Above Average White Band or the Revenge of the Jesuits?
"Questioning is a useful thing. We want more people asking stiffer questions of those who will end up making the decisions for them," says the Fixx's Cy Curnin. Well, I've got a few questions. What is the balance between musical medium and sociophilosophical message? How much should a pop band be expected--or allowed--to accomplish, and when does it go too far? And why, oh why, is a musically accomplished, nailed-down, genuinely interesting pop group called the Fixx still unable to convince critics their top ten stardom is justified?
To reduce some of this uncertainty, may I suggest dealing with the Fixx in two passes: first their music, and only afterward the political, theological and dramatic portions of the Fixx's program. Let's just put on a few tracks. Here's "Stand Or Fall," an MTV classic. Listen to that shimmering two-chord guitar figure, with synth pastels flooding in at key moments, ferocious bass-drum simplicity demanding decision. The lead singer travels from husky braying bass deliveries to a high keening release, vaguely reminiscent of U2's Bono Vox; his melody lines are consistently well crafted and, unlike most British popsters, consistently in tune. Now here's "Saved By Zero"; yeah, you picked right up on that rubbery funk guitar hook, didn't you. Again, nice lead vocal line, nice backup singing, too. No, I'm not sure what the song's about either. Let me just put on "One Thing Leads To Another".. .oh, you always liked this one? Have you noticed how the synths pace this tune, turn a one-vamp idea into a continuous story--although Lord knows what it means. For a dance tune, the rhythm doesn't quite sound like anything else in the club rock universe. I know, what's not to like?
Actually, the Fixx's singles are by no means their best songs. Their 1982 debut LP, Shuttered Rooms, was packed with picks like "Lost Planes," "Red Skies At Night" and the unforgettable "Cameras In Paris." Last year's brooding, sprawlingly funky follow-up, Reach The Beach, uncorked gems like "Sign Of The Fire," "I Can See Myself Running" and "Outside," with its breathtaking modern-war guitar coda, There's also "Deeper And Deeper," a quicko soundtrack hit from Streets of Fire. Already we're talking major-league songwriting catalog. Now here comes part three, Phantoms, with its appetizing if unepic hors d'oeuvre, "Are We Ourselves," and more nourishing entrees like the urban contemporary rubble of "Less Cities, More Moving People," the sprightly stride of "Sunshine In The Shade," and some other dark horse favorites I'll let you discover on your own. Am I getting through to you at all? Good.
Although moderate to good instrumentalists individually, the real virtuosity of the Fixx is the way the parts intuitively meld into grooves and textures. The band is collectively an instrument, set to further one unified goal. "The band's sound just sort of comes through letting go of our own personal tastes," notes lead singer Cy Curnin. "It's not from compromising; it's just from a respect of each other's past."
Pianist Curnin and drummer Adam Woods met nine years ago at a British drama school and, in addition to atheatrical partnership (Woods directed, Curnin acted), began dabbling with rock 'n' roll. A few years later, after acquiring keysman Rupert Greenall, the band made a few New Romantic-era singles as Portraits. Not comfortable with the demands of trendy pop fashion, the band laid low for a year or so, picking up London session player Jamie West-Oram in 1980 and writing the songs that would become their first album. "If there was a theme to that record, it was that we had absolutely no money," laughs Cy. "We had only enough to pay for our rehearsal space and petrol to drive to rehearsal and back every day. All we could do afterwards was go back to our bed-sits and watch TV. But we got a real buzz out of it, just writing songs and going out to see bands."
Feeling themselves ready for a producer, "we sent a cassette out to a few we felt might be interested. Rupert Hine came back to us." Hine was actually convinced by Jeanette Obstöj, film editor, video director, lyricist, and Hine's companion/collaborator. Cy recalls, "Jeanette walked into the room whilst Rupert was playing 'Lost Planes.' The day before the tape had come, her best friend had just died, and the mood the song put her in made her feel quite good about something."
The group knew early on what it would settle for in a record deal: "We weren't in the mood to write singles anymore. English record companies just use England to find the bands, make a single or two, and then if it's a hit, make the album and bring 'em over to America to make money-or not make money," Cy laughs. Although awfully particular for a band still so inconsistent live, the Fixx auditioned for MCA at a university where "they'd had a sit-in and nobody'd been in or out. The whole atmosphere was quite rebellious," which was the perfect forum for the band's anti-nuke, anti-conformity stance. MCA gave them what they wanted and Shuttered Room was made. "That first album was a watershed," says Cy, explaining the extraordinary number of good tunes. "You record the best songs you've got up to the deal." The album garnered moderate American airplay and much favorable press.
A serious problem presented itself when the band began its second LP in early 1983--bassist Charlie Barrett quit. As Rupert Hine reports, this was transformed into an opportunity: "The freedom of not having a bass line proved to be a very exciting period. We had tracks with no bass lines at all, tracks with synth bass, and others played by session men. Reach The Beach is really the album that most reflects the differences in bass concept." These experiments made the once song-centered Fixx more atmospheric and groove-centered, and fortified their originality, but the need to get the live show to the level of the records became paramount as an American tour loomed. "It did get a little panicky," notes Cy, "'cause we were still a bit inexperienced live. We needed somebody with real expertise to re-tittilate our interest in bass." Enter Danny Brown. "He had a very positive effect on Adam," understates Hine. "He was the first sign of dry land we saw," overstates Curnin. Although officially not a band member, Brown will keep the bass chair as long as he wants it.
The post-Reach The Beach American tour proved unexpectedly lucrative, with the LP going top eight and a warmup spot for the Police extending well into the fall. The band turned their attention to their third album; Hine reports, "The goal for the new record was twelve tracks. Seriously, twelve tracks--to get to the point where we were being very concise, with no padding or wastage, no long fade-outs or codas, no unnecessary instrumental sections if they weren't going to add precisely to the mood or atmosphere." This was impeccable strategy for an album that would be intensely scrutinized by the legions of skeptical critics that continue to characterize the Fixx as new wave Benedict Arnolds, "lightweight refried disco" and "college freshman existentialists." Phantoms withstands that by fielding a more consistent song lineup--though the climate of enforced discipline does constrict the wide open, experimental feel of Reach a bit. Just when it seems the band might have gone too far into groove-based upbeat tunes like "Questions" and "In Suspense," it uncovers a cache of finely tooled ballads like "Facing The Wind," "Wish" and "I Will," and the menacing shuffle of "Women On A Train."
Cy Curnin and Jamie West-Oram cowrote most of this material either together in demo studios or by exchanging homemade (Tascam) Portastudlo cassette tapes. Both are capable of knocking out parts on piano, guitars, drums and synth-bass, and try everything and anything. "We just throw ideas at the wall" shrugs the soft-spoken Jamie, who along with Cy has recently doubled his MTV airtime by playing on Tina Turner's new Rupert Hine-produced treat, "Better Be Good To Me." "We mostly work by instinct. The end result might be a bit of a mess, but at least it gives you some scope. You can pick out the good stuff, chop it down, and end up with something more defined."
"Another thing we like to do," adds Curnin, "is for me to write songs on piano and work up the melodies and background harmonies, and then take the piano off and give Jamie the tape with just the vocals. He'll have no conception of how I'm hearing it, which is good, because I sometimes doubt my own musical settings."
Some of the writing goes on with five members present, but as Jamie notes, "it can get pretty chaotic with everyone there. Five people with very strong ideas.. .but a lot of good ideas. 'One Thing Leads To Another' seemed to come out of nowhere one day at a full band jam. But getting the groove's only the first part. Then you have to stand back and get a bird's eye view of what you've got, planning the groove into a song and still keeping the feel."
West-Oram's ringing chordal structures are breathtaking in their efficiency. "Well, that's what we're all aiming at, anyway," he modestly laughs. 'No, I don't think technique is what it's about. My style has changed a lot over the last couple of years since I joined the Fixx. I did go through a period of trying to fit as many notes in as possible, but then I started realizing that's not what music's about. It's not about a blur of notes, and it's not about equipment; it's more to do with your hands, how you attack the instrument." Jamie's guitar heroes include Tom Verlaine, Quicksilver's John Cipollina, and most tellingly, Booker T & the MGs' Steve Cropper and James Brown's Jimmy Nolan.
To the often very complete demos Curnin and West-Oram whip up, Rupert Greenall adds synth arrangements-- sometimes reluctantly, sometimes voraciously. Hine notes, "Rupert develops a virtually unending list of possibilities-- it's all you can do to stop him. So my role with Rupert is more editorial." Otherwise, Hine lays low in his producer's role, as West-Oram notes: "He basically sits back and lets us get on with it, but if anyone's got any doubt about what direction to go with it, he's always there."
Adam Woods is the band member with the most obvious sense of humor. That comes through in his ferocious but lighthearted drumming, which often cuts through Cy's loftier lyrical intentions and gets right down to the business at hand. Amidst his rock-steady restraint and puckish rolls are some more arcane theories of rhythm, as Rupert Hine relates: "We're always interested in the subliminal effect of interesting rhythm. It's the only thing we get at all academic or diagnostic about. There are extraordinary theories of numbers that start to have a very distinct effect on the brain."
But if anything about the Fixx has a distinct effect on the brain, it is more likely Cy Curnin's lyrics and stage persona, and for most critics the effect is decidedly negative. Mixing universal metaphors of his own experiences fleeing society's institutions with anti-war, anti-christian militia rhetoric, Curnin's lyrics often have a coldness of pure communication that subverts his striking melodic gifts. To his credit, those lyrics are never clearly heard (and no sheet is included), so that only phrases and fleeting images come through.
In person, Cy Curnin is not at all cold or doctrinaire. He's, well, confused. A friendly motormouth, he does frequently roll out phrases like "the angst of man" and "the wind of enlightenment," but it's less pontification and more thoroughly answering a writer's question. Cy, now twenty-six, grew up in Wimbledon as the child of an Algerian Jewish mother (a poet imprisoned by the Nazis in WW II) and a strict Catholic father, who packed young Cy off to an ultra-conservative Jesuit school. For Curnin, the struggle to escape society's expectations has been his sole lyrical focus. "I really have just been writing and rewriting the same song," he readily admits, and to the suggestion that he consider writing love songs replies, "I find it quite hard to open up and write love songs, because having started so young, with all my institutional views, what I would write now would be mixed." Curnin goes on to praise Jeanettte Obstöj's lyrics for "Woman On A Train" and reveals he plans to do an album on which all the lyrics would be hers.
Onstage, former actor Cy throws himself into the role of the saintly, solitary main character of the Fixx's liturgical drama. "He's locked in a vacuum, this character--even we're third party to this chap now. He's constantly examining himself, like when you're on your own in front of the bathroom mirror. Now the chap's realized that doubt and insecurity are the only things he'll ever have. They're his tools, his wizard's pouch ."
Isn't there an awful lot of subliminal religious activity going on here? Reverend Cy leading the lost, shuttered souls to the beach, making a zero sign with his thumb and forefinger and literally "slapping zero" with the front rows? "It's very easy to go out and make people believe if they're lacking in something. Providing frightened human beings with some false answer is easy. What we're saying is, 'Don't look to us for answers. Judge yourself a lot harder than you're doing at the moment, and don't use religion as your saviour.'"
A little college psychology is a dangerous thing, but there is this business of Cy being educated by the Jesuits? "One thing about the Jesuits " Curnin offers, "they may have an image of being very conservative, but inside they open up, they show you the trick: if you're going to get up on a platform, make sure you break down. Don't put up a facade. They're the people who draw the potential out of you, if you have it, to get up on a box; they want you to."
So despite that whole escape from society's conventions, isn't Cy doing exactly what the Jesuits trained him to do? "I sometimes wonder,'" he smiles. "All those Jesuits...they're pounding on my brain now worse than ever I I admit it!! There's no way I can escape it."Well, by now I'm getting a little confused too. I've read so much negative press on the Fixx that talks about this guy Curnin that I'm wondering whether I have the only press copy of Phantoms with music on it. And after long study, I'm still not sure if the Fixx's albums are getting better or worse--they'll have to make one that isn't excellent before an accurate measurement can be made. For now, it's time to shut up and dance.