Roxy Music’s Avalon: 35 Years Old Today

EG Records, released 1st June 1982

9/10

How do you like your classic album: consistent in tone/texture or mercurial and unpredictable like Sgt. Pepper’s (released on this day 50 years ago)? Or, like me, do you love both approaches? Avalon definitely belongs in the former camp. Beautifully performed, recorded, mixed and mastered (you can really hear the money), it maintains a mood throughout, sometimes feeling like one extended song.

Through a variety of working methods – some originated on previous albums Manifesto and Flesh & Blood – Messrs Ferry, Manzanera and Mackay arrived at Roxy’s perfect studio swansong and, for many, the peak of ’80s sophisti-pop. Today, Avalon sounds completely different to almost anything else released in 1982. It’s always a shock seeing reruns of Ferry on ‘Top Of The Pops’ miming something from the album – the whole package seems way too refined and luxurious for the worldly environs of a TV studio.

Crucial to Avalon‘s success was the reinstatement of the crack Flesh & Blood ‘backroom’ team: producer Rhett Davies and legendary mix engineer Bob Clearmountain. Also key was the choice of studios: Compass Point in Nassau and Power Station in New York, whose staircase was put to good use, as Davies told ‘Sound On Sound’ magazine: ‘The main thing at the Power Station was the stairwell. It had an unbelievable sound. You’d put anything through it and you’d just go “Yeah, we’ve got to have that.”’

Davies also brought with him another recording technique developed from working with Brian Eno on Taking Tiger Mountain and Another Green World. ‘Eno had opened me up to the way of working where you walk in with a blank sheet, stick some white noise down, count one to 100 and then fill in the spaces, and it was great working that way. When I started working with Roxy, Bryan had only known the “Let’s cut the track with the band in the studio” approach. I said, “Well, there is another way of working. We can put down our groove exactly as you want it synthetically, using a rhythm box, and the musicians can then play to that groove.” The musicians came in and responded to the atmosphere that was already on tape.’ (Eno of course also utilised a similar approach on Bowie’s Low and Heroes.)

Accordingly, drummer Andy Newmark was very often the last musician to overdub – most tracks were first laid down with a Linn drum machine backing. ‘The Main Thing’, ‘India’ (which sounds like Ferry was checking out Miles Davis’s On The Corner) and ‘The Space Between’ are the most obvious results of this approach, essentially jam sessions built on one-chord vamps. This painterly, piecemeal style of recording was also meat and drink to Ferry who was struggling with writer’s block at the time.

The title track was apparently a delightful accident, rescued at the eleventh hour after the song had almost been shelved: Davies: ‘We were mixing the album, and the version of the song that we’d done just wasn’t working out, so as we were mixing we recut the entire song with a completely different groove. We finished it off the last weekend we were mixing. In the quiet studio time they used to let local bands come in to do demos, Bryan and I popped out for a coffee and we heard a girl singing in the studio next door. It was a Haitian band that had come in to do some demos, and Bryan and I just looked at each other and went “What a fantastic voice!” That turned out to be Yanick Etienne who sang all the high stuff on ‘Avalon’. She didn’t speak a word of English. Her boyfriend, who was the band’s manager, came in and translated.’

Some have claimed that Avalon‘s beautiful closing track ‘Tara’ demonstrates a rare example of Ferry’s humour, ‘ta-ra’ of course being Northern English slang for ‘goodbye’ (the track was co-written with Mackay).

Lyrically, Avalon shows Ferry becoming a superb, somewhat surrealist chronicler of intense love affairs, often painting himself as the windswept loner weighed down by desire. Musically, the album is a marvel of ensemble playing – solid but expressive bass (Neil Jason and Alan Spenner) and drums (Newmark – superb), Ferry’s impressionistic piano and synths, colourful percussion from Jimmy Maelen, and spare, tasteful guitar licks placed around the stereo spectrum from Phil Manzanera and Neil Hubbard (who also plays a great solo on ‘To Turn You On’). And finally there’s extra spice from Andy Mackay on various saxes and Fonzi Thornton on vocals, whose uncanny alto compliments Ferry so well.

Avalon was a hit, reaching number one in the UK album chart (though, surprisingly, only #53 in the US) and producing three UK hit singles. Sonically and lyrically, it also set the template for all of Ferry’s subsequent solo projects. Happy birthday to a true ’80s classic, oft imitated but never surpassed.

Swing Out Sister: It’s Better To Travel 30 Years Old Today

Mercury Records, released 11th May 1987

Bought: Woolworths, Deal, Kent 1989?

8/10

Though they emerged as a quintessentially-1980s pop act, Swing Out Sister actually had impeccable post-punk credentials: keyboardist Andy Connell had played with Factory Records-signed A Certain Ratio before SOS, drummer Martin Jackson had previously worked with Magazine and The Chameleons while singer Corinne Drewery had sung back-up with Working Week amongst others.

The result was a musically-rich, very commercial take on the self-contained recording ‘project’ in the Yazoo/Scritti/Steely mould. But Swing Out Sister’s USP was taking influences from the mid-’80s UK jazz revival and filtering them through ’60s pop and also the burgeoning house scene.

Young tyro Paul Staveley O’Duffy, fresh from his work with Hipsway, was brought in to produce – an inspired choice. He recruited Pat Metheny/Frankie/ABC arranger Richard Niles for the horns/strings and also mobilised the UK session elite (Wix, Guy Barker, Luis Jardim, John Thirkell, Gavin Wright, Chris Whitten, Jakko et al). The result was It’s Better To Travel, a fascinating mashup of jazz, early house, ZTT techno-flash and pop.

First, the jazz. It’s all over the album: ‘After Hours’ has a melody line straight out of Joe Zawinul’s ‘In A Silent Way’. The verse of ‘Communion’ borrows liberally from Miles Davis’s ‘Milestones’ and also has an instrumental break reminiscent of Weather Report’s ‘Teen Town’ (but the song is crying out for the ‘Slave To The Rhythm’ go-go feel).

‘Twilight World’ and ‘Fooled By A Smile’ are cracking little pop songs with dynamic horns, memorable string arrangements and hints of Dusty and Bacharach. They sound a bit like Trevor Horn producing Working Week. ‘Breakout’ may be one of the more irritating hits of the late ’80s (making the top 10 hit in both UK and US) but musically it’s far superior to the usual ’80s chart fare.

‘Surrender’ still sounds fantastic today, a modal dancefloor track with intricate backing vocals, epic strings and a resplendent Guy Barker trumpet solo. It was also another top 10 hit (UK number 7). Minor tracks ‘Blue Mood’ and ‘It’s Not Enough’ are more synth-pop than pure-pop, but still very likable, and It’s Better To Travel closes with a dramatic instrumental (‘Theme’) which channels John Barry.

O’Duffy also does a sterling job with the mix: it’s very easy on the ear, not too loud or bassy. It’s music that breathes. I played the album alongside something recorded this year and it sounded far superior.

It’s Better To Travel was one of the best pop debuts of the 1980s and also a big hit, making number one in the UK album charts. Swing Out Sister waited a couple of years to release their followup, by which time they’d mainly ditched the house and jazz influences in favour of a far more poppy sound. But It’s Better To Travel still produces a kind of contact high for summer 1987 – good days, good days, as Derek Smalls once said.

Curiosity Killed The Cat: Keep Your Distance 30 Years On

Mercury Records, released April 1987

7/10

If you’d taken a walk along London’s King’s Road in the summer of 1987, you would have seen a lot of lads who looked just like Curiosity Killed The Cat; jeans from Dickie Dirts in Westbourne Grove, black polo neck, white T-shirt or Fred Perry, bomber jacket or cardigan, loafers or Doc Martens, and a flat-top haircut with a bit of gel.

Certainly most of the girls at my school fancied Curiosity. But then there was the music. You knew they had raided their parents’ cool record collections – they had a bit of Sly & Robbie, Trouble Funk, Robert Palmer, Dr John, Michael McDonald and Chic in there, also a large dollop of Little Feat.

Singer Ben Volpeliere-Pierrot had a light, attractive tenor voice and of course some eccentric dance moves and ‘relaxed’ stage patter. Drummer Migi Drummond and bassist Nick Thorpe definitely knew where ‘one’ was, and the band rounded out their sound with some fine horn and percussion arrangements.

Curiosity were the slightly sloaney South-West London lads who found the funk, probably the most musically accomplished of ’80s ‘teenybopper’ bands. They formed in 1984 from the ashes of Twilight Children, a post-punk band originally formed by Drummond and Thorpe. Offered studio time by family friend Eric Clapton, they cut a number of demos and quickly got the attention of businessman/impressario Peter Rosengard, who became their manager.

Curiosity played their first gig at London’s Embassy Club in December 1984 and quickly picked up quite a big live following. After co-writing ten tracks with session keyboardist Toby Anderson, they were snapped up by Phonogram/Mercury Records in summer 1985 after a considerable bidding war. Simply Red/Crusaders/Randy Crawford/Sly and the Family Stone producer Stewart Levine was selected to rescue their debut album after aborted sessions with Sly & Robbie, Paul Staveley O’Duffy and Culture Club’s Roy Hay.

First single ‘Misfit’ stiffed in August 1986, even though its video featured early champion Andy Warhol (who writes amusingly about Curiosity in his diaries). But ‘Down To Earth’ crashed into the top 10 soon after and Keep Your Distance went straight into the UK album charts at number one in April 1987, and also made the US top 60. A rereleased ‘Misfit’ then hit the UK top 10, and the Staveley O’Duffy-produced ‘Ordinary Day’ was a further hit. A fourth single, the Sly & Robbie-helmed ‘Free’, missed the top 40 entirely, possibly because its chorus featured one of the most hare-brained lyrical couplets of the decade.

But apart from Keep Your Distance‘s singles – all of which stand up pretty well these days – the album’s deep cuts showcase what the band were all about: the rather lovely ‘Red Lights’ and shimmering ‘Know What You Know’ are a winning fusion of Sade and Little Feat.

Anderson was dumped by the band just three months after the album’s release. He kvetched about it to Q Magazine in the December 1987 issue, saying ‘I suppose it could have been down to looks…’ Ben V-P disagreed, saying Anderson’s replacement ‘was just a better player’. What did Toby do after Curiosity? A Discogs search doesn’t reveal much beyond a few sessions for Belouis Some.

Curiosity’s impact was sudden, but their success short-lived. Why? Sacking a key songwriter and then waiting two years to release a follow-up didn’t help. Also their good looks and immediate success skewed record company expectations which would subsequently be almost impossible to fulfill, and also possibly blunted their musical potential. Who knows what else they could have achieved? With a bit of luck and better guidance, they might have developed into a Simply Red-style soft soul/funk band, if that’s what they wanted to do.