Saturday, September 13, 2008

Swing Out Sister 'Breakout' On The Charts

I have to admit that prior to writing this post I wasn’t that familiar with the overall career of British jazz style synth-pop group Swing Out Sister. I had bought their biggest hit ‘Breakout’ on vinyl 45 back in 1987, and later scored a CD copy via a compilation, as well as their other major U.K. hit ‘Surrender’. I also knew they were fronted by an ex-model and had scored a handful of minor hits in the U.K. and the U.S., but beyond that I didn’t know much about their origins, or their still active career 21 years post ‘Breakout’. So, writing this post has been an enlightening journey of discovery into the world of Swing Out Sister.

The Swing Out Sister story started in 1985 as a collaboration between keyboardist/songwriter Andy Connell and drummer Martin Jackson. Connell had been a key member of the Manchester based band A Certain Ratio, known for their jazz-funk fusion sound. Jackson had played with the pop outfit Magazine, and both thought it would be worth trying to meld the two styles, initially as a studio-based project. They were in search of a vocalist when a chance encounter at the Hacienda Club brought Corinne Drewery into the picture. Drewery was a graduate from St. Martin’s School of Art in London, and had already established a career in modelling and fashion design. But her love of music had outgrown her dedication to the fashion scene, and though she had limited professional experience as a vocalist, she was a naturally gifted singer (actually Drewery had sung for a short time with another Manchester band called Leisure, which happened to also feature the three future members of When In Rome - see previous post). When combined with her obvious stage presence and knockout looks, Drewery was the perfect fit for Swing Out Sister. Incidentally the trio arrived at their name from a 1945 film starring Arthur Teacher, called ‘Swing Out, Sister’. Whilst tossing around names it was the only thing they could agree on - they all hated the film.

A series of demo records led Swing Out Sister to be signed with Mercury Records and released their debut single ‘Blue Mood’ in 1985. The song didn’t chart but the label saw enough potential in what the group were doing to give them another shot. That second shot came in the form of the break out single ‘Breakout’, released in the U.K. in late 1986. It was a jazz pop song of the highest order, bright and cheery with irresistible hooks throughout. It was also a strong indication as to the future direction of Swing Out Sister, which musically would go on to draw comparisons with contemporary acts like Everything But The Girl and Lisa Stansfield. ‘Breakout’ broke into the U.K. top 10, peaking at #4, and when it was later released in the U.S. during 1987 it climbed to #6 (OZ#12). The song’s promo video was a clever light hearted mockery of Drewery’s background in fashion design. Drewery’s ‘bob-cut’ hairstyle also became a visual signature for Swing Out Sister during their early years.

The follow up single ‘Surrender’ had a slightly moodier sound and consolidated Swing Out Sister’s place on the charts, reaching #7 in the U.K. in early ‘87 (OZ#78). Both tracks featured on Swing Out Sister’s debut album ‘It’s Better To Travel’. The album featured a solid mix of jazz-tinged electronic pop songs, with generous helpings of string arrangements and horn sections all swirling around Corinne Drewery’s strong vocal performance. Other stand out tracks were ‘Twilight World’ (US#31/UK#32) and the Northern-soul styled ‘Fooled By A Smile’ (UK#43). The album peaked at #1 on the British charts for two weeks in mid ‘87, whilst it hit #23 in Australia and #40 in the U.S., earning Swing Out Sister a Grammy Award nomination for ‘Best New Artist’. It was produced by Paul Staveley O’Duffy, who would become a long term creative partner in the studio with Swing Out Sister. Meanwhile the one time studio based trio put together a live band to hit the road, taking their music to their newly established fan base.

Following the monumental reception offered their debut album, co-founder Martin Jackson withdrew from drumming duties, though he did hang around to contribute drum programming for the Swing Out Sister’s second album, leaving Connell and Drewery to carry on essentially as a duo. For 1989’s ‘Kaleidoscope World’ (UK#9/US#61) Swing Out Sister dipped their toes deep into the rich waters of 60’s orchestral style pop (think Burt Bacharach), recruiting the legendary Jimmy Webb to oversee orchestral arrangements. The lead out single ‘You On My Mind’ peaked at #28 on the British charts, but missed the mark in other markets, though the follow up ‘Waiting Game’ peaked at #6 on the U.S. Adult Contemporary charts in mid ‘89 (#86 Hot 100). The third single ‘Where In The World’ managed a climb to #47 in the U.K., but overall neither album nor singles lived up to the lofty standards set by the initial surge of Swing Out Sister. However, it was around this time that Japan fell in love with Swing Out Sister, prompting a specially released album of remixes to be released for the Japanese market (‘Another Non-Stop Sister’ - 1989), followed by ‘Swing 3’ in 1990, which was a collection of early B-sides and previously unreleased tracks.

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