Bongos Over Balham – Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers

Front - "Kamikaze - you yellow fiend!"

Now – time to confess a long-standing obsession, and here it is – “Bongos Over Balham” – the second and best album from legendary pub-rockers Chilli Willi. First bought this in 1977 when I found it in a shop on the Oxford Rd in Manchester, several years after the band split, and I have bought it at least twice since, once on vinyl again with the correct inner sleeve, and once when it came out on CD. In my collection that puts it up there with Revolver and Nick Drake in the most times bought stakes. So why? Why this oddball bunch on London based musos who could turn their hand to western-swing, jazz, country-rock and r&b? Well – there’s the answer, these guys can play, and can play a whole bunch of stuff. Refugees from a number of earlier outfits including The Action and Mighty Baby, they’d paid their dues and were happy to wear their influences with pride. Louis Jordan’s Choo-Choo Ch’ Boogie rubs shoulders with Jesse Winchester’s Midnight Bus amid a number of witty and quirky originals, from the Hot Club inflected Breath a Little, through the banjo led
Truck-Driving Girl to the rhythmic exotica of Desert Island Woman and stomping piano of Jungle Song.
Ahead of their time the Willis certainly were, such eclecticism meant they were hard to pigeon-hole and therefore market, but this is one of the very things I find so appealing. Visually they also were a bit of a ragbag, ..but then again the fact that they didn’t really care about a unified look seems refreshingly endearing – the music is what counts.

the coveted inner bag featuring the pepperettes!

Led by Phil Snakefingers Lithman (who bizarrely later turned up aiding and abetting US misfits The Residents as well as producing a number of records as Snakefinger), southpaw on fiddle, guitar, lap-steel and piano – and Martin Stone on guitar and mandolin, the band also boasted P C Bailey on banjo, sax and twelve-string, with the dynamite rhythm section of Paul Bassman Riley and the great (future Attraction) Pete Thomas on Drums and cymbal. Oh – and the album also features pedal steel wizard Red Rhodes, Will Stallibrass on harmonica, Bob Andrews from the Brinsleys on keys, and Jo_ann Kelly, Carol Grimes, Jacqui McShee and Sophie Israel on B vox as The Pepperettes. (Jo-ann leads on the New Orleans inflected blues Just Like The Devil), not forgetting larger than life manager, Andrew Jakeman (future Jake Riviera, co-founder of Stiff records).
The Willis sadly split after the delightfully named Naughty Rhythms Tour with Kokomo and the all conquering Dr Feelgood.
Interestingly, the Willis mish-mash of styles was aided and abetted by their graphic designer, the outrageously talented Barney Bubbles, who had done a huge amount for bands such as Hawkwind, and who went on to design iconic sleeves, logos and publicity materials for many punk / new-wave classics. CHances are if you have any classic Lowe, Costello, Dury LPs, you have some of his work. A sad loss.
More here – Barney Bubbles, on Paul Gormans excellent blog – and his book is great too.

Promo sticker from David Wills Blog


from Paul Gorman's blog


Lots more highly desirable stuff here!
A quick search would suggest Bongos has gone out of print again (what?) but the compilation of early takes and live stuff, I’ll Be Home – can be bought from Amazon. Worth tracking down. Recommended reading – Will Birch – No Sleep Till Canvey Island – if you can get it!
To finish then – my current fave track – Desert Island Woman!

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