Rip Rig + Panic - God / I Am Cold / Attitude
Robert W. Getz writes ... Anyone interested in tracing the extended branches of Bristol's avant punk/funk/jazz outfit The Pop Group has generally had an easy time of it thanks to CD reissues of albums by Mark Stewart and Maffia, Pigbag, even Maximum Joy managed to find their way into digital format. But until now, a huge and important puzzle piece has remained missing and the appearance at long last on CD of the entire discography of Rip Rig + Panic makes available once again three albums of some of the strangest and most inspired post-punk music ever recorded.
Why did it take so long? There's only ever been one RR+P CD to speak of till now, a 1990 compilation disc called Knee Deep In Hits that was likely a cash-in Virgin put out after the phenomenal charting of Neneh Cherry's 'Buffalo Stance'. Mark Stewart rated a career retrospective when Soul Jazz put together Kiss The Future, a wide-ranging collection that even included Pop Group tracks. Whether it has something to do with recent Pop Group reunion shows drumming up interest or the surprising success of Neneh Cherry's project with free jazz stalwarts The Thing (The Cherry Thing), it hardly matters. What matters is that it's all easy to find again and with it comes a peephole into a time when practically everything seemed possible.
The group grew fairly organically out of the remains of The Pop Group: guitarist/saxophonist Gareth Sager and drummer Bruce Smith had brought bassist Sean Oliver into the group's orbit towards the end and pianist Mark Springer was a school friend who'd played support for them and even had his own track on the group's valedictory We Are Time. If The Pop Group were a politically charged electric cattle prod filtered through P-Funk and Captain Beefheart, Rip Rig + Panic's debut God (even Sager couldn't believe the title hadn't already been used) was more interested in the humanistic aspects of some ultimate bohemia by way of improvised jazz, wherein Kerouac and Ginsburg rubbed shoulders with Cecil Taylor and Albert Ayler. This was soul music in the completely spiritual sense - even the seemingly non-sequitur song titles gave that game away: 'Constant Drudgery Is Harmful To Soul Spirit & Health', 'Change Your Life', 'Try Box Out Of This Box', etc. They may not have recited the torture techniques used on political prisoners (as The Pop Group did), but the endgame was the same. Freedom was the watchword, both lyrically and musically, and anything that crushed the human spirit was worthless. It was an aesthetic that would remain remarkably consistent from 1981 to 1983.
Originally released as a double set of 12-inch 45 rpm discs, God featured occasional vocals from Neneh Cherry and Ari Up but it was Neneh, stepdaughter of famed trumpeter Don Cherry of the original Ornette Coleman Quartet, who would stick. She may have been rawer than sushi at this stage in her career, but marvel at the way she develops over the course of these records. In a way, the cognitive dissonance of this group's lead vocalist ending up with an international hit suddenly doesn't seem that strange at all. She finds a place in between Sager's bleating horns and Springer's elegant free form pianistics and by the time they get to 1983's Attitude it's become such a perfectly blended force that you wonder why more attention wasn't being paid to them. This was rock, this was pop, this was jazz, this was improv, this was funk... Why wasn't it more popular?
Or perhaps the miracle is that they were released at all and by a major label who didn't have a problem with their first two albums being put out as 12-inch doubles. Cryptic song titles, songs that were difficult to distinguish from jams, b-sides that consisted of piano solos? Were the lunatics running the asylum? But then there were the memorable singles that even non-fans from that era probably still remember: 'You're My Kind Of Climate', 'Do The Tightrope', 'Beat The Beast', songs that bounced Neneh's voice out of your speakers on beds of horns and sounded like nothing else (They even managed to pop up on an episode of The Young Ones). This isn't to say that there weren't precedents for what was going on here or that they were alone in their explorations. God, in its rough and ready way, shows its roots in The Pop Group and New York No Wave. Its follow up, I Am Cold, was a more meditative thing with a less agitated tone. Of all of the albums, it's the one that might have come out on boundary stretching jazz label ECM. Neneh's stepfather Don is all over it as well, making it a must for those listeners who might have recognized that the group's name was taken from a Roland Kirk album.
Attitude (which must have shocked fans when they realized it was merely a single album that you played at 33 1/3 - the ignomy!) somehow combines the best qualities of the previous two. It's simultaneously structured and spontaneous, abrasive and melodic, and perhaps the one you might send someone to first if you were looking to win over a new convert. 'Keep The Sharks From Your Heart' blasts it open and keeps it that way, touring through some of their most memorable tracks as well as unsung gems like the impossibly gorgeous 'Eros: What Brings Colour Up The Stem?' Marbled throughout all of it (and all three albums for that matter) is the sheer joy of inventiveness and creativity, of living and of Life. The sparkling piano solo from Springer that ends it all is as beautiful an exit as any group ever got.
That being said, Cherry Red has done a wonderful job on these. Most of these tracks are making their CD debut (not counting the unofficial discs produced by Progressive Line in 2005) and they sound terrific. There's the usual collection of extra tracks, singles and remixes as well as a lengthy interview with band members that runs through the three. All that remains is for someone to release the album by the band's final incarnation, Kill Me In The Morning by Float Up CP, basically Rip Rig + Panic without Springer. It's a fine and worthwhile record with just a little bit less of the magic one had grown accustomed to - which still puts it ahead of most.