The first thing that strikes you about BLO’s Chapter One, the latest vinyl rerelease from Mr. Bongo Records, is the cover. Naive, psychedelic, lysergic and surreal, it’s a min-masterpiece. It’s up there with some of the best album covers in music history. So good is the album cover, that I’m sure many people will buy the album just because of the cover. I genuinely hope that’s the case, because BLO’s Chapter One is an important album in African music. BLO are regarded as the first African rock band, while Chapter One is seen as the first African rock album. Released in 1973, by Lagos City EMI, Chapter One should’ve been the start of a brilliant career. Was that the case?
BLO’s roots can be traced to The Clusters, a late-sixties, Nigerian band. Their music was a fusion of Afrobeat, psychedelia, rock and funk. Seamlessly, the music of two continents became one. African and Western became one. A glorious pot pourri of musical genres and influences, The Clusters couldn’t survive playing their own music. As a result, they’d to moonlight playing covers of The Beatles and Rolling Stones. Soon, The Clusters were being called the African Beatles. Despite this, The Clusters were struggling to survive. So, it’s no surprise that the group eventually split-up. From the ashes of The Clusters, BLO rose like a Phoenix.
Following the demise of The Clusters, three former members of The Clusters founded BLO. They were guitarist and songwriter Berkeley Jones, drummer Laolu Akintobi and bassist Mike Odumosu. When it came to naming the new group, they decided to call it BLO, an acronym of their surnames. Having formed BLO, the nascent group’s career would start at one of Nigeria’s most prestigious venues.
Rather than play a low key concert, whilst honing their sound, BLO decided to start as they meant to go on. Their debut took place around Christmas 1972, at the Lagos City Stadium. They were meant to be supporting Osibisa, who were touring Nigeria. It looked like the other way around. BLO meant to be the warmup, blew their Osbisa away. They’d ten-thousand people eating out of the palms of their hand. When Osbisa took the stage, they’d no chance. All the audience wanted, was more from BLO. Their fusion of Afrobeat, funk, rock and psychedelia caught the audience’s imagination. Buoyed by this success of supporting Osbisa on tour, BLO set about recording their debut album, Chapter One.
Fresh from supporting Osbisa, BLO were signed to EMI. For their debut album Chapter One, BLO headed to EMI’s studios in Apapa. They’d written eight songs. Vocalist Berkeley Jones, was the principal songwriter. He penned five tracks, Preacher Man, Time To Face The Sun, Don’t We Are Out Together and the instrumental, Miss Sagit. Mike Odumosu wrote We Gonna Have A Party and Chant To Mother Earth, while Laolu Akintobi contributed Beware. These eight tracks became Chapter One, which was released in 1973.
On the release of Chapter One, BLO proved to be an African phenomenon. Chapter One wasn’t a success outside Africa. Despite being seen as the first African rock album, with BLO being Africa’s first rock group, neither Europe nor America “got” BLO. Since then, and somewhat belatedly, Chapter One has been recognized as an important album. It’s also become something of a collectable, with original copies prized possessions of African music. No wonder, when you hear Chapter One.
Preacher Man opens Chapter One. It has a somewhat understated sound. Drums mark time, guitars chime and the bass meanders along. It’s as if BLO are stretching their legs. Bursts of searing guitar riffs, are the signal for Berkeley Jones vocal to enter. He sings call and response, frustration and anger filling his vocal. Behind him, machine gun guitars and pounding drums take turns to drive the arrangement along. Soon, musical genres and influences melt into one. Afrobeat, rock, psychedelia and jazz melt into one, while elements of Can, Jethro Tull and Jimi Hendrix shine through. Later, BLO kick loose, demonstrating just why they’re regarded as Africa’s first rock group. Never missing a beat, they deliver some sizzling, searing guitar licks, before a thunderous drum solo marks the arrival of BLO.
Time To Face The Sun has a languid, lysergic sound. Wah-wah guitars and percussion join the jaunty rhythm section, before a roll of drums sees the track head in the direction of rock and reggae. A heartfelt, impassioned lilting, reggae-tinged vocal is accompanied by mesmeric, then riffing, rocky guitars. From there, it’s rock all the way. It’s as if BLO have awaked out of their slumber. Now it’s time for them to unleash their magic. Like a shaman Berkeley casts a spell with his guitar. Locking into the tightest of grooves, BLO show just what they’re capable of. It’s no wonder they had ten-thousand people spellbound. This produce a truly spellbinding, enthralling opus, that deserves to be heard by a much wider audience.
Funky. That describes Beware. Chiming, crystalline guitars and the rhythm section lock into the groove, while the languid vocal is reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix. It’s half sung, half chanted. The guitar solo is Hendrix-esque. It’s as if the ghost of Jimi Hendrix has wandered into EMI’s studios in Apapa, and laid down a blistering guitar solo. Instead it’s Berkeley Jones. His fingers flying nimbly up and down the fretboard. Not once does he miss a note. Behind him, Mike and Laolu provide the track’s heartbeat. Stealing the show is Berkeley, with a mesmeric guitar solo.
We Gonna Have A Party sounds as if the party’s already started. Just a minute long, joyous, celebratory vocals are accompanied by percussion, resulting in a slice of good time music.
Don’t is driven along by the deliberate bass. Meanwhile chiming guitars accompany the vocal. Needy and pleading, harmonies accompany the vocal, as the song heads in the direction of Jimi Hendrix’s Stone Free. By now the guitars and rhythm section have conjured up a hypnotic groove. Later, they shake loose, shakers encouraging Berkeley to unleash another of his solos. This time duelling guitars take the song in he direction of classic rock. BLO are in their element, exploring every nuance and subtly of this genre-melting track, where rock, psychedelia and Afrobeat combine.
Chant To Mother Earth reminds me of Fleetwood Mac in their prime. Then it’s all change, as the chanted vocal takes the track in the direction of Arabic, Afrobeat and reggae. Here, Berkeley becomes a soothsayer, as his vocal ensures the track melts into a mesmeric groove. Later, having awoken from his procrastination, he lays down a stunning guitar solo. Somehow, this beats everything that’s gone before. Like a swaggering gunslinger, he lays down a captivating guitar solo. With the pounding rhythm section keeping him company, the solo seems to go on forever. All you can do, is kick back and enjoy the ride. Towards the end, Berkeley returns to his role as soothsayer, having produced another bewitching performance.
We Are Out Together has an almost mystical sound. A myriad of percussion sees to that. Then it’s all change. The bass and searing guitar take charge. They become one. With a crash of a cymbal, BLO threaten to kick loose. Drums pound, guitars chime and a rubbery bass solo accompanies the vocals. They’re impassioned and hopeful. Then, it’s time for the main event. Dueling guitars join forces. This time, the rhythm section want in on the act. They won’t be outdone. Everyone has to play nicely, it seems. Not everyone seems to agree. The three members of BLO seem to compete to have the last word.
Closing Chapter One is Miss Sagitt, an Instrumental, written by Berkeley Jones. Percussion then a psychedelic guitar is panned left as the rhythm section provide a pensive heartbeat. In the distance, guitars chime. They draw nearer, and trippily, are panned right to left. This gives the song an exotic, Eastern sound. Importantly, space is left within the arrangement, allowing the song to breath. A muted guitar and drums rolls join a meandering bass and percussion. Together, they play their parts in an experimental sounding song where East, West and Africa unite.
Chapter One was just the first of five albums BLO released between 1973 and 1979. A genre-melting album, Chapter One matches the quality of Terry Eze’s album cover. An eight track musical adventure, genres and influences seamlessly, melt into one. Everything from rock, Afrobeat, psychedelia, funk and jazz can be heard on Chapter One. Sometimes, there’s brief bursts of Indian and Arabian music. It’s a multicultural musical journey, where BLO showcase their considerable skills during the eight songs.
Each member of BLO is a talented musician. However, guitarist and songwriter Berkeley Jones steals the show. Not only is he a talented songwriter, but capable of unleashing mesmeric, blistering guitar solos. Sometimes, he’s transformed into a musical shaman, his guitar playing blessed with magical properties. Having said that, BLO isn’t a one man band. Berkeley Jones needed bassist Mike Odumosu and drummer Laolu Akintobi. Mike and Laolu the rhythm section, provided BLO’s heartbeat. Without them, BLO wouldn’t have existed. BLO were stronger together than apart, weaving their mesmeric musical spell. Sadly, BLO’s music never found the audience it deserved.
Hugely enjoyed commercial success and critical acclaim in Africa, they never enjoyed they never enjoyed the same commercial success and critical acclaim further afield. Neither Europe nor America discovered BLO’s fusion of rock, Afrobeat, psychedelia, funk and jazz. Like so much great music, BLO’s music, including Chapter One, was lost to a wider audience, with only a small number of enthusiasts flying the flag for one of Africa’s lost bands. Not only were BLO one of Africa’s lost bands, but they were Africa’s first and best rock band. Proof of this was BLO’s first album, and Africa’s first rock album, Chapter One, which was released by Mr. Bongo on vinyl on 1st January 2014. Standout Tracks: Preacher Man, Beware, Don’t and Chant To Mother Earth.