‘Between hilarity and sternness’: How Bogshed pierced a cult audience | Music
AAccording to Spotify, our musical tastes take shape around the age of 14. We’re destined to go back to that teenage soundtrack for the rest of our lives, and in my case, the theory holds true. When I was 14, a friend’s older brother came home from college for the summer with some Bogshed records, and I was quickly hooked. The covers featured macabre pencil-drawn images of characters in distress, and the music was equally choppy: rickety guitar riffs, crisp bass, and a singer who alternately barked and crooned a barrage of non-sequences. “Die Scousers Spiele Fußball!” he shouted, for no apparent reason. I couldn’t help but smile. My friend’s brother could have come home with LL Cool J’s radio that summer and things could have turned out differently, but he didn’t. Bogshed was where it was, and because I was 14 at the time, Bogshed is where it is today. No other music makes me so elated.
When I mentioned it to former Bogshed bassist and cover illustrator Mike Bryson, he burst out laughing. “Unfortunately, you are not representative of the world, Rhodri,” he said. When we spoke in October, he was receiving treatment at a hospice near Lancaster after cancer treatment. He is dead last week, a month before the re-release of his band’s catalog on a 5-CD set titled Bog-Set. “I’m thrilled that it’s happening, even if it’s on CD, just like CDs are getting stale,” he said. “Hopefully I’ll still be here when it comes out.”
Since their last gig in 1987, there has been almost nothing to keep Bogshed’s memory alive; their appearance on the frequently referenced and often ridiculed NME C86 tape was the only continuous reminder of their existence. But now their two albums, two EPs and two singles, along with five Radio 1 sessions for John Peel and a slew of outtakes, have been brought together in one place: four hours of brash, uncompromising and joyful tracks with titles unlikely like Tried and Speaker Tested, Adventure of Dog and Oily Stack. Peel once described their music as “the musical equivalent of waterhole poisoning”, and Bryson knew from bitter experience that Bogshed’s clunky songforms weren’t for everyone. But I always thought of them as finely refined, unique, sparkling. This music was surely born of very particular circumstances.
These circumstances turn out to be boredom, alcohol and isolation. With their gear set up in a small cottage outside Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire, the four band members – Bryson, his childhood friend Mark McQuaid (guitar), local teenager Tris King (drums) and l Liverpudlian art student Phil Hartley (vocals) – would spend weeks, as Bryson puts it, “racketeering.” But we worked hard not to be cliché. We had our own way of playing together. This single-minded pursuit of the extreme, in a quiet town with not much else to do, has parallels to Renaldo and the Loaf creating bizarre soundscapes in a bedroom in Portsmouth, or Beefheart’s Magic Band losing their collective spirit. in a home in Woodland Hills, Southern California in 1969. “We would hit ‘go’ on the tape recorder,” Bryson said, “and whenever we had a noise that we thought we could reuse, we would come back in back and copied it. Everything, even the mistakes. If Phil seems to forget what he was going to say, it’s because he copied it from the first time we played it.
Hartley, much like Mick Lynch, lead singer of Stump (also featured on C86) was the one responsible for convincing rowdy audiences to love this tough music. “He was incredibly charismatic,” says writer and musician John Robb, who released his debut EP, Let Them Eat Bog Shed, on his Vinyl Drip label. “The band looked like they had been dragged out of a pub, but Phil showed up wearing a yellow knit sweater and carrying a pair of maracas. You couldn’t take your eyes off him. As Hartley put it memorably said at the time, “I’m a spangled being, but unfortunately the rest of the band is really pitchfork and trowel.”
Robb recalls Hartley’s generally obtuse approach to his art studies. “He was very smart – they all were – but Phil couldn’t engage with society because he thought society was stupid,” he says. “He had to hand in a piece of concept art, and while everyone submitted these big pieces, he produced a piece of tartan with a picture of the Bay City Rollers taped to it. Deliberately lame, but total genius. Some would apply the same description to Bogshed, but Hartley had ambition and drive. “Phil wanted to be showbiz,” Bryson said. “When he sang, he turned us into a show band.”
Hartley’s attitude and the band’s wonky music quickly caught the attention of the music press. “Frenzied, happy, intimate, melodious, angry,” enthused The Legend (AKA Everett True) in the NME. Looking back, the sight of Bogshed taking up an entire page alongside Madness is extraordinary.
“The arrival of Jesus and Mary Chain at the end of 1984 blew down the doors and allowed some of these bands to come under closer scrutiny,” says C86 compiler Neil Taylor. “Bogshed, in particular, was a great antidote to the shyness of bands like Echo and the Bunnymen or the Teardrop Explodes.
Claire Morgan Jones, also in the NME, described how Bogshed “fits perfectly into the niche of modern music hall…identifying the tripwire between hilarity and sternness”. Sadly, a complete lack of footage means those of us who’ve never seen Bogshed play can only close our eyes and imagine it.
“You always knew it was going to be very short-lived,” says Taylor. “It couldn’t last.” Bogshed sold 15,000 copies of his debut EP, but within a few years he struggled to keep his self-funded label afloat as he fell out of favor with everyone but John Peel. And when things are going badly, the groups tend to split up. Bogshed’s spiral back into obscurity was characterized by tumult and tragedy.
“Phil fell out really badly with Mark and Tris,” Bryson said. “He was also landed with tax bills. And then he was silent for a long, long time. The last time I heard from him was an angry email he sent me around 2006.” A few months later, Hartley died of throat cancer, but the news did not reach Bryson for many years. Tris King died of brain cancer in 2008, and now Bryson, whose surreal designs by Bogshed were a stepping stone to a successful career as an illustrator, has followed them. “Soon Mark will be the last remnant of Bogshed,” he said.
My love for this band has been so vast for so long that receiving the Bog-Set felt like receiving the Red Book at the end of an episode of This Is Your Life. Justifying my adoration for these “four crafty village idiots with a low threshold for boredom,” as writer David Cavanagh once said, isn’t easy. But my immediate plan is to loop these songs on Spotify, bolster their data set, and prove that people born in 1971 can’t get enough of the music from 1985.