The Bongos — the Hoboken pop-rock band that energized the New Jersey rock scene of the ’80s with its elusive lyrics, propulsive guitar grooves and edgy sound — has released an expanded version of its 1985 RCA Records album Beat Hotel via Sony Music’s Legacy Recordings.
The new edition adds 12 previously unreleased demos to the original 10 songs. With their stripped-down and raw vitality, the demos exude an exciting energy and have interesting instrumental twists. The demo for “Brave New World,” for instance, has an intoxicating, hypnotic feel, while the demo for “Splinters” is sincere, sad and sexy. The demo for “Blow Up” has a wild and contagious beat, and the winding, melodic demo for “A Story (Written in the Sky)” feels poetic.
“The Beat Hotel” is a scintillating tune in either version, referencing the Paris hotel where William Burroughs and other Beat Generation writers such as Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and Peter Orlovsky gathered. It was a creative sanctuary where outsiders became insiders, as rock musicians did at nightclubs such as CBGB in New York and Maxwell’s in Hoboken, decades later.
To stream or buy the album, visit legacyrecordings.com/artists/the-bongos.
All the material on the reissue was originally recorded by Brendan McCabe (also the band’s live sound engineer at the time) at RPM Studios in Hoboken, except for one demo made by Bongos frontman Richard Barone in the back of a tour bus.
“I keep an archive of unreleased recordings, and one of my favorites in the vault had always been the alternate version of Beat Hotel that we made in Hoboken — demos for the album,” said Barone, who is joined in the group by singer-songwriter-guitarist James Mastro, drummer Frank Giannini and bassist Rob Norris.
“James and I had gone to Mexico on a vacation after the Numbers With Wings Tour, and we wrote a couple of songs down there. Back in New York, we had been checking out the bands performing at S.O.B.’s (Sounds of Brazil) in downtown Manhattan … where we saw a band called Pe De Boi doing what they called power samba. We liked Afro-Latin rhythms and wanted to see how they might work with our own songs. We recruited Pe De Boi’s conga player, Freddie Diaz, to sit in with us in Hoboken when we started rehearsing the new songs.”
Barone had been reading a lot of Williams Burroughs novels at the time “and was toying around with Burroughs’ cut-up lyric technique, rearranging the words in different ways,” he said. “It was especially suited to my writing style at the time, which was already non-linear. These musical and lyrical elements came together in these new songs, and we started recording them in a rehearsal studio in Hoboken.”
McCabe “had gotten ahold of an 8-track reel-to-reel tape machine, so we had a lot of fun making these recordings without adult supervision,” said Barone. “The idea was that these songs would be on our next album, which we called Beat Hotel as a reference to Burroughs, but also as a hint that we were playing around with different kinds of beats. The songs were like rooms in the hotel, each with its own story.”
It was Barone’s idea to approach Legacy about issuing a remastered and expanded version of Beat Hotel album.
“Because the tapes had been recorded in 1985, there was a lot of restoration to be done, including the baking of the actual reels,” he said. “Steve Addabbo did that. Then, the challenge was finding someone who had access to the type of 8-track machine (a Fostex Model 80) that was used to record it, so we could remix the album on the same equipment. That’s where Steve Remote came in. He was able to bring it all back to life.”
I asked Barone which versions he prefers — the originals or the demos — and I agree with his preference.
“Actually, I might personally prefer all of the alternate versions,” he said. “Only because I love that part of the process: putting a song down for the first time after you’ve written it. For instance, I can hear myself finding my way around the melodies, trying them in differing ways.
“The whole idea of demoing in the way we did for Beat Hotel is now a lost art. With digital technology, the recording of the master can begin as the ‘demo’ — you don’t really need to re-record the whole thing, you can fix and add to whatever you start with. Demoing used to be a way to create a sketch you could stand back from, share with your producer, and decide how you wanted to go with it.
“The concept of demoing as a separate process is now, or will soon be, virtually obsolete. But I’m glad we were able to experience it. It made us a better band by forcing us to think about and establish our individual parts. Plus, it left us with this alternate universe of an album that we can share with you now.
“I especially like the words and music of ‘Blow Up.’ That may be my favorite. ‘She Starts Shaking’ was about being in the middle of an intense earthquake on the West Coast — the ‘she’ was the town of Hollywood. I like ‘Apache Dancing’: the way the sections are different but somehow fit together. James’ song ‘Splinters’ is really nice.
“The idea for ‘Space Jungle’ came from the Afrocentric jazz/funk band Oneness of Juju, from their debut album that I think Rob and I had been listening to. It’s always fun to play it live. Of the two unreleased songs, ‘South of the Border’ was a direct result of the trip to Mexico, of course, and was also a fun one to play. Frank Giannini should get a lot of credit for finding ways with his drums to make these songs work, even when the riffs and parts were not always in the typical straight rock style that we had done previously.
“Oh, and ‘Slingshot!’ was a cool instrumental. We always loved instrumentals and usually had them in our sets when we started out. That one never made it to the final album, but we liked playing it. You can rock out differently when there’s no vocal to contend with. The instruments, in our case the guitars and drums, have to do all the communicating.”
The Bongos formed as a trio in 1980 with Barone, Norris and Giannini. Their groundbreaking 1982 debut album Drums Along the Hudson — which, ironically, was mostly made in England, on the indie label PVC — brought them national attention.
Mastro joined after its release. Then Nuts and Bolts on Passport Records and the Numbers With Wings EP (on RCA) were both released in 1983. The video for the Numbers With Wings title track made its mark on MTV, earning a nomination at the first Video Music Awards. Nuts and Bolts was a collaborative album with one side featuring Barone’s songs and the other side, Mastro’s
The year that they released Beat Hotel, 1985, they played more than 300 concerts. They shelved a follow-up album, Phantom Train, which eventually came out in 2013, on Jem Records.
By 1987, the group had disbanded, though they have continued to reunite occasionally since then.
Since the breakup, all four Bongos have been involved in many projects as solo artists, producers and more.
Mastro formed the band The Health & Happiness Show and tours and records with Ian Hunter and Mott the Hoople. He is accompanying singer-songwriter Amy Speace and will also open the show, performing an acoustic set of songs (including material from a soon-to-be released album) at The Loft at City Winery in New York on July 18; visit citywinery.com.
Barone has released a series of accomplished solo albums, including Cool Blue Halo (1987) and Glow (2010), and paid tribute to 1960s Greenwich Village music on his album, Sorrows & Promises (2016). In 2007, he authored his memoir “Frontman: Surviving the Rock Star Myth” (Backbeat Books, 226 pp, $19.95), and is now writing a book about the ’60s music scene in Greenwich Village, where he now lives.
Norris performs with his band Tulula! In 2018, Tulula! played at the magical space at Issyra Gallery in Hoboken as part of Danny Shot’s “One Art Hoboken” series and I hope they return for an encore performance. Norris also has a new band called Action Figures 432.
Giannini relocated to Wilmington, N.C., and plays in the band Bedside Manner. He is also working in healthcare.
With boundless drive and forceful guitars, Bongos music always remains fresh and relevant, especially played live. (See video below from the 2007 Hoboken Arts and Music Festival). One of the Bongos shows that was postponed because of the pandemic — at the Outpost in the Burbs in Montclair — will now take place at Montclair’s Van Vleck House and Gardens, Sept. 19; visit outpostintheburbs.org.
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