Tuesday, August 26, 2008

A New Hairstyle For A New Wave

Haircut One Hundred (or Haircut 100 to some) were the epitome of the clean cut fashion conscious British new wave band so prevalent in the first half of the 1980s (think Spandau Ballet or ABC, except that these guys wore Val Doonican style Arran sweaters). Musically they drew on a more diverse range of styles, such as Latin rhythms and jazz-funk textures, but by and large they played a light weight bubblegum style of pop that for a while, for a short while, proved very appealing to the masses.

The pop sextet came together in London during 1980. At the heart of the group was singer/songwriter/guitarist Nick Heyward, who also proved to be the face of the group. The first line-up featured Heyward, Les Nemes (bass), Tim Jenkins (guitar) and Rob Stroud (drums). Jenkins and Stroud both departed very early on, to be replaced by Graham Jones and Patrick Hunt respectively. Percussionist Mark Fox and saxophonist Phil Smith were initially brought in as session players but were soon added to the group’s official line-up.

Haircut One Hundred broke into the charts in October 1981 with their British #4 hit ‘Favourite Shirts (Boy Meets Girl)’ (OZ#97). The band were dissatisfied with drummer Patrick Hunt’s playing and subsequently fired him. Blair Cunningham was brought in on drums to provide a stronger sound live. It would be Haircut One Hundred’s second single and biggest hit that would establish their place firmly in the new wave museum of musical exhibits for decades to come. ‘Love Plus One’ was a catchy fusion of pop, funk and reggae that took the world by storm. The song debuted on the British charts in early 1982 and soared to #3. Soon after it made it to #10 in Australia, and broke the group in the U.S. (#37) - something many other British new wave acts failed to achieve.

Both songs were featured on Haircut One Hundred’s debut album ‘Pelican West’ (UK#2/OZ#27/US#31) which firmly cemented the group as the poster boys of the British new wave scene. ‘Fantastic Day’ (which Nick originally wrote when he was 15) notched up another U.K. top 10 single (#9/OZ#85) for Haircut One Hundred, quickly followed by another #9 hit with ‘Nobody’s Fool’, and suddenly critics and fans alike were talking about Haircut One Hundred in the same breath as Duran Duran as being the new wave of British pop royalty. But all was not well within the ranks of the band. The incessant media focus on enigmatic frontman Nick Heyward, combined with the singer undergoing a mental breakdrown from all the pressures, led to friction with the other members of Haircut One Hundred, that eventually led to the singer alienating himself from the rest of the group. He promptly left Haircut One Hundred in early 1983, just as the band was in the midst of recording their second album. The band limped on as a five piece, with percussionist Mark Fox shifting to lead vocal duties. The quintet moved over to PolyGram (Heyward was retained by Arista) and released the single ‘Prime Time’ in August 1983 but the song only reached #46 on the British charts and the follow ups ‘So Tired’ and ‘Too Up, Two Down’ sank without a trace, in stark contract to the Heyward era singles. The album ‘Paint And Paint’ was released soon after but with Heyward’s solo career in full swing by that stage, neither media nor marketing machine paid any attention to the album or band. When combined with a strong negative backlash from fans loyal to the Heyward model, Haircut One Hundred saw the writing on the wall and parted ways before the end of ‘83.

Whilst Nick Heyward didn’t quite match the heights he experienced whilst with Haircut One Hundred, he did manage to churn out an impressive string of top 40 singles. Heyward’s debut solo album was ‘North Of A Miracle’. The album debuted on the British charts in October ‘83 and peaked at #10. It yielded three top 15 singles, all pretty much standard commercial pop fare, though it was clear Heyward was enjoying the freedom of expression and artistic growth that a solo career offered. ‘Whistle Down The Wind’ ascended to #13 whilst Haircut One Hundred were still in the process of crashing and burning. ‘Take That Situation’ knocked on the door of the top 10 in mid ‘83, but was told to make do at #11, whilst ‘Blue Hat For A Blue Day’ hid any signs of a bad haircut at #14.

Several more low key single successes maintained Heyward’s presence on the charts over the ensuing two years, tracks such as ‘Love All Day’ (UK#31 6/84) amd ‘Warning Sign’ (UK#25 11/84) also hinting at a more serious and introspective songwriter beneath the former teen idol gloss. His sophomore album ‘Postcards From Home’ seemed to lack the spark of his debut, and only offered up one minor hit with ‘Over The Weekend’ (UK#43), whilst the album itself missed the charts altogether - perhaps the hordes of Heyward addicted teeny bopper fans had moved on to another glossy icon. 1988’s ‘I Love You Avenue’ did little to put the brakes on Heyward’s slide into relative pop obscurity, with only one single ‘You’re My World’ (UK#67) making the charts.

Heyward then took an extended hiatus before returning with the much meatier and complex album ‘From Monday To Sunday’ in 1993. Heyward explored and experimented with his style and sound, augmenting his pop-rock formula with string arrangements, power pop guitar and a notable absence of synthesizers. The Beatle-esque single ‘Kite’ reached #44 in Britain. 1995’s ‘Tangled’ saw Heyward continuing to search for the right balance and yielded the minor hits ‘The World’ (UK#47) and ‘Rollerblade’ (UK#37). Heyward then departed from the Epic label and released 1998’s ‘The Apple Bed’ on the independent label Creation Records. The last decade has seen the release of two more Nick Heyward albums, both collaborative efforts - 2001’s ‘Open Sesame Seed’ which featured actor/musician Greg Ellis reciting poetry to Heyward’s musical accompaniment, and 2006’s ‘The Mermaid And The Lighthouse Keeper’ with singer/actress India Dupre.

The rest of the Haircut One Hundred alumni went on to have careers of varying degrees of success, in and outside of the music industry. Drummer Blair Cunningham went on to join Chrissie Hynde’s Pretenders during the second half of the 80s, then became a long term drummer with Paul McCartney’s band. I was fortunate enough to see McCartney live on his ‘New World’ tour in 1993 (5 times in fact), and Cunningham was every bit the consummate professional - put simply the guy is a freaking talented drummer. He also played with Alison Moyet and Big Dish during the 90s.

Original percussionist and reluctant replacement vocalist/songwriter Mark Fox (who before Haircut One Hundred was a school teacher) went on to become the co-owner of a record mastering facility in London. Guitarist Graham Jones moved to the south coast of England in the late 80s to do some surfing, like the place and settled in Cornwall, initially working as a guitar tutor and eventually starting up a business as a tree surgeon. Bassist Les Nemes moved to Spain originally for family and lifestyle reasons and kept busy in the music business with a covers band that played a mix of funk and rock. Saxophonist Phil Smith became a highly sought after session and touring player in the music business.

In 2004 Haircut One Hundred were featured on VH1’s series ‘Bands Reunited’. The group did indeed reunited for a one off live show, and there is no doubting they sounded first rate. Not surprising in a way given how musically active some of the members had continued to be, but still the chemistry has to be there, and it was. It left the former band mates, and Heyward in particular, open to the idea of one day reuniting in the studio to record some new Haircut One Hundred material. But as yet the positive spirit engendered by the reunion hasn’t seen a long term collaboration come to fruition.

Oh, and as for the origin of the band’s name. That was explained by guitarist Graham Jones in an interview on VH1’s Bands Reunited special. As Graham put it early on in the band’s history they were looking for a catchy name. They were at Nick Heyward’s place one day throwing all these names around and the most ridiculous suggestion was Haircut One Hundred, which as Graham indicated didn’t really mean anything, it just sounded different.

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