26 June 2009

The Higsons - I Don't Want To Live With Monkeys

Label: Romans in Britain
Year of Release: 1981

There have to be precious few examples of comedians who had careers - however minor - as singers prior to finding fame as "funnymen" (as the tabloid press still seem keen to quaintly describe them).  Billy Connolly is obviously one exceedingly rare example, but the hair, the beard, and the periodically airy mannerisms are actually easy pointers to a folky past.  If you didn't already know that Billy plucked mandolins merrily and previously graced the folk circuit, you probably wouldn't be amazed if you were told.  Charlie Higson off "The Fast Show" (above, you daft idiots) strikes me as being a less likely candidate in his previous job as a post-punk singer, purely because his comedy performances seem relatively understated, his characters slightly introverted and awkward.

Yet in the grand scheme of things, The Higsons were actually a bit of a cult sensation in the early eighties, racking up Channel Four appearances, playing major gigs in London, and even signing to Two Tone briefly.  That they are talked about so infrequently now probably has a lot to do with the fact that it's hard to take a band seriously who are not only fronted by a comedian, but actually named after him as well.  That's a pity, because they were actually far, far better than they had any right to be.  Frequently described as the English Talking Heads (although XTC were also hit with that particular comparison, and The Higsons and XTC don't sound much alike) they combined stinging horn riffs, happily slapped bass guitars, funky rhythms and hollering New Wave vocals with scattershot, self-consciously ridiculous lyrics.  Like post-punk and funk meeting the more dada elements of American psychedelia, they were simultaneously odd but somehow groovy as well, in a manner you get the sense a lot of the current rash of post-punk inspired bands would love to be, but neither have the wherewithal nor courage to achieve.  

Their debut single "I Don't Want To Live With Monkeys" rushed to number five in the indie charts, and the band found themselves becoming much talked about as part of an advancing "Norwich Scene", which aside from a few very minor Top 75 hits from The Farmers Boys amounted to nought in the end.  In short, The Higsons were never going to be big, and one gets the impression from this clip on Youtube outlining the scene that the bands were more bewildered by the media attention than inspired by it.  Still, a quick sniff of "I Don't Want To Live With Monkeys" proves that there was a pop sensibility going on somewhere in there - the track has a short, sharp insistence I actually find thrilling.

The Higsons split in 1986, and we all know what happened next - Charlie Higson went on to fame and fortune working with Harry Enfield, Vic Reeves, and Paul Whitehouse.  It's not a particularly unhappy ending for him at least, even if he only seems to mention The Higsons these days with a slightly embarrassed expression on his face, perhaps only too aware of how at odds the manic, barking figure on stage in the clip above is with his adult self.  Really, he should have a wee bit more pride in his work.   

And "The Curse of the Higsons" appears to be on Spotify too.


Simon said...

And Higson called himself Switch at the time, which made the band name something of a non-sequitur. Terry Edwards was in them too, of Bad Seeds/PJ Harvey/Lydia Lunch/Madness/hundreds of others session fame and his decidedly singular solo albums. I've been searching for a reason to mention the Higsons on STN for ages, as I really love them having picked up on this very track a few years ago, and I agree it's a shame the only time they acknowledge a musical background in interviews is when Whitehouse mentions they were in a university band called the Right Hand Lovers. Very nice, I'm sure, but it's some distance from this.

23 Daves said...

I was aware of The Higsons some time ago - possibly before Charlie Higson was even successful as a comedian/ writer, in fact - but that was only through their cover of "Music to Watch Girls By", which is perfectly nice but not exactly mindblowing, and not very representative of their usual sound either. I only stumbled across their other material late last year, and was immediately flabbergasted.

A reassessment of their work is definitely overdue, especially in the wake of the last wave of post-punk inspired bands, but there seems to be too much stacked against them being taken seriously. A pity, really.

Anonymous said...

Yes, surely due a reappraisal - especially 2 songs of theirs : 'Push Out The Boat' (good example of funky early 80s indie dancefloor filler)
& 'One World' a blistering number worthy of ...well general approval all around basically :-)