Pigbag, Papa’s Got A Brand New Pigbag (1981)

Pigbag

Artist: Pigbag
Title: Papa’s Got A Brand New Pigbag
Description: single
Label: Y Records/Rough Trade
Release date: 1981; 1982
First heard: 1981

Dang dang-dang dang-dang-dang bah-bah-baaah-bah!

No need to consult Smash Hits for the lyrics. Papa’s Got A Brand New Pigbag, from the gap between the disco boom and the post-New Romantic Oxfam-Latin explosion, was the instrumental that mattered. Now, hear its voice.

If I may whisk you, like some pleated-trouser ghost of functions past, back to the Marina Bar in Billing, East Northamptonshire, the default hired-hall for birthdays, parties, anything, in the very early 80s. It was a working part of the 235-acre leisure park Billing Aquadrome, in those days mostly about caravans and car shows, in the modern day built in a more cosmopolitan fashion around static holiday chalets, pleasure boating, soft play, “splash zones” and a “Hovercraft School”. For those of us at Weston Favell Upper School, on the cusp of becoming legal drinkers, Billing was like a second home. It was, as the poet said, very heaven to be going-on-eighteen in 1981-83. Drinks weren’t free and you couldn’t exactly suntan, but in March 1982, “sixth-form band” Absolute Heroes made their debut at the Marina – and so did I, the henna-haired drummer. However, the usual order of things was a disco, and with low lighting and loud Stacy Lattishaw, it was easier to get served at the bar than not get served at the bar.

Battle lines were forged. The unselfconscious would dance to anything; the more pretentious would pick and choose. That was us. The emergence of the overcoat as a fashion item had painted some of us into a corner. You couldn’t dance all evening in a donkey jacket (my own outerwear of choice), so you waited, and waited, and waited for one of “our songs.” There were sometimes three or four a night, so you made the most of them, getting angular and elbowy in a moving clique, then repairing to the margins once Shack Up or Mad World ended. Papa’s Got A Brand New Pigbag, by a group we didn’t even know that much about but who turned out to be a pricklier co-operative of art-school parpers than their biggest hit promised, was like striking gold. It had one instruction: shut up and dance.

There was a 12-inch, but our gang knew it as one of the most tightly-packed calls to arms-and-legs ever squooshed onto a seven-inch. Packaged in a DIY sleeve bearing rudimentary cave-drawings of musical stickmen, I hadn’t even heard James Brown’s Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag in 1982, so the central pun flew over my auburn head (the “pigbag” was, it transpires, a bag with a picture of a warthog on it, carried by Cheltenham Art College fashion stude, Birmingham native and group founder Chris Hamlin). This song, their signature tune, works at three minutes or twenty, powered by layered percussion and impatient but drum-tight brass, and broken into movements like a spidery symphony. Even the intro is like a call and response between a conga and a timbale, precision-played despite the group’s roots as avant-garde jazzers.

A well-drilled squad of seven, Pigbag were dedicated musicians disguised as busking layabouts, at least two of whom (Hamlin and – yay! – donkey-jacketed drummer Roger Freeman) quit the band even before they made their Top of the Pops debut in April ’82, feeling that even recording a three-and-a-half-minute version of Brand New Pigbag had been a sellout. (Imagine a band with that much idealism and artistic integrity in 2018. It will come as no surprise that Pigbag left Brand New Pigbag and more languid follow-up Sunny Day off their debut LP.) Dick O’Dell, boss of Y Records and discoverer/enabler of the band, withdrew Pigbag from sale and reissued it in 1982, catapulting the cult dancefloor smash to Number 3 through sheer force of demand and supply.

No instrument is relegated to backing in this art-funk anthem; Simon Underwood’s bass is played like a lead guitar; the horn section (Ollie Moore, Chris Lee) do not simply enhance, they provide riffs; they are also soloists; the sax talks to itself and sounds like it would never sound the same way twice; the percussion is great, it sounds like an earthquake, and shuts out everything else (except a funky whistle) on a passage so long it must constitute another solo. I have read that the band, shedding principled members like a stripper sheds garments, grew bored of playing their signature tune while it lurked at the bottom of the actual chart before taking off into its highest echelons and crossing the Atlantic. This has happened to bands before and it will happen again.

Pigbag have continued in name and vibe, but only in recent years have original members like Moore and Lee returned to the administration, bringing some of what they had back home. One assumes and hope they still play Papa’s Got A Brand New Pigbag.

The song remains the same. A siren pulsing away from the year of living dangerously close to illegal consumption of alcohol.

Bah-bah-baaah-bah!

 

 

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Arcade Fire, Rebellion (Lies) (2004)

ArcadeFireFuneral

Artist: Arcade Fire
Title: Rebellion (Lies)
Description: single; track, Funeral
Label: Merge/Rough Trade
Release date: 2004
First heard: 2004

On Saturday 17 March, 2007, I ventured southwest to Brixton Academy to see Arcade Fire play live on their fourth consecutive sell-out night at one of my favourite London venues with it proscenium arches and ski-slope floor. I had loved them on first listen, deeply involved with this gawky Montreal-coalesced co-op of Ontarians, Québéquoise and itinerants Californians since hearing their first-album-proper Funeral in 2004, and, with a regular weekday show on the nascent 6 Music, I had experienced them on heavy rotation, and backpedalled to their debut EP Arcade Fire. Twelve people had participated in creating the EP (or mini-album if you wish to haggle over semantic precedent); 15 were credited on Funeral, although the band’s nucleus was six. When they tour, they are these days between 12 and 14, but on that night they were 11. Like Downton Abbey, they have two Butlers.

I regarded my first Arcade Fire show as a pilgrimage, as I had started to get out less in the new century. By 2007, I was picking and choosing very carefully. According to the review I posted on my mothership blog Never Knowingly Underwhelmed, I piped their current album Neon Bible into my head on the train journey there, and Funeral on the train journey home. “I knew in my bones, and from what I’ve read, that it would be a semi-religious experience, and when I saw the huge church organ onstage, reassurance set in,” I wrote. (“Look at that organ and shit,” exclaimed an eloquent young student standing behind me.)

An even age range and gender split confirmed the Canadian or adopted-Canadian arts-lab as a thoroughly modern proposition. I noted a lot of people wearing glasses (I, at that stage, did not), all the better to see the band with. I felt part of a congregation of other believers, eyes wide open, ready to embrace and take communion. I only saw beer fly twice that night (I’d grown used to this sticky expression of joy at Arctic Monkeys shows), but both liquid explosions occurred during the encore, as if the real dicks could contain their excitement no longer. There was relatively aggressive moshing, but where I was standing, polite jigging on the spot was de rigueur.

Neon Bible was at number two in the UK album charts that week, behind the Kaiser Chiefs’ Yours Truly, Angry Mob, suggesting that the transition from airborne lager to Boots lens-wipes was not yet a done deal. More impressively perhaps, the Bible was also at number two in the Billboard album charts, behind Notorious BIG’s Greatest Hits. I deduced that perhaps an album about death (“working for the church while your family dies”) can never beat an album propelled by death. They foregrounded the current record that night, naturally, but the selections from Funeral proved crowd-pleasers: Power Out rain straight into Rebellion/Lies, and my world was complete.

Whether live or on record, the secret to Arcade Fire’s hope and glory is its expansiveness, which is neither forced nor over-calculated. Their best songs seem to grow to fill every nook of your attention as they go along. Even if they’re singing about the power being out in the heart of man or a great black wave in the middle of the sea they seem to do so with a unifying melancholy joy, or a joyful melancholy. Like a Charlie Chaplin film, they love being sad.

It’s hard to argue with the logic of that sequenced, near-consecutive run on Funeral, vis-à-vis the four numbered versions of Neighborhood – Nos. #1 #2 #3 and #4, subtitled Tunnels, Laika, Power Out and 7 Kettles (the first three released as singles, in numerical order!) – but if you think the record has peaked too early, Wake Up alerts you for what I consider to be the real deal: namely, Rebellion (Lies), again subtitled as if it’s the first Rebellion to make the grade. It takes everything we’ve heard and triples it.

I admire a song that starts with a bare, dull thud of a bass drum (I’m used to hearing it within the album, so it actually emerges from the siren-like squall at the end of Haiti), but that’s Arcade Fire all over. They’re builders. They’re layerers. They’re crescendo-seekers. They Icarus their way up, beyond sensible parameters and see how much further out there they can get without losing the tune. There are a lot of them. The drum marches through the preamble, created using I don’t know what instruments to form a kind of crackle, underpinned by that thump-thump-thump-offbeat!-thump. A bassline curls around it, then a clanky, Low-style piano. Butler’s first appearance.

Sleeping is giving in
No matter what the time is

A sentiment only available to a young man (Butler will have been in his early 20s when he wrote it), the song taps into mortality, in common with the entire suite of songs on Funeral, a work haunted by the death of relatives – grandparents in the main, although let us not dismiss this as the self-indulgence of youth: when your grandparents start to die, you’re one generation closer to the final curtain. Further on in the lyric, which gets into your skull through joyful repetition, Butler speaks of “hiding the night underneath the covers,” as if regressing to childhood, then jarringly flashes forward to hiding “your lovers, underneath the covers.” He’s adjusting the speed of life, experimenting, missing out great chunks in order to better understand the journey ahead to oblivion. The accompaniment rattles and hums around his chest-beating performance, augmented at every turn by more music. It swirls with Régine Chassange’s violin and parenthetical vocal (“Lies! Lies!”); there are handclaps, there is foot stomping, there are key changes, it’s a hoedown at a wake. When it ends, as life for all of us must, there is more scratching, as if behind sore eyelids.

Reminder: this is a band’s first album.

They don’t sample and sequence – or at least, they didn’t in their more artisanal incarnation, prior to Reflektor in late 2013 – they just play and play and play. Rebellion (Lies) is a memorial and a rebirth.

It was a hit in the UK – broke the Top 20, long before the band were solvent in Canada or the US – and abides as the band’s go-to encore. You may say I’ve not exactly dug deep here – especially with so much wonder still to come from The Suburbs and Everything Now – but I return to it again and again and again. And it still makes my heart leap.

Now here’s the sun, it’s alright!
Now here’s the moon, it’s alright!

Don’t have nightmares.

The Undertones, You’ve Got My Number (Why Don’t You Use It!) (1979)

Artist: The Undertones
Title: You’ve Got My Number (Why Don’t You Use It!)
Description: single; track, Hypnotised
Label: Sire
Release date: 1979
First heard: 1979

“An Old Doc Marten won’t let you down.”

A curious yellow, the Undertones cover story that graced the cover of the NME in September 1979, proved a fortuitous one for my dad. An insurance broker (or “insurance man” as I always put it), was handling the pensions for a local shoe manufacturer, R. Griggs & Co, which had bought the patent to Dr Martens boots, with the famous “AirWair” soles, and remarketed them for the UK with a slightly remodeled heel. The Undertones, from Derry in Northern Ireland (still labouring under the colonial prefix London- at that less enlightened time), wore them not as a fashion item but as an essential tool for living. The front cover was timed to herald the band’s fifth single – and fifth chart hit – which would put them back on Top of the Pops for the fourth time. Dad saw the cover of my NME and asked if he could, well, use it!

Dad and I had developed a frank and frictionless, symbiotic relationship at this time, considering I was a 14-year-old “punk” wannabe full of new hormones and funny ideas about spiking my hair and rolling up my jeans. His firm’s office in adjoining Wellingborough was close to a cool, independent record shop called Revolver. Rather than slog all the way into Northampton town centre, I started to give him my pocket money when I had saved up and request occasional seven-inch singles; an education for Dad – most memorably when my hand-written note asked for a record by the Bollock Brothers – and a sort of mail-order service for lazy teenage me.

I always imagined Revolver to be rather forbidding, although ironically I never visited it, even after I’d earned my independence and learned to drive, and began using and abusing Wellingborough to rent VHS videos from an emporium at the cutting edge of new media delivery systems. Back in 1979, the era of imaginative, collectible picture sleeves was in full swing and each seven-inch Dad transported home in his brief case felt like a treasure both musical and artistic. His brief case took on the proto-Pulp Fiction glow of a treasure chest. As stated elsewhere, my first “punk” singles were Something Else by the Sex Pistols (a horse-flogging Eddie Cochran cover from after the band had split up and Sid Vicious had died) and the more current Everybody’s Happy Nowadays by the Buzzcocks. Jimmy Jimmy and Here Comes The Summer by the Undertones came hot on their heels, as my modest collection multiplied exponentially.

It was a heady epoch. That Christmas I asked for an Undertones t-shirt (black, with day-glo orange logo), which my parents gamely ordered from a mail-order company in the small-ads at the back of the NME. I had the band’s debut LP and pre-ordered (as we didn’t say back then) their follow-up Hypnotised in October 1980, landing it I believe on the day it was released. I was a fan now. But while the second LP offered new sounds, new colours (a warbled cover of Under The Boardwalk, no less), it didn’t contain their Best Song, which had come out fighting over six months earlier, the offspring fostered by no parent album.

To call it “catchy” is a bit like calling it “an Undertones song”. Of course it’s catchy. Their genius lay in instinctive but honed tunesmithery (predominantly the alchemy of Damien and JJ O’Neill, with some Doherty, Bradley and Sharkey shaken in) that fortuitously captured the scuffed essence of youth and the ugly reared head of romance. Rooted, and booted, the Undertones came from a very specific place at a very specific, very frictional time in Anglo-Irish history and yet somehow charged through all the politics with songs “about chocolate and girls”. (This was a wry, topical reference to Talking Heads, whose second album More Songs about Buildings and Food featured zero songs about either. The Undertones were signed by Talking Heads’ US label Sire, after John Peel’s favourite song ever, Teenage Kicks, caught boss Seymour Stein’s ear while on sound-safari in London.)

You’ve Got My Number is a blunt instrument, lyrically, but I love it for bypassing the niceties.

You’ve got my number
Why don’t you use it
You know my name
You won’t abuse it

That said, you’d be all caught up in yourself if you didn’t find yourself wooed by the wanna wanna wanna wannas. It’s Feargal playing a part; the part of a wee Lothario: we didn’t really imagine him in a car, never mind picking someone up – a girl, we surmise – or taking her home (“It’s not far”), But then the harmonised doo-doos hammer the song home and Billy locks down that full-stop snare. The O’Neills riff on, and you forget to wonder if the Undertones even had phones in 1979 – not every working-class house did.

Why don’t you ring my num-ber?

Because you haven’t got one? It’s pertinent to see the Undertones breaking away here, unshackling themselves from the precepts of kitchen-sink drama to – let’s say – tuck into a lobster supper with the label boss in New York and soak up the American Dream. It’s tricky to write about Kevin and Terry and Norman when you’re touring the States, and behold, the third album, Positive Touch, was the sleekest, shiniest, brassiest pop they’d made. Ironically, it referenced the Troubles for the first time. More songs about sectarianism and dirty protests: a band grows up before our very eyes.

I wish to remember them between LPs, demanding a girl does like Buzby the cartoon British Telecom mascot did and “make someone happy with a phonecall.” You’ve Got My Number, with its inconsistent punctuation on the typographical sleeve (Lets Talk About Girls, indeed), only reached 32 in the singles chart, but it felt like it tore them up.

Dad used my queasy-coloured Undertones NME cover on a flipchart in a presentation and the headline to kick it off. I was proud that he did. An old Doc Marten did not let him down. Thanks for the t-shirt.