Page 22 SOUNDS May 1, 1982
The Whole Hog
Karen Swayne takes another dip into the PIGBAG
“SOMETHING INCREDIBLY significant happened tonight. I saw groups of skinheads dancing to improvised jazz music, stuff they wouldn’t normally touch with a bargepole. It’s taken me five years to get to that one night – it was the culmination of all my plans.”
Y Records boss, unofficial seventh member of Pigbag, master of the mixing desk and all round whizz kid, Dick O’Dell has every reason to be elated. The group’s triumphant sell-out concert at the Hammersmith Palais proved conclusively that Pigbag are not just getting up, they are getting through.
Barriers are being broken down without the need to compromise or conform, the music is reaching out and the band are moving on.
It’s their first major tour and I leap at the chance of joining them, for since we last met over nine months ago my love and admiration for the group has grown with everything they’ve done.
The initial few days ‘on the road’ becomes extended until their final date as I get more involved – a jumble of places, events and emotions that seems more a way of life than a job.
“I want people to listen to what we are doing, have them dance as a joyous reaction to it rather than just moving to a dance rhythm. I want to put across a mood which makes them feel euphoric.–
Trumpet player Chris need not worry because now people are listening, the message is getting across. The fact that their debut LP ‘Dr Heckle And Mr Jive’ is sitting snugly in the national charts proves that people are a lot more open-minded than some would like.
Few would have thought that an instrumental album which is far more jazz than funk would have any chance of commercial success, but Pigbag have done it and even got skins dancing to it.
A bit more subversive than smashing the discos I’d say.
SEEING THE band play becomes a powerful and uplifting experience. one which demands a response. Chris and Ollie’s extraordinary rivetting brass takes the melody, conveying many moods. sometimes they scream and blast, other times they’re crooning and mournful.James provides the choppy rhythmic guitar. Simon the supple agile bass and quivering cello, while the manic percussion and drumming of Roger and Chippy keep it all moving remorselessly forward.
They all still gleefully swap instruments onstage, and the improvisation and unpredictability is still there, some tracks from the LP becoming very strange indeed.
This doesn’t mean it’s chaotic and disorganised though, they are too skillful to let that happen, and anyway, their love of music wouldn’t allow it.
Another saving grace is the humour, whether it be through a jaunty little snatch of Top Cat or the lunatic fun of the old Louis Jordan number ‘Caledonia’ they always manage to make me laugh.
WE MEET UP in Brighton.”The last time we played here was over a year ago and there were five people in the audience:
four from Cheltenham and one bloke in a British Movement T-Shirt”, confides James, the one with the crazy hairstyle and lovely smile.
Times have certainly changed, because on this occasion the setting is a packed Top Rank, and when the band open with ‘Papa’s Got A Brand New Pigbag’ the crowd go suitably mad.
The group’s feelings about their best known and probably best loved number are mixed.
Chris:- We went through a period of not playing it because we became quite frightened by its success, but now we seem to be slipping back into doing it.
“The thing is, you have to move on to other things, not just give people what they want the whole time. Luckily we still have the freedom to do different things, we’re not trapped.”
The problems of ‘Papa’ continues however, and is the subject of a fair bit of controversy. When the possibility of doing it on TOTP is mentioned discussions become quite heated.
Simon: “I don’t think we should do it because people will just expect a set full of ‘Papa’s’. We’ll get even more singing along. I hate the way people relate to us through that one number – it’s old anyway.”
James: “But if we do it then more people will hear the other things we’re doing, maybe listen to the album. We could get through to a whole new audience. I still enjoy playing it anyway.”
Simon: “It would make us part of all the music business shit though, we shouldn’t give just one version of what we are about, that’s why it’s so important to play live.”
Later, opinions change, it’s decided that it would be too good a chance to miss and that they will achieve more in terms of acceptance than they would lose.
Simon: “You caught us when we hadn’t really thought it through, we had to consider both sides. I’d do it for my mum anyway.”
“THE IMPORTANT point is that they care about what they do – even to hear a group discussing ethical considerations is increasingly rare. Integrity is a tricky thing, but Pigbag are fighting to retain theirs. “I don’t think we should do another tour, it f***s us up too much – takes away all the humanity.””Yeah, but we’ve got to be seen by as many people is possible. not just those who are into it anyway. Of course I hate some of the places we are playing, with their brainless thugs as bouncers. but you have to fight the system from within.”–That’s right. we could play in fields, get really close to nature and all that and just disappear up our own arses. “We’ve got to keep going forward though, not let ourselves fall back. I don’t want to be doing the same set in August.”
I like it natural and keep playing with feeling and conviction. You’ve got to have a certain amount of structure otherwise it becomes self-indulgent. We can’t just 90 onstage and say ‘f*** what I sound like. I’m going to do my own little improvised bit’.”
“I don’t know. I’m not frightened of taking it to extremes, I think we should be more radical.”
Excerpts from late-night conversations in the bar, and Simon, Roger, Dick and Chippy are attempting to define the role they have to play in the wunnerful world of showbiz.
If it sounds somewhat contradictory and confused then it is at times, but there’s a positive feeling which always comes through; the joy of playing, and as long as that remains Pigbag will be alright.
Chippy: “I’m never really conscious of the way it’s put together, we just do what feels right. We still enjoy playing and it’s still natural.”
THE THING which isn’t natural though is the artificial world of touring, with its endless series of motorways, hotels and venues.Someone suggested this piece be called ‘Cracking Up On The Road With Pigbag’ and although at times things seemed to be failing apart they came through battle-scarred but intact.
When I corner Chris in the van he is optimistic about the future.
“When we started we were just having fun, we didn’t really have any views about where we would go. We used to be very untogether and I think now we’re a lot tighter musically as a kind of reaction to how we were then.
“We trust each other, we’ve learnt a lot about playing together and I think we’ll get a lot looser again with more freedom for collective improvisation.
“We’ve all got our own interpretation of where we should be going and things tend to fall into place in a fairly haphazard fashion because six elements make up the way Pigbag goes.”
These six elements incidentally, are some of the nicest and friendliest people you could hope to meet. It’s almost strange that they work together so perfectly onstage because they are all very different personalities.
Ollie’s the quiet one (look, no quotes) but he’s always affable and kind with a neat taste in clothes and great grin.
Chris is the small cute one who keeps getting teased. Chippy is caring and considerate, James is tall and good looking, Roger’s dead thin, occasionally crazy, always intriguing, Simon’s the most emotional, holds strong opinions, is fascinating to talk to and is altogether a lovely person (we Geminians have to stick together you know).
They are all quite surprised by their success because commercial considerations have always been secondary to the music.
“I can’t believe how big it’s all getting sometimes,” mutters Roger, crashed out round my flat watching Crossroads prior to the big London gig.
“It’s a bit scary really cos all the people tonight will have paid to see us, it’s good though that we can headline places without having hit singles.
“I’m not bothered about being in the charts, I just want to reach more people. Touring can get a bit routine but we’re all still into it, we’ve still got the energy that we started with.”
It’s not all routine of course, a lot of the time it’s like being on holiday, staying up all night in bars which never close, crashing 10cc’s party at the Holiday Inn and getting politely ejected – twice!
I DIGRESS, but the point is that the enthusiasm is still there, and they rarely play with less than total commitment.Chippy: “We don’t have a chance to get fed up with what we’re doing because it’s never the same, we’re always putting in new things.”
James: “Once we get onstage it’s great, there’s nothing too structured or restrictive so we can do something different all the time.
We have so many ideas, get really enthusiastic about things, but it’s impossible to fit everything in. All the other projects we want to do will take time – I’ve got a lot of ideas that might not work within the group, I think everyone has, we won’t be tied down to being Pigbag for the rest of our lives.
Did you ever imagine this kind of success?
“No, because when we first got together there was no strategy or plan – I think if Simon hadn’t joined we’d still be playing in basements, but he knew loads of people, suggested we do a gig supporting The Slits and things went from there.
“Now I think it would be really good to have a hit because it would open us up to a whole new audience. People are willing to accept much more if they’ve heard a couple of singles”.
Pigbag have so far released three singles, the other two being ‘Sunny Day’ and ‘Getting Up’, but while their funky dance-floor sound has won them many fans, they shouldn’t be regarded as typical of what the group are doing.
Flip them over or listen to the looser, jazzier tracks on the LP and you’ll get a clearer idea of the direction Pigbag are moving in. The thing is to do it gradually.
James: “If we’d started with our album we would have been ignored.”As it is (or will be), they’ve gained acceptance. Played on Coronation Street (if you listened VERY hard), their video shown on Swap Shop, even creeping onto Radio One, Pigbag are breaking new ground and that is why they are so important.
1982 promises to be a big year for the band. Next stop is America, then Japan, maybe another ‘LP, recorded like the first, over a period of time, tracks being put down while they’re still fresh. Whatever they do though will be right, because Pigbag are a group you can trust.
The last word goes to Chris.
“We’re not trying to provide any answers or give a message. but it there is a statement it’s in the music and the atmosphere – we just want to put across a joy of life.”