Don’t Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb On Me: Mingus, Oh Yeah


Charles Mingus, profile

Charles Mingus

NEW YORK CITY, 1961: “(We’d) like to play piece titled, Oh Lord Don’t Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb On Me…”

If you’ve never heard Charles Mingus mumble, holler, grunt, and sing the lines that follow, while he and his band trudge and push like a New Orleans funeral through the collective fear of a world on the brink of self-destruction, then you’re missing one of the funniest, darkest, and coolest moments in Cold War Rock:

“Oh, Lord, don’t let ’em drop it, stop it, bebop…(chuckles)/(hollers, and groans)/Oh Lord… ”

Yes, technically, this is not rock: it has all the instrumentation of jazz but the whole album boils over with the spirit of the best punk and the most sardonically smart-ass rock. Directly or not, it informed a lot that followed. It’s also undoubtedly an expression of its time.

Recorded on November 6, 1961, six months after the Bay of Pigs and five months after the fire-bombing of a Freedom Riders’ bus in Alabama, Don’t Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb On Me and the album it appeared on, Oh Yeah, are products of and protests against troubled times, fear, and oppression. Mingus, who was of Asian-Black heritage, didn’t shy away from addressing politics and racism in his music, his writing and his life.

Every Charles Mingus fan probably has their own private “under-rated classic.” To me this is Oh Yeah.

From his speaking-in-tongues skat at the beginning of Hog Callin’ Blues to the humor and pathos of Atomic Bomb,  the sarcastic, exuberant parody of Eat That Chicken or the jabbing bop of Wham Bam Thank You Ma’am and the wild mood swings of Ecclusiastics, the album is a smack-in-the-face of a good time.

It’s also deadly serious. Where such brash humor and social commenting could fall into parody and novelty in lesser hands, Mingus brings his characteristic depth of humanity, hard experience, anger, and joy out in these songs and the musicians he brought along.

Charles Mingus, Oh Yeah

Charles Mingus, Oh Yeah

Oh Yeah is one of the few albums where the bassist/composer actually sings and plays piano, and some critics seem to think it suffers from this. It’s rarely recognized as among Mingus’ essential listening: His discography is huge and there are a lot of brilliant moments. Yes, he’s not nearly as good a piano player as he is a bassist and composer, and the audio is dry and sparse at times. Oh Yeah might have less complex and finessed arrangements than you’ll find on other Mingus classics. But it’s the things that others point to as its weaknesses that help make Oh Yeah great. This album is feel, mood, humor, and emotional rawness. Mingus’ punched-piano playing and guttural wails are perfect and no one has ever led a band the way he did.

Mingus beats the piano and hollers “Oh yeah!” above the madness of almost every song. When you add a fearless band doing their overlord’s twisted bidding, you’ve got a classic.

About Jedd Kettler

Jedd is a musician, writer, graphic designer and woodworker. He is a member of Vermont band farm and recently released several EPs under the name Dashboard Hibachi.