Monday, April 6, 2009

A Fairground Attraction Proves The Perfect Ride To #1

In 1988, there must have been a real sense of optimism permeating the artistic air, with several chart topping hits featuring an up-beat, slap a smile on your face, kind of feel. Bobby McFerrin encouraged us all to not to worry, just be happy, Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes had the time of their lives, Belinda Carlisle found that heaven was a place on earth, Louis Armstrong scored a posthumous #1 that celebrated our wonderful world, the only way was up for Yazz & the Plastic Population, and a little known British pop quartet delivered a cheery little skiffle tinged folk-pop song, that just had to be ‘Perfect’.

Scottish born Sadenia Reader, or Eddi to her friends, began her life long love affair with music at around the age of ten, when she began playing the guitar. By her teens, Reader was literate in the ways of busking, and could frequently be heard singing and playing guitar on Glasgow city streets, before spending a period at the start of the 80s, travelling around Europe, her travel budget paid for by impromptu performances, and a stint with a circus troupe. Reader soon grew tired of dancing bears, and returned to London, intent on establishing herself as a session vocalist, whilst studying at art college. One of her earliest gigs was with the band Disconnection, attached to Disc O’Dell’s ‘Y’ Records, and featuring former Pigbag guitarist James Johnstone, and Hi-Tension bassist Leroy Williams. Reader’s vocals featured on Disconnection’s first single, ‘Bali Hai’, in 1982, but the band itself couldn’t sustain much of a connection thereafter. Eddi Reader then turned the page and began session work for likes of Eurythmics, Alison Moyet, the Waterboys, and Scottish punk quartet Gang Of Four (with whom she toured the U.S. as a backing singer).

Following a short chapter with a disco outfit called Outbar Squeek in 1984, Reader finally found a kindred spirit, of the musical variety, in English guitarist and songwriter Mark E. Nevin. Nevin had already clocked some considerable miles on the music odometer, having played with Jane Aire and the Belvederes, and as a session player with the resurgent Sandie Shaw. In Reader any prospective band had a honey coated voice, and in Nevin a daring and innovative songwriter/guitarist - now for a bass player and drummer to complete the picture. Simon Edwards didn’t play a bass in the traditional pop/rock sense of the word, but rather wielded a rather large Mexican acoustic bass called a guitarrĂ³n. The four piece was rounded out by drummer/percussionist Roy Dodds, a veteran jazz player, who had worked with Terence Trent d’Arby, and Working Week, among others. The newly dubbed Fairground Attraction honed their sound, initially, by literally returning to the streets in busker form. But soon enough, the quartet began scoring regular gigs, and established a solid live fan base. They were a largely acoustic affair, and though all accomplished players, Reader soon became the central drawcard in Fairground Attraction.

By the second half of 1987, Fairground Attraction had been signed up to a recording deal with RCA, and set about recording their debut album during January of ‘88. In March, the debut single ‘Perfect’ was released in Britain. The Nevin penned song was a charming three and half minute musical vessel, carrying a sweetly blended cargo of Reader’s dreamy vocals, an enticing neo-skiffle rhythm backing, and a quirky little blast of rockabilly guitar from Nevin in the middle. It’s a song that brings a smile to my dial every time I hear it, and it must have done likewise to thousands of others, judging by its flawless chart performance in both Britain and Australia. ‘Perfect’ wouldn’t take second best, spending one week atop the British charts in May of ‘88, and an impressive four weeks at the Australian chart summit in August (US#80).

As ‘Perfect’ was sitting pretty at the topper-most of the popper-most in Britain, record buyers licked their lips in anticipation of Fairground Attraction’s debut album, ‘The First Of A Million Kisses’. Co-produced by Kevin Moloney and the band, the set boasted an interesting blend of rootsy pop influences, channelled through Mark E. Nevin’s endearingly quirky melding of styles, from jazz, through folk, skiffle, country, and several link roads in between. The diversity of sound was further augmented by the on court use of regular pop/rock bench players like the accordion, clarinet, mandolin, and harp. The resultant mix certainly charmed the socks off the British public, and ‘The First Of A Million Kisses’ puckered up and planted one at #2 on the British charts (OZ#11/US#137). Sales were no doubt boosted by the release of the follow up single, ‘Find My Love’, which found its way to #7 in Britain over the summer of ‘88 (OZ#85). Two subsequent singles were lifted from ‘The First Of A Million Kisses’, but neither ‘A Smile In A Whisper’ (UK#75), or ‘Clare’ (UK#49), managed to sustain the band’s early momentum.

The start of ‘89 saw Fairground Attraction receive two Brit Awards, in fact two of the biggies, ‘Best Album’ and ‘Best Single’, and no doubt expectations were high for their next project. To this point, Mark E. Nevin had been the chief songwriter for Fairground Attraction, but Eddi Reader was herself accumulating a substantial cache of songs, and finding a balance between the two for the band’s next album, would prove a bit of a sticking point. Some of that new material surfaced in Fairground Attraction performances over the first half of ‘89, including a sell-out tour to Japan, and an appearance in June at the famed three day Glastonbury music festival, where they shared the second night bill with the Proclaimers, Hothouse Flowers, and Elvis Costello. But over the second half of ‘89, things started to go awry for Fairground Attraction. Reader took time out to have her first child, which interrupted preparation for their sophomore album, and subsequent to her return in November, tensions reached breaking point in the studio, and guitarist Mark E. Nevin abandoned the sessions. Work on the album never really resumed in any meaningful sense, and by January of ‘90, the stalls and amusements were packed away, and the musical funfair that had been Fairground Attraction, was no more. Much of the material originally intended for the second album never surfaced, at least in studio guise, though several Reader written tracks cropped up on a 2003 release of Fairground Attraction’s 1989 gig in Kawasaki, Japan. In lieu of a properly prepared second album, in June of 1990, RCA released a mish mash of previously unreleased studio takes, B-sides, and live tracks, under the title ‘Ay Fond Kiss’ (UK#55), with the lead out single ‘Walkin’ After Midnight’ proving a disappointing swansong to the Fairground Attraction story.

In early 1991, Mark E. Nevin found himself with a swag of song’s he’d written, originally intended for Fairground Attraction, but no one to sing them. Nevin joined with vocalist Brian Kennedy, Fairground Attraction bassist Simon Edwards, drummer Martin Ditcham, and keyboardist Graham Henderson, to record the album ‘Goodbye To Songtown’, released under the moniker of Sweetmouth. The Sweetmouth album was a one-off, and Nevin soon joined Morrissey’s band, both in studio and live. Throughout the 90s, he wrote songs for, and played guitar with, the likes of Kevin Ayers, Kirsty MacColl, and Lloyd Cole (see previous post). In 1999, Nevin released his debut solo album, ‘Insensitive Songwriter’, and followed it up with 2002’s ‘The Mighty Dove’.

After departing Fairground Attraction, Eddi Reader also took a break away from music, and during 1990 tried her hand at acting, scoring a lead role in the BBC series ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’, based around the Scottish country music scene. By 1992, Reader returned to her first love of music, and pieced together a backing group called The Patron Saints Of Imperfection, which featured guitarists Neil MacColl and Dominic Miller, bassist Phil Steriopulos, and Fairground Attraction drummer Roy Dodds (who would contribute to most of Reader’s albums). The inimitable Jools Holland joined for several tracks on 1992’s ‘Mirmama’, an album which saw Eddie Reader move into a more atmospheric folk style. RCA only released the album (initially) in the U.K., where it found enough of an audience to peak at #34.

In 1994, Reader re-emerged as a fully fledged solo artist, with her self titled album, preceded by the single ‘Patience Of Angels’ (UK#33). The album featured several songs co-written by Reader with ex-Bible front man Boo Hewerdine, in addition to four tracks penned by Mark E. Nevin (who also played guitar on the album), signalling a reconciliation between the two creative forces behind Fairground Attraction. ‘Eddi Reader’ reflected a folk-rock artist growing in confidence, and soared to a high of #4 in Britain. It spawned two more top fifty hits, ‘Joke’ (#42) and ‘Dear John’ (#48), and went on to earn Reader yet another Brit Award, this time for ‘Best British Female’. Over the ensuing decade, Reader continued to tour and released several more albums, culminating with 2003’s critically acclaimed, and award winning set ‘Sings The Songs Of Robert Burns’ (UK#86), on which Reader firmly embraced her Scottish heritage through her musical interpretations of Burns’ poetry. She employed the services of numerous high profile Celtic folk artists, and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Eddi Reader’s most recent album release was 2007’s ‘Peacetime’, which continued the traditional Celtic flavour, and an album of new material is slated for release this month, under the title ‘Love Is The Way’.

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