Is Bongwater the coolest band with a silly name?
The group Bongwater, consisting of Mark Kramer and Ann Magnuson, takes the cake when it comes to the “coolest band with a silly name” contest. Their home was Shimmy Disc, a label started by Kramer in 1987, which also released music by GWAR, Daniel Johnston, Naked City and Ween, to name only a few. An experimental melding of lo-fi rock, psychedelia, absurdism, surrealism, folk music and sound collage, Bongwater released only four albums (and two EPs) before breaking up in 1992, the same year the label was sold.
With their first album, Double Bummer, the group came out swinging, releasing a debut that consisted of 27 tracks distributed across four LP sides, including covers from groups as varied as Soft Machine, Johnny Cash, the Monkees and the Beatles, as well original songs boasting titles such as “Lesbians of Russia,” “Decadent Iranian Country Club,” “David Bowie Wants Ideas” and “Dazed and Chinese,” a cover of, you guessed it, “Dazed and Confused,” but sung in Cantonese. No idea is so strange that you won’t find it on a Bongwater album, and the group can boast some of the best bursts of strange samples this side of Negativland.
But the album is not just novelty, and many of the songs that lend it power are not necessarily those that depend on humor or surprise for their success. Songs like “Frank,” a musical assault led by Magnuson’s screamed lyrics, with half-tongue-in-cheek abstract-protest reminiscent of early Sonic Youth, “Jimmy,” its haunting, dreamy feel broken up by tape loops and jagged guitar or “Pew,” with its goth-industrial stomp, are all memorable and intense songs, full of urgency and menace, even amid the album’s moments of wackiness and levity.
On Side Three, “His Old Look” is a stand-out as well, following the same sonic direction as “Frank” with cutting and at times laugh-out-loud stream-of-consciousness dream lyrics. On the final side, the singalong “Reaganation,” penned by countercultural icon and Fugs cofounder Tuli Kupferberg, breathes new life into the protest song tradition, both drawing from and subverting aspects of the ‘60s folk idiom. And just like that, eighty or so minutes later, the whole thing ends with an ethereal cover of the Beatles’s “Rain,” featuring lovely, unexpected saxophone solos.
Emphasizing its more abrasive qualities—and there’s plenty of Glenn Branca-era guitar freak-outs and dissonance throughout—makes it easy to overlook the main strength of the album (and of Bongwater more generally), namely its ability to conjure multiple worlds, both musical and cultural. Sixties rock and psychedelia are a large part of it, of course, as they represent a tradition the band manages to both pay genuine tribute to as well as challenge and dissect, like Zappa but with a more sincere engagement (and affection for) the source material. But interlaced with that main strand of influence one finds much else, folk traditions, modernist and atonal music, free jazz, noise rock, Beat poetry, sampling, obscenity, performance, theater, outsider art…and the list could go on. A perfect storm, in other words, but somehow of a piece with the eclectic ‘80s “downtown” scene that was its main context. If there’s a label discography worth rediscovering, it’s Shimmy Disc—and Bongwater’s debut is just the place to start on the deep dive.