Bogshed – an appreciation of wonk genius
Bogshed’s dark, twisted, surreal, bass driven wonk music and artwork was a John Peel staple in the eighties.
If it wasn’t an inspiration for League Of Gentlemen it certainly should have been.
The band released a handful of records – the first of which was on LTW boss John Robb’s Vinyl Drip Records. (Robb also wrote a chapter on the band in his Death To Trad Rock book about the 80’s underground UK scene of the Membranes, Bogshed and A Witness etc available from here)
1985 was, on the whole, the pits musically. There’s a lot of 80s nostalgia that makes the decade seem like one long party but big stretches of it were dire, I can’t adequately express how bad they were, not just the music of course but that was a symptom all was not well. It really did seem like the game was up.
Yes there were a few good bands struggling against the grain and the collapsing “indie” scene threw up the odd “interesting outfit” but as for the mainstream well, it was the preserve of “Miami Vice” clad, insipid “Soul” music that didn’t seem to contain any element of soul, lumpen “rock” and over-produced studio trickery disguised as innovation. It wasn’t that “Punk never happened”, it was more like it had happened and people were determined nothing would ever be as exciting again. The doors had been bolted.
A few people and bands were beginning to kick at those doors though. One track on a compilation LP called “Raging Sun” alerted me to a very unusual band with an odd name from Hebden Bridge, who strangely enough would issues one of the best records ever made and were, although not many knew it, the best band in the world….
I can remember playing “Hand Me Down Father” by Bogshed from that record whilst reading a review of the LP. The reviewer slagged off Bogshed, rallying against the “four minutes spent in the squirming company” of them his task demanded. This person and I would never see eye to eye as what I heard instead was tension filled-brilliance, excitement like I hadn’t felt since the Punk days and an originality which was nowhere to be found on the rest of the record (which was quite good really, but I only ever returned to that track) or at this point of time anywhere.
Like Ian Dury’s Kilburns, they looked like a bunch of folk that had met at a bus stop and decided to start a band. One of them looked like he could have been in the Jesus and Mary Chain, another resembled a psycho-skinhead, one other looked like he had stepped out of a trendy Factory Post Punk band – and then there was lead singer Phil, gurning on the mic, uncomfortably standing in front of a brick wall, ill at ease but with the look of a bloke who has spotted that you’ve got your flies undone and the Emperor has no clothes. I waited to hear more from this strange looking band.
As an outsider to the recording process, I would say it is extremely difficult to make a perfect record – slightly easier as a single, near impossible for an LP, but for a six track EP it’s still a tough task. “Let Them Eat Bogshed” is the only one I can think of. I’ll take issue with J Mascis who has it that the best bass playing ever was on the Rezillos LP (though I’ll grant you that was good), but here Mike Bryson’s playing is incredible and very much the lead instrument. Sometimes, like on “Panties Please” it is so smooth it could have come straight off a Funkadelic album. Other times it is as tough, foreboding and authoritative, as demonstrated on “Slave Girls”, but often it’s all of these in the space of the same song.
But that’s only part of the story. Phil Hartley’s absurdist story-telling is something we’ll never see again and pursues the tale down many blind alleys with an infinite and indefatigable energy – “this week the score draws are plentiful” would have had the same effect on a TV watching public as Stump’s “How much is the fish” chant if they managed to wangle an appearance on “The Tube” as well. His singing is brilliant and powerful, but often filled with a pureness. The drums buffet the bass and clatter along nicely and the guitar chops in like something halfway between a road drill and Wilko Johnson’s manic r ‘n’ b. It’s used sparingly but where it’s needed. Nothing was over-done about Bogshed, and though John Peel coined the word there was nothing “shambling” about them. They were direct and powerful.
At the time it seemed like no-one else knew or cared, apart from John Peel who backed the band all the way and got them in for five incredible sessions. People did hate them and probably still do, but then again you could say the same about the Pistols, or indeed any act worth their salt. In the “C86” re-imagining of a few years back (before Cherry Red got round to doing a proper job and releasing the real thing rather than one person’s view of what is should have been) Bob Stanley vents against the “noisy” bands on the original comp as worthless and dispensed with them for this release. Of course it is all down to personal choice but I couldn’t agree less – though the jingle jangle bands were ok, the appeal of the thing for me was Stump, A Witness, Big Flame, Wolfhounds and yes, above all the mighty Bogshed.
They sounded like nothing else – not like Captain Beefheart, not like the Fall really and those were the artists people likened them to. Of all the bands I’ve heard of since, though they sound nothing like each other, the only band I could compare their appeal to is the American band Flipper – in that they had a similar “like us or not, we don’t care” approach and existed totally in their own world. And people that dig them really dig them, there are no half measures.
This could always have been be one of those “debut things” where a band poured all their best songs and ideas onto the first record and struggled for anything like the inspiration again like so many outfits, but Bogshed bucked that trend by following up this EP/Mini-album with a flawless odd-pop single in “Morning Sir”.
It doesn’t sound a lot like their previous offering, adding a jazzy sax into the mix and a sparser production. It’s a bit like a music hall song, a true “performance” rather than just a record. The song seems to be about the workaday grind, fat slothful bosses paying starvation wages and expecting you to be happy about it, whilst the clock ticked on endlessly, torturing you through to the factory siren rang and you could escape. But underneath that there’s an optimism and relentless energy “I’ll be working there!” not giving up under the strain or being led to your own oblivion willingly, I can only guess. They never gave much away but there was undoubtedly a logic at work. And above all it’s as catchy as any Abba song. I can imagine Sinatra singing it (Frank or Nancy)
The flip side is “The Story Of Bogshed” and for most bands self-mythologizing is a no-no, an avenue that you definitely shouldn’t explore (The Clash come to mind here with “Guns On The Roof” and “Clash City Rockers”) but here it really suits as Bogshed’s seemingly “living-cartoon” existence lends itself to this sort of cock-eyed story-telling.
It really was the high tide mark for the band – coming off this and their contribution to the C86 comp they featured in all the main music press (I remember them rallying against the Jesus and Mary Chains treatment of microphone stands in the NME!). After this point in time of course the media moved onto the next thing and by the beginning of the New Year Bogshed were consigned to the Indie underground again. But, I hazard a guess, they liked it there.
“Morning Sir” trailed the “Step On It” LP and it carried on the twisted story of the band through 14 blasts of oddball energy, with “Tommy Steele Band” and the urgent “Packed Lunch To School” (which also showed up in a live format on the “Communicate” various artists album) leading the way. “Adventures Of Dog” has always stuck in my mind too.
In between this and the next LP “Brutal” one of the bands’ 5 Peel Sessions got an official release as “Tried And Tested Public Speaker”. “Champion Love Shoes” (and let’s not forget that Bogshed had some of the best song titles ever, years before Half Man Half Biscuit) and a version of the single featured alongside early takes of songs which would be part of “Step On It”.
After more Peel sessions the “Brutal” LP and “Excellent Girl” single emerged but these were to be the last recordings by the band as they split at the end of 1987. Phil’s singing was getting better all the time, the production purer and the band more tuneful and the colourful and amazing sleeve gave the lie to the dour image which had been portrayed by certain music writers, but they were never going to hit the mainstream and the charts. Not that was any concern to them, they were happy how they were and they couldn’t be anything else.
“Uncle Death Grip” proved they hadn’t lost their touch, relentless bass and a typical, winding Bogshed story. It’s relentless and the speeded up bass part towards the end is amazing. I can just hear John Peel announcing that song in my head as I type…
Right up until the end Bogshed were innovating, expanding, but always keeping it 100% Bogshed and only that. Witness the incredible segue/medley of “Duck Fight/US Bands/Wally Wallah” from their last Peel session – unbelievable power and ingenuity, no other band in the country at the time could have done that. When I heard they had called it a day I was genuinely upset, but they had done what they needed to do and didn’t need to hang around.
Phil Hartley went on to have his own solo session on the John Peel Show a year later and Mike Bryson became an in-demand illustrator having designed the striking and brilliant Bogshed record covers which were a big part of the whole project. They fitted perfectly with the musical content. Other than that little was heard from the various members but in recent years Mike has put together the lo-fi/electronica of Forkeyes, which if not the sound continue the Bogshed flair for great song titles.
Bogshed couldn’t have really come from anywhere else in the world other than Northern Working Class England – writ deep into them whether they knew it or not was the cold, the struggle, the grit, the hard-done-by feeling outweighed by black comic glee. Peter Tinniswood’s writing about the often strange adventures of everyday life with Brandon family, Roger McGough’s wordplay, Alan Bennett’s world-view of grey, middling disappointments, Bogshed may not have been aware of any of them but somehow they bear comparison.
Going a little further north, Ivor Cutler’s stories of everyday lunacy could also be compared and maybe that is why Peel was so keen on them? The strange things that do occur in ordinary life, but people would rather not know about. That is what Bogshed concerned themselves with.
Unfortunately it’s not a story with a happy ending; Phil Hartley and Tris King have since passed away and the back catalogue of Bogshed remains unreleased on CD while other, much-less notable bands have been compiled again and again. The one saving grace is on YouTube where you can currently see various fan-made videos and even a live set (in sound only) from 1986 at the Gregson Centre.
Little evidence is left but what there is, put out there by a small number of fans and enthusiasts, is treasured by the few devotees. And this proof shows that Bogshed were undoubtedly the real thing, their own thing and a force to be reckoned with even after all this time. Perhaps one day a young band will take on their influence and twist it for their own purposes…there have been signs, but maybe not enough. But the sound and an attitude that will never, ever die …Viva Bogshed!