No matter how big of a music fan you think you are, no matter how much time you spend scouring the internet and talking to people in record stores and reading obscure zines, inevitably there are tons of great musicians and bands that you will never hear of, let alone actually hear with your own ears. It would be foolish to not recognize that there are a few, if not dozens (or hundreds) of performers you would absolutely fall in love with if you ever heard them… but because life is short there’s a good chance your paths will never cross. It would be easy to feel anxious and sad and nihilistic about this. But I prefer to see it as exciting, because you never know what might be around the next corner or in the next dollar bin.
I wasn’t looking for Bonemen of Barumba records when I ran across their 1982 EP Driving The Bats Thru Jerusalem at my local joint Vortex the other day. That’s not because I thought Vortex was an unlikely spot to find them, but because I’d never heard of them before. I pulled it from the rack because the cover had that early 1980s vibe to it, that sort of Crass format that screamed punk rock. It was only a few bucks so I rolled the dice and got more than I bargained for, because it’s a four-song burner. I was going to write about it right then and there, but I got so caught up in the music that instead I went straight to the internet, first to Discogs and then eBay, and bought both their other releases (their 1981 self-titled 10″ and sole LP, 1984s Icons) and for good measure spent seven bucks on a vintage press kit some intrepid soul had listed and probably secretly doubted they’d ever sell. I figured I’d wait for all that stuff to arrive and then work my way through the Bonemen’s modest catalog all in one sitting. And that is how I found myself sitting here on a Saturday with my second cup of coffee and ready to get after it.
Looking over the press kit as well as some stuff online, the basic gist of the Bonemen story is that the first iteration of the band formed as the result of a chance meeting of Tom Jonusaitis and Mark Panick at Mardi Gras in 1981. That led to the aforementioned five-song 10″ Bonemen of Barumba. After receiving some positive feedback on that effort they brought together a larger group of musicians and creative types to help them perform live and also expand the group’s reach outside of music and into things like videos and floats (like as in an actual parade float). Chicago-based but nomadic, they found some success in Europe and Japan as well as parts of the US, but unfortunately went their separate ways following the release of Icons a few years later. They got some solid press, especially for Driving The Bats Thru Jerusalem, though I found this clip from their kit particularly telling, not so much for the review but because of the notation about Adam Ant and Bow Wow Wow:
“Disregard”. No one can accuse the Bonemen of not being opinionated.
Bonemen of Barumba (1981) 10″
At five songs and under nine minutes the Bonemen’s debut was a “don’t blink or you’ll miss it” affair. Opening with a brief tribal drumming sequence we rage right into the in-your-face “Government Money”, a song that combines tribal beats, a militaristic chorus, and some fuzzy guitars into an anti-government anthem. That’s followed by the Purrkur Pillnikk-esque “Is It That Time Again?” that uses some grating guitar progressions and shouted/whiney vocals to create an overall sense of agitation. The flip side (listed on the back as the “Not So Annoying Side”) kicks off with the pure goth-rock of “Walking With The Deadman”, a tune combining old-school country with early Joy Division (think Warsaw era) to give you something gloomy, bizarre, and fantastic. The album closes with a reggae track, because why not? “Rankers Chant” has a bit of that white reggae feel à la The Clash about it, though played a bit slower than the English punks were known for. Five songs, five different styles. The consistent element is the overall “rebel against The Man” theme to the lyrics.
Driving The Bats Thru Jerusalem (1982) EP
Driving The Bats Thru Jerusalem sees the Bonemen stick with their tribal drumming style, but things take a more post-punk turn. They also seem to become a bit less experimental and more intentional in their sound, even to the point of ensuring all four songs are of radio-friendly length, ranging from 3:30 to just a shade over five minutes.
“Pity It Ain’t” certainly has a dose of punk rock to it, and it’s one of the band’s best numbers. “Talk Is Fat” reverts a bit back to the “Is It That Time Again?” vibe from the previous record, though a bit more funky in the rhythm section. On the reverse “Thick Promise” is a rock-solid post-punk jam, all dark and moody and attitude (plus saxophone… because 1980s!), and the closer “Toombah For Ronnie” adds some dub elements that remind me of something that On-U would have put out around the same time.
Driving The Bats Thru Jerusalem is much more stylistically consistent than Bonemen of Barumba. It may be an example of a band thinking to itself, “you know, we’re actually pretty good and if we stopped messing around we can probably put out some solid songs”.
Icons (1984) LP
Icons continues the Bonemen’s move into a darker direction, and I’m finally hearing why people often refer to them as “goth rock”. I didn’t hear anything too gothy on the first two records with the possible exception of “Walking With The Deadman,” but now the band has moved into some gloomy territory.
An interesting side note, I found another blog that wrote about this record back in 2010 and the blogger commented that while the vinyl looked pristine his copy had some sections that skipped. The same is true of mine, which also looks super clean and got caught in a skip cycle early on the first track “Don’t Tell”. However, because of how clean the skip was (i.e. you couldn’t tell it was skipping per se until you realized the beat had just stayed the same for a couple of minutes) I’m beginning to wonder if it isn’t a locked groove, and given the odd nature of the Bonemen I wouldn’t be surprised if this was done intentionally. (♠) They rhythms continue to flirt heavily with funk (check out “Pain Turtle”).
Lyrically we stay on the downer side with tales of the being beaten down, broken relationships, three songs that refer to hell, and another two that use the word corpse. It is not, to be clear, uplifting. Perhaps the most intriguing song in this regard is “Jesus Made of Wood,” which has not one but two vocal segments that are done in Finnish, and I have no idea what that’s all about. (♣)
For my money Driving The Bats Thru Jerusalem is the Bonemen of Barumba at their best, showing as it does an interesting mix of musical styles. Icons is a good record, but it doesn’t stick out in the same was as its predecessors do – by then the band had moved more towards a specific genre.
(♠) I have no proof of this, it is purely a conspiracy theory. But I like a good conspiracy theory.
(♣) Both these verses use the Finnish word “helvetti”, which means “hell”, so I count this as one of the three hell songs on the album. If you don’t like it you can go to helvetti.