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What links Burt Lancaster and the birth of hip-hop? Or pioneer rappers the Sugarhill Gang and the B-movie The Thing with Two Heads? Or a Danish Eurovision winner and a Native American rebel? The answer is a tale as wild and random as the best kind of party night, and it revolves around the Incredible Bongo Band’s reworking of “Apache”, once described as “the most crazed piece of orchestral funk ever recorded”.
The story begins in 1959 when the English songwriter Jerry Lordan was inspired by the Robert Aldrich film Apache. It starred Lancaster as a brave holding out as Geronimo surrendered. Lordan wrote a stirring instrumental that he sold to the guitar whizz Bert Weedon, the man behind the 1957 book Play in a Day that taught generations of famous names — Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton and Brian May among them. Weedon cut a version, but his record company sat on it. Frustrated, Lordan passed the music on to The Shadows, and their dramatic, hard-riding rendition — released in July 1960, with Hank Marvin’s twangy guitar to the fore — became an unexpected UK No 1. Weedon’s slower, almost wistful “Apache” snuck out the next month. It only made No 24.
February of the following year saw Jorgen Ingmann, future Eurovision winner, take his cover to No 2 in America. Twinkly, even slightly prissy, it nevertheless ensured that “Apache” was already something like a phenomenon. Later in 1961, the country singer Sonny James did a vocal version. “Alone, all alone by the campfire/she dreamed of her love,” he croons. Cheesy, but curiously affecting, his ballad is just waiting for Quentin Tarantino to rediscover it.
There were three other guitar versions of note in the 1960s — by the surf-rocky Ventures, the fuzzier Davie Allan and The Arrows, and those bad-acid growlers the Edgar Broughton Band. By the “Flower Power” era, however, “Apache” was redolent of a squarer time. It needed a Hollywood makeover to become a dance floor smash and one of the most sampled tunes in history: enter MGM’s soundtracks director Michael Viner and The Thing with Two Heads.
Viner was given the job of providing incidental music for that shlocky 1972 flick. One of his numbers, “Bongo Rock”, caught on enough that he reconvened the session musicians who had made it to record an album of the same name. This group, which included the Motown conga player King Errisson and the Pet Sounds and Derek and the Dominoes drummer Jim Gordon, was hastily dubbed the Incredible Bongo Band. Track two on their soon-to-be-obscure 1973 LP was an infectiously percussive, horn-fuelled and organ-driven “Apache”. It came to the attention of a Bronx DJ, a Jamaican known as Kool Herc. He claims the credit for extending the percussion break on “Apache” together with similar tracks or a copy of the same record. His so-called “Merry-Go-Round” sent clubbers “hype”. By the end of the 1970s, such “breakbeats” had emerged as the cornerstone of hip-hop — as joyously confirmed by the Sugarhill Gang’s 1981 “Apache”, complete with exhortations for Tonto and Kemo-Sabe to “jump on it”.
The Incredible Bongo Band broke up in 1974 — King Errisson later touring with Neil Diamond, and Michael Viner becoming a publisher who died of cancer in 2009. Jim Gordon, who suffers from schizophrenia, remains in prison for murdering his mother in 1983.
Their break has been looped and chopped, spliced and diced, repackaged and repurposed, by artists from LL Cool J to Missy Elliott, and Moby to Goldie. For an exhaustive list, look up the blogger Michaelangelo Matos. (He deserves an award for services to musical genealogy.) There’s also an entire documentary about it, 2013’s Sample This. But if all that’s starting to seem a bit po-faced, check out the Tommy Seebach Band’s ineffably camp 1977 disco-rock “Apache”: it’s hard to believe it’s not some stupendous mickey-take. All the same, you’ll want to dance.
For more in the series, and podcasts with clips of songs, visit ft.com/life-of-a-song