Title: Papa’s Got A Brand New Pigbag
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.