(sound files moved here)
Bert Weedon: Apache
From single (JAR, 1960). Also on Very Best Of.
Cliff Richard and the Shadows: Apache
From single (1960). Also available on Greatest Hits.
Jorgen Ingmann: Apache
From single (ATCO, 1961). Also on Apache/The Many Guitars of Jorgen Ingmann.
The Ventures: Apache (snippet)
From The Ventures Play Telstar (Capitol, 1963)
Davie Allan and the Arrows: Apache ’65 (snippet)
From Apache ’65 (Tower, 1965)
Incredible Bongo Band: Apache
From Bongo Rock (MGM, 1973)
The Sugarhill Gang: Apache
From 12″ (Sugarhill, 1981). Also on Sugarhill Hip Hop Box Set
West Street Mob: Break Dance (Electric Boogie) (snippet)
From 12″ (Sugarhill, 1973). Also on Best of Grandmaster Flash and the Sugarhill Gang.
Goldie: Inner City Life (snippet)
From Timeless (Metalheadz, 1995)
Future Sound of London: We Have Explosives (snippet)
From Dead Cities (Astralwerks, 1996)
Moby: Machete (snippet)
From Play (V2,1999)
The Roots: Thought @ Work (snippet)
From 12″ and Phrenology (MCA, 2002)
Nas: Made You Look
From 12″ and God’s Son (Columbia, 2003)
Ed. Note: At the recent EMP Conference up in Seattle, I caught a paper by the Seattle Weekly’s Michaelangelo Matos who presented what amounted to a cultural history of the song “Apache.” Folks in my generation know the song through the Incredible Bongo Band’s classic b-boy anthem by the same name but as Matos’ paper demonstrates, that was the umpteenth variation of the song and one that would go on to beget dozens more. It was a fascinating paper, the kind of musical genealogy that geeks like me get all twittered about. The only problem was: there was no music. Matos acknowledged the oversight at the beginning of his paper but it still nagged at me – here was this interesting set of changes all occuring to one song but I had no idea what they sounded like (aside from the versions I knew). After the paper, Josh Kun came up to me and said – “see, this is what would be perfect for an audioblog.” One email to Matos later and it came together.
Below is the original EMP paper (warning: it’s long but worth getting through) plus a baker’s dozens worth of songs that Matos mentions, especially the most relevant ones to his discussion. Note: there’s a small handful of songs I did NOT include simply because it seemed like overkill already and on half the songs, I’m only including snippets since you don’t REALLY need to listen to the entireity of “Break Dance” in order to appreciate its incorporation of “Apache.” I trust I will not get people writing in to complain about these decisions unless you’re trying to encourage me to never do something like this again. With that, onto “Apache.”
All Roads Lead to “Apache”
Jerry Lordan was not an American Indian. He was a Londoner who had served in the Royal Air Force, dabbled in stand-up comedy, and worked in advertising before he began writing song hits for Mike Preston, Anthony Newley, John Barry, and especially the the Shadows, the backing band of Cliff Richard, Britain’s premier rock and roll teen idol until the Beatles came along, who would go on to become the Pat Boone of England.
In 1959, Lordan saw a Burt Lancaster movie called Apache, which had come out in 1954. In much the way Charlton Heston played a Mexican in Touch of Evil, Lancaster was Massai, the last Apache left after Geronimo’s surrender to the U.S. Cavalry in New Mexico, and a man out for vengeance. The story was based on fact—the real-life Massai did in fact escape the prison train after Geronimo’s tribe was captured—but the movie was primarily a frame for nonstop action. This gave Lordan an idea for a song, also titled “Apache,” and Lordan sold it to Bert Weeden, then the top-selling solo guitar instrumentalist in England.
34 years after Weedon cut the song, Lordan was still complaining: “He hasn’t even played the music that I wrote,” the songwriter told an interviewer in 1993, two years before he died. “I wanted something noble and dramatic, reflecting the courage and savagery of the Indian.” Soon after, Lordan, who also cut some minor hits as a vocalist, went on the road with Cliff Richard and The Shadows. He introduced the song to them (stories vary how), and after the band returned to London, they recorded “Apache” in less than 45 minutes, expecting it to be a B-side. Instead, it became a hit.
Sonically if not in fact, the Shadows’ “Apache” functions as the missing link between Speedy West, Link Wray, and Ennio Morricone. The steady galloping rhythm is a cross between military march and, thanks to the ride cymbal, the jaunty, Latin-esque dance beat, similar to Ray Charles’ recent hit, “What’d I Say.” The straightforward melody—especially its clear, ringing lead notes—was robust and instantly memorable, with Hank Marvin’s guitar nicely laconic and laden with echo. As British critic Tom Ewing put it, “It conjures a shimmer of desert heat,” an effect helped along by the Chinese tam tam drum Cliff Richard kept time on while drummer Tony Meehan played his kit—the most Indian-in-quotes portion of the arrangement. But the Shadows’ use of echo on “Apache” stayed out the realm of kitsch futurism. Instead, you could call it kitsch nostalgia, giving the old west a kind of day-glo sheen.
The song went to number one in England on August 27, 1960, staying there five weeks and selling a million copies; it did just as well all over Europe. It also became something else—a modern standard, in part because of its tough, cool melody line, in part because of its eminently variable tempo (“Apache” sounds equally good fast or slow), and in part because it was adaptable to any style of music you could imagine, though during the ’60s, most of the covers seemed to be by surf guitar bands from California.
A major exception was the version that hit number one in America the year after the Shadows’, the one by Jorgen Ingmann, a Danish guitarist who would later win the 1963 Eurovision Song Contest along with his wife, Grethe, with a song called “Dansevise (I Loved You).” Credited to Jorgen Ingmann and His Guitar, the beat of this third version of “Apache” is played entirely on a tom-tom, losing the Shadows’ drive but emphasizing the song’s cod-Native American war-drum associations; though the acoustic that the lead line was played on had some slapback echo on it, it didn’t answer itself the way Marvin’s did. Instead, Ingmann overdubbed curlicuing slide playing on the higher-pitched electric that evoked Hawaiian and Pacific Island music, then enjoying a vogue in American pop, in part via artists like Les Baxter and Martin Denny, who mined those sounds for their own hi-fi head-trips.
In short, what Ingmann did was take something that was already sourced in the ersatz—it gets no less realistic than Burt Lancaster playing a Native American—and added a sonic patina of “exotica,” turning a simulacrum of a simulacrum into a Moebius loop of third-hand representation. (This was added to by the photo on the cover of Ingmann’s album, which featured the musician in war paint and headdress—Comanche war paint and headdress, to be precise.) Add to that Lordan’s comments about nobility and savagery, and the cumulative implied condescension becomes thicker than Hank Marvin’s guitar tone.
Yet “Apache” was evocative, conjuring dusty plains via echoing guitars, the old west arrived at though modern methods. It loomed and sunk, cast long shadows and bided its time until the cavalry arrived. It had presence—you could move away from it, but it was so rich and full you didn’t necessarily want to. For a record that sounded like the soundtrack to the most somber Bugs Bunny vs. Yosemite Sam cartoon ever made, it didn’t sound silly. It meant business. Until its legacy took a turn in the mid-’70s, the artist who deviated from its melody the most was the person who first recorded it, Bert Weedon. Yet pliability was built into the song’s structure—not just in its inherent, if suspicious, pluralism, but the fact you could do just about anything with it and it would remain recognizable.
For the next several years, lots of people did things with it. For the most part, this meant taking it to the beach or out for a ride. Surf-identified artists like Seattle’s Ventures honored it as a forerunner of their hollow, wave-riding guitars, while the wild-assed Davie Allan and the Arrows, from L.A., revved it up and dragged it through black-tar roads, fuzzing it up. “Apache” it remained, which meant it stayed earthy. Guitar rock, however, did not—it got cosmic. Psychedelia began in earnest in the mid-’60s, and while a few of the surf vanguard were down—Davie Allan’s best song was a seven-minute ditty titled “Cycle-Delic”—the old guard suddenly became the corniest thing going, a fate sealed in June 1967 by Monterey Pop, where the Beach Boys no-showed, the San Francisco sound began its long ascent into classic-rock radio-programming tedium, and Jimi Hendrix introducing himself to America by lighting his guitar on fire and intoning, “You’ll never hear surf music again.” He was wrong, but the damage was done: Like girl groups and the Twist, the forms that “Apache” had nurtured would seem like a relics even—especially—when revived by future generations.
That would likely have been the fate of “Apache” itself if it hadn’t been for Richard Nixon. In 1970, Nixon awarded a special commendation to Mike Curb, the future governor of California who was then running MGM Records, for ousting 18 artists from his roster the previous year for supporting drug use, including Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, the Velvet Underground, and . . . Connie Francis! Actually, the real reason he dropped the artists was that none of them made money, but that didn’t stop Nixon from praising Curb, or the two of them from becoming friends—such good friends, in fact, that Curb oversaw the music at Nixon’s second inaugural.
Working alongside him was Michael Viner, a Canadian who had worked on Robert Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign before becoming an MGM talent scout and A&R man in L.A. Viner was also a bongo player who did occasional film work. In 1972, the year of Nixon’s inaugural, Viner put a pair of songs on the Psychotronic drive-in classic, The Thing with Two Heads, which starred fallen ’40s star Ray Milland and football player Rosey Grier together as the title character. Milland was white, Grier was black, the joke got old fast, and Viner’s cheesy “Bongo Rock” was a minor hit for MGM’s Pride subsidiary. Viner recorded it under the name the Incredible Bongo Band with a revolving cast of studio musicians anchored by Viner and drummer Jim Gordon, formerly of Derek & the Dominos.
“Bongo Rock” was a remake of Preston Epps’ 1959 instrumental hit; Viner reconstructed it as a goofy funk number. Like the original, it entered the charts alongside several other instrumental hits: Deodato’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra (Theme from 2001),” Eric Weissberg & Steve Mandell’s “Dueling Banjos,” the Edgar Winter Group’s “Frankenstein,” Focus’s “Hocus Pocus,” and Love Unlimited Orchestra’s “Love’s Theme” were all top-ten in 1973. For the Bongo Rock album, Viner tried a few others in the same vein.
The best of them was “Apache,” which the Incredible Bongo Band reworked into grandiose, kitschy funk. But something about that stentorian melody escaped camp, even when turned into a pitched battle between colliding horns, jetliner guitar, boiling-over organ, and massed percussion. Viner and his crew had concocted the most crazed piece of orchestral funk ever recorded, and what made it all the more ridiculous was that the song never lost its shape, never stopped being “Apache.” It was, as Jerry Lordan had wished, noble and dramatic, and maybe a bit savage, though probably not all that courageous—apart from the biggest liberty it took, which was to extend the song via a minute-long percussion break, the trap drummer (probably Gordon) and the congaist (probably Viner) dueling to a draw, the congas winnowing into the beat, the drummer never losing pace. The song was never released as a single; after a second album in 1974, the Incredible Bongo Band—never really a band to begin with—was no more. It was around that time that a young man named Clive Campbell began playing the record at parties.
“I’m not a DJ, I’m a disc jockey. I play the discs that make you jockey,” Campbell, professionally known as DJ Kool Herc, told Terry Gross in March on Fresh Air. “The breaks came out of an experiment. I’m watching the people dancing, a lot of people used to wait for some particular part of the record. I’m studying the floor . . . I was noticing people used to wait for the particular parts of the record, to dance to, just to do their special little moves. So I said, Listen, I’m going to do a thing, I’m-a call it the Merry-Go-Round . . . At the time I had a record called ‘Apache,’ and it was off an album called The Incredible Bongo Rock [sic]. And when I did that, that experiment went out the window. Everybody would come and really wait for that particular part of my format for me to get into it. And that’s when everybody started searching for the perfect beat, try[ing] to beat that record. They still can’t beat that record until this day . . . Everybody’s still using Bongo Rock’s ‘Apache.’”
In other words, a record written by a white Englishman imitating Native Americans as portrayed by white Americans and made famous by a Dane with a vaguely Hawaiian sound, arranged by a Canadian, became the biggest record in black New York. Juggling multiple copies of the track’s percussion break until they became a hypnotic rhythmic mantra, over which his accompanying MCs would rhyme, Kool Herc and the pioneering hip-hop DJs who followed him—the most storied being Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash—turned the Incredible Bongo Band’s “Apache” into an underground hit in the manner of other early-’70s records like Manu Dibango’s “Soul Makossa” or TSOP’s “Love Is the Message”—a DJ specialty, played and treasured by those in the know. And like those songs, “Apache” eventually become a mass-cult hit. It just wouldn’t do it as itself.
The Sugarhill Gang were the first group to utilize “Apache” as hip-hop source material, releasing their own “Apache” in 1981, where the interpolated break was replayed by the Sugarhill Records house band and the Chops horn section. (They too emphasized the cod-Native American leanings of the original: “Tonto, jump on it . . . Geronimo, jump on it.”) But it wasn’t until two years later that the Bongo Band’s “Apache” made its way onto wax as a sample source, getting cut up on West Street Mob’s “Break Dance—Electric Boogie.” The following year, it was interpolated into Double Dee and Steinski’s “The Payoff Mix,” its bongo-led opening providing the starkest moment on a jam-packed record, and both subsequent “Lesson Mix”es by the cut-and-paste duo also featured it.
I believe the first major rapper to utilize “Apache” is—and I’m happy to be proven wrong about this—L.L. Cool J, with “You Can’t Dance” from his 1985 debut, Radio. By the end of hip-hop’s sampling era, “Apache” had become nearly ubiquitous, thanks to its inclusion on the first volume of Street Beat’s Ultimate Breaks and Beats compilation series of popular hip-hop crate-diggers’ treats, inspiring partial or wholesale swipes until the early ’90s. After the combined effects of litigation and Dr. Dre’s The Chronic ended the sample era, “Apache” didn’t die—it migrated into dance music. Drum and bass, which was created by speeding up hip-hop breakbeats, took to it instantly: two artists on London’s Metalheadz label, Goldie and Digital, utilized “Apache” for “Inner City Life” and “Metro,” respectively. It made its way into several techno records as well: Future Sound of London’s “We Have Explosive” and Moby’s “Machete” both contain it.
That seemed to be all for the song—until late 2002, when two big hip-hop names resurrected it for completely different reasons. On The Roots’ “Thought @ Work,” from Phrenology, the group looped a hefty chunk of “Apache” underneath Black Thought’s rapid-fire flow, emphasizing the MC’s playfulness—and, by extension, the group’s and hip-hop’s as well. Nas went the other direction: On “Made You Look,” from God’s Son, while Nas taunted, “You’re a slave to a page of my rhyme book,” producer Salaam Remi isolated a guitar echo and slowed it down until menace oozed out of the grooves. Hank Marvin would have been proud.