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

Mercury Records, released 11th May 1987

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. 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 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.

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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 Andersen, 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.

Andersen 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 Andersen’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.

Hipsway!

hipsway

The 1986 debut album

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.

hipsway-pim-skin-sf

Hipsway’s Pim Jones and Grahame Skinner

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 this is an impressive debut album of funky mid-’80s pop and it’s well worth a reappraisal. Hipsway have also reformed to celebrate the 30th anniversary re-release – they’ve got two comeback gigs in Glasgow later this month. Both have now sold out, so there’s still a decent fanbase out there.

Hipsway is out now on Hot Shot/Cherry Red.