It should be obvious by now, but if you want to sell me your record, couple it with some chiming chords, a memorable lyric and a catchy hook, and I’m all yours for the next three to four minutes.
The plangent chords and echoed vocals of The Screaming Tribesmen’s “Igloo” create a chilling landscape, blanketing the song in a reverberating wall of sound, making you feel like you’re there, sheltering from the storm, while an arctic wind whips outside. The songs setting, the frozen surroundings of the “polar zone” is the complete antithesis of the tropical warmth of Brisbane, Australia — where both the Tribesmen, and this song originated.
Released in 1983 on Citadel Records, the roots of “Igloo” date back to 1979 and a 60’s garage rock band called the 31st, formed by Tribesmen singer/guitarist Michael “Mick” Medew. The 31st would retain some notoriety over the passing of time, as both Ron Peno and Chris Welsh of Died Pretty and Brad Shepherd of the Hoodoo Gurus played in this short-lived band before moving on to greater things. The dissolution of the 31st, along with another Brisbane band, The Fun Things would set the scene for the formation of The Screaming Tribesmen in 1981 by ex-Fun Things drummer Murray Shepherd along with bassist John Hartley. Shepherd explains, “They broke up, along with The Fun Things and I formed the band from the Fun Things rhythm section, Myself and Hartley, and asked Mick from the de-funct 31st to join us.” The Tribesmen would go through several line-up changes during their career but this was the classic line-up that recorded “Igloo” in late 1982.
I was instantly floored when I first heard this song. That cavernous guitar rumble and the haunting melody, the thumping drum fill that hides behind the chorus and the lyrics that captured my imagination. “I live in an igloo in the polar zone/at night I dream of a red telephone”. It’s not exactly Wordsworth, but it more than does the job. Keen on hearing more, I quickly came to the realisation that “Igloo”, (co-written by Medew and Peno from their 31st days) was a one-off, and that whatever Peno’s contribution to the band was (more about this below), the cerebral touch of “I tried to make friends with the Eskimo, but his thoughts were buried deep in the ice and snow” was gone, replaced with the b-grade schlock of “I’ve got a date with a vampyre girl tonight”.
“Igloo’s” over-reaching message of isolation, loneliness and despair is captured perfectly when Medew, after asking the Eskimos for help with food, spits out the line “I just see white around here/I don’t know what to do”, sounding like he’s hanging on by a thread. The melodic guitar sound that was indicative of that era (cf. Exploding White Mice, The Lime Spiders, The Hoodoo Gurus) is something which the Tribesmen would later move away from, pumping up their image (torn denim, long hair and chains) to serve a hard-rock crowd. As is my want when a song like this grabs me, I’ll pick up my guitar and try and disassemble the parts and decipher the lyrics. There’s a line in the first verse which had me at a total loss,
“I felt so lonely when my Samoyed died/I felt my tears freeze when I finally cried”
I didn’t have the benefit of a lyric sheet at the time, and as such couldn’t work out exactly what he was crying over. All I could recognise was the first syllable and it irritated me no end. Eventually I dug out a dictionary, went through every entry beginning with “sam” until I hit jackpot. How many of you know what a Samoyed is? I surely didn’t. A Samoyed is a breed of dog that is suited for colder climbs, originating from North-West Siberia. Find a picture and you’ll see one of the happiest looking dogs ever. I was instantly humbled. If this dog died, I’d cry too.
Both Medew and Peno would get a songwriting credit for “Igloo”, but purely based on the rest of the Tribesmen’s recorded output (and ignoring an interview in which Peno speaks about the lyrics), I always attributed the words to him. In this interview he explains the inspiration for the song coming from Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, borrowing the symbolism of the igloo as being white and pure, and juxtaposing this toward the end of the song with the refrain “listen to the shoeshine boys”, which he admits were a black 50s doo-wop band from Alabama. Sadly, no mention was made of the Samoyed that I had grown so fond of. I always find it incredibly satisfying when you actually come away from a song enlightened. Peno could’ve taken the easy route and said “I felt so lonely when my dog died,” but he went the extra yard and plumped for the geographically correct Samoyed. Attention to detail should never go unrewarded, and neither should this song.
Thank you to Murray Shepherd for clearing up some factual details.