THE first time I ever got an inkling of the glamour surrounding Swing Out Sister was during a stint working behind the counter at a record shop in a dour northern steel town. One morning about 25 girls came in and asked for a record called Breakout by Swing Out Sister. None of us had ever heard of them but I liked the band already ..
I liked them even more when I saw the beautifully designed sleeve for Breakout, featuring the group’s singer Corinne Drewery, with a look inspired by equal parts Kibuki theatre, Louise Brooks in Pandora’s Box and Tiger from The Double Deckers.
By the time I heard the exuberant brass-heavy electro-funk of the record itself, I was sold. The whole package – the look, the music, even the name – exuded a certain elan, an effortless glamour, easy sophistication, sheer class. All qualities in short supply in Scunthorpe at that time.
Drewery, fresh from a fashion and textiles degree at St Martin’s, was designing twin-sets for M&S when she met A Certain Ratio keyboard player Andy Connell and Chameleons and former Magazine drummer Martin Jackson in 1986. At first something of a side project for all concerned, the aptly-titled It’s Better To Travel went to number one and delivered no less than three hit singles.
And then they disappeared from my radar. I wasn’t really paying attention. But even if I had been paying attention, Swing Out Sister weren’t the most visible of bands. Two of their last three albums haven’t even been released in this country and the one that was released in the UK, it seems, was more due to their then label begrudgingly fulfilling contractual obligations than any kind of belief in Swing Out Sister.
Happily they’ve now signed to another label, EMI, and release a new album, Somewhere Deep In The Night, this week.
They’re up north today – they have a home in Manchester – so we meet in Cord, a bar off Tib Street in the Northern Quarter. It turns out that they know the area well.
Way back when they’d just started the band, Drewery visited the city to write some songs with Connell and Jackson. Afterwards, with some to kill before her train left for London, she decided to explore the city. Hopelessly lost, she eventually found herself wandering along “this fantastic little street, with all sorts of pet shops, military clothes shops, sex shops, saxophone repair shops ..”
“All the things you need ..” grins Connell.
“And I was looking in all these shops, just absorbed by them, and suddenly somebody came up and pinched my bum!” says Drewery, still a little outraged. “And I looked around and there was a little archetypal dirty old man, in a dirty raincoat, with a trilby hat and a moustache – dyed, black – chuckling to himself, scurrying down the street.”
“I didn’t know the name of the street but I described it to Andy later on and ..”
You knew it was Tib Street?
He smiles and shrugs. “Where else would it be?”
It’s an awfully long way from Tib Street to Tokyo.
Connell and Drewery first went to Japan with their first album and have since returned around 30 times. It’s better to travel indeed.
It seems that the band’s Japanese fans – and record label – have stayed loyal to the band in a way that we in Britain conspicuously haven’t. And one fortunate fringe benefit is that it has enabled Drewery and Connell to stock up on those all-important consumer durables.
But once you’ve been to Japan a few times, Connell assures me, you get beyond buying every miniaturised gadget you can get your enormous western hands on. And then you begin to appreciate Japan itself.
The pair compare the Japan of today with the Britain of the Fifties.
“People have manners and they’re educated and civilised and they consider other people,” says Drewery.
While they’re not entirely sure why the Japanese have taken to them in such a big way, they’re very grateful that they have. It’s unlikely that Swing Out Sister would still exist otherwise.
“We felt like we belonged there,” says Connell, not despite, because they will always be outsiders, observers, geigin. “I quite like that because I feel like here anyway, it’s not really any different.”
“We’re like that as people,” explains Drewery. “It’s just an extension of the way we are. If everyone’s done it already, or everyone’s jumping on this bandwagon or that bandwagon, we’ll probably just do a u-turn and shoot off in another direction.”
Breakout captured people’s imaginations, she says, because it was different to practically everything else that was going on at the time.
When they made their second album, “everything was getting a bit acid house, it was all a bit thumpy, so we went off at a complete tangent and did what I suppose you’d now call lounge or easy listening.
“We were inspired by Burt Bacharach and John Barry and Ennio Morricone, and so we did that whole cinematic thing on our second album, Kaleidoscope World – but nobody really got it at the time and it was probably not a good career move ..”
You get the sense that such things don’t really bother them too much – Connell is pleased that his mum can finally buy one of the band’s CDs without having to pay extortionate import prices – but as Drewery says: “We just follow our hearts and do the things that mean something to us.”
On the enormously enjoyable Somewhere Deep In the Night, this translates a lush, soulful pop music that could have been written at any time in the last 40 years. Its easy-on-the-ear melodies and pristine, cut-glass production brings to mind all the usual suspects as detailed above, but like many of their heroes, Swing Out Sister have a way with words too.
The seductive melancholy of Drewery’s vocal on the album’s stand-out track What Kind Of Fool Are You? brings to mind – whisper it now – the sainted Karen Carpenter.
With the current popularity of such ‘adult-orientated pop’ of people like Zero 7, Royksopp, Goldfrapp and Air, maybe Somewhere Deep In The Night will make us realise what we’ve been missing all these years.
In any case, says Drewery, “we’re too curious to stop. We just want to see what happens next ..”
[This interview first appeared in the Big issue in the North in March 2002]