Rip Rig and Panic – God/I Am Cold/Attitude
- Neil Cooper
- 23 July 2013
The free-jazz-punk-skronk-funk combo's three albums are released in remastered form
It's not every day a free-jazz-punk-skronk-funk combo get to strut their stuff on a prime time BBC TV sitcom. This, however, is exactly what happened on 7 December 1982 when Rip Rig and Panic appeared on the living room set of The Young Ones to perform their single, 'You're My Kind of Climate', featuring Andrea (mum of Miquita) Oliver miming vocals in place of absent teenage chanteuse Neneh Cherry while roadie and performance poet Jock Scot similarly mimed trumpet.
Granted, The Young Ones, set in an anarchic student flat occupied by Rik Mayall, Ade Edmondson, Nigel Planer and Peter Richardson, was hardly Terry and June, created as it was on the back of the burgeoning alternative comedy boom. Set alongside The Young Ones' other musical guests, who included Madness, Motorhead and Dexy's Midnight Runners, however, Rip Rig and Panic stood out like a mad uncle making a charming nuisance of himself at a wedding. So much so in fact that they were informed that their unruly behaviour would guarantee that they wouldn't be asked back onto BBC TV ever again. As these expanded reissues of Rip Rig and Panic's trio of equally unruly albums prove, however, it was the BBC's loss.
Here, after all, is one of the great missing links in post-punk, a free-thinking collective who tackled a melting pot of musical styles with a youthful loose-knit abandon that suggested they were learning their chops as they went, picking up some serious dance moves en route. Rip Rig's founder members – guitarist and clarinettist Gareth Sager and drummer Bruce Smith – had both been in The Pop Group, Bristol's most intense avant-provocateurs who similarly looked to funk and dub for inspiration before imploding in 1981.
With singer Mark Stewart forming Mark Stewart and The Maffia, other off-shoots as well as Rip Rig and Panic included Maximum Joy and chart-bothering instrumentalists Pigbag. With Sager and Smith hooking up with pianist Mark Springer and bass player Sean Oliver, who Sager had first seen busking, an invitation was sent out to Cherry, who had sung with The Pop Group's fellow travellers, The Slits, and, with Smith, in the On-U Sound-affiliated New Age Steppers. Cherry was also the step-daughter of jazz trumpeter Don Cherry, which gave her hipster kudos in abundance.
The result of this unholy alliance was wilder and more eclectic than anything their peers were doing, and would sow the seeds for a multi-cultural stew that would tentacle out through Massive Attack and Portishead, right up to The Cherry Thing, Neneh Cherry's recent collaboration with Swedish saxophonist Mats Gustafsson's skronk trio The Thing, a band who, it must be said, sound at times not unlike Rip Rig and Panic.
Without Rip Rig and Panic too, remember, we may never have witnessed Neneh and Andi Dish It Up, a six part cookery show hosted by Cherry and Andrea Oliver. Presumably the BBC executives who dreamt up the show weren't aware of Rip Rig and Panic's lifetime ban.
There were two different strands to the Rip Rig and Panic oeuvre. The first was a kind of free-form party-time funk, pulsed either by squalling saxophone or else Springer's singular piano, sometimes both at the same time in a tug of love only anchored by Smith and Oliver's rock-steady rhythm section. The second was a poppier if equally funky song-based affair that put Cherry at its centre. Both came with scatologically wild titles, usually care of Sager, who also penned the similarly scattershot lyrics.
If 'Storm the Reality Asylum' and 'Wilhelm Show Me The Diagram (Function of the Orgasm)' were riddled with counter-cultural references that sounded like interpretative musical pamphlets in miniature, the Springer-led 'Change Your Life' sounded like a demented Vince Guaraldi jamming with some just discovered African tribe on a Go! Team mash-up in waiting. Just calling their debut album God was an audacious act of provocation from the band. But then, given that Rip Rig and Panic had named themselves after a piece by jazz saxophonist Rahsaan Roland Kirk, why the hell not?
God wasn't being put out on some esoterically inclined micro-indie label after all. Like its follow-ups, God was released on Virgin, which, while it still held on to its own hippy roots via a welter of post-punk signings, was undoubtedly a major.
I Am Cold features 'You're My Kind of Climate' and 'Storm The Reality Asylum', arguably RR&P's most commercial moments, and should've been squat-dance classics in waiting, as the two 12” versions that feature among an abundance of extras on these new editions make clear. Then along comes a free wig-out bearing the title, 'Another Tampon Up The Arse of Humanity', and any perceived attempt at crossover looks suddenly unlikely.
With Don Cherry guesting on all three of RR&P's albums, such a cross-generic libertine spirit suggested that here was a new generation of British jazzers forged in the image of the likes of pianist Keith Tippett (who Springer had played with) and saxophonist Larry Stabbins, as well as other players such as Barbasos-born trumpeter Harry Beckett and – especially – pianist Chris McGregor and his Brotherhood of Breath, who, as emigres from apartheid era South Africa, fused black and white sounds in a way that was the most joyous of political statements in a more accepting London scene. All of this would hit commercial pay-dirt a couple of years later with Simon Booth and Larry Stabbins' Working Week outfit who so encapsulated London's mid 1980s jazz dance scene, but, despite surface similarities, such polo-necked cool was unlikely to become Rip Rig and Panic's infinitely more sprawling sensibilities.
If it was in live shows that Rip Rig and Panic's unruly spirit was unleashed to the max, then Attitude sounds the most honed, conventionally focused and 'produced' of the three albums. This may somewhat conversely be to do with the final album's increasing use of guest players, including drummer and doyen of the London improv scene, Steve Noble, whilst also remaining there was little in the way of compromise.
Following Attitude, Springer went off to do his thing, while the rest of the band would morph into Float Up CP, before Cherry eventually went mainstream via her 1989 debut solo album, Raw Like Sushi, work with Massive Attack and beyond. Sager went on to form Head, prior to more recent solo releases on Scots indie label Creeping Bent and sojourns this side of the border with Jock Scot, The Nectarine No 9 and others.
Sean Oliver's passing in 1990 ended the Rip Rig rhythm partnership with Smith, who went on to join John Lydon's ever-fluctuating Public Image Limited project for two albums in the mid-1980s, before signing up to the band again when Lydon recently reformed PiL. Smith now divides his time between PiL and the reformed Pop Group with Sager and Mark Stewart. Given just how much things have come full circle in each member's waywardly singular pursuits, perhaps now is the time for Rip Rig and Panic to reconvene. Just imagine the glorious mess they could make!