Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Fischer Z Throw A Line To Catch A Hit

Given their style and sound, it’s a curious thing that British pop-rock quartet Fischer-Z had so little success at home. Forming in 1979, at the core of Fischer-Z was vocalist/guitarist John Watts. Joining him in the initial line-up were Steve Skolnik (keyboards), Steve Liddle (drums) and David Graham (bass). Like so many other bands that evolved in the rich breeding ground of the late 70s British music scene, Fischer-Z joined the torrent of new wave exponents, incorporating elements of prog-rock and arthouse-pop into the mix. One of the features that would separate them from the pack, in terms of sound, was the uniquely eclectic vocal sound of singer John Watts, ranging from a low baritone to just shy of falsetto.

The diverse style of their first album reflected a band that were looking for their own sound. 1979‘s ‘Word Salad’ (UK#66) sold a moderate number of units, thanks in large to the strength of the single ‘The Worker’ (UK#53), a song that bizarrely went down the charts after an appearance on the influential ‘Top Of The Pops’. John Watts was reported as blaming that on the fact that a remixed version of the song was played, which featured a heavier emphasis on keyboards than guitar.

The band went back to the drawing board for their sophomore effort, 1980’s ‘Going Deaf For A Living’ (great title for a rock album). They dispensed with much of the prog-rock sound prevalent on their debut, and instead struck upon a solid pop-rock effort. Given that bands like XTC, The Vapors and The Police were so popular in the U.K. at that time, it’s strange that Fischer-Z barely registered with their next single ‘So Long’ (UK#72). The song faired much better in Australia though, climbing to #15 in late 1980, and helping the album ‘Going Deaf For A Living’ to only narrowly miss the top 50 (#52). The promo clip was quite clever too, following the story line of the lyrics and featuring a retro ‘Maltese Falcon’ style appearance, complete with Bogart look-a-like.

Despite chart success largely eluding Fischer-Z in their native U.K., they gained a solid following in parts of Europe, notably Germany and Portugal, but it would be Australia that seemed to adopt the Fischer-Z sound most favourably.

Their next album ‘Red Skies Over Paradise’ failed to yield any hit singles, 'Marliese' being the lead out track, but the album sold reasonably well in Australia (#70) probably in part due to the hangover effect of ‘So Long’ (which had charted for 23 weeks). Prior to the release of the album keyboardist Skolnik had left, and soon after Watts (who was band leader from day one) decided to carry the band’s name forward with him alone at the controls. He released two essential solo albums, though still under the Fischer-Z brand name, 1982’s ‘One More Twist’ and 1983’s ‘The Iceberg Model’. Both albums missed the charts completely, resulting in EMI finally losing patience with Watts’ direction and ending their association. (It’s worth noting that in some European markets these albums were released under John Watts’ name)

Watts then formed the short lived outfit Cry (not to be confused with the 1980 group The Cry) in 1984, with original Fischer-Z bassist David Graham in tow, recording one album for the Arista label titled ‘Quick Quick Slow’ - maybe ‘Quick Quick Show’ was more appropriate.

John Watts then dusted off the Fischer-Z tag in 1987, putting together a revamped line-up of the band. The album ‘Reveal’ revealed an updated more up-tempo sounding Fischer-Z, though Watts remained the key figure. Once again parts of Europe and Australia were receptive, most notably taking to the single ‘The Perfect Day’. The song spent 29 weeks inside the Australian singles chart during 1988, peaking at #14.

1989’s ‘Fish’s Head’ didn’t capitalise on the resurgence of the Fischer-Z name set up by ‘Reveal’. Watts continued to release a steady line of albums throughout the 90s, often changing support line-ups, often changing style. 1992’s ‘Destination Paradise’ was a more acoustic based effort, whilst its successor ‘Kamikaze Shirt’ (1993) saw Watts experimenting with dance-beat elements.
Following the album ‘Stream’ in 1995, Watts once again retired the Fischer-Z moniker and decided to record officially as a solo artist. 1997’s ‘Thirteen Stories High’ revealed a few more steps in the journey of the maverick pop-rock musician that is John Watts. He has continued to perform and record over the last decade, his most noteworthy album being 2003’s ‘Ether’.

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