Unforgettable forgotten albums: Kongos

It’s spring 1972. I thought I had never heard anything like it before. When I reached the final track, I realized that I had.

The cover of the promotional LP I’d grabbed at random in the college radio station was striking. I mean, look at it. Fifty years later the colors have yellowed a bit, but it’s a striking portrait.

I recognize a lot of the names in the credits, beginning with Gus Dudgeon, the producer. Doesn’t he play for, or produce, Elton John? And Gus is listed as playing bicycle bell, maracas, and an ass’s jawbone … Yeah, here are a bunch of Elton John names: Caleb Quaye, electric guitar; Dave Glover, bass; Roger Pope, drums (including “thunder drum” whatever that is). 

Oh! I think the thunder drum might be right here in the opening moments of the first track, “Tokoloshe Man.” The thunder drum thunders – boom boom boom boom – and jingle bells jingle and there’s a sense of a lot of people gathered, and somebody starts strumming a guitar and Glover kicks in with the bass, and then someone shout-sings a warning.

Make your bed up high

Pray into the sky

Close the window, close the door

Make no difference if you’re rich or poor

Get on your knees, scream, please

That man just love to tease

Try to run, get a gun

He just laugh, it makes it more fun

And … BLAM! Here’s the band and it’s rolling hard. Yes it’s rock and roll but this is definitely a massive, rolling sound, as the singer warns us about some kind of evil being called the Tokoloshe Man … “It makes no difference if you’re yellow or you’re red – When that bad man says tonight is the night, you are dead.”

On it goes for more than five minutes, and the thunder drum and Lol Coxhill’s soprano sax and the brass and the choir and, yes, I think I hear an ass’s jawbone being played, and you can hear them dancing as they fade into the distance and the shout-singer singing, “Tonight is the night – it’s tonight!”

Just as I exhaled, thinking “Whoa! I’ve never heard anything quite like that before, or wait a minute, something about that vibe does sound familiar,” when a jaunty piano drags me into an Elton John album. The guy who was shouting a moment ago is now Reginald Dwight, singing about a “Jubilee Cloud” floating over Texas and Nebraska and eventually Tennessee. And now he slows real down and sings a ballad called “Gold” about a miner and his partner mule.

And now here’s a rocking rock and roll song called “Lift Me From the Ground” and then a gospel-like tune called “Come On Down Jesus” and Side One is done. Wow, this is pretty good stuff. Nothing after “Tokoloshe Man” matches it for sheer manic power, but there’s not a clunker in the bunch. Howcome I never heard of this Kongos guy before? 

Flipping the record over, and here’s Elton John Kongos again, with a very very tasty piano song called “I Would Have Had a Good Time,” which, 50 years on, is probably my favorite song on the album except for the first and last tunes.

I’ve known wise men and I’ve danced with fools

I was both in my life

Life’s been hard, so have I

Had my share of strife

It’s not the things you do

It’s what you never get round to

That makes you sad.

An extended, almost seven-minute-long, synthesizer-driven ballad called “Try to Touch Just One” comes next, and then a sweet love song about a guy who is really enjoying his time with this lady, but they’ve agreed on no strings and no commitments, so “Tomorrow I’ll Go,” except we all know he’s going to stay in the end, and everything is right with the world.

Now it’s time for the finale, and what do you know, here come the thunder drum and the jingle bells again, fading IN this time instead of fading out, and it’s the same crowd who were playing “Tokoloshe Man,” and here comes a little synthesizer hook and THAT’S where I’ve heard that vibe before! This is “He’s Gonna Step On You Again,” which I’d heard a handful of times on the radio the previous fall and said, each time, “Holy Cow! What is THAT?”

Hey rainmaker, come away from that man

You know he’s gonna take away your promised land

And we’re rolling and rocking again for a five-minute finale that’s as wild and crazy as the five-minute opening. This time Gus Dudgeon is credited as playing the chair squeak, rusty tin, and earth drums. 

It’s as solid an album as anything Elton John had done yet, except it’s not Elton John, it’s something much more eclectic, believe it or no. For the next, oh, 50 years, when the conversation turned to artists and albums who maybe didn’t make a huge splash but should have, John Kongos and this album are near the top of my list. I know I got a handful of people to go out and buy it, simply by putting it on my turntable and telling a friend, “Listen to this.”

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