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Pigbag


Whether Godfather of soul JAMES BROWN could raise a “cold sweat” or “get on the good foot” for PIGBAG’s early 80s instrumental scrummage `Papa’s Got A Brand New Pigbag’ was nobody’s business (his mid-60s hit `Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag’ its inspiration), but the chances of JB hijacking a space on the UK dancefloors when PIGBAG’s re-model charted were odds-against. An underground dirge that catapulted the punk-funk group into the Top 3 in April ’82 after a year bouncing off the night-club ceilings, the monster track became something of an albatross around their neck for a combo seemingly at odds with their own direction(s).
Instigated late in 1980 by Cheltenham-based fashion/art student Chris Hamlin, the clarinetist roped in a former multi-instrumentalist buddy from his Birmingham days, Roger Freeman. Almost immediately, they were joined by guitarist/alto saxophonist James Johnstone and his Hardware crew, drummer Andrew “Chip” Carpenter and bassist Mark Smith. Hamlin’s brainwave to hook in former POP GROUP bassist/cellist/violinist Simon Underwood (to supersede Smith), and, in turn, Si’s Bristolian bud Ollie Moore (on tenor sax, etc.), was paramount in the group garnering a connection to Dick “Disc” O’Dell (head at Y Records) and their first gig as “Us Corporation” supporting The SLITS in Bristol; what it must’ve been to ear a 20-minute improv of “Papa’s”, one can only imagine. The name PIGBAG was suggested by O’Dell in reference to their leader’s tatty t-shirt emblazoned with a warthog, and now underway was the trimmed-down 3:35 minute debut-45 version of the seminal `Papa’s Got A Brand New Pigbag’. Revelling in classic brass-led funk soul, yet retaining a residue of edgy punk paranoia from The POP GROUP (A CERTAIN RATIO and 23 SKIDOO also come to mind), the exotica of er… Cheltenham was revealed.
A lot had happened in 10 months it took the platter to reach the charts: leader Hamlin had chosen to bail (citing “musical!” differences and uncontrollable ego-trips), Y Records had partnered with Stiff in America, feet-twisting tracks, `Sunny Day’ and `Getting Up’, had entered the lower reaches of the UK charts and debut album DR HECKLE AND MR JIVE (1982) {*8} had cracked the Top 20.
Kicking off with the latter dirge, the set was a disco-fusion-friendly record, and a guaranteed consistently intriguing listen. While the record limbo-danced its way from the Latin party vibes to the glowing voodoo-bones of the CAN-meets-MILES DAVIS percussion/ska-brass of `Dozo Don’, there was also the shadowy bass groove/jerky jazz workouts of `Brian The Snail’, `Wiggling’, `Brazil Nuts’ and the snake-hipped `Orangutango’. When released on CD some time later, the gloss and sheen was added with missing links `Sunny Day’ and, of course, `PGABNP’.
Unhappy with pop fame and dress rehearsals, Freeman was the next to depart (soon-to-be Dr. Calculus with STEPHEN DUFFY), his berth taken by drummer Brian Nevill and trombonist Oscar Verden for Top 40 Caribbean squeeze `The Big Bean’.
The haughty addition of New York-born Angela Jaeger (from DROWNING CRAZE) to spice up their instrumental sound was a risky one, but things seemed to be progressing in and out of the studio, the out part arriving when the American singer duly wed Underwood at Hammersmith Registry Office; John Lydon in attendance. The new direction was tested on follow-up set LEND AN EAR {*5} in March ‘83, but when this and wayward 45 `Hit The `O’ Deck’ stirred not a jazzy bean chart-wise, PIGBAG officially split not long after a gig in Portsmouth, late April. Maybe somewhere in the streets of Manhattan there was an imaginary PIGBAG piping a merry off-kilter tune, but in England flighty funk fans baulked at `Can’t See For Looking’, `One Way Ticket To Cubesville’ and `Jump The Line’, and opted for the likes of RIP RIG + PANIC.
As Johnstone, Underwood and Jaeger lifted their spirits with the short-lived Instinct, O’Dell thought of another way to extol the virtues of `Papa’s…’ courtesy of an eponymous PIGBAG (1983) {*4} album, which was totally live bar a remix of their previously set’s `Jump The Line’. However, this wasn’t the end of the story for the `Papa… Pigbag’ signature tune. Subsequently re-mixed and re-issued by Kaz Records more than a few times, it was also a minor hit when PAUL HARDCASTLE revamped it in ’85 for his Silent Underdog motif. A decade on, super-DJs PAUL OAKENFOLD and Steve Osborne (under their Perfecto Allstarz pseudonym) sent out `Reach Up (Papa’s Got A Brand New Pig Bag)’ into the Top 10. An English football anthem (QPR and Middlesbrough, among the teams to adopt the terracing cheer), could anyone blame Fire Records for mixing up a Vuvuzela version of the track in 2010.
Possibly the reason – or maybe not – why Chris Lee, Ollie Moore and conga/percussion merchant Kofi Adu (a brief member in ‘82) re-formed PIGBAG, the combo were indeed back in 2013 with fresh jazz-rock sounds on YEAR OF THE PIGBAG {*4}; the octet also comprised John Sam (drums), Sven Atterton (bass), Karme Caruso (keyboards), Max O’Donnell (guitar) and Matt Dowse (trombone). There was little merit or connection in long-winded tracks `Cuban Rice – Is Very Nice’, `Out Of Chaos’ and `Brains’ – TOWER OF POWER or AVERAGE WHITE BAND, they were not! Subsequently shunned and lambasted by James Johnstone on the group’s co.uk website, Chris Lee’s “Brand New Pigbag” were taking bookings on pigbag.com – does two or more bookings constitute a sending off? Mmmm.
© MC Strong 1994-2003/GRD // rev-up MCS May2015

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