The true Dadaists of punk, Rip Rig & Panic were unlike any band that came before or after them. Exploring a chaotic, often confounding, musical world that embraced jazz, funk, afro-pop and new-wave punk in one streak, the band approached all corners of their music with wild abandon.
A collective of musicians that included pianist/saxophonist Mark Springer, guitarist and saxophonist Gareth Sager, drummer Bruce Smith and a then-teenaged Neneh Cherry on vocals, Panic sought to reconfigure the borders of pop music, reshaping it—sometimes in the span of one song alone. Berserk song-titles gave clear indication that the band never took itself seriously; consider titles like “Wilhelm Show Me the Diagram (Function of the Orgasm)” or “Rip Open, But Oh So Long Thy Wounds Take to Heal”.
Humour was the one constant element in their shape-shifting textures of pop. And it was their try-anything approach that kept both the band and their audiences on their toes. “There were basically two ways we created our stuff”, Sager explains. “Sean, Bruce, myself or Springer would get a groove/tune going and whoever else was about would improvise over the top. Or I would have a song written and the rest would interoperate with that. The whole thing was pretty organic as Bruce and I had been playing together for three years and had a pretty good idea of how to use the studio.”
For the most part, Rip Rig & Panic indulged in disorderly, hedonistic romps; shambolic, stuttering rhythms that were on the verge of collapse and panting, out-of-breath melodies that stretched beyond breaking-point. But in rare, particular moments they could achieve a calm beauty that found structure and harmonic order.
“Sunken Love”, a track from their third LP, 1983’s Attitude (recently reissued along with their other two albums), is the cooled lava of their hysterical, fiery excesses. A gorgeously moody exploration of bluesy intonation and proto-hip-hop beats, many musical ideas augment the slow-burning elegance of the song: a string-section abruptly slashing its way through the chorus, the imaginative spark in Springer’s crystalline playing and the screaming stretches of Sager’s sax playing hide-and-seek in the deep, howling void from which Cherry sings her blues: “Unfathomable leagues of thought lost in the deep blue me…”
Most impressive is the rhythm-section: sensuously-magnetic beats, slightly treated, which give the impression of a band sinking under the heavy waters of their expansive sound. If the band was intuiting the direction music of the future would take, they were on the mark; “Sunken Love” pointed the way to a sound that would be popularized by bands like Portishead and Massive Attack nearly a decade later.
“In Bristol around 1979/80, everyone that was into music all went to the same club “The Dug Out”, where they played dub, funk, punk and soul—and this is what you hear on “Sunken Love,” Sager says. “I mixed a bit of “What’s Going On” with King Tubby rhythms and some punk jazz clarinet and piano. Then a few years later some people with a much more commercial ear used the same influences to make music that paid the rent. And good luck to them—because I couldn’t do that!”