Penguins Go Pop – 20th Century Pop: Album Review

Reissue of a piece of lost treasure from Norwich’s quirky pop masters, Penguins Go Pop.  14 riveting and hilarious stories, guaranteed to cut through the deepest moods.

Release Date:  8th September 2023

Label: King Penguin Records

Formats: CD / Digital

One of the most enduring reasons why we all depend so much on music is its ability to dispel the deepest of bad moods and restore joy and happiness where none was evident before.  Take this morning, for example; despite the sunshine and soaring temperatures outside, I wasn’t in a good mood and didn’t have much cause to believe that my demeanour would improve.  But that was BEFORE I decided to give 20th Century Pop, the new – I should say new reissue – of the meisterwork from eclectic Norwich satirical popsters, Penguins Go Pop.  I’ll tell you what – I’m walking on air now!

20th Century pop was first released five years ago, on 11th August 2018, in fact, but I, like – I suspect – many of you, missed it when it first came around.  And it won’t surprise too many of those who were in on the secret right from the start that I’m sooooo glad to have caught up.  The album is billed as “Eclectic… full of catchy, memorable songs with unique, quirky and amusing stories.”  Well – it’s that, alright. And it’s a whole lot more, too.  The vehicle for those quirky, amusing stories is a delectable mix of perfectly executed pop, rock, jazz, reggae, ska with even dashes of prog and psychedelia thrown in for good measure; there’s earworms a-plenty and the listener is left refreshed, assured in the knowledge that, at least in Norwich, there’s a bunch of accomplished musicians and outré songwriters that don’t take themselves too seriously.

If you’re from Norwich, you’ll probably be well aware that Penguins Go Pop is not a new phenomenon.  The band originally formed in the late 1980s when vocalist, percussionist and songwriter of imagination and distinction Richard Penguin teamed up with John Hough (guitar, bass, fiddle and keyboards) and Mark ‘Scoop’ Wyatt (guitar and bass).  This embryonic outfit was soon augmented by drummer Andy Mickleburgh and guitarist Claude Alberts.  Penguins Go Pop were in business and it wasn’t very long before the band’s lyrical, out-of-the-box songs attracted a substantial local following.

Unfortunately, life intervened, and Penguins Go Pop fell apart during the early 1990s, with various band members going their separate ways, and that, it seemed, was that.  However, to just about everyone’s surprise (including those actually involved) Penguins Go Pop rose from their own ashes in 2013 and, even better, assembled the material that finally emerged as 20th Century Pop.  It wasn’t a reconvention of the full original lineup, but the essential ingredients were all there.  Original members Richard, Mark and Andy (sadly, Claude had passed away during the hiatus) were joined by bassist Pete Moore, along with his sister, Liz, on keyboards, violin and vocals, and it’s this lineup, along with alternative drummer Dave Dowdeswell-Allaway that, come August 2018, brought us 20th Century Pop.

They’re a unique bunch, that’s for sure.  Various sources have attempted to capture their essence in words; former Virgin Records marketing man Alex Bostock has described them as being “Like XTC fronted by Kevin Ayers” and Norwich Blog commented that Penguins Go Pop are “…a band that could only come from Norwich.”  Now, far be it for me to challenge either of those inciteful statements too harshly, but I’d suggest, first of all, that the band’s imaginative, off-beam and highly observational lyrics are not unrepresentative of the humour that abounds on Merseyside and that the band with whom I would draw maybe the closest parallel is Birkenhead’s own Half Man Half Biscuit.  Albeit with a tad less swearing and punk attitude…

The mould is cast right from the outset.  Opening track, Let’s Break the Barriers Down tells the story of a relationship between an orchestral violinist and a TV weather girl.  It’s fresh, vibrant and poppy with a strong mid-70s feel and, with lyrics like: “Tell me all about your life and don’t hold anything back/ Make your mind an open mind and we can talk about this and that” it’s a clear indicator of the lyrical joys to come.  Like, for instance, in Mountain Climbing, a song in which a group of mountaineers from Lincolnshire encounter Blue Peter presenter, John Noakes (accompanied, of course, by his ever-present canine companion, Shep) high in the Andes.  Amidst requests for cups of tea, they find time to admire John’s ‘grand pair of boots’ – all to the accompaniment of a fiddle-dominated folk/rock backing.  It really is silly English surrealism at its very best!

A rousing cry of “Sheeeeee’s violent!” introduces the song with that very title, a slice of 70s funk, complete with Nile Rodgers guitar lick, swirling organ and pumping bass, and a storyline that sees a woman who had the guts and gall to betray Frank Sinatra being pursued around the world by Frank’s mafia chums, before the ugliness of 1960s high-rise housing takes a battering in the superb All The Little Houses.  The tune references both punk and psychedelia, whilst the lyrics ramp up the surreal stakes to culminate in a prediction from Tomorrow’s World’s Raymond Baxter that the house of the future will not only levitate but will also come complete with a hatch for “climbing in and out of.”

The busy, punky, Westwaters provides the album’s closest reference to the usually-present-somewhere Half Man Half Biscuit.  It’s a story of a train ride from Norwich to the West Country (the lyrics don’t go into the details of the route), peppered with frequent cries of “Yee-hah!”  A pair of diners who are clearly failing to enjoy their evening together form the subject matter for Restaurant Song, a guitar and organ-heavy tango, in which the antics of the frustrated couple are studied in detail.  The lyrics make central highlights of the female diner removing her coat and of the male diner’s indigestion.  And the punchline?  “The menu looks inviting, but you turn and walk away.  The food is on the table…. We’re all unstable!”

If you’ve ever wondered how a man, stranded on a remote island passes his time, then the wonderfully pointless Lazy Day has an answer for you.  He passes it by – you guessed it – having lazy day after lazy day.  To a blissful calypso backing, complete with steel drum effects, our hero rejoices with the refrain: “Stuck on my distant island, much against my own desire – think I’ll have a lazy day today-o.”  And World Music gets a look-in with the gritty Bushland.  A rapid drumbeat and a rumbling bassline are interspersed with occasional vibrant guitar chords; it’s just possibly the album’s most ‘serious’ song, dedicated as it is to the memories of African heroes Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki and, most especially, Stephen Biko.

Perhaps my favourite song on an album crammed with musical and lyrical high-points is the brilliant How An Astronaut Feels.  The speaker-to-speaker spacy noises that open the track make the ska beat of the song seem deliciously incongruous, and the lyrics are light-hearted whilst expressing genuine curiosity about how Neil Armstrong really DID feel as his feet first touched that lunar surface back in 1969.  Lyrical highlights include the reference to the Apollo 11 spacecraft as “The 1330 from Houston, heading for the Milky Way,” and the expression of Neil Armstrong’s joy as he discovers the delights of moonwalking: “With a spacesuit and American helmet, a weightlessness I’ve come to enjoy, I’m discovering another planet.  I’m like a kid with a brand-new toy.”  It all set me to thinking how Michael Collins – the team member who stayed in orbit whilst Armstrong and Aldrin descended to the moon’s surface – felt about missing a party like THAT.

The happiness felt by a sometime member of the Penguins, having moved from the flat terrain of Norfolk to the mountains and panoramic vistas of Wales is celebrated in Borderline, a chunk of bluegrass with a tune that, in some form or another, has lent itself to everything from the American West to the Sally Army, before we revert to folk-pop for Back to the Sea again, a shipwreck song that, for once amongst the songs of that tragic genre, has a happy ending.  Richard and Liz share the vocals as we learn that the ‘shipwreck’ was actually a grounding incident in the harbour of a Cornish village.  Both the ship’s crew and the villagers have a wonderful time whilst not-overly-urgent attempts are made to refloat the ship – and Liz’s fiddle breaks add much to the jollity of the whole affair.

Fairweather cyclists who buy a wardrobe of cycling gear before ever taking to the road are the subject of the bright, poppy, Gordon Says ‘Buy a Bicycle Now,’ before we’re let in on the secret of what happens to gameshow hosts once their series of mediocre daytime shows come to an end.  It’s perhaps the poppiest tune on the album, with lots of nice sax and lyrics that are kind rather than scathing.  And the warning?  Get yourself a nice part in a TV drama, or you may end up playing a Pantomime Dame.

The band performance on the closing track I’m Individual is, just maybe, their best on the album.  Guitar, piano, bass and drums all contribute their full share to a beautifully rich sound.  The lyrics proclaim the individualism of every one of us – a message with which there is full agreement until, that is, the very last words of the album, when a single voice begs to differ with the words: “I’m not.”

20th Century Pop is, indeed, a wonderful album.  It’s life-affirming and packed full of that crazy, surreal humour that we Brits do better than anyone.  It’s great to see it make a welcome return.  File under ”Charmingly Daft.”

Watch the official video to Borderline, a track from the album, here:

Penguins Go Pop: Facebook / Bandcamp / YouTube

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