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 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 mobilised the UK session elite (Wix, Guy Barker, Luis Jardim, John Thirkell, Gavin Wright, Chris Whitten, Jakko et al).
It’s Better To Travel was 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’.
‘Twilight World’ and ‘Fooled By A Smile’ are cracking pop songs with dynamic horns, memorable string arrangements and hints of Dusty and Bacharach. ‘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 cool Guy Barker trumpet solo. It was also another top 10 hit (UK #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’s memorable movie scores.
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. It’s Better To Travel was one of the best pop debuts of the 1980s and also a big hit, making #1 in the UK 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 very pleasant contact-high for summer 1987 – good days, good days, as Derek Smalls once said.