Are bongos inherently groovy? It’s a good question. There are countless examples of the addition of bongos to a lineup by those desperate to impart grooviness to their combos. Sometimes it succeeds incontrovertibly, as in the transformation wreaked overnight when Claude Grimes And His Pulsating Rhythm Orchestra became Groovy Claude Grimes And His Pulsating Rhythm Orchestra With Bongos. It is important to note here, however, that though the pulsating rhythm orchestra itself became indubitably groovy, Claude Grimes himself did not. He was a straightlaced and somewhat starchy figure upon whom the mantle of grooviness never sat comfortably, and it would have been better for all concerned had he dubbed the new lineup either Claude Grimes And His Groovy Pulsating Rhythm Orchestra With Bongos or Claude Grimes And His Pulsating Rhythm Orchestra With Groovy Bongos. Either of those would have been accurate, for they were grooviness incarnate with added bongos. Yet for all their grooviness, few could hear it when they were distracted by the patent absurdity of stiff, unfashionably-dressed Claude Grimes trying to pass himself off as groovy. That is why, shortly after the bongos were added, the combo retired from live performances and kept to the recording studio, where they could give vent to their newfound grooviness uninterrupted by hepcats hooting ridicule at Claude Grimes.
No one listening to those scratchy old 78s today could dispute just how groovy they are, and how that grooviness reaches its apogee in the bongos. But ’twas not ever thus. At around the same time as Claude Grimes was haunting the lobbies of talent agencies on the lookout for a bongo player, another bandleader, Pook Tuncks, had the same idea. One might think that with a name like Pook Tuncks, he had quite enough grooviness to be going on with, because it is by any measure a groovy name. It was of course a pseudonym, taken from an 1864 entry in the Journal of Gerard Manley Hopkins, where the Victorian Jesuit poet wrote “Tuncks is a good name. Gerard Manley Tuncks. Pook Tuncks”. But Pook Tuncks the bandleader was on a mission to become ever groovier. Almost one hundred years after Hopkins, in 1954, he wrote in his own Journal:
I have it in me to become the grooviest person ever to bestride the earth. By my own reckoning, I am currently at a high level of grooviness. I need to screw my courage to the sticking place and take certain steps to become even groovier. My spies tell me that Claude Grimes is planning to add bongos to the lineup of his combo. Even though he is laughably ungroovy there is no doubt that he will impart grooviness to his pulsating rhythm orchestra by doing so. He will be hot on my heels. If I am to propel myself further into the stratosphere of grooviness and leave Claude Grimes a barely visible speck in the far distance, I too must have bongos in my lineup! Pook Tuncks And His Happening Sounds Of Fantasticness must become Groovy Pook Tuncks And His Happening Sounds Of Fantasticness With Bongos, or perhaps Pook Tuncks And His Happening Sounds Of Groovy Fantasticness With Bongos.
So Pook Tuncks too haunted the very same lobbies of the very same talent agencies, in the shadow of Claude Grimes, and within days of the latter snapping up a groovy bongoist, so too did Pook Tuncks. At least, he thought his bongoist was groovy. Most bongoists are. But, fatally, Pook Tuncks plucked the wrong bongoist from the pile. Classically trained, with many a certificate and diploma hanging in frames on the walls of his bongoing room, the new recruit was simply unable to get the hang of the happening sounds of fantasticness so dizzyingly played by the combo. A terse entry in Pook Tuncks’s Journal is smudged by tears:
His bongoing is leaden.
Ironically, then, the decidedly ungroovy Claude Grimes was celebrated for the grooviness of his combo, at least after they retired to the studio, whereas the once impeccably groovy Pook Tuncks lost every atom of grooviness he ever had. And the impetus behind these divergent trajectories was bongos.
What we can learn from this is that, contrary to received wisdom, bongos are not inherently groovy. Other factors have to be taken into account. For one thing, the demeanour, attitude, and aptitude of the bongoist are critical. No one becomes groovy just by thumping a pair of bongos, even though the bongos may be groovy in themselves. Much less does the bandleader automatically bask in reflected grooviness simply by dint of adding bongos to the lineup. A certain alchemy has to occur, whether the bongos are added to pulsating rhythms or to happening sounds of fantasticness.
A grooveologist recently posited the intriguing question of what might have happened had Claude Grimes recruited Pook Tuncks’s bongoist, and Pook Tuncks Claude Grimes’s. A rival grooveologist made the compelling point that the pivotal factor may be the bongos, not the bongoist. Had Claude Grimes’s bongoist swapped his bongos with Pook Tuncks’s bongoist, could that have made a vital difference? This takes us into the treacherous territory of whether the grooviness or otherwise of bongos depends upon the bongoist, which in turn forces us to ask if the grooviness or otherwise of any individual bongoist is reliant upon their bongos.
In an ideal world, of course, one could match up groovy bongoists with groovy bongos, while they are still loitering full of hopes and dreams in the lobby of a talent agency. But even then, can the grooviest of bongoists, armed with the grooviest of bongos, necessarily impart grooviness to the combo to which they are recruited? The tragic decline of Pook Tuncks And His Happening Sounds Of Fantasticness, insert the Groovy where one will, would suggest not. He was last seen in 1962, in the gutter outside the Cavern Club in Liverpool, sloshed and stricken and holding out a begging bowl to trendy with-it young persons, who passed him by, neither knowing nor caring who he was.