Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Sheena Catches The Morning Train - Scottish Lass Makes Good

From unknown girl next door to Prince produced vixen, Sheena Easton’s professional image/style certainly underwent a radical transformation in the decade between her first major hit ‘9 To 5 (Morning Train)’ in 1981, and her last ‘What Comes Naturally’ in 1991. But the events in between, and surrounding, both songs are worth taking a closer look at.

Born Sheen Orr in Bellshill, Scotland, she attended the Royal Scottish Academy of Drama and Art, graduating in June of 1979. Whilst still studying, Sheena Easton (Easton was her married name from 1979) often moonlighted as a singer in local nightclubs and pubs, playing with her first band Something Else at age 17. Easton was a qualified speech and drama teacher but chose instead to pursue singing as a profession, apparently inspired to do so when she saw Barbra Streisand’s performance in the film ‘The Way We Were’. In May 1979 she auditioned for a recording contract with EMI Records, under the watchful camera lens of a BBC-TV documentary crew (who had arranged the audition - with no assurances of success). Easton’s overwhelming talent overcame the reservations of EMI’s head of A&R Brian Shepherd, and she was signed up on the spot. During the following year the same BBC-TV documentary crew recorded the formative process involved in turning Sheena Easton from an unknown club singer to pop superstar. Her story was featured on the documentary ‘The Big Time’ which aired in mid 1980, immediately boosting her profile across Britain.

Her debut single ‘Modern Girl’ was released in February 1980. The upbeat synth-pop number crawled to #56 on the British charts at its first attempt, but Easton’s follow up single would prove a runaway train…I mean hit. ‘9 To 5’ clocked onto the British charts in July 1980, working overtime on its way to #3. During its strong run on the charts (which followed the high ratings airing of ‘The Big Time’ documentary) EMI re-released ‘Modern Girl’, and with the Sheena Easton publicity train under full steam, the song climbed to #8 in the U.K. on its second tilt at the charts, giving the Scottish lass the honour of being the first female performer to score two British top 10 hits simultaneously since Ruby Murray 25 years earlier. That November found 21 year old Sheena Easton performing for the Queen Mother at the Royal Variety Show, and by year’s end Easton had won a swag of awards in Britain. Over the next few months two more singles charted in the U.K., ‘One Man Woman’ (#14) and ‘Take My Time’ (#44), the title track from Easton’s debut album (UK#17/OZ#57). The album was released in the U.S. in early 1981 under the title ‘Sheena Easton’ (just to make it clear who she was) and went on to reach #24 on the Pop Album charts.

Much of its success in the U.S. was down to the lead out single there ‘9 To 5’, re-titled to avoid possible confusion with the Dolly Parton #1 hit of the same name (from the film ‘9 To 5’). The song was released as ‘Morning Train (Nine To Five)’ for the U.S. market, debuting in February ‘81 on the Hot 100, and reaching #1 by May, spending two weeks atop the charts. Just to add to the cost of type-setting at EMI, the song was released as ‘9 To 5 (Morning Train)’ for the Australian market, but that didn’t affect its performance, with the cheery pop love song also spending two weeks at the chart summit. The song also produced one of the best known promo videos of the era, featuring Easton appropriately enough riding a train (as well as a bike), and years later it featured in a couple of hilarious sequences from the sitcom ‘Seinfeld’. ‘Modern Girl’ was then released Stateside (#18) and in Australia (#24) and by mid ‘81, Sheena Easton was rivalling Olivia Newton-John for best known ‘girl next door’ on the charts (actually Newton-John would soon get ‘Physical’ in an attempt to dispense with that image). Easton went on to win the Grammy Award for ‘Best New Artist’ for 1981.

She soon became the first Scotswoman, but not the last (think Shirley Manson of Garbage) to have the honour of singing a theme song for a James Bond film (also appearing briefly in the film’s opening credits. ‘For Your Eyes Only’ (co-produced by Bill Conti) was released in mid 1981 to coincide with the release of the latest Bond feature. The sweeping ballad reached #4 in the U.S., #8 in Britain and #6 in Australia, making it one of the biggest selling Bond theme songs of all time (and garnered two Academy Award nominations). The song featured on Easton’s sophomore album ‘You Could Have Been With Me’ (UK#33/US#47), which was a passable mix of ballads and R&B flavoured pop, also yielding the minor hits ‘Just Another Broken Heart’ (UK#33) and ‘You Could Have Been With Me’ (US#15/UK#54) in late ‘81. The other hit the album produced was ‘When He Shines’ which charted in Britain (#12 - 5/81) and the U.S. (#30 - 4/82) almost a year apart.

Easton’s next album ‘Madness, Money And Music’ (UK#44/US#85/OZ#99) in 1982 was a moodier effort, more ballad and slow R&B based. It featured the minor chart hits ‘Machinery’ (UK#38/ US#57) and ‘I Wouldn’t Beg For Water’ (US#64), in addition to Easton’s take on the ballad ‘The Wind Beneath My Wings’ (recorded seven years before Bette Midler’s #1 version). Early 1983 saw Easton record the hit duet ‘We’ve Got Tonight’ (OZ#11/US#6/UK#28) with country crooner Kenny Rogers (a cover of the Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band song ‘We’ve Got Tonite’ from the 1978 album ‘Stranger In Town’). It featured on Easton’s fourth album in less than three years, ‘Best Kept Secret’ (US#33/UK#99), which was a bit of misnomer given Easton’s profile by that time. The album also yielded the synth-pop hit ‘Telefone (Long Distance Love Affair)’ (US#9/OZ#54), but it appeared by this time that Britain had lost interest in Easton, where it would be another six years before she would have another chart hit (in her own right). The follow up single ‘Almost Over You’ (US#25/OZ#68) proved the U.S. wasn’t quite over Easton.


Tommy Tutone said...

Cool blog Mr Flockofseagulls. Who will ever forget the video clip of Morning Train with that blue suit.

A. FlockOfSeagulls said...

Thanks tommy tutone - only in the 80s could a pop star have gotten away with that - well maybe the 70s too.