The band was actually first started in Cheltenham in late 1980 by Chris Hamlin. Chris, who at that time was studying Fashion at Cheltenham Art College recruited multi-instrumentalist Roger Freeman, (an old friend from his hometown Birmingham) along with Chris Lee on trumpet and James Johnstone, a guitarist and newcomer to the alto sax, for some wild and crazy jam sessions.
Taking place anywhere from the local park (playing up trees was a fave pastime in those days) to the bedroom of his student rented house (painted completely black except for the ‘tribal graffiti’ which he later adapted for the ‘Papas’ 7″ sleeve), these early improvisations formed the basis of what was soon to become Pigbag. The house, Beech House, is still standing on the corner of St James Square and St George’s Place – Google Streetview).
After a couple of months they decided to expand the line up and become a ‘proper band’ with a drummer, bass player, amps, rehearsals etc. etc.
Around this time Andrew “Chip” Carpenter (drums) and Mark Smith (bass) both old school mates of James’ and former members of his previous band Hardware, were recruited for some informal rehearsals. It was at these jam sessions that ‘Papa’ was developed, from an idea Chris H. had before the band was formed.
When Chris H. heard Simon Underwood had left “The Pop Group” he decided to invite him to join the as-yet un-named band. Through a friend who knew Mark Stewart (Pop Group vocalist) he got hold of Simon’s address and Chris
and James both hitched down to Bristol armed with a tape of those jam sessions.
Much to their amazement Simon agreed to join the band, later suggesting his old friend Ollie Moore as tenor sax player.
Through Simon’s connections with Dick O’Dell (at the time managing “The Slits” and running Y Records) they soon got their first gig supporting “The Slits” at Bristol’s Romeo and Juliets.
They played a twenty minute version of what was to become ‘Papas’ and the crowd went ape. The next day Dick invited them to record the track for his label Y Records.
It was time to find a name……
Chris H. was rarely seen without his pig bag.
They made their first recordings in 1981. Later that year they released their first single, “Papa’s Got A Brand New Pigbag”, on Dick O’Dell’s Y Records, taking inspiration for the title (if not the music) from James Brown’s “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag”. The instrumental release quickly became an underground dance hit, selling many thousands of copies and appearing high in the Independent Charts.
It was around the time of the recording that Chris H. left the band, feeling that he had created a ‘monster’ with too many egos to contend with. He felt he was “loosing control of the band” and did a ‘runner’.
The band followed the success of “Papa’s” with “Sunny Day”, a similarly brash, bright and funky track, and early in 1982 another single “Getting Up”. April 1982 saw the release of their first album “Dr. Heckle & Mr Jive”, which was massively successful topping the “Indie” charts for several weeks, despite featuring only “Getting Up” from the previous single releases.
The band embarked on a major college tour in spring of ’82, The tour was the longest and most gruelling the group had ever undertaken, and put a lot of stress on the band, particularly Roger Freeman. Brian Nevill sat in on several gigs (Portsmouth Feb 18, Reading Mar 12, Bristol 14, Brighton 15, Hammersmith Palais 16, and Cheltenham 26).
The tour set the scene for “Papa’s” to be re-released. Demand had built up after the track got played in clubs, and on the re-release the single made the mainstream UK charts, peaking at no.3 and giving the band their only significant mainstream success.
The band made two appearances on “Top of the Pops” on April 8th & 22nd. Brian Nevill sat in on both appearances, and Paul “Nelly/Nellee” Hooper (later producer for Bjork, Madonna, Soul II Soul etc) also appeared with the band in the first show.
The first “Top of the Pops” appearance also saw Roger Freeman’s departure from the band. Apparently, Roger didn’t like the idea of switching his donkey jacket for a suit (the band had decided to dress in suits for the show), and did a ‘runner’ on the day of the show. After the stress of touring, he’d had enough.
“Papa’s Got A Brand New Pigbag” is still used extensively at sporting events and on TV, and still gets played in clubs. The track has also been covered by several other artists.
On April 27th, a new line-up, including Brian Nevill and Oscar Verden, started rehearsing.
The band changed their sound slightly, following up with “The Big Bean”, a slower, more Caribbean-feeling track
which peaked at no.40 in the mainstream charts. The single was recorded at Abbey Road on 5/6th June 1982.
This was followed by a short UK tour followed by a European one and New York on July 9/10th, followed by Japan from July 18th to 31st.
Next came the addition of Angela Jaeger, a New York jazz singer, previously in a band called “The Drowning Craze”. The next LP, “Lend An Ear”, was recorded in the late summer of 1982. The band then appeared on the Christmas “Top of the Pops” show.
Angela was married to Simon Underwood at Hammersmith Registry Office in 1983 with many of notables from the music scene in attendance, including John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten).
1983’s releases were a single, “Hit The ‘O’ Deck” (a reference to turntables), and the album recorded the previous year,”Lend An Ear”.
The band toured the UK from Feb 14th till Mar 13th, 1983. A European tour followed from Mar 29th till April 16th.
Their last ever live gig was played at Portsmouth on April 28th 1983
Following a poor critical reception to the new direction and differences in the band, they decided to split in June 1983, with James, Angela and Simon forming Instinct.
Y Records released two posthumous albums, “Pigbag” (7 live tracks, 1 remix), and “Favourite Things” (all the singles plus a few other album tracks). The press accused Dick O’Dell of releasing the albums to swell Y’s coffers after the failure of the other bands on the label to make significant sales (with the possible exception of Shriekback who fell out with O’Dell
and left the label).
Kaz Records (part of Castle Communications) took over the Y legacy when the label finally went bust, and have subsequently released “Discology, The Best Of Pigbag” on CD.
Although never hugely commercially successful, Pigbag left a trail of innovation and noticably different music behind them. Members of the band went on to record with many other bands, with some still active today.