Just for the record: Johnny Kongos trips in Madchester
A bi-weekly vinyl review
It has been 30 decidedly trippy years since the heyday of the “Madchester” scene, and the release of the nasty and nightmarish Bummed (Factory), the second album by the persistently addled and thuggish Happy Mondays, a bunch of Mancunians who reveled in the ugly side of rave culture unlike their peace-loving scene peers, the Stone Roses.
The Mondays’ songs were twisted and bizarre, with lyrics loaded with drug slang and menacing sexuality. Importantly, though, they were among the first rock bands to include hip-hop techniques into their music: although they didn’t “sample” so much as “borrow” melodies and lyrics wholesale from other acts. Some may have called it outright thievery, but the Mondays did leave a surprisingly influential legacy.
They were a short-lived bunch. Typical of those who celebrate their excesses so openly, the group were undone by their addictions. They disbanded in 1992 after vocalist Shaun Ryder – depicted, as one critic put it, on the cover of Bummed “as some kind of harlot put out to pasture” – walked out of a high-level record contract meeting to find some “Kentucky Fried Chicken” (slang for heroin) and never returned.
Their best album, though, was 1990’s Pills ’N’ Thrills And Bellyaches (Factory), a masterpiece which made them superstars in the UK, thanks in no small part to the inclusion of Step On, a dance floor smash that was a de facto cover of He’s Gonna Step On You Again, a 1971 UK top ten by South African singer-songwriter John Kongos, another East Rand cultural export. Step On was such a hit that, as the Mondays may have put it, they were “all Armani’d up” overnight.Incidentally, first edition copies of Pills ’N’ Thrills are quite collectible, as the sleeve artwork features a collage of US candy company logos, all of which had to be pulled and altered for subsequent editions due to copyright reasons.
The Mondays would later record another Kongos song, Tokoloshe Man, as the B-side of their 1991 single, Judge Fudge (Factory). It’s not known what British youths made of a tune warning of the dangers of mischievous evil Zulu spirits – or, in fact, their parents, for the song was a minor UK hit for Kongos as well.Both Tokoloshe Man and He’s Gonna Step On You Again are included on Kongos (Fly Records/Elektra), one of the great “lost South African” albums. It was produced by Gus Dudgeon, responsible for many of Elton John’s early hits. Indeed, the backing musicians here – Ray Cooper, Caleb Quaye, Dave Glover and Roger Pope – were pretty much the crew who produced John’s Madman Across the Water album. But Kongos featured a texture quite unlike anything you’d hear on an Elton John record: a driving, percussive groove that featured bicycle bells, maracas, clapper boards and, just for the sheer primitive thrill of it all, the jawbone of an ass.Kongos’s earlier records, cut in Johannesburg before he moved to the UK in 1966, are worth hunting down. His first, 1963’s This is Johnny (RCA Victor), was released when he was still a teenager and features his first hit, Tulips for ‘Toinette. Liner notes feature a heartfelt appraisal of “South Africa’s most consistent hit parader” and “the most popular of South Africa’s young vocalists” by members of the Johnny Kongos Fan Club. (You can write to them: PO Box 12, Brencania, Brakpan, Transvaal.) The following year, Kongos put together a backing band, the G-Men, and released Oh Boy! (RCA Victor) and, in 1965, Johnny & The G-Men (Teal).After moving to the UK, Kongos headed up the band Floribunda Rose, which released one single, Linda Loves Linda (Picadilly), in 1967 before disbanding. He then joined the more psych-poppish Scrugg, who issued three singles in the late 1960s, including the fairly respectable Everyone Can See b/w I Wish I Was Five (Pye), before they too disbanded.In 1969 Kongos relaunched his solo career with Confusions About a Goldfish (Dawn), an album very much of its hippie times and best described as “mild and introspective”. Some critics kindly suggested that it recalled in some instances early David Bowie.Today, Kongos’s four sons – Johnny, Jesse, Daniel and Dylan – continue their father’s musical journey. Much like the Kings of Leon, they’re four brothers who’ve formed a band, Kongos, and have released three albums on their own Tokoloshe label.
Although based in Scottsdale, Arizona, their brand of primal, alternative rock has found favour with some South African campus radio stations. Listening to tracks like Take It From Me, the single off their 2016 album, Egomaniac (released on pink vinyl, nogal), or the snatches of accordion jive in Come With Me Now, a track off their 2012 album, Lunatic, which eventually topped the Billboard Alternative Songs chart in 2014, it is possible to hear strains of that East Rand groove in their mix. Something, supposedly, in the DNA. A new Kongos album, 1929, is scheduled for release later this year.THE ESSENTIAL COLLECTION
Let’s be clear on this: the best Aretha Franklin album is arguably her first for Atlantic Records, 1967’s I Never Loved A Man The Way I Loved You. True, much of her other releases for the label in the late 1960s and early 1970s were magnificent, but it is with this album, her breakthrough as a soul artist, that any serious collection of Franklin’s work must start.At the time work began on the record, in January 1967, Franklin was 24 — and already a seasoned pro who had rubbed shoulders with Sam Cooke and Ray Charles. Her contract with Columbia Records had expired in November the previous year, and Atlantic boss Jerry Wexler wasted no time in signing her, hoping to cash in on the rapidly growing soul scene as Wilson Pickett, Sam and Dave, Otis Redding, Carla Thomas, The Supremes and others stormed the pop charts.After carefully selecting the material for the album, Wexler and Franklin flew to the legendary Muscle Shoals studio in Alabama, where guitarist Chips Moman had assembled a legendary backing band – albeit a legendary backing band that was all white. Wexler had specifically asked for an integrated band. Despite the subsequent tensions and with Franklin at the piano, they cut the album’s first song, the title track, in less than two hours; songwriter Dan Penn later described it as “a killer, no doubt about that. That morning we knew a star had been born.”
However, Ted White, Franklin’s husband at the time and her then manager, got into a drunken racial fight with one of the horn players and work on the second song, Do Right Woman, Do Right Man, was abruptly stopped and the session cancelled. White refused to step foot in Alabama again, and recording was rescheduled to resume in New York, where the album was finished in February.
It was a soul landmark: it opened with a storming version of Otis Redding’s Respect that alone was enough to earn the album the status of a classic. But I Never Loved A Man was a masterpiece from start to finish, each song here was touched by genius; the covers of Ray Charles’ Drown in My Own Tears and the Sam Cooke standards A Change Is Gonna Come and Good Times more than hold their own with the originals, while Franklin’s own Don’t Let Me Lose This Dream, Save Me, Dr Feelgood (Love Is A Serious Business) and Baby, Baby, Baby round off the collection perfectly.Other albums worth investigating are Aretha: Lady Soul and Aretha Now, both released in 1968, and Young, Gifted and Black and Amazing Grace, both released in 1972.Her Live at Fillmore West, released in 1971, is probably the best of her concert recordings. For those looking for a greatest hits package, the 1968 release, Aretha’s Gold, just about sums it up, the best of the early Atlantic recordings, with no filler whatsoever.