Finding my way to the Nuclear Nightclub

In 1996 Virgin Records released the only Wigwam album ever to appear on CD outside of Finland. Since I was in many ways the driving force behind this release, perhaps the following story of how it came about could be interesting to fans of the group.

By Claes Johansen (alias the Tanskalainen)

I first heard Wigwam on a jukebox in a cafeteria on the south coast of Finland sometime during the otherwise dreadful summer of 1976. The song was ‘Tramdriver’ and I just couldn’t believe how good it was. It had all the qualities of an ear-catching pop song, mixed with the adventurous attitudes of Progressive Rock. The lyric was intelligent and funny, the playing smooth and energetic. The singing was out of this world – I had never heard a better singer in my life, and I still haven’t to this day. I already knew about Jim Pembroke as a lyric writer, since I owned the Milky Way Moses LP by Tasavallan Presidentti. My friend at college, Sten, who was extremely knowledgeable on music and had a large record collection, had told me about ‘this other great Finnish group, called Wigwam’. So in a way I was well prepared, but this was even better than I had expected. Little did I know that some twenty years later it would be Wigwam, including this very record, that would launch my career as a writer in English.

Fast forward to 1996. I’m now living in the UK and I have published some ten books in Denmark, mainly novels and short stories. I’m wondering how to get into writing in English, and what would be more natural than taking the same route as I already had in Danish, i.e. start by writing musical journalism. Consequently I began writing an article for Record Collector about Wigwam. It was never printed but it led to some very good contacts, among them Allan Jones, then the editor-in-chief at Melody Maker. Someone along the way mentioned a woman called Rebecca, who was running Virgin Records’ reissue program more-or-less single-handedly and was looking for people with the necessary expertise to write sleeve notes and otherwise help her out.

I called her on the telephone and she was immediately interested. It seemed that Virgin still had the UK rights for a considerable amount of Wigwam material, so why not get it out there on a CD? The obvious choice seemed the double album Rumours on the Rebound, put on to one disc – but that idea quickly stranded. CDs at the time were limited to 76 minutes, and the double album ran to a lot more than that – in fact, I recall trying once to put it on to both sides of a C90 cassette tape to play in the car, and even that wasn’t long enough. So we had to do something else, and Rebecca gave me free hands to come up with whatever I thought of as the best solution. She told me that if the album sold well we could do a follow-up, and there were also a couple of Pekka Pohjola albums standing on the shelf, gathering dust and waiting for re-release (in fact I wrote the sleeve notes for those, too, but they never came out because of the lack of success we had with Nuclear Nightclub).

All in all I was suddenly lumbered with a very heavy responsibility, but also the chance to make a few old dreams come true. I called both Melody Maker and Record Collector to make sure that the release would be reviewed, which both magazines told me it would. I also counted on some support from Finnish fans so that even if the album flopped in the UK at least there would be some sales for the group at home.

After some serious consideration I landed on the following idea. We would expect there to be two releases, so the natural thing was the do them as CD versions of the two LPs that Virgin had the rights for, Nuclear Nightclub and Lucky Golden Stripes and Starpose. Both releases would have bonus tracks, which I split up into three groups. 1) The ‘Tramdriver’/’Wardance’ single, 2) five tracks taken from Jim Pembroke’s solo album Corporal Cauliflowers Mental Function, and 3) the tracks for the Dark Album which Virgin had the rights for (alternative mixes to those released in Finland and Sweden on the actual album plus, of course, the song ‘Daemon Duncetan’s Request’).

My decision was to put the songs from category 1) and 2) on the Nuclear Nightclub CD and leave the songs from category 3) for the release of Lucky Golden Stripes and Starpose which would hopefully follow.

This seemed like a good idea to me for various reasons. We would keep the concept of the original LPs whilst also covering all the other Virgin material and the presentation would be roughly chronological. Also, both releases would include quite a lot of material that hadn’t yet been out on CD even in Finland. However, looking back on it now, it might have been a better idea to do the first CD as a 2-on-1 release with the two original LPs (space permitting) and then, if it took off, do the second CD as a ‘the rest of Virgin Wigwam’ disc. That might be how I would have approached it today, knowing that there was a vast chance we would ended up with just one CD released.

However, to my mind the biggest problem was that, for logical reasons, we had to start with Nuclear Nightclub which, albeit a dear item to many of the group’s fans, particularly in Finland, in fact is not the most appealing album the band made. With its heavy use of some pretty ghastly-sounding synths and no Hammond featured at all it was hard to imagine it as a strong seller in the mid-Nineties, where the British rock scene was dominated by Britpop and Acid Jazz and stores like HMV in London’s Oxford Street had a whole section of CDs dedicated to ‘Hammond groovers’. (This tendency was also mirrored on the reunion album Light Ages, which has ‘Hammond’ stamped all over it, as do other reunion albums from around the same time, such as those by Procol Harum and Blunstone/Argent.) If I could have things my way entirely a Wigwam compilation would start with a track like ‘Silver Jubilee’, featuring Jukka Gustavson’s astonishing Hammond work, followed by some of Pembroke’s solo material or, perhaps, a track like the madly optimistic ‘Sane Again’. But I had to work within the framework that was available to me.

Later on, people who hadn’t heard the group before but bought the CD came up and told me that what they liked best about it was the last five tracks, all taken from the Corporal Cauliflower album. I completely agree. It has always been my opinion that Pembroke was at his best when he was given free hands as much as possible. Rechardt is a first class songwriter and a very fine and unorthodox guitarist, but his style is quite introverted and really an acquired taste which, unsurprisingly, seems to appeal mainly to fans in his homeland.

All in all, I think we landed on a pretty good compromise with the release. I wrote the sleeve notes, airing views about the group that will be familiar to readers of these pages and the chat room. Apart from praising the band for their incredible music I also had to mention the fact that they were a bunch of nose-pickers on stage, which perhaps more than anything explains their lack of international success. To back this up Virgin managed to find just about the worst set of stage photos ever taken of the group, with Pembroke looking like Karl Marx’ younger brother, Måns Groundstroem wearing some kind of tea cosy on his head and Rechardt making Sting on a rainy day look like a commercial for a hair shampoo. And Ronnie? Well, Ronnie always looked like Ronnie so no objections there.

In the best tradition of the group the release flopped. Melody Maker were going through some hard times and even Allan Jones had other things to think about than reviewing some old record released by a Finnish group he had been in love with twenty years ago. Record Collector simply didn’t like it. As I recall it reviewer Mark Paytress found it too time-typical, and he was probably right.

Listening to the disc today, however, I view it mainly as a piece of history and must say that I like it a lot more than I expected despite its obvious shortcomings. The over all sound – recorded at Marcus Music Studios in Stockholm – doesn’t gel particularly well, with lots of reverb on the voice and the drums kept extremely dry (not to be patriotic, but a better choice of environment might have been the Rosenberg Studios in Copenhagen, prefered by the Strawbs, Rainbow and later on even Metallica.) The synths are still dreadful, apart from some nice evocative string sounds, but there seems to be some revival at the moment in those things (God help us), so perhaps to some people it doesn’t sound so dated any more. The bass can hardly be heard and the overall CD mastering is quite hard sounding. I have to play it on one CD player and send it via coaxial cable through another I have with recordable function, using that as an external D/A converter and taking the signal down some 5 db. After that it actually starts to sound quite good and lively.

For me the best parts of the actual album are the singing, the songwriting and the guitar playing. But the thing about Jim Pembroke is that you can never fully appreciate his genius without having a lyric sheet in front of you. He is very much like Randy Newman or Warren Zevon in that respect, the deliberate lack of consistency between form and content often being half of the experience. Unfortunately, Nuclear Nightclub never had a lyric sheet, and this CD issue doesn’t either.

The original album ends with ‘Pig Storm’, which sounds like Rechardt mocking about with some guitar riff taken from Robin Trower’s third solo album (‘Alethea’ to be precise, though they probably both nicked it from Jimi Hendrix) – but it too is better than I recalled it. However, as soon as we get into the bonus material things really start to move, and the five tracks taken from Corporal Cauliflower – quite simply one of the best records ever made, full stop – make it hard to keep from wetting yourself. Goddammaddog you must!

All in all, I’m very proud to have helped spreading this around the globe, but I still regret we didn’t get around to doing the follow-up, particularly since Lucky Golden Stripes and Starpose to my mind is superior to Nuclear Nightclub, and ‘Daemon Duncetan’s Request’ (which would have been a bonus track) may well be the best song Pembroke has ever written. Perhaps some more support from the fan base at home could have saved the day, but there was already a Love Records version of the album available in Finland, which may have made potential buyers reluctant to purchase the Virgin issue, even with what was then a rare bunch of bonus tracks.