The 1980s spewed out a lot of cool baritone vocalists: Ian McCulloch, Ben V-P, Matt Johnson, James Grant, Nick Cave, Edwyn Collins, David Sylvian… The list goes on.
But one name that doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue is Hipsway’s Grahame Skinner, possibly because the Glaswegian band’s tenure was so short, consisting of just two studio albums and a few tours including a high-profile jaunt with Simple Minds.
A shiny new re-release of Hipsway’s 1986 debut album, complete with B-sides, outtakes, remixes and excellent Skinner liner notes, shows why they were briefly one of the most highly-regarded Scottish acts of their day, during a golden period for Caledonian pop. It also shows Skinner to be one of the most distinctive vocalists of the era, apparently an influence on everyone from Mansun’s Paul Draper to Marti Pellow.
Hipsway’s star shone briefly but brightly, with one UK (#17) and US (#19) hit ‘The Honeythief’, a track that still sounds like a classic ’80s floorfiller. The accompanying debut album just sneaked into the US top 60 but was a bigger hit in the UK, reaching #42 and staying in the chart for 23 weeks.
‘The Honeythief’ still stands up 30 years on, but does the rest of the album? Well, yes and no. With producers Paul Staveley O’Duffy (Swing Out Sister, Was Not Was, Lewis Taylor, Amy Winehouse) and Gary Langan (ABC, The Art Of Noise) onboard, a slick, pristine mix and selection of solid, attractive grooves are guaranteed, but the wider problem is memorable hooks.
The good stuff first: ‘Long White Car’ is a richly-chorded, jazzy bossa-nova which sounds like a hit even now (it only got to #55 on initial release). The excellent ‘Broken Years’ ends with Skinner quoting from Talking Heads’ ‘This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)’ while ‘Forbidden’ initially comes on like something akin to Frankie Goes To Hollywood on downers before breaking out into an unexpectedly resplendent pure-pop chorus.
‘Ask The Lord’ is also initially attractive and distinctive but lacks the killer hook that might have made it a hit. ‘Bad Thing Longing’, ‘Tinder’ and ‘Upon A Thread’ borrow Roxy Music’s Avalon template with their swooning synths and intricate bass/drums/percussion, but they are decidedly flimsy songs. But overall this is an impressive debut album of funky mid-’80s pop and it’s worth a reappraisal.