by Roger Freeman
Working for the post office was not what I had in mind, the shock of the real world was overwhelming with two postal deliveries each morning to be carried out. This meant rising at four to be there for five with each wad of letters correctly sorted to run down one side and up the other of the multiplying Birmingham streets. At these early hours, with no concentration whatsoever, the panic needle tipped into the red, a manager did ‘the frown’ and asked what my previous employment had been, quickly followed by a humanitarian showing of the door.
It was back to the three Brummies as Chris, Dave and me went down the pub. The Barrel Organ in Digbeth featured rock bands on Saturday nights and we jokingly tried to figure out what was coming next musically. Like in the olden days, all we had to do was the exact opposite to everyone else and before long it will be the next big thing. If we added to this our habit of racing through everything as fast as possible, that would cut down the chances of the audience getting bored. Obviously, this was punk but choosing the opposite type of instruments to play as well would be even funnier. Chris and me described to Dave how crazy the Waterworks trad jazz nights had been and what better way than clarinets, saxophones and… we were interrupted by the band’s drummer doing his solo. Jumping up and down like trad dancers, the 1979 theory of popular music was in the bag.
Over the weeks the increasingly enthusiastic conversations continued, usually at the Midlands Arts Centre’s coffee bar near the cricket ground. Playing instruments and music that no one else was needed some extras bolted on to make it ‘brand new’, there were the accidental fluky highlights cobbled together on tapes but listening back and attempting to play them again slowed down the pace. Our crazed jazz musician thesis regarding those players getting faster and wilder was somehow tied in with the feeling achieved when randomly whacking balls on a pool table that you just know are going to drop in the pockets and they do – the ‘on a roll’ thrill that you have tapped into something and which is now racing ahead. Finally, completing the Frankenstein project was a vague sense of how music might just develop around the corner, a hunch. Dave narrowed his eyes, he had heard crazed theories before and anyway he was in the middle of designing top-range lamps thank you very much. Chris and me were up front for another band in Digbeth and this time waiting for the drum solos, it was dawning on us that they were timeless compared to whatever the band’s latest song was. Also, being solos, they contained a spaciousness with a whole range of bass drum to hi-hat frequencies to keep us distracted, it was all good if rather extreme and other instruments would have to be added eventually. Near the bus stop to head out of town was a seventies wine bar playing the last disco of the decade in the background. Calling in for a top-up, I joined in on a corner piano but in an increasingly sped-up, abstract fashion. Chris started drumming on a table with his hands at which point a businessman who had drunk too much sangria suddenly jumped about and flung off most of his clothes. While the staff attempted to restore some order, Chris started piecing together all the evidence regarding the effect, particularly on the staid English, of the warped playing of instruments mixed in with a touch of drumming and finished off with alcohol – letting their guard down for that ‘on a roll’ thrill which is about to race ahead. Then the big lightbulb:
“Rodge! What disco needs is a load of African drumming over the top.”
PFFT, I spat out my drink.
By the beginning of 1980 the large Edgbaston house with all its second-hand musical instruments had long gone, if we were going to actually start playing it would have to be from scratch. On his previous travels Chris had picked up two ceramic hand drums connected together with old hide so I went and bought a standard pair of wooden bongos and to create the faster, sharp-edged rhythms over the top, I fashioned a couple of thick, short pieces of doweling. Having small portable drums meant we did not need to pay for a rehearsal room and instead could practice anywhere, starting off underneath a river bridge near the art centre coffee bar sounded good thanks to the reverb. Friends in the know, when questioned about the racket, could confidently reply that it was just ‘Chris ‘n’ Rodge.’ After sorting out two or three rhythmic patterns we headed off to the Birmingham Shopping Centre above New Street Station. The reverb in there was even better plus passers-by slowed down to listen until, out of nowhere, security appeared and told us to move along. We progressed down to a corner on Hill Street but had lost our audience, looking up, a sign appeared – the sign of The Crown pub where older punks and skinheads all crammed in to play pool. What could possibly go wrong? Actually, it didn’t and after sauntering in with concealed drums in my replacement holdall there was a brief pause before we hit it. No one was expecting their evening to be interrupted by LOUD live percussion and I can only think their alcohol factor in our equation had been just right. Although the pub did not erupt into drunken businessman dancing there was a general consensus of “that was good thanks” followed by “who are you?”
As well as Cheltenham types, Chris had made a connection with Bristol while at college and knew all about bands and venues in the south west. After our debut date at The Crown, he said we could appear at the long, high hall that was The Granary in Bristol. Making a noise with practically everyone else that squeezed on stage, we were joined by the large suited figure of Mark Stewart, singer of The Pop Group who were definitely not a pop group. He grabbed a microphone and started screaming as someone else jumped on the miked-up drums to send a wall of sound down the building. So far, so good but those small drums of ours really needed to be amplified next time. The chance for this came with a drive down to a pub in Stroud, Gloucestershire to go on before another band. This was Cheltenham’s Hardware which included James Johnstone guitar, Mark ‘Miff’ Smith bass and Andrew ‘Chip’ Carpenter on drums. They were all sound-checked and ready to go on arrival, all we had to do was tilt the mics down for our percussion while Chip offered to put down a backing beat as well. At the bar beforehand the latest incarnation that we were onto something manifested itself on our faces, a slightly deranged grin as if a barely disguised secret was desperately being covered up. Chris confirmed this by dropping his pint in all the excitement – that jazz club’s strange force bordering on madness had been tapped into. The drumming on top of disco idea was mentioned to Chip who duly started up with the classic offbeat hi-hat to bass drum rhythm. It sounded so good we began to laugh and joined in with two more layers of percussion while at the back of the room volume was raised on the mixing desk for our two microphones. Suddenly all that theorising turned into practice with the unforeseen consequences of no one keeping a straight face. The carefully-laid plan stopped it from being one long heavy metal drum break as it did not allow for old style rock soloing to get a look in, instead ‘having a laugh’ had been given an official stamp of approval.
Meeting future Pigbag members Chip, James and Miff from Hardware might have seemed like one of those chance occurrences but Chris had obviously guessed what might happen if one set of people were mixed with another, some chemistry which could set off ideas that neither would have dreamt of. Being properly amplified changed everything including our views on stepping-up the percussion and as Birmingham city centre in the 70s and 80s contained musical instrument shops everywhere, our round-the-corner hunch told us to go and have a look. At first all we could see were drum kits but that evening in Stroud proved our contributions should be created on something slightly smaller and played over the main rhythm. Then, displayed in the last front window where they could not be missed, were a pair of full-sized striped congas alongside some… silver things, they even had what looked like longer, professionally-made dowelling sticks laid on top. Whatever they were, the thought of us both standing up behind bigger drums now seemed obvious. Inside, the shop assistant said the silver things were Timbale drums from Cuba and to try them out, up went the volume without the aid of microphones and we were delighted.
Chris still had the use of Beech House in Cheltenham where he lived while on his course and which contained a large central room on the first floor. Looking like the reverse of Jim’s multicoloured living room installation at Wolverhampton, this had black walls and curtain with a single lightbulb in the middle. For some reason occupants liked to climb in and out of a window instead of using the front door and so in we stumbled with congas and timbales. A run-through of our ideas was enhanced by the large, loud percussion with the added bonus of Chris now screeching away on a second-hand clarinet. This sounded very self-expressionist as though sixties English trad jazz had crashed into American beatniks coming the other way. He had in fact gone to a seminar given by Allen Ginsberg in the past and now handed me a copy of Jack Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’. Still at the ‘having a laugh’ stage, members of Hardware looked in to see the latest instruments and discuss record collections. Eventually James joined in the clarinet screeching with a new alto saxophone as Chip hit percussion with me. In came Miff with bass and amp, Chip then brought parts of his drum kit and actual musical structures started to form. These were not song structures as the thought of vocals never entered our heads.
My ongoing hobby to fit into the real world had me working in a north Birmingham warehouse straight out of Dickens and consisting of pulling Victorian hand trolleys over dusty floorboards. As to the contents of the wooden crates being moved around, I didn’t want to know. With that out of the way Chris now let me know he was giving up Beech House and heading back to Birmingham permanently. In a kind of swap, he said there was a room going in another Cheltenham house if I wanted it. This turned out to be at final year fashion student Sharon’s who had visited my empty Wolverhampton flat with Chris so now, along with a table, a chair and a radio, came the big drums. In between hitting a cushion with timbale sticks for much needed silent practice I would pretend to be a student and go with Sharon to art school all over again but only for the food, coffee and showings of Citizen Kane etc. Another ‘what if’ scene that would come to pass was laid down here when Sharon contacted Vivienne Westwood for work experience after her course ended. This developed into full-time employment at London design studios and an ever-expanding introduction to people from the Clerkenwell area and all points west. Calling into Sharon’s next Exmouth Market flat was all it took to get dragged along. I am not sure of Vivienne’s view on future Pigbag’s instrumental music but backstage hellos from her entourage at a fashion show would lead to more introductions including Malcolm McLaren in a distant Covent Garden.
Back in summer 1980 discussions about instrumental music were taking place in earnest at James’ Pittville Park flat in Cheltenham. All concerned were there as a decision was made to turn whatever we had been up to into a real band. This would mean the end of Hardware and there was also a need to bolster the sound, the more instruments the better and we could always double-up if we ran out of people. In a nod to all those discussions in pubs and coffee bars, listening and analysing everyone’s records now probably made us not want to sound like them. With Hardware no longer in existence a practice space appeared, literally. Concealed in the floor of the Driftin’ record shop, a trap door was lifted to reveal a basement for us all to clamber down into, meanwhile Chip improved our percussion with demonstrations of drum roll techniques on his snare. Wannabe student Chris Lee was gearing up for his first year at university that September and preparations were well underway for all the joys of academic life. His big mistake was he also played the trumpet and worse still had a secret stash of jazz LPs in his bedroom. Word got around fast and being outnumbered by a bunch of older, taller weirdos talking his language and promising to take the avant-garde to a new place must have been a whole set of spanners. Decision-making in the Lee household as to which path to take was a classic soap opera script and Chris has probably never regretted his choice, ahem. It turned out he was in the next square down from me and I started calling in for a crash-course in the latest jazz along with all the exotic record labels that went with it. Information being fed from Bristol bands eventually culminated in everyone’s appreciation of the big band from another planet, The Sun Ra Arkestra.
Meanwhile, to adhere to our system of not sounding like everyone else meant avoiding heading too far in the jazz direction. Chip’s disco beat from Stroud had stayed but full jazz funk had been dodged because weirdo drumming styles were beginning to develop. These were always on the verge of collapse in a good way as in the backs of everyone’s minds lurked a temptation to just make an undisciplined racket. At Chris Lee’s I reminisced about the Birmingham house full of instruments which ended with a blast of trombone on British television. He dashed out of the room, returning with a spare trombone of his own and suggested I put some effort in this time. There now followed weeks of pointing out slide positions for the notes, the embouchure of one’s lips and studying a copy of ‘There’s Nowt Like Brass’. By now, a collection of numbers had loosely formed into an unofficial set list for a theoretical concert except, in a similar fashion to our lyrics, no dates existed. The idea of having to play on the pub circuit just wasn’t us which would mean getting even more serious with attempted support slots for established bands in bigger venues. Becoming this serious started to worry Miff and if he had a job, he certainly wasn’t going to pack it in for a gamble like this. James, on the other hand, could not wait to get out of his insurance office work and, sensing we were indeed onto something, pulled the nine-to-five plug. Chris Lee came onboard after negotiations at home plus Chip gave the green light, so creating a Cheltenham core of five including Chris Hamlin and me.
With Miff gone so had the bass, a lot like The Pop Group losing their bassist Simon Underwood. Hang on a minute. Chris H and James were out the door along with one of our rehearsal tapes, you could not make it up – they put on fake beatnik beards and berets and hitched down to Bristol. Who knows what happened down there but Simon slung his bass in a case and headed for Cheltenham on the next Greyhound bus, er Black and White coach. It was time to come up from underneath Driftin’ records and actually pay for a practice space which was across the road at the back of an art centre. Simon walked in, heard what we were doing and plays the bassline to what becomes ‘Papa’s Got a Brand New Pigbag’, to say it was chemistry was an understatement. Chris Hamlin’s idea of connecting different groups of people together that would not normally have met had just expanded. The south west of England was small enough to run around easily but large in scale when it came to the range of personalities to be found, Birmingham had already been bolted onto Cheltenham so why not Bristol, along with shouts of “Come on you lot, get in the groove.” By now the summer had gone and it all went quiet again while we waited for a reaction to our rehearsal, maybe word was: a bunch of freaks are on the loose in Cheltenham, don’t go there. It was the speed of what happened next that was unbelievable, the rise (and fall) of a band on fast playback.
Simon, James and Chip may have put in the years playing strings of dates but for me and the two Chris’s it was a classic case of everything being handed to us on a plate, a feeling of jumping over a lot of squares on a board game. Before we know it, Simon has got us a date supporting the one and only Slits at Bristol’s Romeo and Juliet’s nightclub. Someone scrawled an ‘X’ on a 1980 calendar for Tuesday 21 October. There was no band name and, come to that, no transport, we had to run around and scrounge the use of a friend’s van. Arriving at the nightclub, we found the stage laid out with a full carpet plus standard lamp in one corner as though mistakenly choosing a theatre about to put on a drawing room comedy. This turned out to be The Slits’ choice in décor and very cosy it looked too but meeting them backstage was an eye-opener with Ari Up and company causing an involuntary step back. Just think, Chris Lee could have been at his Uni fresher’s week instead of this, ah well. Here comes the jump-cut to the past: Dick O’Dell is on the mixing desk at the back doing the sound for the evening, if I hadn’t spotted him at the Club Lafayette, Wolverhampton in 1979, I did now. Looking like he belonged on another West Coast, he peered at us with a half-smile, trying to figure out what kind of noise we were going to make. That evening I don’t know what the 1980 punk crowd was expecting but Chip launches into his disco beat through the massive PA system and this time it is our turn to send a wall of sound down a Bristol building. Stage lights directed at us for the first time block out the view but we plough on with the big amplified percussion and drums. Bass rumbles mixed with clarinet and brass screeches sound like someone’s behind the wheel without a licence and one band name that pops into my head is ‘What Could Possibly Go Wrong’, but it is too long.
Before everyone went their own way serious negotiations between Simon and Dick took place over a possible date in a recording studio sometime in the new year. Dick had his own Y Records label which captured The Pop Group and Slits’ output and now his attention turned to… what was the name of the band again? Furtive mumblings all round as it changed by the day – a promise was made to come up with something that reflected whatever it was we thought we were up to. Chris headed back to Birmingham while I got a lift in the Cheltenham-bound van. Ideas came in over November and collected at Pittville Park HQ, everything from band names to building up a better set of tunes. I joined Chris H on a trip to see Dick O’Dell in London where they discussed artwork for a planned seven-inch single. We ended up getting something to eat but I sensed Dick was still sizing us up as though we had appeared out of nowhere. About to separate at Farringdon tube station, Chris mentioned to Dick that a friend had admired his hog-print canvas carrier with the immortal line: “I like your pig bag.” Looks all round.
“I’ll go and do the cover.”
The year was running out and we still had not got a setlist,
“Come on you lot, get in the groove.”
Oh yeah. Our practice space had been upgraded, this time to a country cottage outside of Bristol where, sitting on a window ledge playing the tenor sax, was Simon’s fellow Bristolian friend Ollie Moore. I went up and introduced myself only for him to politely remind me that we had met in Cheltenham’s Beech House, I had either lost my memory or Ollie could travel through time and space. Nothing surprised me anymore as the now Cheltenham / Bristol core of seven practiced in a line down a long room and ate in a line down a long table. Ollie’s tenor sax playing added the final piece to the newly-christened Pigbag sound. He could do all the wild jazz soloing described to him from those Birmingham days and take them to singing- kettle freeness, nice. The two Chris’s also battled it out in the solo squealing department before falling in with everyone for the now trademark Pigbag choruses. New numbers called for extra layers of sound and our doubling-up plan was now put into action with James jumping back onto guitar, carefully stepping around rock notes to join in with alternative soloing and chords. Finally, for anyone getting bored, a whole selection of small percussion was being collected from shops as well as the kitchen. In the evenings Chip, Chris H and me stumbled through the pitch-black countryside to a deserted pub where Chip explained more drumming techniques followed by the Chris ‘n’ Rodge impressions show mainly made up of us recreating Will Hay films.
Trying to join the dots between ‘The Planets’ suite, the Gustav Holst house museum and Pittville Park was lost on James who had heard it all before. Instead, there was a phone message to say we were booked into Berry Street recording studios, London for March 1981. Back down in Bristol our rooms had been downgraded to the Trinity Hall squat, Hotwells, over on the west of the city. Our proprietor Ollie Moore asked us to please leave it in the condition we found it and I arrived triumphant with free trombone plus cardboard case at a total cost of three shillings and sixpence. I showed off my newly-acquired brass playing to the others, involving having no clue as to the actual notes but remedying this with slides towards the nearest correct tuning. This fooled no one and was a spectacular punk-ethos success. Time to road-test our new material with a handful of dates and as we got to Covent Garden’s Rock Garden something happened, we were not a support act anymore and the venue was filling up. This was one of a small number of Pigbag concerts where all those funny accidental musical flukes are allowed to occur and pay off, not only that but they combined to create a whole set’s worth of entertainment. The atmosphere was helped by the relatively small crowded room with punters right in our faces and the musical sections where we just made any old noise clicked by chance into structures as though they had been cleverly worked out. The place took off.
Everything clicking into place and not falling apart would be repeated later at a cramped Oxford disco whose date has magically disappeared and the ‘No Nukes Music’ benefit concert, Brixton Town Hall at the end of the year supporting the… Raincoats. Dick had taken on the role of live sound mixing for us which naturally morphed into management and the trusty south western ‘friend with a van’ was awarded the roadie medal. Y records’ London office at this point seemed to be Dick’s bedroom in Leinster Square, Bayswater. Calling around the back with him, we wandered into Monmouth Road to say hello to The Raincoats’ vocalist and bassist Gina Birch. I excitedly tried to explain to her that I caught them, along with Kleenex, in Wolverhampton back in ye olde seventies. Catching a glimpse of band management revealed all the paperwork and telephone calls involved, something that was about to rapidly multiply and need a bigger office in Shepherd’s Bush. It was a behind-the-scenes look at being handed everything on a plate that me and half of the band did not want to know about.
Sitting in a cold van staring down a misty Berry Street early Sunday morning could only be one thing: the corny opening shot to how we recorded the single. I was not sure what the others were thinking but twenty years of messing about musically after school, added to the college technician’s unofficial sound studio course meant not getting nervous when the tape started rolling – a cartoon filmmaker furiously rubs out our bongos in The Crown pub as Chris slaps the congas. The studio was big enough for all the band to put down parts immediately, why hang about meticulously fiddling when we could quickly construct a multi-layered tank of a recording. Dick reminded us to keep it to three minutes and something seconds as we all groaned and did another take. After playing my timbale intro, I put down the sticks and looked at my watch, not because I had just joined the Musicians’ Union, but to wave at people every now and again like a conductor. The outcome of this was to form a perfect foundation on the two-inch multi-track tape as I secretly thought: The world’s gawn maad. Well, we definitely kept the long middle drum break onto which there was a mad percussive scramble to chuck the kitchen sink in, with all the sound that made. That left two gaps to fill in, firstly with the two-Chris squealing followed by the Ollie-James honking except, for the record, Ollie came in with a gigantic baritone sax – where did he get that from? Back in the control room Dick made Simon’s classic bassline thunder through the big speakers over Chip’s disco. When it came to recording future solos, Ollie would go further to the edge and finally over it with Dick ramping up the reverb to produce some of the wildest chainsaw sound effects we could wish for. Bluffing on the later twelve-inch trombone solo, however, required even more reverb to counteract the drunken, drawn-out splitting notes, regardless of me only having a coffee beforehand. Meanwhile, it is still Sunday so we might as well mix the track then, and in order not to jinx things afterwards, I remember not to shout FINISHED!
Berry Street studios closing scene:
“What are we going to call it?”
“James Brown had a single called ‘Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.’ ”
“Well, we could call it ‘Papa’s Got a Brand New Pigbag.’ ”
“Oh, very good, but no more wordplay if we ever need an album title.”
Sharon was busy at the art college in the run up to her fashion degree show as I continued to hit a cushion with timbale sticks. It had been a bit of a shock in the studio for Chris H and me as his hands and my arms were aching towards the end of a second take on percussion. Rough Trade did not waste any time in getting Y Records’ latest platter pressed, packaged and into the shops causing the spitting out of my drink to become a habit. On came the opening bars of ‘Papa’at the first-floor nightclub in Cheltenham together with reactions of “What is this?” I knew the big drum break was coming up and there, before my very eyes, a multiple image of the drunken businessman dance minus the stripping. Chris H’s artwork for the seven-inch sleeve summed up the contents perfectly and I just had to congratulate him the next time he got into Cheltenham. Except he didn’t and James was looking worried in sunny Pittville Park.
“Chris has left!”
“What? What happened?”
As there was no trace of him, conflicting reports ranged from spending more time with the family to feeling he had created a monster. There was no time to think because we were sent packing to West Berlin to play with fellow Brummies the Au Pairs in the Tempodrom circus tent, Potsdamer Platz, next to the wall. East German guards on towers told us to keep the noise down while overhead, low-flying U.S. helicopters tried unsuccessfully to drown us out. There was also a nice line in Berlin punks whose green hair matched the colour of their dyed pet rats perched on their shoulders. Things were moving fast now and I wouldn’t have minded sitting down for another coffee but the Cheltenham landlord ran out of patience waiting for everyone’s rent. With that address gone it was a case of stopping off in Birmingham (where’s Chris?) or staying in the rundown Ladbroke Grove Hotel, London where French staff member Françoise told Chip “Your band is alright, I suppose.” Sharon was going places, namely the Royal Academy, London as part of that year’s fashion graduate showcase and the introduction to Vivienne Westwood, I tagged along and I can honestly say I have never seen anything like it since. Before stepping out onto Piccadilly we squeezed into a red phone box to check in with Pittville Park, it had been just eight months since the first date with The Slits and now we got the call from America for that September. Mysterious pulling of strings by someone with connections turned out to be Dick O’Dell this time with Sharon and me astonished at the pace of it all. BBC radio had noticed our tune as well with invitations to the gigantic shed that was Maida Vale Studios. I do not know if other band members noticed me slipping away but I was desperately searching for the Radiophonic Workshop in the miles of corridors. If Delia Derbyshire was still around working on Doctor Who themes the obvious clue would be quarter-inch tape on the ground, maybe I could join in counting the lengths.