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30 Years On: Terminal Cheesecake's Angels in Pigtails Revisited
Russell Cuzner , April 9th, 2015 09:45

Russell Cuzner talks to Russell Smith about the weirdest album in the very weird career of Terminal Cheesecake

"The first side starts so powerfully, it tears through, and then it just goes very strange…" is how Russell Smith, co-founder, co-writer and guitarist of Terminal Cheesecake, neatly sums up Angels In Pigtails, the extraordinary album they released 30 years ago. This rare combination of strength and strangeness is arguably what has kept the album sounding so fresh, forceful and fried all these years.

Fans of the artier end of eighties' US hardcore, such as Sonic Youth, Big Black, Pussy Galore and particularly Butthole Surfers, Terminal Cheesecake mashed this noisy, angry approach with an expanded set of influences extending from psychedelia and rockabilly to hip hop and reggae to arrive at a more dramatically deranged groove. Angels In Pigtails took things further still by upping the psych and dub elements while bringing in all manner of experimentation thanks to the emergent sampling technology of the time. This resulted in a delirious carnival of head music interrupted by nightmarish sound collages; a manic parade celebrating both the surreal and psychopathic, with a cast of characters ranging from serial killers to sex toys, circus freaks to a children's choir and naked hippies. And that's before we get to Nigel Kennedy.

But it wasn't an easy birth, nor did things get much better after the album. In fact, the band had split the year before they recorded Pigtails and would split again soon after it, positioning the album in a kind of isolated island floating in the middle of their fragmented history. Formed in London in 1988, the four-piece of guitarist Russell Smith, vocalist Gary Boniface, bassist Mick Parkin and drummer John Jobbagy, released three records in the two years before Angels In Pigtails – the Bladdersack EP, Johnny Town-Mouse and V.C.L. - all for the Rough Trade Shop's staff-run imprint, Wiiija. But it was on the live front where difficulties saw the line-up deteriorate as Smith recalls:

"The live stuff was really frustrating, we couldn't get out of London, and even in London we seemed to be only playing at the George Robey [infamous crusty venue that closed in 2004]. There was this thing with the Mean Fiddler [who had hegemony over many London venues of the time] where they blacklisted a load of bands on account of their unsavoury following. They didn't want us at the big venues, bands 'like us' – 'festival-style bands with dubious drugged up followings'. There were all these fantastic bands we wanted to support but we just never got the look in, we couldn't get out of that small venue trap. And we were pretty sure we could have made an impression if we'd had a chance. We just got pissed off - Gary really, really was not a very patient man [laughs], so he called it a day, John went off and did something different, Mick, he started a business so he was really busy with that…"

And that would have been the termination of Terminal Cheesecake had it not been for an invitation arriving out of the blue to record a Peel Session in early 1990.

"I thought it was a wind-up - they said, 'Is Terminal Cheesecake still going?' And I said, 'Uh, yeah!' They said, 'Why don't you do a session at BBC?' So I said that I'd love to and then quickly realised and phoned Gary. He said, 'We ain't got a fucking band, what are we going to do?"'

Smith hastily put a plan together that would obscure the fact they were no longer a living, breathing band, while giving them the opportunity to work in a more modern way, exploring the possibilities that sampling and studio-based composition afforded, but this was at odds with the regular format of the Session where bands were usually required to record live in just a day or two at the BBC's studios:

"I phoned Peelie back and I said, 'Look, we're going through line-up changes, is there any chance we can record our session for you in our mate's studio? We'd really like to record something special for you with new tracks that we're working on and I think it would come out a lot better.' With permission to bend the rules, Smith secured recording time in a new studio built by Rudy Tambala, who he'd played bass for a few years earlier in AR Kane. "But we had no rhythm section, it was just Gary and me on that Peel Session, Gary had a couple of demos, I had some instrumental tracks, and we just basically jammed them from there, and then drum machines were programmed by Rudy to our little rhythms, it was a co-effort with us three really."

The session produced four new tracks, all of which ended up on Angels In Pigtails acting as a kind of demo for the album, but it was only after the session was broadcast a couple of months later that it became apparent that the band was back on:

"Kev Martin heard it, who was a big mate. We'd done a load of gigs with him. He goes, 'Oh, I'm starting a label, do you wanna do an album?' And we said, 'Of course we do!' And then Gordon [Watson] was available so we got him involved."

The recording sessions for Angels In Pigtails continued to exploit the band's newly minted methodology of combining psychedelic jams with the studio trickery of dub and hip hop. Such strategies would spread five years' later to divert a diverse range of artists, from Tricky to Tortoise, as they drifted into ever more blunted, echo-filled, collaged constructs, exemplified by Kevin Martin's inspired Macro-Dub Infection compilation for Virgin in 1995. At the same time, the album deftly retains a strongly familiar overspill from the Cheesecake's previous work, particularly in the rhythms, despite a newly recruited drummer in the form of Joe Whitney (later of garage punkers The Flaming Stars).

"Yeah, that's because Gary and I wrote nearly all the stuff. We'd both got these 707 drum machines and we used to write these simple little rhythms [on them]. Joe wasn't in the band long enough to put his influence in, which is a shame actually because I think he would have been quite interesting, I mean the stuff he's done since has been excellent.

"Rudy's input was pretty massive on that album considering he was like the producer as well. He was saying, 'No, that won't work.' He's got that attitude. He's really very talented. He's got a fantastic ear and he knew Cheesecake.

"The first two [albums] were recorded all live and that was against the grain at the time - everyone was into this ridiculous process - the end result of which was Def Leppard recording single strings on every chord. You just lose the whole vibe of the band, so we always laid it all down. In Rudy's studio we couldn't do that, because we didn't have the space for a start. Everything we did was made up on the spot. I was jamming something, this bass line, and he goes, 'That'll do, go on.' And then all the other experimental sort of soundscape stuff, that was just messing about in there with samplers and looping things and noise and stuff, just having a laugh. You imagine that [there were] these three guys, who are obsessed with collecting records and listening. We wanted to hear everything we could, and with interests in all the psych stuff, all the heavy dub and the hip hop, that's what we were listening to, and we loved all of it. We wanted to try and make the most wigged out album we could of course, but it'd have to have a groove, it can't just be weird, all Cheesecake stuff is a big smoker's groove. There was constant skinning up in the studio, just constant heavy smoking [laughs]. If someone had an idea, it was a matter of, 'Yeah, okay.' Someone else threw an idea in and we'd see how we got on. And I think in that way we retained some of the fresh ideas and the rawness and we didn't over produce it, just that raw idea of the jam basically and that's how it was on a lot of those tracks."

Don't be deceived into thinking Angels in Pigtails places its listeners in a chilled-out comfort zone though. Stoned though it is, the album is at times fierce, frightening and severely disorientating. As well as having three out-and-out anthems – 'Unhealing Wound', a cyclonic guitar wailing through syncopated drums and a stomping bassline, 'Blow Hound', a quiet-loud rouser that switches between the danger theme to Jaws and Hawkwind's Space Ritual, and concluding with the gargantuan garage rocker 'Pony Boy' – it's also peppered with eerie sound collages to mercilessly spin out the casual toker. 'Pony Girl' pts 1 and 2, briefly lose the listener in a nebulous wilderness of disturbing cries, reversed girls voices and feedback, while 'Track 9' describes a creepy descent through cut-up classical music – most notably Nigel Kennedy's Four Seasons. Smith explains the skewed choices:

'A lot of Cheesecake's material, the original idea is just some sort of puerile private joke – just some silly subject matter that makes us all fall about and then trying to write a track around it. That's a bit of a Buttholes influence, one of the things we loved about them, that, "What the hell is all that about?" and you think it's got to be something quite sick hasn't it? And that's a big influence from Rudy where we were sampling and looping and layering weirdness. That horrible bit [on 'Turkish Glass'] that's from Marathon Man, when he drills into his teeth. Gary recorded a lot of stuff from TV - and things that he got - there was this documentary about Jamaicans smuggling weed – when we heard this Jamaican guy going on about, "You can smuggle weed in tins of cheese" – what?!? - I've never seen a tin of cheese, never in my life! But anything that made us laugh, [that was] the whole approach of this band; the best stuff came from when we were just fucking around, laughing and enjoying ourselves - not everybody does that, it can get too serious. The humour side of Cheesecake is important 'cause we did piss about - it's a bit tongue-in-cheek sending serious rock bands up, sending punk bands up. At the time we had all this straight edge stuff - we were blurred edge! There wasn't a straight edge in sight - all the corners had been filed off!'

Most unusual or at least unexpected at the time were the two penultimate tracks tucked away on either side that gave the guitars a back seat bringing the dub/hip hop production to the fore. 'Stinky Beads' neatly manages to reprise the rhythm from Bladdersack their debut recording which would continue to be evolved in future on tracks like 'Coils' from Pearlesque Kings Of The Dewmost, 1992's eventual follow-up to …Pigtails. Over this loping industrial hip hop beat Boniface does a brave transgression of Barry White crooning about love beads ("little pearls, all small and brown"), but, according to Smith, it would seem not quite as scatological as intended:

"'Stinky Beads' - I'm distraught with that because I had a demo that I'd recorded on my four-track and I'd done a vocal on it [with] far more offensive lyrics that Gary wouldn't sing, he said, "Oh no I can't say that!"'

On the A side 'Turkish Glass' does away with vocals entirely, replacing them with the aforementioned drills and Jamaican voices, as it settles into a Funkadelic loop over which tribal chants and a needling guitar waft their distinct vapours to portend the trip-hop trends of the latter half of the decade, as well as the direction the band would next take:

"Gary really got sick of playing rock music really, he was sick of being in a band, he didn't want to do that anymore, he was listening to loads and loads of reggae and hip-hop and all this sort of exotic stuff, and Gordon and I, we'd always be trying to check out new stuff we'd never heard, and [those] tracks kind of kick started that in that direction."

The humour and plundering spilled across into Pigtails' sleeve, or sleeves as each format, vinyl, cassette and CD, had a different one. The LP was styled to look like a Blue Note sleeve, whose rigid brand guidelines had consistent style and positions for the artist's name, the title, and image, with comprehensive sleeve notes on the back. Pigtails take on this was lovingly accurate but far from the cool evocations the jazz label aspired to – the main image was a blow-up of a photo of a gory head-wound and the sleeve notes wove a bizarre tale of a schizophrenic psychopath named Dan Crane.

"Which is my pseudonym. I DJ as Dan Crane occasionally, but Kevin, he came up with all that stuff. The serial killer - it's a true thing but he's changed the dates, the times and the places to base it around me and Stratford [where Smith lived at the time].''

The cassette had a murky brown cover obscuring antiquated images of a girl, while its inlay opened up to reveal a bright, charming image of two naked hippies nicked from the sixties' counter-cultural magazine Oz. But it is the CD cover that is perhaps the most at odds with its insides, displaying a black and white picture of young children singing. It turns out that this was the actual sleeve of a single released in 1955, a recording by the Obenkirchen Children's Choir that was actually entitled 'Angels In Pigtails'.

"Yeah, that's right, it's a 45 on Parlophone. I found it so twisted, you got all these little German kids singing – 'Angels In Pigtails' – it's just wrong isn't it? I goes, "Look at this!" – Kevin Martin, he's got this laugh and he was howling when he saw this 'cause he's got a twisted sense of humour as well, and he said, "Ah, fucking hell, let's call it that.' It had to be that."

The fun, however impish or perverse, is palpable throughout Angels In Pigtails, as it is throughout all of Terminal Cheesecake's mighty work, but, as before the Peel Session, it often seemed difficult to sustain and, after Pigtails release, despite getting good reviews and selling well enough, the band were about to face familiar difficulties only to split and reform again with a new line-up that, for the first time, wouldn't include Smith.

'I wasn't really keen on playing live, it was doing my head in a bit because the way Pigtails was recorded - a lot of stuff on that album was double tracked guitar, rhythm then lead, switching and switching, and it was getting increasingly difficult to do that live. I had said, 'We're doing an album but I'm not playing any gigs.' So the album comes out and, of course, we get some gig offers. I was struggling with the rehearsals and making mistakes, and I can't handle making mistakes, and we did one show and I think I fucked up something, apparently it was a good show, but I just got the hump and didn't want to do anymore. I was consuming far too many illicit substances, I needed to escape for a while, so I went off to the States to stay with some mates and I promoted the album on radio over there. While I was away an offer came in for a gig and they made the decision to do it without me. [laughs] It's that Syd Barrett moment! But it was too good to resist - it was in Amsterdam and no way were they going to say no to that! So Gordon took over, he was perfectly capable of doing that, and after that it was Gary and Gordon really. I was pretty upset about it, but I just thought, 'Well, there you go.' After that Kev Martin asked me to join God, and I said, 'Yep, I'm up for that.' And then a few months later Matthew Bower said, 'Do you want to join Skullflower?' And I said yes to that so I kept busy."

Terminal Cheesecake went on to release three more albums with several different line-ups, the psych guitars becoming less and less important to their sound and dub manoeuvres moving more and more centrally to the point that, after 1994's King Of All Spaceheads, they evolved into the short-lived pure reggae act Dub Alzir before disappearing altogether in the latter half of the nineties.

Perhaps the most unexpected manoeuvre was their reform 20 years' later in 2013 – with Smith coming back into the fold, joined by Watson, original drummer John Jobbagy, Head of David's Dave Cochrane on bass and new vocalist Neil Francis (originally from Gnod). From outstanding debut shows at London's Corsica and that same year's Supernormal Festival to a recent tour of France, the guitars have returned to centre stage while their set list is intriguingly including more tracks from Pigtails and the later albums as they settle into their new lease of life.

"[Originally] we thought the later albums are not really suitable, but now we do stuff right across all the albums. It's weird we played more in the last two years than we ever played in the whole career of the band. We've come back after all these years and the touching thing is that the new, young audience who don't remember us, they just might remember the name, and they're really appreciative. The best quote is from a friend of ours - she goes, 'I don't get it Russ that you're a band from the eighties, you sound like a new band.' I said, 'That is fucking wonderful.'"

This reaction is perhaps testament to Terminal Cheesecake's open-minded, creative and inventive approach, borne of humour, hedonism and a passion for powerful music that peaked on Angels In Pigtails. Twenty-five years on its balance of demented drama, anthemic anger and ganja grooves still delivers such a rare, impactful impression to retain its infectiousness and remain undated.

Terminal Cheesecake play The South Street Art Centre, Reading tonight (April 9) and The Green Door Store, Brighton tomorrow (April 10)