Wigwam History

by Tapio Korjus & Phillip Page
Wigwam was unquestionably the most important Finnish band of the seventies. As well, they were the first Finnish band to (almost!) make it internationally. Though the big breakthrough they deserved never really materialized, Wigwam did enjoy a slight taste of international recognition. Even today, more than 20 years after the band's heyday, Wigwam still has a respectable cult following, in Finland and abroad. Actually there were two different Wigwam formations, even before the "comeback" lineup in the nineties: the original or "old" Wigwam of 1969-1974 and the "new" Wigwam of 1974-1977. The two were dramatically different, in terms of personnel and overall sound. In Finland today, the original Wigwam still has an almost religious cult following, and, strangely enough, some of these new fans were not even born before the band's first split.

Emerging from the ashes of Blues Section, a pioneering, influential and legendary Finnish jazz-rock band of the late sixties, Wigwam was founded by drummer Ronnie Österberg, bassist Mats Hulden, guitarist Nikke Nikamo and English expatriate singer Jim Pembroke, who had already demonstrated his clever and insightful songwriting abilities as a member of Blues Section. With the Wigwam lineup completed by the arrival of organist Jukka Gustavson, Wigwam not only boasted two excellent lead singers but also featured two brilliant composers. Pembroke and Gustavson did not collaborate, however, preferring to work separately, developing their own, distinctive, original and inimitable styles. This divergence, however productive, created a sort of split personality from the very beginning, as evidenced by their first album, Hard 'N' Horny. The album's A-side is devoted entirely to the songs of Jukka Gustavson, sung in both Finnish and English, while side B is all Jim's, featuring his Henry's... suite, a bizarre, lyrical story in seven parts.

The recording of Hard 'N' Horny took far longer than expected, resulting in the group going way over their recording budget. Love Records, still in their early days, didn't have extra available cash to print the album covers, so the Wigwam band members elected to save the day by making hand drawn sleeves for the first pressing. Those few hundred original copies soon became collector's items and today are quite valuable.

Photo © Mĺrten Huldén
Old Wigwam As brilliant and critically well received as it was, Hard 'N' Horny was not an immediate hit. A single, Luulosairas, released around the same time but for unknown reasons left off album, made a much bigger nationwide impact. Also strangely, the band's live shows bore almost no relation to their records, nevertheless they helped build Wigwam's reputation as the hottest and most exciting live band in the country. Original fans might remember an early Wigwam concert experience from 1970 as being something like the following extraordinary scenario: The group would play an entire show non-stop; one long, wild and heavy jam including excerpts from songs by The Band and The Beatles, and these being the only recognizable themes! Dazed members of the crowd scrambling and falling over one another just to catch an eyeful of Jukka Gustavson at work: was it really true that he played his organ so fast that you couldn't see his fingers!? Pembroke wouldn't have much to do; he wasn't yet playing electric piano on stage and there wasn't so much for him to sing with Gustavson doing half the material. There usually wasn't even a guitarist on stage; Nikke Nikamo had left the band early on, following a dispute with Kim Fowley, producer of their second album Tombstone Valentine. Bassist Mats Huldén had also disappeared (to continue his studies) to be replaced by the young and brilliant virtuoso Pekka Pohjola, now the third composer in the group.

Back on the album front and the classic Tombstone Valentine, some little known facts and insights: The title track is one of the very few Wigwam songs to be translated into Finnish and covered by another artist, namely Vesa-Matti Loiri. The lyrics of Autograph are credited to Kim Fowley, but his contribution to the track was actually rather minimal; Jim is mostly responsible for that one. In terms of the band's scope, Pekka Pohjola's 1936 Lost In The Snow added yet another dimension to Wigwam's music and clearly indicated the direction Pekka would take with his future solo work. His song Frederick & Bill, one of the most compelling pieces in Wigwam history, proves that he can write a simple yet powerful and effective "pop" tune if he so decides. Tombstone Valentine was an astonishing album of diverse and distinct talents and established Wigwam as the most popular, indeed the best, rock band in Finland. It also carried the distiction of being the first ever Finnish rock album to be issued in the USA. Released on Verve / Forecast label as a double album, their version included extra tracks, some Blues Section material and even songs from other Love artists. This was the beginning of international recognition for Wigwam.

The best stuff was still to come, however. In late 1971 Wigwam released their third album Fairyport. Initially containing an album and a half worth of songs (rather awkward for those days), it was decided to extend the package to a double, the fourth side consisting of a live jam, featuring Tasavallan Presidentti's Jukka Tolonen as guest guitarist. Tolonen, who went on to play with Wigwam frequently but unofficially, also played on the captivating Lost Without A Trace, one of Jim Pembroke's finest moments. The album's opening track Losing Hold was long a live favorite and is probably the only Wigwam song that features a three way collaboration between Pohjola and Gustavson (music) and Pembroke (lyrics). Gustavson's arrangements for his songs had become more and more complex and ambitious; top session players, on saxes and woodwinds, were recruited and were used quite effectively. Lyrically Jukka was becoming much more philosophical. His Joined to Conscience theme, consisting of the title track and three other songs, was an indication of his developing proclivity for extended conceptual works.

Following Fairyport, the stifled creative energies within the band could be contained no longer; both Pembroke and Pohjola released solo albums. Pohjola's all instrumental album, Pihkasilmä Kaarnakorva, received rave reviews and it was soon obvious, to insiders and fans alike, that his best efforts would be outside the constraints of the Wigwam framework. Pembroke's album, released under the pseudonym Hot Thumbs O'Riley and entitled Wicked Ivory, featured the entire Wigwam cast. Lyrically and musically, Jim was at his most eccentric, flippant, whimsical and ironic in this strange yet fascinating collection of oddities. Unfortunately, the album was a bit "over the top" for the average Wigwam fan, a trifle too obscure, and was not a big commercial success, but nevertheless it was, and is today, regarded by connoisseurs as a work of (dare we say it!?) genius. Wicked Ivory contains the best recorded version of the classic Grass For Blades, which became the band's most beloved live song of all time. This original version, intended to be one verse longer, was cut short when the engineer ran out of tape!

With Pohjola and Pembroke deeply involved in solo projects, it was left to Gustavson to try and keep the band intact, united and productive for the next album, a chore that proved almost impossible as the musicians were drifting farther and farther apart. The result of Jukka's energies, two years in the making, was a complex and powerful work entitled Being, the album known now as Wigwam's masterpiece. Pohjola and Pembroke contributed some excellent material, including Jim's Marvelry Skimmer, better known as Friend From The Fields, but the album's overall idea and concept were masterminded by Gustavson. His songs carried a somewhat pessimistic political and philosophical message with deep religious overtones, a tendency that later became dominant on his solo albums. Being won the "Album of the Year" award both in the critics' and the readers' poll of Finnish rock magazine Soundi and gathered rave reviews in the English music press, as well.

By this time, the atmosphere within the band was rather strained and their future was looking uncertain. As a final attempt to keep Wigwam together, a new player was invited into the fold. With the original intention of playing both lead guitar and cello, Pekka "Rekku" Rechardt was an exciting find. However, only a few months after his arrival, Gustavson decided to call it quits and was later followed by Pohjola.

The last gigs from this, the first era of Wigwam were recorded for posterity and appear as the double album, Live Music From The Twilight Zone, a document that clearly shows the reasons for the split: there was simply too much divergent talent among the players and they could not come up with a dynamic, cohesive repertoire of material. Most of the album consisted of cover versions (Beatles, The Band) that everybody could easily agree on, plus two new Rechardt songs, a Pohjola piece from his solo album, very seldom played live, and Pembroke's Grass For Blades. There was nothing from Gustavson, who had become self-critical to the point that the others gave up trying to practice his songs. In the end, the sum had become less than the individual parts.

Fortunately, it wasn't long, less than a year, before the itch set in and Jim and Ronnie put a new band together with Rekku Rechardt and bassist Mĺns "Mosse" Groundstroem. Mosse was a house producer at Love Records and had previously played with Jim and Ronnie in Blues Section and later with Tolonen in Tasavallan Presidentti. He also produced Wicked Ivory, Being and Jim's second solo album Pigworm, recorded in Spring 1974 during the final days of the old Wigwam. One high point of Pigworm was the song Just My Situation which became the opening number at almost every Wigwam performance from the point of reformation onwards.

The new Wigwam was up and running, recording and on the road before Twilight Zone was even released. In early 1975 they released the album that became an instant classic, Nuclear Nightclub. For the sessions, keyboard and electronics man Esa Kotilainen was brought in to assist; his rich, full textures adding the perfect final touch to the new Wigwam sound. As Esa was a member of Jukka Tolonen's newest band, he unfortunately could not commit himself to Wigwam. But, before the album was released, Heikki "Pedro" Hietanen was hired as the band's fifth member.

The first Nuclear Nightclub single, the catchy, lush Freddie Are You Ready paved the way for the album, which Virgin Records licensed for outside Scandinavia. Virgin promoted the UK release of Nuclear Nightclub with a free Wigwam concert in London's Hyde Park. During the visit to England, Wigwam recorded Tramdriver for a new single, released in UK and Finland. For a while Wigwam seemed to be blessed by lucky stars. They were big news at home as Nightclub became their biggest commercial and critical success ever. Respectable journalists began calling Wigwam "The Best Band in the World", while Nuclear Nightclub was later voted "Best Finnish Album of All Time".

As is often the case in such situations, hopes and expectations were high for a follow-up to Nuclear Nightclub, subsequently placing the band under a great deal of pressure while they recorded at Manor Studios in England. The result, Lucky Golden Stripes And Starpose, was an album with some very good moments but overall was a disappointment. Generally depressing in mood, there were only a few numbers, like Eddie And The Boys that really kicked in. To promote the album's release in early 1976, Wigwam toured in the UK, supporting Virgin labelmates Gong and in the summer performed successfully in Scandinavia and the European Continent. Even with the less than ecstatic reaction to Lucky Golden Stripes from their record companies, the critics and fans, the band's live shows were better than ever. At their best, in medium-sized concert halls and clubs, they mesmerized audiences with their songs and playing skills alone. Stage attire and presentation didn't rate high on the Wigwam list of priorities (Roxy Music they were not!) and often Jim appeared to be in a daze, but no one seemed to care about that when Rechardt would lift the roof wiht one of his amazing guitar solos. As trite as it may sound, a Wigwam show was often an experience of pure magic.

In autumn 1976, Pembroke recorded his third solo album, Corporal Cauliflower's Mental Function and in early 1977 Wigwam began work on a new album, tentatively titled Daemon Duncetan's Request. After hearing the test pressing of the album, Virgin refused to release it, calling it "too low-key and noncommercial". Love Records postponed the Finnish release and sent Wigwam back into the studio.

There were bis changes happening in music and in the music business by this time, with punk bands getting most of the media attention. Times were tough for long haired bands that could be labelled as "progressive". Virgin, hot and heavy on the punk bandwagon, terminated the contracts of many of their artists and Wigwam was one of the casualties. At home Dark Album (the revised Daemon Duncetan) was finally released in late 1977, but at this point, the band had already split for the second time. Under the circumstances, Dark Album turned out to be a surprisingly good record. Even nowadays it sounds very strong and is considered, almost unanimously, as a dramatic improvement over its predecessor. One obvious choice track and fans' favourite is Pekka Rechardt's beautiful Cheap Evening Return. The Silver Jubilee was another popular number, made even more interesting due to the fact that the organ was played by none other than Jukka Gustavson, returning to the band briefly as a guest performer on the album and in concert, replacing Pedro who was the first to leave the group. An (un)official Wigwam Farewell Show took place at Punkarock festival in the summer of 1978.

With the death of drummer Ronnie Österberg in 1980, there seemed to be very little hope that Wigwam would ever return. The other musicians, already involved in new projects since late 1977, carried on separately, creating, playing and performing and they continue to do so to the present day. Nikke Nikamo has been recently collaborating with local Senegalese musicians. Mats Huldén, Rekku Rechardt and Mosse Groundstroem have been involved in several bands and special individual projects. Pedro Hietanen has worked together as a duo with M.A. Numminen since 1977, has worked as staff producer for EMI records and occasionally records with his ever evolving band, Pedro's Heavy Gentlemen. Jukka Gustavson has recorded several solo albums over the years and continues to compose and perform music for his wife Leena and her dance troupe. Pekka Pohjola has made a dozen excellent albums and maintains a healthy reputation at home and abroad. Jim Pembroke, now a resident of Kansas City (that's THE Kansas City), recorded three more albums after Cauliflower and has been involved in numerous projects through the years including bands Jimbo, The Surfing Pumpkins, Filthy Rich and the aptly named Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

In the nineties Pembroke, Rechardt and Groundstroem surprised many by coming back with a third edition of Wigwam, but that's a whole new story, to be continued...

This is a slightly shortened version of a text originally published on the cover sheet of the Wigwam Highlights CD-compilation (Love/Siboney LXCD 605).
See also:
Wigwam 1968-1974 by Pertti Hakala.
Wigwam 1975-1978 by Pertti Hakala.
Wigwam history & detailed album by album account by Nigel Camilleri.
Wigwam Chronology. Virgin Records 1976.
Wigwam entry from a 1983 rock encyclopedia by Esko Lehtonen