‘Between hilarity and severity’: how Bogshed transfixed a cult audience

John Peel loved them; the NME was briefly thrilled. But as a career-spanning Bog-Set is released, our writer recalls how for a select few their awkward sounds were life-changing

According to Spotify, our musical tastes are hammered into shape around the age of 14. We’re destined to return to that early teenage soundtrack for the rest of our lives, and in my case the theory checks out. When I was 14, a friend’s older brother came back from university for the summer with some records by Bogshed, and I was quickly besotted. The sleeves featured macabre, pencil-drawn images of characters in states of distress, and the music was similarly agitated: rickety guitar riffs, a crunchy bass and a singer who would alternately bark and croon a barrage of non sequiturs. “Die scousers spiele Fußball!” he yelled, for no apparent reason. I couldn’t stop grinning. My friend’s brother could have come home with LL Cool J’s Radio that summer and things might 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 still is today. No other music makes me feel quite so elated.

When I mentioned this to former Bogshed bass player and sleeve illustrator Mike Bryson, he gave a world-weary laugh. “Unfortunately, you’re not representative of the world, Rhodri,” he said. When we spoke in October he was receiving care in a hospice near Lancaster following cancer treatment. He died last week, one month before his band’s back catalogue is being rereleased on a 5-CD set entitled Bog-Set. “I’m delighted that it’s happening, even though it’s on CD, just as CDs are becoming obsolete,” he said. “I hope I’m still here when it comes out.”

Some of Mike Bryson’s artwork for the band.
Some of Mike Bryson’s artwork for the band. Photograph: undefined -

Since their final gig in 1987, there’s been barely anything keeping Bogshed’s memory alive; their appearance on the frequently referenced, often derided NME cassette C86 was the only ongoing reminder that they existed at all. But now their two albums, two EPs and two singles, along with five Radio 1 sessions for John Peel and a bunch of outtakes, have been brought together in one place: four hours of brash, uncompromising, joyful tunes with improbable titles such as Tried and Tested Public Speaker, Adventure of Dog and Oily Stack. Peel once described their music as “the musical equivalent of poisoning the water hole,” and Bryson knew from bitter experience that Bogshed’s awkward song shapes weren’t for everyone. But I always thought of them as finely honed, unique, sparkling. This music was surely born of very special circumstances.

Those circumstances turn out to be boredom, booze and isolation. With their gear set up in a small cottage outside Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire, the four members of the band – Bryson, his childhood friend Mark McQuaid (guitar), local teenager Tris King (drums) and Liverpudlian art student Phil Hartley (vocals) – would spend weeks on end, as Bryson put it, “making a racket. But we were working hard not to be cliched. We had our own way of playing together.” That single-minded pursuit of the extreme, in a quiet town with not much else to do, has parallels with Renaldo and the Loaf creating bizarre soundscapes in a bedroom in Portsmouth, or Beefheart’s Magic Band losing their collective minds in a house in Woodland Hills, southern California in 1969. “We’d press ‘go’ on the tape recorder,” said Bryson, “and every time we came up with a noise we thought we could re-use, we’d go back and copy it. Every single thing, even the mistakes. If Phil sounds like he forgets what he was going to say, it’s because he copied it from the first time we played it.”

Hartley, rather like Mick Lynch, the singer from Stump (also featured on C86) was the one tasked with convincing rowdy audiences to like this difficult music. “He was incredibly charismatic,” says writer and musician John Robb, who released their first EP, Let Them Eat Bog Shed, on his Vinyl Drip label. “The band looked like they’d been dragged out of a pub, but Phil would turn up wearing a yellow knitted pullover and carrying a pair of maracas. You couldn’t take your eyes off him.” As Hartley memorably put it at the time, “I am a glitter-suit being, but sadly the rest of the band are very much pitchfork and trowel.”

Robb recalls Hartley’s typically obtuse approach to his art studies. “He was very smart – they all were – but Phil couldn’t engage with society because he felt society was stupid,” he says. “He had to hand in a conceptual piece of artwork, and while everybody else submitted these grand pieces, he produced a piece of tartan with a picture of the Bay City Rollers sellotaped to it. Deliberately rubbish, but total genius.” Some would apply that same description to Bogshed, but Hartley had ambition and drive. “Phil wanted to be showbiz,” said Bryson. “When he sang, he transformed us into a show band.”

Hartley’s attitude and the band’s wonky music quickly caught the attention of the music press. “Frenzied, felicitous, intimate, tuneful, angered,” enthused The Legend (AKA Everett True) in the NME. In retrospect, the sight of Bogshed occupying a full page alongside the likes of Madness is extraordinary.

Poster for Bogshed at Trades in Hebden
‘You always knew it was going to be very short-lived’ … poster for Bogshed at Trades in Hebden Photograph: undefined -

“The Jesus and Mary Chain coming along at the end of 1984 blew down the doors and allowed some of these bands to be looked at more closely,” says Neil Taylor, the compiler of C86. “Bogshed in particular were a great antidote to the self-conscious hipness of bands like Echo and the Bunnymen or the Teardrop Explodes.”

Claire Morgan Jones, also in the NME, described how Bogshed “fit snugly into the niche of modern music-hall … pinpointing the trip-wire between hilarity and severity.” Sadly, a total absence of video footage means that those of us who never saw Bogshed perform can only shut our eyes tight and imagine it.

“You always knew that it was going to be very short-lived, though,” says Taylor. “It couldn’t last.” Bogshed sold 15,000 copies of their debut EP, but within a couple of years were struggling to keep their self-financed label afloat as they fell out of favour with everyone except John Peel. And when things start going badly, bands tend to split up. Bogshed’s spiral back into obscurity was characterised by tumult and tragedy.

“Phil fell out with Mark and Tris very badly,” said Bryson. “He also got landed with some tax bills. And then he went quiet for a long, long time. The last I heard from him was an angry email he sent me in about 2006.” A few months later, Hartley died from throat cancer, but the news didn’t reach Bryson for many years. Tris King died of brain cancer in 2008, and now Bryson, whose surrealistic Bogshed drawings were a springboard to a successful career as an illustrator, has followed them. “Soon, Mark will be the last vestige of Bogshed,” he said.

My love of that band has been so all-encompassing for so long that receiving the Bog-Set felt like being handed the red book at the end of an episode of This Is Your Life. Justifying my adoration of these “four astute village idiots with a low boredom threshold”, as writer David Cavanagh once put it, isn’t easy. But my immediate plan is to put these songs on repeat on Spotify, reinforce their data set and prove that people born in 1971 can’t get enough of music from 1985.

Contributor

Rhodri Marsden

The GuardianTramp

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