My friend Bob
and I have a running joke about when these long promised CD reissues of the last two Pop Group albums will finally come out.
For about 6 to 8 months now, the usual online vendors have been slowly and steadily pushing back the release date by bi-weekly intervals. And whenever you’d check their status on the promised date, you’d be met by yet another unrealistic date.
We’ve been waiting patiently, checking weekly, and making jokes about how the hold-up can’t be the artwork. That last one came in a black sleeve, for cryin’ out loud.
But, as is so often the case, something far more important can be happening in front of you when you’re distracted by something else.
Somehow, late last year while I wasn’t paying attention, an Australian label called Progressive Line got it into their heads to finally release the three original albums by Brit outfit Rip Rig + Panic, even going out of their way to include the relevant singles tracks. Up to this point, the only official CD release they'd ever had was a greatest hits (!) compilation that came out back in 1990.
If anything could get me more excited than the Pop Group reissues, it’s these. I just assumed we’d never see them on CD in my lifetime, so I never really bothered to look.
After the demise of The Pop Group in the early 80’s, the group’s members all landed in different bands. Singer Mark Stewart took his frightening and abrasive vocals and put them into an industrial dub context. Bassist Simon Underwood found great success in the funk-heavy Pigbag. Guitarist John Waddington helped found Maximum Joy, while Gareth Sager and Bruce Smith (guitar and drums, respectively) went on to…
See, that’s the thing. What the hell was it?
Smith and Sager, along with bassist Sean Oliver, pianist Mark Springer, and a young singer named Neneh Cherry (stepdaughter of jazz trumpeter Don Cherry), put together a band that defied easy categorization and christened themselves Rip Rig + Panic, after an album by saxophonist Rahsaan Roland Kirk. It was punk, it was jazz, it was avant-garde, it was even pop in a strange way.
Their first album, God
, was released as a set of two 12-inch singles. The song titles were mostly odd, poetic non-sequiturs (Try Box Out Of This Box, Those Eskimo Women Speak Frankly, The Blue Blue Third
) and the music sounded mostly improvised, with Cherry’s vocals used sparingly at first.
Perhaps the strangest thing about them was the fact that they gave just as much focus to their keyboardist as they did to anyone else. Springer was (and still is) an incredibly proficient musician, knocking off improvised runs that lived somewhere between Keith Jarrett’s delicacy and Cecil Taylor’s holy thunder. His piano made them an incredibly unique commodity, even in a time that was full of them.
For me, and I freely admit that I was greatly attracted by so-called “jazz/punk,” “punk/funk,” and whatever other names much of this music was called at the time (RR+P's rhythm section even backed James Blood Ulmer up on a 12-inch single called Eye Level
, further cementing the connection with Ornette Coleman's extended musical family), it was manna from heaven.
And it wasn’t just the band and the music. In a larger sense, they represented to me the era’s willingness to experiment, to mix genres and blur boundaries. That they were signed to Virgin Records seemed incredible to me, even in light of the example that had been set by Public Image, Ltd. Rip Rig + Panic didn’t have a punk legend they could sell in ads. That their records were released at all felt like a small miracle to me. Who was their audience? Weren’t they too rock for the avant-garde and too strange for the post-punk contingent? What other band turned their b-sides over to lengthy piano solos?
The second album, I Am Cold
, was released in the same 12-inch format and featured Neneh’s stepfather Don on trumpet and their third and final release, Attitude
, showed them at the height of their power, if a little more reined in.
A couple years later, most of the band reunited as Float Up CP, a more commercial prospect than RR+P, but just as satisfying in a different way. The missing puzzle piece was Springer’s piano. Without it they still sounded exciting, but some of the danger disappeared as well. They didn’t last any longer than their one LP, Kill Me In The Morning
And, of course, the punch line to all this is that Neneh Cherry would go on to have an international #1 hit record with Buffalo Stance
. It was a wonderful bit of irony.
And the other punch line is that these new CD reissues completely disappeared before I had a chance to get hold of them. I recently managed to get a copy of Attitude
through Ebay (a great package which includes the Float Up CP material on an additional disc), but I’ve no idea when I’ll find the others.
Maybe after those Pop Group reissues come out…