Monday, 20 October 2014

SWING OUT SISTER: It's Better To Travel




(#346: 23 May 1987, 2 weeks)

Track listing:  Breakout/Twilight World/After Hours/Blue Mood/Surrender/Fooled By A Smile/Communion/It's Not Enough/Theme (from It's Better To Travel)

The year 1987 was and is a difficult one for me to see at all clearly in hindsight, mainly because of the events of the year being either crushingly awful or utterly, completely normal, with tiny joys here and there, though those joys were mainly in the first seven months of the year.  I don't think this colors what I am going to write here that much yet, as nothing as of yet in the spring has happened; nothing more remarkable than actually being able to hold my own at Ryerson, where some people had bailed out for various reasons in the fall (I think if you didn't like it you could leave and get your money back by a certain date, which some did).  I quickly realized that I wasn't exactly cut out to be a journalist per se, but felt the discipline* was good for me, and it helped to sharpen my observational skills, not to mention learning how to drink and swear (from other students, of course).

One thing I was interested in was glamour; that I hoped would be obtainable by making my own Chanelesque multiple necklaces and wearing a lot of white and black clothing, and just by walking through the underground PATH of Toronto every morning and late afternoon, to and from Union Station as I commuted, I hoped some of the gleaming metal and distinguished marble that I walked past would make me feel as if I really did belong at Ryerson, that I was a writer who had something of a future, and so forth and so on.  The music of the time was either in sync with this or against, but Swing Out Sister were poised somewhere in the middle, glamorous, sure, but with something of an older sibling's knowledge of what happiness really is.

The background of Swing Out Sister is that of Andy Connell, member of A Certain Ratio, and Martin Jackson, who had played drums for Magazine; had I known this at the time I would have recognized the group as yet another facet of Manchester's amazing music scene, but I didn't. Corinne Drewery hailed from Nottingham, grew up in Authorpe and used to attend Northern Soul nights in Cleethorpes,  had aspirations to be a fashion designer and went down to That London to study at St. Martins; Connell discovered her at an audition for Working Week - she was rejected, but Connell sensed she had a certain something and Swing Out Sister was born, initially as a side project to A Certain Ratio, only to eclipse it in a couple of years.  Their first single, however, wasn't a hit, and so "Breakout" - written by Corinne in London as the others were up in Manchester - is an anthem from a squat, a combination, as she calls it, of "Thriller" and the clucking of a chicken (cue Jimmy Smith and his Back At The Chicken Shack), and it works. It was written in less than half an hour before the courier from the record company was due to arrive for the demo tape, so it was this or nothing; it is proof that the best songs arrive quickly, and sometimes in sheer desperation.  It is a song of revolution, rebellion, not just for a moment but for life; it is soulcialism in action, and sets the scene for an entire album -yes! - of suave music, elaborate orchestrations that hark back to the days when it was a singer and a huge band, all arranged by Richard Niles** and produced by Paul Staveley O'Duffy, who, having a better singer, songs and general attitude to deal with than Curiosity Killed The Cat, makes each song a little moment, a message I would hear on my Walkman going to and fro, warnings that the seeming glamour of what surrounded me wasn't all I thought it was...

"Twilight World" starts out slowly, even with some caution; the sun is going down, the lights are coming on, but the narrator talks of someone turning away, of silence, of light seeming to disappear altogether.  Someone who keeps away from others, relishing only the loneliness, the aloneness of their existence.  Does this sound familiar?  This is what the narrator describes in a song so vibrant it has a vibes solo, but it's a dead end of solitude that can "fool" the individual who thinks that it's good to shut him/herself away.  The message is clear - you've got to participate in society, and not live in a world where "society" is deemed not to exist...

"After Hours" has got more than a mood of New Order to it - all those odd noises, bird calls and whatnot, caressing the song, another song of someone out their on their own, in the night, in the shadows alone, the world revolving around...or should I say Joy Division?  There is no getting around the jazz element to Swing Out Sister - especially here - but the solitary figure in the night with his cigarette....well, it's not Ian Curtis literally...and the song ends pulling this way and that, bird calls more ominous, awkward...

"Blue Mood" was their first single, the flop one, and it's a club hit, upbeat, with Corinne ordering the listener to "Take a look at yourself!"  (Considering what the color blue means in the UK, no wonder s/he is down.)  But Corinne is pointing to the blue sky and insisting on a new start, on opening the heart of the listener, that the ever-edging-up music sweeps all sadness away, Corinne singing "think it over, won't be long now!"  It won't be long before the (blue) government is gone...It's Better To Travel has walked through the darkness and is now calling for a new day...

..."Surrender" starts with her laugh, as if she just knows that this song won't be interpreted politically either, though how could it be any other way?  "Lying behind a smile."  The main word in the chorus is "revenge" - "You get what you deserve."  Corinne's alto calls out for rebellion and calls on Love itself to defeat Hate; it may take a while, but it will happen, and those guilty will pay, all right.  Guy Barker's solo is the icing on the cake - followed by Corinne's "yeeeeeeeeoOOOOOOOOOOWWW" - this is a satin and silk production of "sweet" revenge, a prayer for things to change...

And yes, the lying of the previous song comes back here, "Fooled By A Smile" - "broken promises take their toll."  This entire album is against the government and the Hooray Henry/Henriettas Sloane Rangers who no doubt heard this in wine bars and had no idea it was judging and blaming each and every one of them.  The elaborate strings and horns comfort those who have suffered, and here in particular Corinne seems to be consoling those who jumped on the Big Bang/Tory ship, only to find that things weren't quite all they were cracked up to be.

"Communion" is very low-key, as if it's being sung to those who are felt left out, who aren't part of the wine bar crowd, nor are the self-styled rugged and lonely individuals.  Those who are on the outside, looking in - "our time has come" she sings, and:  "Broken dreams a seething silence/No one hears/Silent screams/And poisoned lies no one shares."  When life is a crime, she sings, you've got to get together with others to share, to scream those screams, to be heard.  This album comes from a place where the disenfranchised are getting their say - not as dramatically as with Bob Marley, but still, there's a toughness here that works well with the (again) near-Joy Division solemnity of the song.  There is a joy here, a joy of expression, but also the band are not from That London, and this shows as well - the stylish resistance that The Face always thought it represented is vividly alive here, as it hasn't been since...Culture Club?

"It's Not Enough" addresses the government directly, unsatisfied, unhappy, but determined to speak its mind, to get that across with no rancor but some bitterness - they just can't say they are sorry, it's too late to apologize.  The damage has been done, and the only thing is to leave....

Which leads to the final song, an instrumental, a pounding, predatory theme, anticipating chill out and trip-hop all by itself, glancing back to acknowledge Simple Minds, glancing forward to see Air...heavy keyboards make a wall, something like a synthesized zither tickles and creepifies, the sense of anticipation and anxiety goes up and up, as if something overwhelming is about to appear - the music crashes down and then pauses, only to start pounding again, Martin Jackson coming in at last on drums, the music circling endlessly, as if some whole new world is here, is too much to take in at first, some lively, some scary....and it goes away, a vibe tremor, and a warning hum..."To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive" - Robert Louis Stevenson said it, and Swing Out Sister are indeed travelling hopefully to a world without lies, deceit and with love and blue skies, but it's not going to be easy - that's what the "Theme" stands for...

And so that is the glamorous world, a world that seems to run on pearlized this and perfumed that, but beneath it is a world that is imperfect and Swing Out Sister's power is to show that world and hence to build up their case for breaking out of it and breaking free, rebelling against conformity and ruthlessness.  In May of '87 I was completely unaware of a lot of things, walking around and asking questions and rubbing up against those who thought I was a nuisance helped me learn, and this album (and so many from this year***) helped me assimilate, to take in the big changes, to adjust to the relentless clomp-clomp of feet every morning and evening.  Corinne sounded so utterly sure that justice would come, that the lost and truly lonely would have to gather together in order not to lose it and become, well, sour; the complete happiness of "Breakout" was a lifeline at the time, and this album solidifies it as a genuine anthem. 

I didn't know about Joy Division at the time, but hearing it now reminds me that A Certain Ratio were also a Factory band and the darkness of the album stems from that post-punk time, a time that has moved forward to ACT's "Snobbery and Decay" (ZTT's last will and testament) and the return of ABC with Alphabet City.  For three indie musicians to get together, get signed to a major label and then take over with style and substance is not a new story (I'm thinking of Scritti Politti here) but the partnership of Connell and Drewery continues to this day, a bit less political now and more purely romantic, but still elegant and uplifting.  But in 1987 to be just those things was, as they knew, not enough; there had to be some grounding under the rhinestones and silk, some place where style and action could meet, inspiration, not just aspiration, could happen.  And so I went to Ryerson and listened and absorbed, consciously and unconsciously, a kind of hip defiance.  And while I so longed to be a Chanel muse, I was beginning to understand that there was more to life than perfume and earrings and the right "look."

A lot more.

Next up:  To make up for the fact I never got to see them in '84....


*One of the reasons students may have dropped out or transferred was due to the high expectations put on them for writing.  Assignments had due dates and a date stamp machine was to be used to prove you were on time - if you weren't on time, you failed the assignment.  You also failed the assignment if you got anyone's name wrong, or just couldn't write very well.  Our work was judged fairly and I can't say that I got great grades, hardly anyone did; we were very much raw recruits, being molded for a purpose.  Reporting had to be done between other classes, pounded out on typewriters so big and heavy you could do damage with them (if you could pick one up, that is) on special paper, multi-layered and -colored.  The assignments were tough sometimes, but doable, and my writing was judged fairly as being pretty bad, but not utterly hopeless.

**A lovely poem about the band is included in the sleevenotes - Niles wrote it, winning me over with a mention of Corinne's "clunky shoes."  His wife Tessa is the female voice on "Date Stamp" on The Lexicon Of Love.  You can see how New Pop hasn't disappeared, but is taking on a new guise...

***Warehouse:  Songs and Stories and Solitude Standing come to mind, neither really soulcialist but then not all that far away, either...

1 comment:

Quitter said...

Wikipedia suggests a genre here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sophisti-pop