pamela Brandt) — and they were signed to RCA Records. So they were three women signed to a major record deal: Very ahead of their time. And it was kind of like part of a women’s rock movement. They were feminists, you know.
When Helen went solo, she had met Rob and I and Frank and asked us to be her band. This was very early. The Bongos were just starting. I think this is an interesting part of the story, because we played at Folk City (in New York) with her.
Norris: She was quote-unquote “managed” by Bud Prager, the manager of Foreigner. So we used to rehearse in their rehearsal space. We were really getting to know each other.
Barone: For us, it was a very lucky break, because we could then rehearse in a really cool space that actually had a recording studio as part of it. So Helen … we made a demo, just for fun, for us, and Helen produced it. It was “Glow in the Dark” and “Telephoto Lens,” I believe both songs. Is that true, Rob, both songs?
Barone: So they were recorded first, with Helen Hooke producing. It was pretty raw. We didn’t release that; it was just for us. But soon after, we did the real record. It was all happening very quickly.
Norris: A funny thing: I saw Deadly Nightshade open for Little Feat at The Bottom Line (in New York) in, like, ’75 or something. ’74, maybe.
Barone: The dynamic for The Bongos was that we were guys, and the whole idea of The Deadly Nightshade was that it was a women’s band, in the women’s movement. So suddenly she appears at Folk City with these three boys. And the audience didn’t really know how to … it was all women, or mostly, right, Rob?
Norris: Yeah. Almost the entire audience was women. There was a bit of a backlash. But we won them over.
Barone: We had a lot of spirit. And I think that, combined with her really great musical skills, won them over. But at first it was, “Why does she have three men onstage with her?”
But that’s how we started gelling, as a band.
Norris: She whipped us into shape, basically.
Barone: She did. And we had to play different kinds of songs. Like, we did folk things, and country. Remember she would do a fiddle solo on “Orange Blossom Special?”
Barone: Things like that. But we’d punk it out.
Barone: We’d punk it out! We were like The Ramones behind her. That was a part of our history that people don’t really know. And I think it was cool, because it made us better musicians.
Q: Of course, many of the songs came out as singles, first, before they were compiled for the (Drums Along the Hudson) album, right?
Norris: Yeah, we went to England having already made maybe five, six singles, and recorded the rest of the album over in England, and put it all together.
Barone: There are 15 songs on Drums Along the Hudson. I think we had recorded five tracks here, which was “In the Congo,” “Hunting” and “Mambo Sun,” and “Glow in the Dark” and “Telephoto Lens.” And everything else we did in England, which was really a great experience.
We’re getting ahead of ourselves, because part of going to England was because we were offered to play at the Rainbow Theatre as part of a show of new bands from the New York area. That was a really big deal for us. And really, we were still a very young band at that point.
Norris: The show was called “Taking Liberties” and, let’s see, it was Polyrock, Bush Tetras, Raybeats, Chris Stamey, The dBs (Stamey’s band) and us, I think. Did I miss anybody?
Barone: Did you say Fleshtones?
Norris: Uh, Fleshtones, of course. Duh.
Barone: It was a good bill.
Q: So you just went there to do the one show and to do some recording?
Barone: No, we did a lot of shows.
Norris: Since Fetish was based there, (Pearce) put us into Dingwalls and all sorts of clubs.
Barone: The new romantics scene was starting around that time, too, so he booked us at a place called Cabaret Futura, that was like a very cool moveable feast that would go to different venues and it was hosted by Richard Strange. What was his band?
Norris: Richard Strange? Um, I think he just went under Richard Strange, but I …
Barone: He was from a group like the Mad something, as well (Editor’s Note: It was the Doctors of Madness). But he just went as Richard Strange as the host. It was a great scene for us to be in, because members of Depeche Mode and all these bands were all hanging out at his event, and we were performing.
Norris: And Joe Jackson became a fan at that point, remember?
Barone: Yeah, Joe Jackson was there.
Norris: The Bush Tetras were already over there, and we ended up doing a European tour with Bush Tetras, which was so much fun. We called it the Bread and Butter Tour. It was wild traveling with them.
Barone: Yeah, it was very funny.
Q: I’m curious how the Fetish label became so involved with so many New York and New Jersey bands in the first place.
Norris: Well, Rod Pearce was at Maxwell’s to see WKGB. It was just a coincidence. WKBG was a duo — sort of a briefcase synthesizer and guitar — and they actually caught the ear of Devo, and opened for Devo in Central Park, and Rod Pearce heard them. He really loved them. And they’re great. It’s really wonderful music. There’s a bunch of it online; you can listen to it. It was really ahead of its time. (see video below)
Barone: Dennis Kelley of that group played on our first single. He had a specific synthesizer: The EMS synthi was a synthesizer that Brian Eno uses. And he plays one of those on our “Glow in the Dark” and “Telephoto Lens.” At the early Bongos shows, he sometimes would sit in with us. It was a part of our sound that we occasionally used electronics. But we ended up whittling it down to just the trio sound. It worked better for us to just be the three of us, at that time.
Norris: We did shows with WKGB, too. I remember playing at The Rat in Boston with them.
Barone: They used to cover Rob’s song, “Video Eyes.” They were the first band to cover any of our songs.
Norris: They did it really well, too.
Q: Are there any outtakes or alternate versions from those days that you might put out someday?
Barone: Sure, there’s stuff. We recorded everything. There are different versions of our songs because we did record the rehearsals. Sometimes we even multitracked rehearsals. For the later albums — for our later RCA things — there are different versions that have never been released. There’s a whole other alternative Beat Hotel record that’s totally different. (Note: An expanded version of Beat Hotel did in fact come out this summer. For more on that, click here.)
Norris: There’s also a live album from 1985. We were on tour. We had done hundreds of show. And we ended up in Sea Bright, N.J. We were kind of at our peak, and we recorded the show. Steve Scales was playing (percussion) with us, from Talking Heads, on that whole tour. And that recording is incredible. We’re just sitting on it, waiting for the right moment (to release it).
Barone: When we released Phantom Train (in 2013), that was a lost album, also (originally recorded in 1986). And putting it together really took an entire summer of trying to edit the pieces. It’s like making a movie: You have all these scenes … and the way we made records, too, it’s an artistic process. Different sounds, and different versions of the songs. And you have to choose what makes up the album. That’s a big job to edit it all together.
Norris: And I just want to say, Richard did an amazing job on Phantom Train. He really pulled the whole thing together so well.
Barone: That was a rambling project, because we started in New York, and then we moved to The Bahamas. We had all these different takes. We kept trying songs at different speeds, and at different lengths. “My Wildest Dreams” (listen below), which we released as our single a couple of years ago, even that was a composite of a few different versions of the song. Because, like I said, we recorded rehearsals, too. So somehow I found a way where we were able to make a composite of, like, the best of “My Wildest Dreams,” to make that single. It’s a fun process: I love recording studios and doing that. But it definitely takes time.
Norris: Some of the tracks on Phantom Train are actually our eight-track demos that we just thought sounded better. They had more energy.
Barone: That was cathartic, for me, to put that album together. That was the peak of our performing in the studio, in some ways.
Q: So why didn’t it come out then?
Barone: Well, like Rob was saying, we had just done hundreds of shows. We spent three months making Beat Hotel, and then had a huge tour, and we went immediately into making Phantom Train. There was hardly a break; there was hardly a breath. And if you’ve read the book “Frontman” that I wrote in 2008 … I was losing it, physically and mentally. And I think in different ways, maybe we all were. There was no break between touring and going right back into the studio.
Of course it was hard to not go, because it was winter up here, and when (Island Records founder) Chris Blackwell invited us to go to The Bahamas to record, it seemed like the most perfect thing we could possibly do. But Island Records was going through its own changes. He was focusing on his film division, which was Island Pictures, and he had signed Spike Lee and done his first film, which was “She’s Gotta Have It.” His whole focus at the time, was films, and then also he sold Island to become Island Def Jam.
Norris: Basically everything was going in different directions, and we just decided to take a break. Everybody was interested in doing other things, basically. And it was so cool that 36 years later, or whatever it is, it came full circle, and it was a wonderful healing for us, just to get (Phantom Train) out there, and have it sound so good and be so well received. It’s interesting: Time is so elusive.
Barone: Exactly. I think Rob and I see time a bit differently from the way many people see it. We’ve always seen it as something much more flexible than just what the clock tells us.
Q: I’m not quite sure I follow you. Could you explain that a little?
Norris: Back to 2020 … when we’re playing, it’s almost like no time has passed.
Norris: It’s just like it was yesterday. We feel young, and are even better players (now). Really, time is an illusion in a lot of ways, I think.
Barone: I believe that. Even from our first recordings … when Drums Along the Hudson was released, in the liner notes by Richard Grabel, he says something like “songs from all their ages and stages.” That came only a year and a half after we had formed. How many ages and stages could we have had at that point?
The Outpost in the Burbs will present The Bongos at Van Vleck House and Gardens in Montclair, Sept. 19 at 5 p.m. Visit outpostintheburbs.org.
For a chance to win two tickets to this show, send an email with the word “Bongos” in the subject line to firstname.lastname@example.org by midnight Sept. 15.
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