Bongos Singer Richard Barone Picks His Top 10 Guitar Albums
Richard Barone knows a thing or two about great guitar albums. As leader of ’80s-era New Jersey power-pop heroes the Bongos, he certainly made a few — one more, in fact, than many fans probably realize. On Oct. 1, JEM Records released ‘Phantom Train,’ a record the Bongos cut in 1986 after finishing a 300-date tour in support of ‘Beat Hotel,’ their major label debut. Begun in New York City and finished in the Bahamas, ‘Phantom’ was shelved by RCA, and since the band split up the following year, it remained unheard for nearly three decades.
‘Phantom’ materializes as the Bongos beat their mighty drums once more, and after reuniting in July to play the last-ever show at Maxwell’s, the legendary Hoboken nightclub that served as their home base, they performed earlier this week at the Living Room in New York City. In advance of the show, Barone made Diffuser.fm a list of his top 10 guitar albums, and in keeping with the Bongos’ eclectic sound, the inventory spans pulverizing punk to noodling prog, proving there’s no limit to what a six-string can do.
From the opening chords of ‘Metal Guru’ to the final fade of ‘Main Man,’ ‘The Slider’ plays like a conceptual art piece, exploring C-to-A minor Brill Building-type chord progressions in 13 tightly arranged and performed variations. The rhythm section is tight and taut yet as loose as can be, a precision little boogie machine with heart, sex and soul. Marc Bolan’s gorgeously concise guitar solos are like melodic studies, controlled even when they get chaotic. Bringing it all together, Tony Visconti’s production and stylized use of orchestration is one of the most perfectly punchy in the history of rock. A remarkably unique, crunchy-classic-British-overdriven guitar-driven masterpiece from beginning to end, this album grabbed me by the balls when I was barely a teenager and has never let me go.
Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd duo-handedly wrestled twin-guitar jamming improvisation away from the ’70s country rockers and Deadheads (no offense) and urbanized it — maybe even classicized it — hinting at free-jazz and symphonic climaxes. In doing so, they created a kind of punk guitar virtuosity. They opened the door for the next generation, unlocking and freeing us from the three-power-chord verse-chorus-verse patterned simplicity that was prevalent in early punk. Verlaine’s matching ornate poetry and strained vocal delivery completed the picture of tortured youth on the verge of breaking out.
There are some — very, very few — albums that are simply too perfect to describe and explain their significance: Anything one can say about it serves only to diminish its importance. This is one. Just listen because it is all there.
In which a previously long-haired 12-string-strumming singer-songwriter acts out the part of spiky orange-haired rock space messiah five years before the end of the earth. And succeeds. He does so with intelligence, catchy riffs (influenced greatly by T.Rex, the Stooges, the Velvet Underground and other worthies), and a compellingly vague storyline touching on the concept of stardom. While it is the mesmerizing power of Mick Ronson’s otherworldly guitar that wins the day by matching Bowie’s creative prowess punch for punch, nothing diminishes Bowie’s triumph: By creating a popstar as the subject of the album, he himself became a star who changed the face of pop forever.
Obviously, any album by the Beatles could be on this list, but I picked ‘Revolver’ because they seem on this effort to have expanded their guitar palette. Besides their beloved Rickenbackers, Gretches and Gibson J-160Es, here George also puts to use a Gibson SG and Strat, more distortion and generally more extreme tones. On ‘Revolver,’ perhaps for the first time, they seem to build orchestrations using the guitar tones themselves, setting yet another trend. Many people consider this their best album. To even mention the high quality of the writing and arranging, of course, would be beyond redundancy, and at this point any praise would almost seem to trivialize the group’s (and this album’s) accomplishments. So let’s just say “this rocks” and “awesome” (literally) and leave it at that.
“Filthy/Gorgeous,” to cop a phrase from my dear friends Scissor Sisters, may the best way to describe the tone and timbre of this proto-punk masterpiece. Any Stooges album would fit nicely here, but ‘Fun House’ is the one that I seemed to play more than the others. Ron Asheton’s guitar sears with all the overtones of a symphony orchestra. Listening, you can almost picture Iggy, shirtless, writhing on the stage, smearing peanut butter all his chest to this music. ‘T.V. Eye,’ ‘Loose,’ ‘Dirt’ … I ask you, is this not rock n’ roll?
Robert Fripp & Brian Eno
As synthesizers crept into the musical landscape of the ’70s, there were rumblings, I assume, that guitars would soon become outdated. I mean, synths had all those sounds, all those effects, all those options, all on board. And guitars had primitive strings and magnetic pickups and, let’s face it, had not changed much in 20 years. So when Robert Fripp, the virtuosic guitarist of prog rock royalty King Crimson, teamed up with Roxy Music sound designer and treatment expert Brian Eno, it was a thrilling rebirth of the electric guitar as we know it. By using extended delays and effect loops, the gentlemen created modernistic electronic land, sky, and ocean-scapes heretofore unimagined. Even though Fripp was playing a Les Paul (how apropos, as decades previous the actual man Les Paul experimented in similar ways within his pop songs), it was transformed into another instrument, as if the two had created a synth-guitar. Yet, it clearly is a guitar, with all the natural attack of those primitive strings, the hum and buzz of those humbuckers and everything we love about the instrument. A satisfying listening experience to get lost in, then and now.
The Velvet Underground & Nico
Lou Reed is a genius. His entire career proves that over and over. But here, on the very first Velvet Underground album, he lays it all out. Reed, Cale and company (but especially Lou) push the limits of the electric guitar to unheard-of extremes. This album was decades ahead of its time, and everyone knows it. Listeners even knew it when it was originally issued in 1967. Like with the Beatles, to even mention the über high quality of the songs and lyrics, and their impact, would be utter redundancy. In a way, the Velvets might have been the anti-Beatles, and that could be why Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein offered to manage them way back then. But, lore, legend and history aside, this album kicks ass in more ways than any album on my list, or any other list for that matter.
David Gilmour is one of my favorite guitarists. Growing up, I heard Pink Floyd, peripherally, everywhere. At friends’ houses, on the radio and even emanating live from Tampa Stadium not far from my parents’ home. Glimour created the kind of sustained melodic lines that I loved. But, proto-hipster that I was, always looking for new groups that no one else had ever heard of, I never actually sat and listened to one of their albums straight through. By the time Sex Pistol Johnny Rotten wore a t-shirt proclaiming “I Hate Pink Floyd,” I thought it was all over. Until, that is, my late friend and brilliant rock journalist Nicholas Schaffner was writing his exhaustive Floyd biography, ‘A Saucerful of Secrets: The Pink Floyd Odyssey.’ He invited me to attend attend concerts on their Momentary Lapse Of Reason Tour (sans Roger Waters) and to hang out backstage with the group before the shows. I was blown away, particularly by Gilmour. Many of their recordings could have made this list, but I became particularly fond of ‘Wish You Were Here,’ with songs, as on ‘Dark Side of the Moon,’ written about their missing member and genius madcap Syd Barrett. The way they build the opening song, ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond,’ from that simple three-note guitar pattern is rock elegance at it’s highest level.
While this top 10 list is in no particular order, I am writing this entry last, so it’s the most difficult. So many guitar-dominated albums have inspired me, many more than 10, so the last of the list was the hardest to choose. However, I must say that, personally, this album has to be the one. For as much as the Feelies had influences, they made them their own and emerged with a completely unique sound and ethos. The dynamics are extreme but fluid, unlike the grunge scene of a decade later, whose arrangements seemed to be controlled by an on/off switch. The Feelies songs ebb and flow, expand and retract, gain intensity and retreat. The guitars enter like lambs and morph into into lions — and every amplified strum has meaning. The drums pound like amphetamine-altered heartbeats, then stampeding wildebeests through suburban landscapes (and landfills), cans and bottles rattling in their wake. The stunning guitar solos tear and rip and float and soar. With ‘Crazy Rhythms,’ the Feelies did everything a band should do, and this album is a testament to possibility of perfection.