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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The Psychedelic Furs, Fall (1980)

The_Psychedelic_Furs_cover

Artist: Psychedelic Furs
Title: Fall
Description: album track, The Psychedelic Furs
Label: CBS
Release date: 1980
First heard: 1980

If you look up the lyrics to this dusky, disturbing declaration of love online, you will find them – or a phonetic approximation of them – erroneously credited, due to the self-fulfilling prophecy of internet fact-sharing, to the songwriting team of Justin B**b*r (never type his demonic name into the internet as locusts will plague you), Mason Levy and Jason Lutrell. This is because the imploding imp had a song called Fall on his third album, which is a different Fall. These are some of his lyrics:

Well, let me tell you a story
About a girl and a boy
He fell in love with his best friend
When she’s around, he feels nothing but joy
But she was already broken, and it made her blind

Nothing terribly offensive about them, and he was 17 at the time, but I prefer Richard Butler’s take on the subject from what I sentimentally think of as the definitive song called Fall, written over 30 years earlier:

I am you and you are me
Tie me down, I will be free
Our love will never end
Parties for our stupid friends

There are more thematic links between my all-time favourite song by one of my all-time favourite bands and this song I’ve never heard and have no intention of ever willingly listening to than you might imagine. In “his” Fall, a boy feels happy about a girl, but she’s “broken”, and all is not quite as Jackie magazine as it appears. There’s a certain amount of angst beneath the bubblegum surface: “I know you got your wall wrapped all the way around your heart … but you can’t fly unless you let yourself fall.”

Back inside the fevered suburban mind of Butler, who was around 21 at the time, a fairytale wedding is regimentally evoked (“You will have a dress of white, you will have a ring of gold, you will have a paper snow”), but things soon darken: “You will have a sheet of red, paint the trees, the trees are dead.” I will have been 15 when I first sat in my bedroom and tried to work out what the hell Butler was singing in that deadpan glasspaper rasp amid all that distorted guitar and squawking saxophone across their eponymous debut. If the moral of the imp’s tale is “I will catch you if you fall,” its postpunk equivalent was, “We will be alone and we’ll fall.” One is heroic, the other fatalistic. I know which I prefer.

There were no lyric sheets with the Psychedelic Furs’ first two albums, the smokily atmospheric The Psychedelic Furs and the more ordered Talk Talk Talk; you had to work it out for yourself. And I relished that challenge. I could never get to the bottom of “You will have a paper snow”, no matter how many times I listened to it – and I listened to it constantly – or how firmly I pressed the headphones to my head. When I finally met and interviewed my louche hero Butler for the NME in what must have been 1991 for the World Outside LP, I asked him what the third line from Fall was, and he told me. (It obliquely refers to confetti, of course, but it doesn’t sound like he’s singing “snow”.) I’m not sure the words have ever been officially typed up, and maybe it’s best that way. (There’s a line in I Wanna Sleep With You on Talk Talk Talk that I’d always heard as “a vicious dog-eyed sheik”, which turned out, disappointingly, to be “a vicious dog and I shake.”)

The choice for toppermost Furs song was a battle fought long and bloody. I am to this day enthralled by the first album’s opening epic India, with its teasingly extended, cymbal-swooshed astral-interference intro and its hardline bass riff. Also, the urgent Wedding Song, which forms a thematic piece with Fall, and ironic list-song We Love You. From the second album, the clattering It Goes On, the heart-tugging All Of This And Nothing. Even the transatlantic albatross smash Pretty In Pink is a Trojan horse of R-rated content within a PG-13 package. There are less contenders on the third album, but President Gas still coruscates like a mission statement, ungratefully having a go at the America that had embraced them, and Love My Way scales heights, with Todd Rundgren on marimba! But I’ve fallen for Fall, as there’s nothing about the Psychedelic Furs that isn’t present and correct inside these berserk and lusty two minutes and 40 seconds.

Tim Butler’s pulsing bass and Vince Ely’s attack drums are in step; the combined guitars of Tim Ashton and Roger Morris fill the room; Richard Butler barks out his poisoned opinions on love and marriage as if testifying at Speakers’ Corner; and Duncan Kilburn’s sax cooks up a storm, marking the band out from the angular postpunk gaggle and making them so different, so appealing. (Kilburn left after the second album, but Rundgren took his part in the studio, as the Furs sans sax would not have been the Furs.) Steve Lilywhite produces the album, except where Ian Taylor, Howard Thompson and the band do. Fall is a Lilywhite joint. It remains definitive. It’s on everything but rollerskates. And when it’s just Ely and Butler, drums and vox, and it still mesmerises (“Marry me and be my wife, you can have me all your life, our love will never end”), it hits you like you’ve been shot by a diamond bullet right through your forehead. And you think, to borrow a speech written around the same time as the song: my God … the genius of that! The genius! The will to do that!

When asked who my favourite band is, I’ll unconsciously cite The Fall or the Wu-Tang Clan. But I have never stopped returning to the fountain of the Furs for sustenance, therein to drink of their diabolically hummable racket and to tick off Butler’s recurring images: coats, kisses, guns, paper, traffic, sleep, flowers, clothes, cars, colours, stupidity.

Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure.