23 Skidoo ‘Coup’

Alex Turnbull talks us through the making of ‘Coup’, the funkin’ great 1984 cut from 23 Skidoo 

“When we recorded ‘Coup’, the band was me on the main bass riff and timbales, my brother Johnny on guitar, tape loops and congas, Fritz Catlin on drums, and Sketch – Peter Martin – on harmonic bass and also the main chorus theme, which he first came up with as a bass part.

“I originally joined Skidoo as a percussionist, as Fritz was the drummer. But since I also played drums with other bands, it was natural that we would interchange sporadically. When Sam Mills was with us, he and Johnny were both great guitarists and bassists, so the same applied. Nothing was fixed. Everything was fluid. ‘The Gospel Comes To New Guinea’ [1981 single] and ‘Seven Songs’ [1982 LP] probably had more improvisation though.

“By the time we came to record ‘Urban Gamelan’ in 1984, and Sketch had joined the band, we were operating in a slightly more structured way. This was probably a necessary evolution from the completely free-form nature of ‘The Culling Is Coming’ [1983 LP].

“We met Sketch during ‘The Culling’ period. We were performing on an experimental TV show called ‘Riverside’ presented by Perry Haines – an early writer for The Face and i-D – who Sketch was living with. We did some super-outlandish thing with tape loops while Perry interviewed us. He got really freaked out during it, and as he got more worked up, his voice looped back at him.

“Unsurprisingly, it never got aired. Sketch happened to be there, though, and he loved it. He’d just left Linx and was trying to be less commercial – if you know Sketch, he’s actually very anti-commercial. We, on the other hand, were going in the opposite direction and were trying to find some order in our music. We hit it off immediately, and that was that.

“‘Coup’ started life as a song called ‘Fuck You GI’, or ‘F U G I’. It was our response to Paul Hardcastle’s ‘19’, which had just gone straight to Number One. I actually really liked it and bought it, as I’d just started DJing at the time.

“What rankled us was that ‘19’ was going on about American casualties in the Vietnam war. The vocal sample went something like, ‘The average age of the dead American soldier was 19’. We were like, ‘Fuck that!’. The average age of the dead Vietnamese was probably much younger, but no one was talking about that. So we took a sample from ‘Apocalypse Now’ – a Skidoo viewing staple – and used that. It’s from the amazing scene where Martin Sheen is in the trenches, and the black GIs are talking about ‘Gooks on the wire’. They get ‘the Roach’ who, just by listening, shoots the Vietnamese soldier who is taunting them from a distance. We looped it so that the dead soldier keeps coming back, as a tribute to the fortitude of the Vietnamese.

“The Vietnamese were – and in many ways still are – vilified, whereas the US troops have had countless films glorifying this horrific and barbaric war, typifying an attitude towards Asians still prevalent in some sections of American society. ‘F U G I’ was our statement on this insane situation. We decided, however, that we’d also try to make something a little more ‘user-friendly’ and that’s how ‘Coup’ came about.

“The initial title was ‘10 Page War’ – a headline from The Sun printed during the Falklands War, which was on at the time. It then got renamed ‘Coup In The Palace’, after another Sun headline, ‘Koo In The Palace’. Prince Andrew, or ‘Randy Andy’ as he was known, was going out with Page Three model Koo Stark, so we kind of reinterpreted it, eventually shortening it to ‘Coup’.

“The recording took place at Aosis Studios, in Chalk Farm. It was new to us, and arranged by our label, Illuminated, which was run by Keith Bagley. Back then, Illuminated were the only people who would take a chance and work with us. The label was kind of a one-man operation and was super lo-fi, but ‘Coup’ would never have been recorded without Keith’s support. The session was produced by Simon Boswell. Our earlier releases had been produced by the guys from Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle, but by 1984 we’d lost touch.

“My bass part, which is kind of the backbone, was influenced by Grandmaster Flash & Melle Mel’s ‘White Lines’, which was itself lifted from Liquid Liquid’s ‘Cavern’. It might not be an obvious association but once you know, it kind of is! The studio had an HH Echo Unit which I put the bass through, giving it that throbbing sound. I can’t speak for the others in the band, but I think that sort of set the vibe for the whole track.

“We’d always loved Aswad – they’re one of the greatest British reggae bands – so we asked their horn section to sit in on the recording of ‘Coup’. Eddie ‘Tan Tan’ Thornton on trumpet, the mighty Vin Gordon on trombone, and Steve Gregory on sax. I remember when Vin walked in, he was listing all the legendary reggae artists that he’d played with – Bob Marley, Gregory Isaacs and others. We’d bought some weed for the session. They asked to roll a joint and put the whole eighth in one spliff.

“We had to be resourceful – there was no money for long elaborate sessions. ‘The Gospel Comes To New Guinea’ / ‘Last Words’ was recorded in a day-and-a-half. ‘Seven Songs’ was recorded and mixed in three days. ‘Coup’ was recorded in a single day.

“‘Coup’ might now be viewed as a ‘hit’ – or as ‘our’ hit – but it was hardly feted at the time. The music industry and press still distrusted us after ‘The Culling Is Coming’, and I think they were reluctant to afford us any visibility. It was almost like, ‘You had your chance and you blew it’. When we played ‘Coup’ live, I think some of our fans were actually a bit annoyed, as they’d just got used to the weird stuff, and it was too funky and commercial. You have to remember this was before funk or hip hop were popular, so we were kind of in a no-win vacuum.”

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