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…

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The Sundays: Can’t Be Sure

the sundaysAs December rolls around once again, my music listening takes on a far more wintry hue. And they don’t come much more wintry than The Sundays‘ sublime recording debut ‘Can’t Be Sure’.

I’m really not sure how I first came to be aware of The Sundays. I don’t recall seeing them on TV or hearing them on the radio, though do vaguely remember a Vox magazine cover feature in early 1991 (see below).

To this day, I don’t really know what they look like and don’t want to know – I started watching the video for ‘Can’t Be Sure’ while writing this and had to turn it off…

With hindsight, some of the band’s ‘indie’ influences would generally have been a turn-off to me in 1989/1990 – instead, we were all drawn to the crystalline, unfettered beauty of Harriet Wheeler’s voice and her winning way with a melody.

Though ‘Can’t Be Sure’ was released as a UK single in January 1989 and reached just 45 in the singles charts, it ended the year as number one in John Peel’s Festive Fifty. The track also has a weird prog connection – it was (excellently) co-produced by Ray Shulman, a founding member of Gentle Giant.

‘Can’t Be Sure’ and its attendant classic album Reading, Writing And Arithmetic now seem redolent of a far gentler time, an era of hope and innocence, pre-Grunge and Britpop. For that reason, along with the Cocteaus’ Heaven Or Las Vegas, they’re quite hard to listen to now but no less powerful. The Sundays were also arguably a very influential band on many inferior acts (The Cranberries, The Corrs etc etc).

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The Strange Story Of Stump

Blimey. That appeared out of nowhere on ‘The Tube’ in late ’86 or early ’87. I was amazed and amused. Who were these mutants? Though the clip was forever etched on my memory, for some reason I didn’t seek out any recordings by Stump until a few years later when I came across a cassette of debut mini-album Quirk Out in the corner of my local HMV.

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I love this band. Built around Rob McKahey’s tribal drums, Kev Hopper’s fretless bass, Chris Salmon’s whammified Strat with no effects or barre chords and the joyously insane though highly-literate gibberings of singer Mick Lynch, Stump’s music should never have worked but it did. It reminded me a bit of Belew-era King Crimson and XTC at their most unhinged but otherwise I was clueless.

Lynch told surreal tales of TV extras, low-rent strippers and out-of-control bodily functions over seemingly improvised ‘post-rock’. In the intervening years, I’ve detected influences from James Joyce and Flann O’Brien in his brilliantly surreal storytelling, and Hopper has cited Pere Ubu, Brand X and Captain Beefheart as musical influences. But Stump could only have happened in the ’80s.

They got quite a live following in ’86, mainly among London’s Irish population, and a John Peel Session, Mud On A Colon EP and appearance on legendary compilation C86 followed quickly. Quirk Out came out on their own label Stuff Records and featured favourites like ‘Tupperware Stripper’, ‘Our Fathers’, ‘Bit Part Actor’ and, of course, ‘Buffalo’. More appearances on ‘The Tube’ followed, the gigs went from strength to strength and everything seemed rosy.

The first album proper, 1988’s A Fierce Pancake, fulfilled their potential. Ensign Records, who specialised in popular Irish acts like Sinead O’Connor and The Waterboys, schmoozed the lads and they duly signed on the dotted line, despite having no real idea why they had been schmoozed. Beautifully produced by Holger Hiller at Hansa Studios, with lots of detail and a bit more sonic punch than on the debut, Pancake was a minor classic. Surely a minor hit single would follow. The Cure’s mainman Tim Pope even directed the video for the most likely song, ‘Charlton Heston’.

But nothing. So Ensign tried to scare up a few remixes – nada. Even their charmingly ramshackle live shows were starting to flatline. During the long period of recording Pancake, the live scene had changed completely, and now rave and house were prevalent. Stump’s brand of funky insanity was out. It’s another classic case of mismanagement and squandered budgets. No matter – the album contains such ’80s classics such as ‘Eager Bereaver’, ‘Bone‘, ‘Alcohol’ and ‘Boggy Home’.

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Recent box set The Complete Anthology includes demos that were intended for the third album and they sound mainly marvellous, particularly ‘The Queen And The Pope‘ and ‘Warm In The Knowledge’, but things couldn’t go on as they were. The band called it a day in 1989, apparently £250,000 in debt to Ensign.

But a few ‘celebrity’ fans have emerged over the years, most notably Mike Patton of Faith No More/Mr Bungle fame. The latter band certainly has Stumpy elements.

There has even emerged a really weird YouTube video of the rest of Stump looking for missing singer Mick Lynch in Cork. Is a reunion on the cards? (A reunion gig actually happened in May 2015, and Mick Lynch sadly passed away in December 2015 – Ed.)