Attack of the Cannibal Zombie Businessmen - The Higsons (Sartorial Records)

higsonsWhat a daft name for a band. Their Wikipedia page (trust it if you dare) asserts that they are a “funk-punk’ band ‘in the 1980s”. Formed in 1980, disbanded ‘by mutual consent’ (says Wikipedia) in 1986.

Charlie Higson - formerly of punk outfit The Right Hand Lovers (oo-er, missus, mine’s a large one) - David Cummings and Terry Edwards formed The Higsons. Charlie Higson is now described as an actor, author, writer, producer, comedian etc etc and he’s bloody well known around the UK, mostly from The Fast Show. If you can’t place him yet, it doesn’t matter.

All that matters here is the music, and that’s spanking. There were a myriad of niches by 1978, and by the end of 1979 there were even more, which is one reason why the 1980s were a very full-on place, musically speaking, in the UK. To have witnessed it was special, to be a small part of it was more so. All the more tantalising was the thrill of knowing that your band had a special something … could they make it to the top..? But we all know what industry types are like. Confronted by a mob howling approval, they scrunch their faces and deny the band’s popularity.

So, along with hordes of bands with special somethings (the early 1980s were particularly fertile, it was like a dam bursting), The Higsons played with and around the likes of Madness, The Specials, The Selecter and The Beat. The Higsons were a rather more raucous blend of British ska, British punk, Pigbag, comedic stupidity (rather Viz-comic-like) and an attitude you could, apparently, only gape at.

After the first four singles (the covers of which resemble early Viz cartoons), they released another two with Two Tone Records. I can’t tell you much about The Higsons’ career other than that I suspect they did not quite tick all the industry boxes. Too amusing to be taken seriously, to serious to be comedians. Hell, Robyn Hitchcock does a song, ‘Listening to The Higsons’.

Ah, yes. And The Higsons were determined to give you something other than “just” a good time. Smart, whip-stinging lyrics and lazy, ripping funk riffs and a horn section you won’t forget in a hurry, The Higsons gathered up the huddled masses and forced them to wear something better looking, more comfortable, and a Higsons badge.

This recent reissue contains their first four seven-inchers (all released in nine months between mid ’81 and March ’82), includes the extended version of “Got To Let This Heat Out” (remember when 12” singles were the long mixes or versions which you had to have..?), and (most of) the LP “Attack of the Cannibal Zombie Businessmen” (October 1984).

Let me tell you that, amongst all the shiny pop fluffery of the day, and while The Birthday Party were struggling between poverty and music press adulation, and taking it out on Londoners with angular rip-you-heart-out rhythms and sonic holocausts, The Higsons were, to put it mildly, on quite, quite another planet.

This CD is, therefore, a somewhat schizoid release; and it’s definitely two sides of a band which coulda shoulda made it bigger. I am told they even made it out to Australia, and I suppose I must have been looking the other way. I will add that musically, The Higsons are something of an education; there’s a lot going on here, little flickers of the familiar bobbing up and vanishing.

These first four singles were self-released and apparently change hands - if you can find them - for large untidy sums these days. They’re rough and ready, and the first listen is a bit like finding bristles on an apple. There’s a sardonicism, an expectation that the audience will instantly understand. "Quirky" is one word which would have been flung at them, and perhaps "wilful"; truth to tell, the band have all expanded their horizons since these halcyon days of youth and too much beer. This CD is a glimpse into a world we kinda recognise, but probably don’t.

“I Don’t Want To Live With Monkeys” b/w “Insect Love”: At the time, almost any band worth their salt released their first single themselves. If you got a decent review in the music weeklies in London (‘Sounds’, ‘The NME’ and ‘Melody Maker’) that would get the attention of the major labels, who would be more receptive to a bunch of scruffs sullying their gleaming doorstep, and not immediately call the Old Bill.

“Monkeys” is somewhere between sophisticated funk and the lads out on the piss after the match. You can really hear Charlie Higson working his vocals to find his own style, and Edward’s brass is arresting and it’s all over in just over two minutes. You’d have to replace the stylus at the beginning to get your head around what on earth that was.

"Insect Love" is an extended groove-a-thon preceded with the self-consciously tough line; ‘I don’t have to feel anything, I’m a real man’; ‘three minutes of pleasure and another notch on your love gun’ gives you the gist, but the heroes here are not the lyrics, worthy tho' they are, but the rocksteady groove, around which twin horns yowl. It’s dead good, ending with one of those sax solos which you instantly want more of.

“The Lost and the Lonely” b/w “It Goes Waap!!”: “Waap” comes first, a sterling dance number before you’re properly balanced. Reminds me of quite a few bands of the period, especially Higson’s half-crying vocal, but it’s the twin tweaking guitars set against this damn superb rhythm section which has us all heaving about on the floor. No, I’m not entirely sure what they’re on about either, apart from the joys of looking at women. In a Viz-ish way, Waap!! might be the effect of the instantaneous stiffy.

The CD cover has a rather superb quote; “My television is black and white/ It talks to me in my sleep/ it goes WAAP”. So go figure, as assorted americans say.

“The Lost and the Lonely” anticipates the funky lounge fad by about 20 years. I’d say Higson’s vocal is a little too knowing to be taken on face value, which is a pity as, yeah you’ve guessed it … the music slaps the bracelets on and takes you round to the cop shop. Arresting, as I said earlier…

“(Got to Let this) Heat (Out)’”had a different version of “Waap” on the flip…

“Heat” is, quite simply, a classic of jazz/funk or something. The bass recalls Tracy Pew’s long luxurious burns, makes you wonder if… but surely not. It was probably something in the water. The break allowing the bass and drums to take over is so damn fabulous … then the horns come in like sirens through a siege…

The “Conspiracy” b/w “Touchdown” single completes the group; “Conspiracy” is, apparently, what The Higsons are best know for, and it’s not hard to see why. In a glorious moment of inspiration, the song takes the premise of conspiracy theory and … all of a sudden we’re at the local pub.

See, there’s a classic line delivered by thugs in England when they want a fight; it’s basically a very blunt, capturing ruse along the lines of: “Didn’t you spill my pint?’” Your best bet, when confronted with one of these hospital merchants, is to head-butt the bugger straight away and run like hell. Because, unless you do, you don’t have any options; if you say, “No, what are you talking about?” you’re destined for the stretcher, and if you try “Yes, I’m terribly sorry, can I buy you another?’” means you’ve lost face and outsmarted the thug, so he’ll hit you anyway.

The line Higson delivers is: “Who stole my bongoes? Did you steal my bongoes?” which of course inverts the entire cycle of violence and turns it into a monkey’s tea party. I’m very tempted to print the lyrics en masse, but I won’t; here’s a line from the CD cover again; “Q: Sam K Ampong is in the jungle/ Did he steal my bongoes?’”

“…Cannibal Businessmen” is worth the price of admission for “Conspiracy” alone. And as I’ve said, it’s a damn fine CD.

Albeit with its dabs of dub, “Touchdown” seems much smoother for some reason, an adroit pastiche of those disco dirtytalkin’ dancefloor fillers - Higson seems to bring a sort of back-seat-of-a-Ford-Cortina to the subject.

The greatest change seems to have taken place after their encounter with Two Tone and the record industry. We can hear a patina of what is instantly recognisable as ‘the eighties sound’ to the production; however, this is to carp, as the songs are all wonderful.

“Them Changes’”(by Buddy Miles) is a dirty stomping thriller, booting about like skinheads on nitric oxide; the vocals, particularly the harmonies and that groovitan guitar lick, recall innumerable fab sixties bands. If I put this song on a mixtape (it’s what the young people say, I’m told) in the middle of 20 1960s hits, you’d not pick this immediately as being not of the time, but then, you’d be stuck in the middle of the room drenched in sweat. Dancing like a stupid.

Around about this time I shall mention The Blues Brothers. And assume The Higsons ended up in similar territory, without the blues background, more or less on their own terms. ‘The Same Song’; well, you’d swear this was straight out of the Blues Bros, when Boris drives his patrol car through a chicken farm…

“Keep the Fire Alight” is where we realise just how sophisticated and damn sharp this band have become. Higson seems to have discovered a different method of singing, broadened his range, and this is a tight, well-constructed little beauty. Straight out of a BBC crime sitcom set in a lonely village on the coast etc etc … not at all sure of the chorus, it’s just a bit too squeaky for me. But that said, it’s thirty years ago. The 8ts were damn hard to wriggle out of.

“Summer Rain” is rather beautiful, and should’ve been a classic ’80s hit. I can see it all, the shoulder pads, the “big hair”, suits rolled up past the elbow … thankfully not.

In “Slime, Shrew, Monkey Man’”we go right back to the shock of the new Higsons, the lyrics taking us down evolution’s ladder and up into civilisation courtesy smooth horns and glittery guitars. ‘You’re a big boy now, you gotta make a stand’; yes, you can hear the 8ts glossing everything over in the background; ‘the tide has turned/ you’d better start swimmin’.

‘Attack of the Cannibal Zombie Businessmen’ is, as you can imagine, a structured stadium-filling juggernaut, tuff nut guitars swirl in and out, robotic drums battle the sweaty bastard behind the kit. A reminder that in 1982 only two of Romero’s Zombie films had been made (and the current zombie kulcha was well and truly unimaginable), and that 1982 was the third year of Thatcherism, and the tilting of the scales toward businessmen as opposed to the everyday tosser was well underway.

“Sacrificed the nation til the streets were running red”… timely, pointed … Proves the point that for every ‘Stand Down Margaret’ there’s an equal or better gem worth your attention; it’s over 6 minutes of dancin rebellion… ‘They’re coming/ they’re coming// Money/ money’ …

The last two songs are from their last single: “Take It’” and “I Walk The Land” and released in 1985.

“Take It”, well. You’d spot this with that patent ’80s spotter Nan bought you last birthday. It’s groovy laidback funk, and … I’m awful sorry, but it’s just a bit too clean for me. I know a lot of people love the glossy and sheen of 8ts production, but I’m just not one of them. Glorious shades of gospel though. Mind you, U2 had that in spades, didn’t they..?

“I Walk The Land” is a gritty, insistent return to the dirty carpet, drunken thugs and dark interiors of The Higsons’ roots. Another beaut stomper, terrace chant. If you saw this band live, with no idea of who or what they were, you’d abruptly find yourself soaked with sweat, booze and wondering how on earth an hour and a half had passed and you’d lost those flowers for your girlfriend.

There were no passengers in The Higsons. Everyone fitted in like a neck into a noose, and hauled hard. The bass - Colin Williams - rolls and ripples like a dark tide; guitarists Stuart McGeachin and David Cummings brought jabbing rights and lefts along with energy and timing; drummer Simon Charterton is perfect, going from thunderous to stately and graceful. Mr Higson aka Switch, carries the songs off with aplomb and power, and is now another Great British Institution (take your cap off), along with Terry Edwards (the Japanese import cd says Telly Edwards but … ) who is that wonderful musician, someone who can come to the fore at just the right moment to leap the song forward, yet can remain (apparently) in the shadows as the rest of the band plough forward like a battleship.

There were a lot of bands who destroyed themselves with ill-advised dealings with the music industry in the ’80s. And a hell of a large number are pretty unlistenable now without recoiling in horror. The Higsons have a lot to be proud of; they entered Industry City and got out without losing their spark.

You know what I’m gonna say. "Attack of the Cannibal Zombie Businessmen" is a blast, meriting least four bottles, and you might be able to get it here. Other Higsons and similar may be snaffled here. The Higsons belong in your collection. One of those links will get you connected, and there’s plenty of other fabulous music to catch your ear there.



Tags: madness, higsons, specials, the beat

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