Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Escape To Club Wild Wild West

I’ll admit that I’m a bit partial to the occasional classic western - of the Hollywood variety, spaghetti variety, even omelette variety. Back in 1988, I found myself partial to a song called ‘Wild Wild West’, which though not of the country or western variety (we’ve got both kinds!), was at least inspired in part by the whole western motif. The track reworked the ‘wild west’ theme into a contemporary urban setting, and served it up in a funky little rock number, complete with six shooters!

The band behind this ‘urban western’ fusion, was The Escape Club. Now, I’ll put my flags in the air, march them up and down, drop my six shooters to the ground, and confess hand on heart, that I used to fully believe The Escape Club were an American group. Maybe it was the whole ‘wild west’ attitude, or the promo clip featuring lots of stars and stripes, but it wasn’t the first time, nor the last, that I’d been geographically askew in my thoughts on a band’s origin. Actually, The Escape Club were yet another one of those groups that, though British in origin, exuded more of an American image, and certainly enjoyed considerably more commercial success Stateside, than at home (think the likes of The Outfield, Foghat, When In Rome, Wang Chung, Cutting Crew, The Fixx and Breathe - see previous posts).

Though The Escape Club experienced substantial commercial success in the U.S. during the late 80s and early 90s, their origins were more humble, and harked back more than five years, to the London club scene of the early 80s. The Escape Club was built out of the rubble of two London based groups, the Espressos, and Mad Shadows. Both groups had established a solid following on the live circuit, but by 1983, both were experiencing ongoing instability within their ranks. Singer/guitarist Trevor Steel, and guitarist John Holliday, were both involved with Mad Shadows, and found themselves looking for a new drummer early in ‘83. Espressos’ drummer Milan Zekavica wanted to kick the caffeine habit, so he joined Steel and Holliday, and shortly after bassist Johnnie Christo joined the new Mad Shadows line-up. With a new roster, the quartet decided a name change was in order, and they adopted The Escape Club as their new moniker.

Later in ‘83, The Escape Club released their debut single, titled ‘Breathing’. Produced by Trevor Vallis, the single was released via the independent Bright Records label, but made little impact. The band continued to play the London club scene, and built up a strong following for their funked edged rock material. The Escape Club were invited to perform on Channel 4’s music television show, ‘The Tube’, which regularly showcased emerging artists on the U.K. scene. The appearance helped The Escape Club score a recording deal with EMI soon after. Over the course of ‘85/86, they released several singles, including ‘Rescue Me’, ‘I Will Be There’, and ‘The Hard Way’, and secured support slots on tour with China Crisis (see earlier post), and the Alarm. In 1987, The Escape Club’s debut album, ‘White Fields’, finally escaped the confines of the recording studio. Produced by Scott Litt (later worked extensively with R.E.M.), the album couldn’t harvest a hit for The Escape Club, despite also including the fine single ‘Where Angels Cry’. ‘White Fields’ (which wasn’t released at the time in the U.S.) was a conscious effort by The Escape Club to produce a straight up rock-based album, but as vocalist/guitarist Trevor Steele explained to Billboard magazine, the band member’s influences were wider than that. They all grew up liking glam rock, funk, and dance music, and so when it came time to plan for their sophomore album, The Escape Club reassessed their stylistic approach.

The Escape Club were packing out venues regularly, but made a conscious decision to put their live act on hold temporarily, and decided to focus their energies on writing and recording their next album. EMI introduced the band to producer Chris Kimsey, who had helmed albums by the likes of the Rolling Stones, Peter Frampton, as well as JoBoxers and Psychedelic Furs (see previous posts). The Escape Club wanted to make a more commercially accessible album, but didn’t want to lose their rock edge, and Kimsey seemed a good choice to help them achieve that. One of the first tracks written for the album was ‘Wild Wild West’, which started out life as a simple drum pattern, and by day’s end the music was in place. Trevor Steel then wrote the accompanying lyrics, which weren’t actually about the 19th century American frontier, the concept usually conjured up by the words ‘Wild Wild West’. Steele had a more contemporary theme in mind, of living in the modern Western world, with aspects of modern (urban) society (and broader political structures) resembling the lawless ‘show down’ mentality of the old west. He took particular inspiration from former ‘wild west’ b-movie star Ronald Reagan, now being ‘sheriff’ of the biggest wild west town in the world - the U.S. - there was a tongue in cheek aspect to the song, underlying the more serious social comment.

The Escape Club recorded the track with Kimsey, complete with funky bass line, surging brass section, dubbed six shooter sound effects, and a Mexican style hip-hop break in the middle. The combination proved a little too much for the suits at EMI in England to appreciate, and they basically gave the track the thumbs down. In true frontier spirit, The Escape Club searched other lands for a backer for the song, and found one in the Atlantic Records posse, who promptly signed the band. ‘Wild Wild West’ was released in mid ‘88, backed by a promo video clip that soon received heavy rotation on MTV. The clip was later banned in Britain (no doubt the BBC had a hand) due to its alleged sexist and offensive imagery, and that no doubt hindered the song’s chances of making any impact at home for The Escape Club. The clip featured some funky mirroring special effects, where legs and arms appeared to be disembodied, and danced about in lingerie. The band themselves couldn’t work out what all the fuss was about, and as they told N.M.E. in November of ‘88, the video was actually designed to make fun of the more overtly sexist promo videos of the era. Regardless, ‘Wild Wild West’ entered the Billboard Hot 100 all guns blazing in August of ‘88. By November, it had smoked the opposition and stood alone at #1, as the biggest badass on the U.S. charts. Though the band had confidence in the song, its chart performance exceeded their wildest expectations. When it hit #1 in the States, the lads were still at home in London, but quickly hopped a wagon train for the U.S. to climb onboard the promotion express. None of the members of The Escape Club had even been to the U.S. before, let alone the ‘Wild Wild West’, and were suitably overawed by the tumultuous reception that awaited them upon their arrival. The same week The Escape Club sat atop the Hot 100 with ‘Wild Wild West’, they took over from another American institution, the Beach Boys (‘Kokomo’). Australia soon fell to the advance of ‘Wild Wild West’ (#7), but the U.K. remained unaffected.

The Escape Club followed up their #1 hit with the single ‘Shake For The Sheik’. Once more Trevor Steele’s lyrics offered a biting social comment on societies worship of the almighty dollar, and the inherent corruption associated. The song featured a grungier guitar feel, but still retained the funky dance beat of ‘Wild Wild West’. ‘Shake For The Sheik’ shook its way to #28 in the U.S. (OZ#99), and was also featured on The Escape Club’s album ‘Wild Wild West’ (US#27/OZ#63). The album served up a solid mix of catchy, hook laden songs, but only yielded one more minor hit, with ‘Walking Through Walls’ (US#81). During 1989, The Escape Club contributed the song ‘Twentieth Century Fox’ to the soundtrack album for ‘The Wonder Years’ television series. Apparently the band’s (now defunct) website credited the Doors’ Ray Manzarek as the track’s producer.

Just a year earlier, The Escape Club had found themselves celebrating “heading for the 90s, living in the 80s”, but with the turn of the decade, the challenge was now on to forge a new frontier in music, not of the ‘Wild Wild West’ variety. They spent the latter half of 1990 in the recording studio, and in early ‘91 the album ‘Dollars & Sex’ hit stores. Producer Peter Wolf (Wang Chung, Starship, Go West et al) helmed the project, but the lead out single, ‘Call It Poison’, stalled outside of the U.S. top forty (#44/OZ#69). The track featured a vocal sample of Ian Gillan, taken from the 1971 Deep Purple hit ‘Strange Kind Of Woman’. As the title might suggest, the ‘Dollars & Sex’ album (US#145) featured a prominent socio-political agenda in its lyrical content, most notably on tracks like ‘Freedom’, which featured the voice of actor Peter Weller, of the ‘Robocop’ variety, not to be confused with Paul Weller, of the Jam variety. Stylistically, the album didn’t venture too far from ‘Wild Wild West’ territory, with an agreeable mix of rock, funk, and even R&B influences. The Escape Club were in danger of being remembered for only one major hit, and though ‘Wild Wild West’ remains their best known track, the band did manage to revisit the U.S. top ten in mid ‘91 with the emotion charged song ‘I’ll Be There’. The track was a bit of a sleeper initially, but gained sufficient momentum from listener requests to peak at #8 (OZ#42).

Within a year, The Escape Club found themselves in a bit of quandary financially, and by 1992 had decided to close the club doors, and escape to other career endeavours. Bassist Johnnie Christo and drummer Milan Zekavica both maintained involvement on the performance side of music, though nothing of commercial note. Vocalist/guitarist Trevor Steele went on to write/produce for a string of hit makers throughout the 90s and 00s, including Atomic Kitten, Baha Men, Shaggy, Westlife, Boyzone and Billie Piper. By 2004, he had shifted to Australia, and was a judge on the 2004 series of ‘Popstars Live’. Steele co-wrote the winning song ‘Heartbreaker’, from Kayne Taylor. Guitarist John Holliday has worked with Steele extensively on his writing/production projects, based mostly out of the famed Air Studios.

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