Fuzzbox: Self! Self! Self!

fuzzbox_big_bangThe 1980s are littered with bands who started out with the noblest of indie intentions, but then got seduced and/or corralled into major-label action. And they didn’t come much more indie than We’ve Got A Fuzzbox And We’re Gonna Use It, the Birmingham-born-and-bred, all-female, John Peel-endorsed quartet which formed in 1985.

By 1988, though they had enjoyed a lone top 40 single, you probably wouldn’t have put much money on them making a claim for serious stardom. But against all odds, they spent most of 1989 as proper pop stars…

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Too young to appreciate their early stuff, I had only ever known their ‘pop’ period. But I hadn’t thought about them for over 25 years until the other day when I heard their 1989 single ‘Self’ on Absolute 80s. I was immediately impressed and intrigued; an irresistible slice of post-Frankie, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink pomp-pop, ‘Self’ features swooning synths, powerhouse drums, strident, Claudia Brucken-esque vocals, a brilliant chorus and even a saucy Brian May guitar solo. How did they do that?

It was all so different back in ’86. Their first UK single, a double A-side of ‘XX Sex’ and ‘Rules And Regulations‘, appeared on Vindaloo Records and reached number 41 in March of that year. In December, debut album Bostin’ Steve Austin was released, spawning hilarious first UK Top 40 single ‘Love Is The Slug’.

Further single releases included ‘Rocking With Rita (Head To Toe)’, featuring a version of ‘Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini’ on the B-side, and even a cover of ‘Spirit In The Sky’.

Clearly a change of direction was needed. Apparently it was WEA A&R gurus Rob Dickins and Bill Drummond who masterminded the band’s assault on the charts, recommending a shortening of their name to Fuzzbox, bringing in songwriter Liam ‘Walk Like An Egyptian’ Sternberg, putting more focus on lead singer Vickie Perks and recruiting session keyboard player Andy Richards to produce the Big Bang album.

Richards’ credentials were exemplary – prior to ’89 he had played on no less than eight ’80s UK number ones: Frankie’s ‘Relax’ and ‘Two Tribes’, George Michael’s ‘Careless Whisper’, Chris De Burgh’s ‘Lady In Red’ and the Pet Shop Boys’ ‘It’s A Sin’, ‘Always On My Mind’ and ‘Heart’. He had also recently produced Prefab Sprout’s ‘Hey Manhattan‘.

And, in the short-term, Richards did a sterling job – Big Bang went top 5 and Fuzzbox were pop stars. Three singles from the album got into the top 30 – the infuriatingly-catchy Sternberg co-writes ‘Pink Sunshine’ and ‘International Rescue‘ as well as ‘Self’. But the fourth single, a cover of Yoko’s ‘Walking On Thin Ice’, flopped, as did later stand-alone single ‘Your Loss My Gain’. Warners pulled the plug, probably prematurely.

But the story doesn’t end there. Fuzzbox made a comeback in 2010 with a spiffing cover of M’s ‘Pop Muzik’ but sadly lost founding member Jo Dunne in October 2012. After a brief hiatus, they reformed again in 2015 and have just finished touring with The Wonder Stuff. Their YouTube channel claims they are officially the most successful British all-female band. Dispute it at your peril…

UB40: Promises & Lies

Scene of the band's first Birmingham gig

Scene of the band’s first Birmingham gig

Sometimes a decent music documentary can really open up a subject like a good book or movie. The Dexys/Kevin Rowland film ‘Nowhere Is Home’ did the job recently, and last weekend’s ‘Promises & Lies’ does it superbly too. It lets the protagonists speak for themselves purely in interview format without any ‘I’m-going-on-a-journey’, narrator-led BBC guff.

Like Simply Red, Madness or The Beautiful South, UB40 are so much part of the ’80s UK chart furniture (39 Top 40 singles including three number ones to date – surely only Shakin’ Stevens and Madness bettered them during the decade?) that it’s quite hard to listen to their music objectively these days.

By the mid-1980s, they had essentially become a stadium reggae band, exemplified by their joyous Nelson Mandela 70th birthday duet with early mentor Chrissie Hynde (she headhunted them at a London Rock Garden gig in 1980 for a big US tour).

UB40’s huge success has possibly obscured their great passion for the music – singer/guitarist Ali Campbell claims several times in the film that they were always promoting reggae rather than seeking fame, and the claim rings true. But their amazing hit-rate was somewhat of a smokescreen for some serious inter-band issues, culminating in a disastrous schism between vocalist/guitarist brothers Ali and Robin in 2008 that makes the Gallagher boys’ break-up look like a petty family tiff.

It was arguably always on the cards. A very tight-knit bunch of Brummies in their early days, UB40 had always split all their performance and songwriting royalties eight ways, a decision which created financial ‘situations’ (millions missing) that would have given even Billy Joel and Leonard Cohen serious cause for concern. The resentments, claims and counterclaims piled up, and now in 2016 there are two bands gigging as UB40, one almost unbelievably fronted by another Campbell brother, Duncan.

James 'Jimmy' Brown

James ‘Jimmy’ Brown

‘Promises & Lies’ gleans strikingly honest interviews from everyone involved – no punches are pulled. And despite lots of fascinatingly-grim stuff, the documentary shows all band members to be an incredibly resilient, exceptionally talented, somewhat stubborn bunch. Drummer James ‘Jimmy’ Brown gets an especially bad ride in the film, apparently the chief social-media ‘Ali-hater’, but his playing sounds great throughout (no less an ’80s pop personage than The Police’s Stewart Copeland once named him as his favourite rock drummer), as do almost all of UB40’s classic ’80s anthems.

I’ll be looking more closely into a band I’d mainly ‘dismissed’ as a singles act. Catch ‘Promises & Lies’ while you can on the BBC iPlayer.

Julian Cope: Full-On

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What I knew of Julian Cope pre-2016:

1. He was the singer in early-’80s pop band The Teardrop Explodes.
2. He was a solo artist later in the decade and had some decent hits like ‘World Shut Your Mouth‘, ‘Trampolene‘ and ‘Charlotte Anne‘.
3. He is interested in paganism and various esoterica.
4. He has published a few well-regarded memoirs.

Well, that’s a start. But suddenly everything’s going Cope-crazy round my gaff. For starters, I recently read one of said memoirs ‘Head-On/Repossessed‘ after coming across it in my local library. It’s a hilarious, unhinged, Withnailesque account of a singer’s journey through the 1980s pop firmament.

Here’s a slightly-edited excerpt, an account of Cope’s first acid-assisted appearance on ‘Top Of The Pops’ alongside the other Explodes including arch nemesis/keyboardist Dave Balfe.

By the time we reached the BBC TV Centre in London, everyone was f***ed up. We seethed out of the car and moved as one gibbering person towards the dressing room. Tony Hadley (of Spandau Ballet) walked elegantly down the corridor.

‘Hey, there’s Spandoo!’, cried Balfe, and I danced around the singer, psychotically friendly and encouraging.

We piled into the dressing room. Waiting around was not a drag. We got to see Toyah lisp her way through some piece of kack and we got to dance on the stage during our rehearsals. The acid made us happy and nice. We gushed around the place like inbreds at a New England dinner party.

Then we were on. Suddenly the song (‘Reward’) sounded like a massive hit. ‘Top Of The Pops’, man. It’s total bullshit. But it’s brilliant. I loved it. Let’s be huge.

Afterwards, we partied at some club, as you do. Women were nice to me. Men complimented me. I just sat there drooling all night…

A few months later, Cope finds himself invited back to the ‘TOTP’ studios to perform ‘Passionate Friend’ for the 1981 Christmas special. He comes across another of his pop contemporaries:

A group called Bucks Fizz were doing their thing on the other side of the studio. I watched, fascinated. I felt sucked into their scene. God, they were brilliant. I wanted to be in Bucks Fizz…

‘Head-On’ continues very much in this vein, and it’s superb. ‘Repossessed’ concerns Cope’s life and solo career later in the ’80s. It begins with him surveying the wreckage of The Teardrop Explodes:

Here was I, struck down with shamanistic depression, while Balfe had immediately gone off and set up a new label called Food Records, with the cynical, f***-you-up-the-ass ’80s motto: LET US PREY!

F***, man, you invented the ’80s. Learn from your mistakes, you gormless, bug-eyed bushbaby! You’ve preyed on everyone these past years – d’ you have to make such a Thatcherite celebration of it, you unmystical f***er?

If there’s a better put-down in music-biography history, I’ve yet to read it. And then I had a vague recollection of Cope making a memorable appearance on a great programme from the late ’80s called ‘Star Test’ (though, perhaps tellingly, it’s not mentioned in ‘Repossessed’).

Finally, one last recent Cope discovery, fascinating and entertaining, creating lots of food for thought and travel tips. You certainly couldn’t call him an unmystical f***er.

Julian Cope and Spinal Tap’s David St Hubbins – separated at birth?