DAVE MILLIGAN writes:
The article which follows is a typically verbose, self aggrandising response from me, Dave Milligan, The Penguin Party's singer and principal songwriter, to a request from a friend to 'pick a Penguin Party song and the song which influenced it'. I singularly failed to fill the brief as requested, but something interesting came out of it (to me, at least!)
First off, let me say that one of the reasons I write so few songs, and so slowly, is because I try not to sound like anything I’ve heard before. Now, I have been a music obsessive since the age of 2, brought up in a family of voracious record collectors, so I’ve heard a LOT of music… I guess it’s all influenced me in some way, but rarely consciously if I could avoid it, because I’ve been trying all my life to find my own sound...
That said, here are some of the records I can pinpoint which have snuck through, despite my efforts:
Both my parents had large vinyl record collections by the time I arrived on the scene on Valentine’s Day, 1966.
My dad’s ranged from Oscar Peterson to the Eagles, Sutherland Brothers, James Taylor…
My mum favoured Barbra Streisand, The Carpenters, Jim Reeves, Johnny Mathis…Big rich voices.
My older brother Paul (13 years older than me) grew up through the amazing 60s, an experience for which I have always envied him. From the age of about 14 he was going to legendary gigs in London such as the “24 hour technicolor dream” at alexander palace, and went through the Beatles experience first-hand, as it happened, before being swept up into the British Blues Boom and it’s heavy rock after-effects such as all the incarnations of Eric Clapton, Deep Purple etc. Paul’s taste gave me a grounding in the blues, which I deeply love to this day, especially Peter Green era Fleetwood Mac and the holy trinity of Howling Wolf / Muddy Waters / John Lee Hooker. My earliest memories are of leaning against my brother Paul’s Marshall stack while he played. He was my hero, and the experience made me want to play electric guitar as soon as I could stand up. He is self-taught, as am I and my two kids. I just assumed that playing guitar was something you did, like riding a bike. Because I hit my teens in the 80s, when blues was the love which dared not speak its’ name in England, I defined my song writing by avoiding blues influences at all costs. It is only recently, when I joined Paul’s band The Heaters, that I have been able to nail my blues flag to the mast, although only as a player, not a writer (with the notable exceptions of “The Ballad Of Zorro The Cat” and “How Hard Can It Be”, both written for specific, non-Penguin projects).
My big sister Julie, 2 years Paul’s junior, had more of a pop thing going. The record of hers which made the biggest impact on me was T Rex – Electric Warrior (Fly Album - 1971). I found it’s sparse, slightly witchy atmosphere rather scary and other-worldly and therefore thrilling. I loved the poster that came with it, the superb cover art, and I loved the picture label of Marc Bolan and Mickey Finn in their hippie-glam splendour.
Even as a tiny child I adored vinyl records. They were just everything to me. Incredibly, by the age of around 2, my family would let me pick out records from their collections and play them on our lovely valve powered radiogram. Way before I could read I knew each record by its label. In the case of my brother’s seemingly identical looking Apple label Beatles records I could tell which was which by the amount of writing on the label, or the patterns on the grooves.
I would see grooves everywhere: On car or train journeys I would stare at the power lines, road markings or curbs as they danced past the car, imagining they were record grooves, and making up music in my head that fitted their lateral movements. I had to get onto a record. I just had to be on vinyl. Among my proudest achievements are the three 7” singles I appeared on as part of Arco (www.arco.org.uk). It is still my dream to have something by The Penguin Party available on vinyl, to the extent where if a label were to offer to do a vinyl release for us I would happily let them keep any profits from the pressing. Seriously. Get in touch!
My parents would reward me on family trips out shopping or visiting relatives by letting me rifle through the racks of old 78s and ex-jukebox 7” singles in the local charity shops. I would pick out a record that I liked the look of (I was less than 5, remember), and get it home and play it to find out what was on there. This random approach led, among others now lost and forgotten, to me hearing the following:
The Idle Race - The End Of The Road (Liberty 7” – June 1968), which I forgot about until someone compared The Penguin Party to the Idle Race recently and kindly bought me their ‘Back To The Story’ compilation, but it had obviously influenced my ‘mockney’ vocal delivery and love of chirpy, 60s sounding, ‘proper’ tunes.
Dave Clark Five – Glad All Over (7” – Jan 1964), which introduced me to the idea that music could be a big, shouty, clodhopping, joyous noise, setting me up nicely for Slade and the Ramones in later life.
Stubby Kay – Sit Down, You’re Rocking The Boat (78rpm – c1950), a record which gave me the willies, but introduced me to the idea of telling a deceptively dark story across a few verses and a catchy chorus.
I’m still a bargain bin stalker to this day, but here are some records that made an impression once I began to follow music in a less random fashion:
Slade – Slayed (Polydor Album – 1972) First album I bought new (Aged 6), thanks to my older neighbours Chris and Tim Goldfinch’s copy of Get Down And Get With It (specifically the B-Side, “I’m Mee, I’m Now And That’s Orl” which I wasn’t able to track down for over 30 years! (neither are on the album) .When I heard it again I knew it note for note, word for word, every last cymbal hit, even though I’d heard it maybe twice when I was 6. Hearing it again was one of the most powerful and moving musical moments of my life: It was like a hidden door had opened into my own 6 year old brain. I lay on the floor and cried like a baby. I went on to buy everything by Slade I could lay my hands on, including their pre- fame album as “Ambrose Slade” which I found in the rack in my local newsagent. It was so different to the sound they were famous for that it (along with my brother’s Beatles collection) introduced me to the idea of a band developing over time. It also introduced me to the art of ‘crate digging’: Rifling through every record rack I could come across in the hope of finding something that no one else had, and few had heard. It doesn’t take Frasier Crane to work out that these experiences are what has led me, belatedly, to running my own indie-only radio show, Round At Milligan’s (www.milligans.biz). Indie snobbery is a powerful drug!
After Paul married when I was 7 our whole family used to go to his house to listen to new records he’d bought that he was excited about. It was an event. I vividly remember sitting enthralled, along with my parents, as Paul played Queen - “A Night At The Opera”(EMI album – 1975), a record that made me want to get into multi-track recording as soon as possible. It was years before I did, but I busied myself in the meantime making sound-on-sound recordings at home, bouncing backwards and forwards between mine and my little brother’s Phillips cassette decks, a technique which, as far as I knew at the time, I had ‘invented’. I was 18 before I got to have a go on a 4 track tape deck; 19 before I got to make the ‘first’ scratchy little Penguin Party cassette-only album “They’re Not - Are You?” on my teacher’s Fostex 8 track; 22 before I joined Heads Full Of Noise (later Introversion) and used an Atari ST to sequence an Akai S950 sampler which we later synced to a friend’s 8 track to add guitars and vocals; and well into my 30s before I finally got a multi-track of my own, based around a cheap laptop and an old copy of Cubase which I still use. If it ain’t broke… (and I am, so I can’t afford an upgrade!)
ELO - Out Of The Blue (Jet Album – 1977) Perfect Pop moment, when I was 11, thanks to my younger brother Ian, who managed to forge a whole musical taste for himself that owed little to that of our parents or elder siblings. The cover art and packaging was so fantastic, with all the detailed credits, lyrics and the cut out and assemble spaceship. I spent years wanting a “Roland Space Echo” because it was listed on the inner sleeve, and wondering how one of the band played “fire extinguisher”. This album was directly responsible for the paperback book which The Penguin Party’s album “Sex Furniture Warehouse And Other Stories” comes in. I wanted people to have that same sort of immersive experience that a good vinyl release used to give, and couldn’t do it in the confines of the CD booklet format.
Bad Manners – Ska’n’B (Magnet album – 1980) My little brother Ian again: He dived into the ska revival brought about by UK indie label 2Tone, and introduced me to the instant-high of the offbeat bounce which drives ska. You can hear the influence of Bad Manners and of course Ian’s other faves Madness all over songs by The Penguin Party (www.thepenguinparty.co.uk) , especially “At Home With Mr Trebus”, “Do You Know Who I Am?” and “You Learn To Climb When You’re Small”, specifically Madness’ trick of sneaking a dark lyric into the Trojan horse of a shiny pop tune. (Listen to “Embarrassment”’s tale of casual family racism, or “Cardiac Arrest”’s tale of a heart attack). In more recent years I’ve gone back to the source, buying Trojan Records box sets and reading around, finding out that American Rhythm & Blues begat Ska when the Jamaican bands leant back on the beat when they played R&B to make it more danceable in the heat. Then during a late 60s heatwave, when even Ska was too energentic to dance to, the tempo slowed and reggae was born.
Chas’n’Dave – Ain’t No Pleasing You (Rockney 7” – 1982)
Billy Bragg – Life’s A Riot With Spy Versus Spy (Go! Discs album – 1983) (Particularly “The Man In The Iron Mask”)
These two releases arrived on the scene when I was a 16-year-old, girlfriendless bag of hormones. My family are from the East End of London, and have a lot of that chipper, post-war, jack-the-lad cockney thing going on. The cockneys are an emotional bunch, but tend to hide it under ribald humour and a veneer of blokey-ness. These songs nail this culture to a T. British singers have a tendency to hide behind faked American accents when they sing, which has always bugged the crap out of me (to use an Americanism). The result of this is the ‘English Way Of Coping’ (to quote Beachy Head Music Club) is hidden by handwringing, trans-Atlantic wailing in most ballads. These two releases don’t use that shield. They cope with genuine cockney/mockney emotions in a realistic cockney way. I absolutely adopted this more realistic attitude in my own lyrics and vocals, which led on to me writing songs which are themselves true to my life, upbringing, age and situation. Mick Jagger, for example, leaves me feeling nauseous, annoyed and cheated. Don’t get me started on British soul singers…
Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five – The Message (Sugarhill 12” – 1982) My younger brother Ian again, when he was about 13 and I was 16. He independently discovered Electro and Hip Hop, two more areas of music that my music-obsessed family knew nothing about. I’d being playing guitar since the age of about 10, and at first refused to listen to anything with no guitars in it, but this, and Ian’s collection of ground-breaking early techno, opened my mind to mechanical sounds generally, and how the less you put onto a track, the funkier it could be. This directly influenced “Someone Else’s Turn To Be Me”, (along with ‘Blood Sugar’ era Red Hot Chillipeppers later on). The lyric of The Message, and much later, Eminem’s vocal technique, encouraged me to experiment with rapid fire, wordy verses full of internal rhymes, adapting them for singing rather than rapping. Unfortunately I am both physically tongue-tied and the possessor of a shockingly bad memory, which makes many of my own songs really hard for me to sing live!
Ramones – Rocket To Russia (Sire Album – 1977) Introduced to me by my 6th form teacher Robin Jennings in 1984 when I was 18 and going through my Quo / Rush / Thin Lizzy phase (a phase which, oddly enough, hasn’t influenced me musically in the slightest). Two minute songs? THAT fast? No guitar solos? Went home and hid all my rock albums. Stopped playing Quo boogies on the guitar and developed a machine-gun, all-downstroke, Ramones guitar style. Was liberated from trying to learn ‘clever’ chords.
The Smiths – This Charming Man (Rough Trade 7” – 1983) An old school mate, Paul Tunkin (who now runs the Blow Up club and label) used to run a goth/indie club called The Monkey House in Southend-On-Sea when we were around 17. Up to that point my experience of clubs involved being dragged by my sportswear-attired school friends to awful ‘soul boy’ clubs which were in thrall to Luther Vandross, a man who actually has the word ‘dross’ as part of his name. I mean: Take the hint, folks… Invariably I wouldn’t get in, clad as I was in Ramones-inspired denim and knee-length boxing boots. This suited me just fine. Then, one night, I arrived at The Monkey House in my denim jacket, on the back of which my mum and I had meticulously embroidered the crest from the back cover of “Queen II”. I was plunged into an almost pitch black room full of the scent of hairspray, scotch and Pernod, populated by skinny, androgynous, spikey haired people of all ages and sexual orientation. The song on the decks was This Charming Man, with its foppish attitude, extraordinarily ornate, but non-showy guitar and bass lines, and the extraordinarily appropriate line “I would go out tonight but I haven’t got a stitch to wear”: It was like being hit by a benign brick. I hid the queen jacket under a chair and reeled onto the dancefloor, aping the spiralling, joyful Morrissey dance the others were doing. I felt at home for the first time in my life. These were my people. I went home and hid the Ramones records, switched off my fuzz pedal and started learning clever chords again.
XTC – English Settlement (Virgin album – 1982) I was given a cassette of this by a school friend Matthew Kill just before I left home to move to London to work at the BBC. As I pulled away from the family home I hit play on the stereo in my 1974 P5 Rover and the track “Runaways” filled the car with HUGE lopsided bass, angular drumming, and a buried-in-the-mix lyric about running away from home. I was then, and am now, hooked on XTC. The track “Elephants’ Graveyard” on The Penguin Party’s “See Thru Songs” album was a direct attempt to write an XTC styled song, using awkward chords cribbed from an interview with XTC frontman Andy Partridge. It is the one Penguin Party song universally unliked by everyone except me and Chris Healey from Arco. He’s the greatest songwriter of my generation, so that’s good enough for me. Sod the rest of you! Philistines!
The Kinks – Greatest Hits (CD c 1990) I got into the Kinks well into my adult life. Suddenly I realised where all the musicians I loved had been cribbing from…. They had it all: The stories, the genuine accent, the brrrrrraaaAANNG! The short songs. Perfection.
Dave Milligan, 27th September 2012