What’s in a brilliant name? Some of the funniest, smartest and messed-up ultra-psychedelia ever invented. Almost all of Bongwater’s music came courtesy of Mark “Maul of Sound” Kramer, the former Shockabilly linchpin, king of the Shimmy-Disc label and in-house workaholic producer/owner of Noise New York studios. Performance artist-cum-actress Ann Magnuson contributed onstage attitude and her dreams, transcriptions of which provided many of the group’s lyrics. Associates included guitarist Dave Rick (Phantom Tollbooth, etc.) and former Shockabilly percussionist David Licht (who sat out Too Much Sleep, replaced by a drum machine). Bongwater was not so much a rock band as a particularly disturbing dream of one.
With its covers of songs by the Moody Blues, Led Zep and the Beatles, the six-track Breaking No New Ground! was but a suggestive whiff of the surreal, parodistic skullfuck of Double Bummer, a monumental two-LP set. (The Double Bummer + CD adds the EP and an inspirational cover of Roky Erickson’s “You Don’t Love Me Yet.”) Double Bummer breaks down into songs constructed around Magnuson’s rock dreams, translucently sludgy Kramer originals that take post-pot Beatles as zero-base inspiration and an assortment of adroit covers.
Slapp Happy’s “The Drum” is transmogrified into a poignant group anthem on Too Much Sleep (the cassette of which also contains No New Ground). Even better, Magnuson and Kramer — by this point the thinking person’s Eurythmics — have integrated their songwriting abilities to even more troubling and hilarious ends, with sampled voices and head-spinning effects a specialty. Thick, rich and satisfying.
As is The Power of Pussy, which turns cock-rock on its head in nearly every song and breaks virgin ground with Magnuson’s nine-minute opus of apocalyptic acquiescence, “Folk Song.”
Magnuson became a television actress (appearing as a regular in two sitcoms) and Kramer became a busy producer by the time of their final LP, The Big Sell-Out. Their slickest release is a culmination of the band’s vision. The cover jokingly claims that it “includes the hit singles ‘Celebrity Compass,’ ‘Schmoozedance’ and ‘Free Love Messes Up My Life’,” though they are indeed among the band’s best. A style-culminating cover of Fred Niel’s “Everybody’s Talking” ends the disc and the bi-coastal duo’s existence. The four-disc Box of Bongwater is a complete discography of the original studio recordings though it misses several crucial compilation tracks. A legal battle between Magnuson and Kramer over rights eventually dissolved Kramer’s Shimmy-Disc label. Magnuson released a solo LP in a similar lyrical vein but with the backing music reflecting her theatrical style.