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Swing Out Sister – We Could Make It Happen

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As we’ve discussed at length before, pop is brutal. Our test-case today is Swing Out Sister, one of Britain’s greatest ever groups, but one who were given incredibly short shrift in their home country.

Described (hilariously) by Wikipedia as “sophisti-pop,” Swing Out Sister were the breakout (forgive me) stars of 1987/88 along with Johnny Hates Jazz and Curiosity Killed the Cat, and because we’re all gigantically unimaginative they got lumped in together as a kind of movement, even though they were nothing of the sort. What happened to all three bands makes for interesting reading, if you’re of a certain bent. Each group saw their debut album go to no.1 in the UK chart, and each reaped at least a couple of top 10 hits and a level of international success – all of which ought to have set up nice rosy futures as part of Britain’s pop establishment.

Sadly, this wasn’t the case – Johnny Hates Jazz imploded first, with pin-up lead singer Clark Datchler getting the jitters and quitting the group, leading to a flop follow-up that saw producer Phil Thornalley take over vocal duties. Curiosity had a difficult second album, heralded by a minor hit single Name and No. (which was unexpectedly brought back to life by Little Mix in 2013 on How Ya Doin’?) and then went down the emergency cover version route before vanishing entirely in the early nineties. Swing Out Sister fared best, with second album Kaleidoscope World making UK no.9 – but considering it’s easily one of the best albums of the decade it was a huge commercial disappointment. In 1989 Britain probably wasn’t quite ready for their re-invention as purveyors of lushly orchestrated pop that recalled the work of Burt Bacharach and The Fifth Dimension – we were gripped by French Kiss fever at the time.

Thank heavens then for Japan, which as a nation embraced Swing Out Sister with the kind of fervour they deserved everywhere else, helping the band to continue to this day. By 1997 their albums didn’t even get released in the UK, and as a result their finest one, Shapes and Patterns, remains almost entirely unheard here. It contains We Could Make It Happen, which is the ultimate realisation of all their influences and own personal style:

You could call it easy-listening, but when there’s so much going on in one record would that really be fair? Gorgeous and summery, full of flutes and flugelhorns, trumpets and trombones, it’s like the soundtrack to an especially hip party somewhere deep in Soho in 1967. Were Peter O’Toole to wander in half way through asking for a cigarette you wouldn’t be surprised.

There’s no such thing as the perfect pop band, but Swing Out Sister came pretty close. When I interviewed Corinne Drewery in 2008 she explained the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, saying that “it’s the appreciation of the beauty in imperfection.” It’s a notion we would do well to apply to our pop stars here.

Entered chart: was not released

Who could sing this today and have a hit? I can hear Lianne La Havas doing this quite nicely thank you.

9 Comments »

  1. I completely agree with all of that and, living in Australia, thank god for the internet or I’d never know about new Swing Out Sister music. Corinne and Andy should be much bigger and well known than they are but that’s the way things go I guess.

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  2. Corinne’s voice is superb & Andy’s talents are really fantastic. I have their CD’s as I was fortunate to hear of Swing Out Sister when “Smooth Jazz” had a radio station here in NYC in the late ’80’s through the ’90’s. Their talents seem so overlooked, I feel this is such an injustice to them. I do hope they continue to make music, their blending of various styles along with Corinne’s phenomenal vocals are truly wonderful.

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  3. I agree about Japan saving them, but I also feel that’s exactly what made them a horrible band. shapes and patterns was their last good album, after that they pandered to the Japanese, releasing a slew of same sounding albums with no real “Pop” to them. Just a lot of ’70s whites trying to sound black. Completely not what got me into SOS back in the ’80s. No more strings, no really orchestration, no rock (Martin’s influence is sorely overlooked and obviously missing to a fan from the start). SOS started to evolve and then got stuck in a rut. I wish they’d actually TRY again, and get out of the safety of their Japanese fans.

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  4. I play sos more than any other music,its just so enjoyable and wish they could really get back on th scene here in the UK in a BIG way ! Seen them once and cant wait to see them again,keep making the great music guys X

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