Sunday, March 11, 2007

Mining for Overlooked Pop Music Jewels: Jigsaw

Venerable record chain Tower Records filed for bankruptcy late last year, and its demise bummed me out in a big way.

I hadn't shopped with frequency at Tower in ages--put bluntly, their steep prices of late alienated me big-time--but back in the eighties the chain's size and diversity did a lot to open my ears. I remember every purchase I made at Tower Records' Tacoma store from my first at age 14 (for the record, a cassette of Led Zeppelin's Houses of the Holy and a vinyl copy of Sparks' Angst in My Pants), all the way to just before I moved to Seattle at age 21 (Invisible Lantern by the Screaming Trees--and yes, I AM a big ol' dork for remembering). Rampant sentimentality, however, did bupkis to keep me from picking at the chain's dying carcass late last year like any good bargain-hunter.

Right before the Tower Records on 5th Avenue in Seattle breathed its last in December, it bestowed one last parting gift in its final week: a 90%-off sale that drew nerds far and wide like locusts hungrily descending on a Midwest cornfield. The huge markdowns on Tower's stock of CDs gave Rita and I the opportunity to grab a heap of truly obscure stuff that we woulda never checked out otherwise. Audio gambles of this nature inevitably yield lumps of coal (I definitely won't be returning to the bland electro-pop of Astronaut Wife or Chalkie's generic diet punk anytime soon), but such musical Russian Roulette makes for fun (and economic) good times. It's all worth it when you stumble on something that utterly rocks your world straight outta nowhere. And that, friends, is what this rambling li'l intro is all about.

I knew British pop group Jigsaw only through their big 1975 hit, "Sky High," a sumptuous little spy-movie theme with a disco-ready wah-wah guitar chaser. Like most humans, yours truly had dismissed them as one-hit wonders whose body of work probably remained obscure for a reason. So when I pulled The Very Best of Jigsaw, a 24-track Greatest-Hits CD on Taragon Records, off of the Tower shelf and plunked down the princely sum of $1.39 for it, my expectations were snake-belly low. Two months and dozens of listens later, I'm ready to eat some crow--and loudly sing some praises.

Not that there are a lot of others doing so. The long tendrils of the World-Wide Web have turned even the most obscure musical acts of the 1960's and 1970's into causes celebre, so Jigsaw's continued abject anonymity comes as a real surprise. A search on Rolling Stone's website yields nothing but a measly link to a Rhapsody page containing one (inferior post-breakup synth pop) song, and even the exhaustive All Music Guide rolls snake eyes: no band bio, no album reviews, not even track listings on most of the band's discs (Ultra-unknowns like Sad Cafe and Yachts sport more detailed AMG bios than Jigsaw).

Wikipedia appears to be one of the few spots in the virtual world with something resembling a history of the band. The Cliffs Notes summary: Guitarist Tony Campbell formed Jigsaw in 1966 from the ashes of several lesser-known local English combos, with lead vocalist/drummer Des Dyer and keyboardist Clive Scott emerging as the group's creative core (they ultimately wrote nearly all of Jigsaw's songs as well as producing their albums). Jigsaw reputedly started out as a louder, wilder psychedelic band, putting out two out-of-print and impossible-to-find albums in this vein before veering off in the poppy direction that culminated financially with "Sky High." Decreasing financial returns led to the original group's flame-out around 1981.

With the exception of the majestically-orchestrated 1972 track, "What's My Name," The Very Best of Jigsaw largely ignores the band's paisley-inflected past and focuses on their recordings between 1974 and 1980. The 23 remaining songs collected here harbor no ostensible aspirations beyond radio airplay. They're bric a brac with plenty of unmistakeable 1970's touches--percolating disco rhythms, chugging wah-wah guitars, brash horn and string arrangements, etc.--buffed to a distinctively polished sheen.

So no, there's no reinvention of the wheel going on here, and sometimes things dip into the realm of cheesiness. But the fondue pot is sumptuously gilded--this was back when bands used real horn and string players regularly, kids--and it's all done stunningly well. Jigsaw's closest peers of the time--ABBA and the Bee Gees--shared a similar aesthetic, creating a special brand of uber-pop that elevated traditional Top 40 formats of the day (American rock and roll, disco, piano ballads, etc.) into the proverbial teenage symphonies to God. And Jigsaw shares those two bands' aptitude with a melody to boot. No wonder I'm hooked.

This collection runs an impressive gamut of styles, from Beatles-inspired homage ("You're My Magic") to some effective blue-eyed soul ("Only When I'm Lonely,") to sweeping Phil Spector-style epic balladry ("Lonely Lonely Love") to a fun 1980 electro-pop bon bon ("I", which sounds like Styx's Kilroy was Here, only, you know, good). The opulent sound impresses all the more when you realize that Dyer and Scott produced every single one of these tracks themselves (they utilize Richard Hewson's ace orchestral arrangements with the touch of artisans).

Even the tackiest cuts on this Best-Of disc entertain, and a good half of the songs here rank as some of the most abidingly great pop efforts of their era--I swear to God. Searching for a lost power-pop classic? Look no further than "Stop the Show," a jaw-droppingly brilliant song with keening harmonies, toothy guitars, stormy drums, drama-drenched strings, and unexpectedly downbeat lyrics ("Maybe I loved you/but if I did that was long ago"): It ably trumps anything that The Raspberries or Todd Rundgren put out at the time. "Tell Me Why" sounds like Squeeze with enough money for a real orchestra, and those prog-dweebs Europe ripped off the horn-punctuated hook of "Cry ('Til The Tears Run Dry)" to excruciating top 10 success.

Some of these songs sound positively prescient: "Who Do You Think You Are"--a US Top 15 Hit when those "Billy Don't Be a Hero" guys, Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods, recorded an inferior version of it--marries hummable piano pop with minor chords and misanthropic lyrics that'd make Elvis Costello proud, and the genuinely funny "Letters to Myself" details the travails of a poor sap who's so lonely he's taken to writing mash notes to, yep, himself. The latter tune wouldn't sound out of place on a Jonathan Richman or Ben Folds CD.

Taragon's Compilation disc is a real labor of love, as evidenced by the attentive remastering (which sounds pretty damn spiffy to these ears). The liner notes likewise overcome occasional patches of gushiness to provide a fascinating window into what a different world it was for prospective pop songwriters during the Era of the Bell-Bottom. In a modern music landscape where even American Idol contestants ape some delusional notion of street cred, it's downright refreshing to read Des Dyer's open admission that Jigsaw significantly altered their songwriting style when a New York music publisher told them their lyrics were too philosophical. And Clive Scott relates a Spinal Tap-worthy story about how the band's late-seventies press photos included two African American guys (male models, it turns out) in an attempt to net Jigsaw some airplay on urban radio ("If anything would've happened with that album, we would have added two black members to the band," Scott confesses pragmatically).

Dyer and Scott did just fine for themselves as a songwriting and production team in the decades since Jigsaw's disintegration, but part of the allure here is pondering why so many of these insidiously catchy, glitteringly well-produced pop songs failed to find a huge audience at the time. Theories abound among a tiny but enthusiastic fanbase: Some blame record label mishandling, or the logistic awkwardness of Jigsaw's lead singer being buried behind a drumkit. Ultimately, one of the band's greatest virtues--their magpie tendency to zip back and forth between genres, never settling on one specific sound--might've sunk them.

Whatever the case, at least "Sky High" continues to be pretty ubiquitous and can be found on several Seventies pop compilations (you can even check out an entertainingly cheesy vintage 'Sky High' promo clip on YouTube). Getting a greater dose of Jigsaw's back catalog, meanwhile, will prove tougher--and a lot more expensive. The Very Best of Jigsaw dropped out of print (a used copy surfaced on at a staggering price of 141 pounds!), and Japanese import CD reissues of the group's seventies LPs hover around the $30 mark. It's the height of irony, and a bit of a shame, that so many accessible, eager-to-please tunes should be so difficult and costly to obtain. Here's hoping some enterprising stateside reissue label takes steps to change that soon.


John said...

You're a danm good writer Tony Kay. I was really impressed with your knowledge of the music of the era. I don't recall hearing anything by Jigsaw except "Sky High" but your piece here makes me want to.

Tony Kay said...

John, a belated but heartfelt thanks for your kind words.

According to my Sitemeter, this entry is one of the most-read that I've ever posted! Honestly, I think this is more a testimonial to the hunger for more information on a terrific (and criminally-underrated) pop band than anything.

If anyone out there knows Messrs. Dyer and Scott, please let them know that there's an enthusiastic contingent of US fans who'd love to see some re-issues. And if they need a writer for liner notes, I work cheap:)!

Thanks again,


john111257 said...

great feature about my favourite band...loved there music and saw them at baileys nightclub hanley stoke on trent....john

john111257 said...

i wonder what the guys are doing now..just cant get leatherslade farm for love nor money...most under rated band,,,superb feature by tony,,,john

AladdinFoot said...

I was just listening to my copy of "The Very Best of Jigsaw" yesterday in the car! Your review is right on the money. his is ear candy, but it's mighty fine ear candy! Abba and the BeeGees are finally garnering some much-belated respect; now it's time for Jigsaw to share some of the spotlight!

albertproles said...

i have been trying for ages to get a copy of jigsaws,"sky high",after hearing it for the first time in 1976.
i have managed to download it from itunes,but they seem to have changed there name to graham bdvy,whatever that is,and im sure it is the original.

Alex said...

Sadly keyboard player Clive Scott died at the weekend:

john111257 said...

well i never..just got the letherslade farm tracks...mighty rare stuff on my hard drive

john111257 said...

must try to get aurora borealis...had it once on vinyl..just like broken hearted...ive seen the film and pieces of magic..and of course,skyhigh..

suppe said...

I beg no one ever will read this comment, cause the post is SO old … so I just forget my tradition not to comment on blogs. Thanks for the great words about the 2nd best pop group of all time (right after the Beatles).

Really a pity that Jigsaw never had the success they had deserved. And they should be as famous (and as rich) as Abba or the Bee Gees.

But on the other hand, thank God they are not. I guess I wouldn't have eyes filled with tears of joy just because of the bittersweet beauty of their songs, if radio stations and tv commercials had played also Jigsaws songs to death for almost 40 years. ben

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