Swing Out Sister‘s classic 1987 debut, It’s Better To Travel, was reissued this summer as a deluxe 2CD package. I spoke to the band – Andy Connell and Corinne Drewery – in late June about the reissue, and some of that interview was published as an in-their-own words track-by-track guide to the album in July.
Here, for your pleasure, is more of that interview, where the couple talk at some length about their musical beginnings, how the debut album came about and the pop stardom that followed.
SuperDeluxeEdition: How did the reissue of It’s Better To Travel happen?
Andy: Universal approached us which was nice. If we seemed cautious about these things it’s usually because in the past they’d just tell us that they are putting something out. They are not obliged to consult, they just have to notify. Not particularly Universal over here, but the compilations they’ve put out [in the past] are not what we would have chosen to do. And I think that’s true of a lot of artists who don’t have control over their back catalogue.
Corinne: The record company owns the masters so they can do what they want. If they are polite they will get in touch with you.
Andy: So it was quite nice. They came to us and said would you like to be involved, which was unusual. So we said yes. And this whole thing with the running order, we come from a place where we’re protective off the thing – in the past they just put anything out – and we want it to be a quality release. But this time they said, here’s all the remixes we have, which ones do you like? And we picked the ones we liked… [awkward pause]… It was helpful to see your thing, [my criticism of the original proposed track listing] in the end – after I’d calmed down – from the point of view that what we had was a load of mixes that were not named. So we were going on the timings. They just said here’s what we’ve got in the tape store and we matched them up and eventually worked out what was what. But certain ones that aren’t included were not available to us, they were either owned by the Japanese company or the American company.
SDE:Because the Americans put out quite a few mixes not released in the UK…
Andy: …and quite frankly I’m glad we didn’t have access to them, they were out of our hands [when they were done]. All the mixes on this, without exception, are ones we did with Paul [O’Duffy, the producer]. We just went back in the studio and messed with the master tracks.
SDE: How involved did you get in the remixes at the time?
Andy: It was different back then. They just said go back in for a day and do something different. It was a case of put all the faders up, and mess about with it. It was a great excuse for us to just go and look at the Fairlight library and just fiddle with whatever was around. Subsequent to that [era] they tended to farm out all the songs to DJs, and remix culture became a different thing.
Corinne: We didn’t particularly want to hand our songs over to someone else to just tear apart, because we perhaps felt that there was something further that we could do with them. They were a bit silly sometimes, you could be irreverent, messing up the the thing that you had created, but rather we messed it up than some complete stranger who had no particular feeling or affinity with your work.
Andy: It’s the bit we enjoyed the most, really. The work was done. A lot of those mixes you can place where you were. We’d always be doing them through the night because it was cheaper and you’d have a day [in which to complete the remix].
SDE: Did you consider any outtakes, or demos for this reissue?
Andy: The weird thing is that we were not that prolific, in the sense that we didn’t have a ton of stuff that didn’t make it on to the record. In fact, pretty much without exception, everything we were doing is on there!
Corinne: Once we’d seen and approved all the things that Universal had sent to us, I was cleaning out our cellar, and only just this last week I found a load of cassettes which we have to go through or get someone to copy them on to something digital, but we’ve probably got all the pre-demo demos. Just the very rough, 4-track, 8-track workings out and ideas. And I told the record company that we’d just discovered these three months too late. Although I don’t know if they’d be that interesting to people.
Andy: You’d have to be a completest. Even I’m not interested in them! [laughs].
SDE: A lot of artists might think, I don’t actually want those to be released. You are exposing yourself to a degree…
Andy: If there is something of interest there, I think it can be charming. You don’t want to put out something where you sitting there not doing it well. If my memory serves, I think there is a lot of interesting stuff, but the simple problem is that we don’t have a cassette player now.
Corinne: That could be a lifetime’s work listening to every little thing. But would people actually be interested? We’ve got The Beach Boys Pet Sounds Sessions box set and it’s got every single track separated, and it’s absolutely fascinating. I spent a whole Christmas listening to that, just listening to every single take and the outtakes of stuff like I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times – hearing them cracking up laughing when one of them doesn’t get the harmonies right.
Andy: That’s a cultural artifact, whereas with us it would be a very niche market [laughs].
SDE: How do you look back on It’s Better To Travel? Was it exactly the record you wanted to make – was there ever any pressure from the label to be more ‘poppy’ than you wanted to be?
Corinne: I think the fact that we managed to finish a record, was something they were quite happy with
Andy: The beauty of it from our point of view was that we weren’t supposed to have a career. It was a two singles deal. We were basically a learning-the-ropes exercise for this young A&R man they had, so they gave him us. Two singles, no pressure. Blue Mood and Breakout. We took them in [once completed] and they were… not particularly thrilled, and we were already shopping demos around to other companies, because that deal was over. But then the mid-week charts came out and suddenly radio likes it [Breakout]. So we had two singles but no album. They basically said, here’s some money [laughs] go and do it. We had all the material. So there was no pressure from them, the work was already done, the single was done, all they wanted was an album to sell.
SDE: So did you deliver Blue Mood and Breakout at the same time?
Andy: No. We did Blue Mood and Another Lost Weekend as one single. And it was well-received but it was more of an underground WAG club type thing – trendy people getting it. And we thought it would just be that, and maybe we’d get another chance to do another single with somebody else. Nobody saw Breakout coming. We didn’t. We had no idea.
SDE: How did you deal with the whirlwind success around Breakout, appearing on Top Of The Pops and the like?
Corinne: I was so excited when we were on Top Of The Pops. I thought, what can we do after this. I’d been watching that programme since 1964. It used to be the highlight of my week, until I was about fourteen, and suddenly we were going to be on the programme. I was still living up in a squat in Wood Green [North London] and it was like, hang on a minute this isn’t quite working. We’re doing demos in little backstreet studios, we’ve been whisked into a proper studio and we’re going to be on Top Of The Pops, all in the space of six months to a year. It was kind of weird. I used to say to people, it’s like being an air hostess or a footballer, it will all be over by the time we are 30 years old and past it. Who’d have known that we’d still be doing something we love 25 years later.
Andy: We were looking at it as a very temporary thing. They gave us £200 to do Top Of The Pops, to buy some clothes, and we bought Calor Gas bottles for the heater, because it was so cold where we lived.
SDE: So did you give up careers to do this? Corinne, I know you were a fashion designer weren’t you?
Corinne: I was a clothes designer, I had my own label for a while, and then I was working for a big company. When I met Andy and Martin and we started doing some demos, I said I was going to hand in my notice for my job and they said, no no don’t! And I thought, is that because you think I’m crap? I thought maybe they were trying to break it to me gently and they would go off and find another singer. But they said you’re the only one who’s earning any money [laughs]. And because it was a clothing company I used to be able to make samples, so I made us some clothes for a few of our photo sessions.
SDE: These days everyone seems to be teenagers when they ‘make it’. You were both in your 20s, did that help you, being that bit older?
Corinne: We were geriatric before we started!
Andy: I think it did help, yeah. I think in hindsight the things that helped were being a bit older, not expecting anything, and having a strong opinionated trio. It would have been very different if Corinne had been younger and on her own. You look at girl singers now and there’s no protection around them.
Corinne: It was good, I had a sprinkling of Manchester cynicism from Andy and Martin. The Factory records mavericks. They didn’t really want anything to do with a major record company and they treated the idea with disdain. But I was going “they’re really nice! They’re offering us a record deal!” I don’t think I really got that you weren’t meant to be friends with people in your record company.
Andy: That was the sad thing, because Corinne was positive with them, and in the end we had to come around to the fact that this great ‘Satan’ that we thought the record company was – they were actually nice people, and that was a very hard thing to come to terms with [laughs].
Corinne: They were a great team of people.
Andy: We got very lucky, when you look at other people’s experience.
Corrine: They’d all been to East Anglia University and they were quite an intellectual bunch, for a record company. They were all very clever and they worked well together. They all knew each other and all had similar politics and ideas. I think we were very lucky to be in with that stream of people.
SDE: What about your success in America. Breakout was a top ten hit over there.
Andy: It was barking mad. You’d come home and Casey Kasem would be on and my dad would be watching it and we’d be on it.
Corinne: We were over in the US for six weeks doing radio promotion. It was such a culture shock. I’d never been to America before so I treated the whole experience a bit like I was in one of those 1950s washing machine adverts… [puts on chirpy American voice] “Hi, we’re Swing Out Sister!!” It’s a very strange culture to be hit by when you’re used to…
SDE: …Grumpy English people?
Corinne: [nods towards Andy] Especially even grumpier, dour, disdainful Mancunians!
Andy: You’d have two flights a day. You’d go to somewhere like Cleveland, have lunch with somebody, have another flight and in the evening you’d be in detroit. It would be the same meet and greet every time.
SDE: At that stage you weren’t doing any live performances?
Andy: No, all the promotion around this record we didn’t have a band.
Corinne: I wanted to do some live performance, and I already had some bookings for us. I bought my tour pyjamas and I thought we’re going to go around England and America in a tour bus, which is what I’d wanted to do since I was four years old. Meanwhile Andy had already paid his dues with A Certain Ratio and other Factory bands and never wanted to see the back of a van again. And Martin had been in Magazine and The Chameleons – so they didn’t really tell me this. I thought that being in a band was about paying your dues, going on the road and we’d all be sleeping on top of flight cases in the back of a van. I was really looking forward to that.
Andy: And this was actually our escape from that. We weren’t going down that road again [laughs].
Corinne: We were whisked off to first class to America staying in top hotels…
Andy: It wasn’t shabby! But that was the whole idea, it was the antidote to driving around in a transit [van]. You do get a detachment [on promotional tours] because you’re not there every night having some rapport with fans, so you don’t have that relationship with people who like what you do.
SDE: After a while it must have worn very thin, doing that kind of promotion.
Andy: It got me down, but Corinne was great at it.
SDE: Do you feel like you had anything in common with the other bands breaking through at that time, like Johnny Hates Jazz and Wet Wet Wet.
Andy: We had a record company in common with Wet Wet Wet and Curiosity Killed The Cat. They seemed nice. I think the thing you have in common is that you are going around on the same circuit, promoting on the same TV shows. Musically we never felt like we had anything in common we any of the people around. We were always in Burt Bacharach / Jimmy Webb land and John Barry, that’s all we were listening to. But at that time whoever had a record out, you’d see them everywhere. Like Jody Whatley – we inherited a manager from her. Simply because he was her manager and everywhere we went around Europe she was there doing the same shows. So when we were looking for a manager, we thought, well he’s there every day, he might as well manage us!
SDE: You must have been quite pleased with the balance on the album – some quite poppy tracks mixed with instrumentals and more mellow tracks like After Hours…
Andy: It seemed like we had a plan, after the event. Isn’t it clever how we melded those influences, but it wasn’t really like that.
SDE: But didn’t anyone from the record company at any point say “hang on what’s that instrumental doing on the album?”
Andy: Honestly, they didn’t care. They already had what they wanted – two top ten hit singles. They didn’t care what the record was. We never got that chance again. The work was done from their point of view. In hindsight it was a brilliant plan. Get the singles out of the way and then they give you some money to finish the record and they really, honestly did not care. I mean obviously they needed a quality product, but nobody asked us about the instrumental, nobody asked us about the weird jazzy bits on certain things, because they had what they needed.
SDE: The rock ‘n’ roll cliche is that bands are ‘big in Japan’ but in your case that’s actually true. How did that happen?
Corrine: I wanted to go to Japan. I’d been there once before in my former life as a fashion designer. So as soon as we started doing music we said to the international department of the record company, when can we go to Japan? They said, you’ve got to have a hit record in England first. But as soon as things started happening here we said are we going to Japan now? We kept asking them! And when we got there it blew our minds – it’s a bit like visiting England in the ’50s or something. Everyone was very polite and respectful. And they ‘got’ all the references in our tunes, like Andy’s Weather Report influences. The first interview we did – try and work this one out – the guy said to me [adopts Japanese accept] “You come from Nottingham – can you tell me how it compares to the works of DH Lawrence and Alan Sillitoe” – this is so typical of Japan, why would they think up a question like that!
Andy: It’s a brilliant question. It was so left field. The next guy would come in and he’d have a book and he’d say please open this book and then he’d ask you to put your finger on a word and please talk about what that word means to you [laughs]. Okay! We never got tired of that kind of thing.
Corinne: We came back with so many gadgets – world alarm clocks, little cassette players…
Andy: I have a theory. At that time late 1980s early 1990s Japan was changing. It was still a very male-oriented society and it was thriving, business wise, and these young career women were starting to get into positions of authority where they had wealth, and they weren’t married. They were leaving it longer, before getting married. There was a whole climate of, now that I’ve got this disposable income, and I don’t have a husband, what should I like? And we came along. One Japanese girl started laughing with embarrassment when she asked Corinne if she was slightly taller than me. They saw Corinne as being in charge, and a bit taller than me, and being very stylish. It was a lifestyle. That’s what they embraced. They liked the music because it was seen as sophisticated, but everything was right. In hindsight it looks like a brilliant plan, but it wasn’t anything of the sort.
Corinne: I hadn’t really thought about it like that. It was a bit like the bowler hat brigade of England in the 1950s but this was 1980s Japan. So all this technology and all the crazy gadgets and fashion was coming from Japan to England, but actually what was still the norm over there was very much like a few decades before [in England].
Andy: They joint the dots. If we’re making a record for them, you feel like you can put a reference in because someone will get it. Here, I don’t think that would be the case. It certainly isn’t the case, it hasn’t been for us. So you just think, I won’t do that because it will be lost. I won’t go to the trouble, whereas there, you know that any little thing you refer to [musically] they will get that straight away. And because you know they will, it gives you the enthusiasm to do it. So you can go in a much more convoluted direction, because you know you won’t lose them, they’ll stay with you.
Corinne: When we were making this [It’s Better To Travel] it was in the mainstream. But now we’ve probably sifted out people who are buying it just because they want to buy a bit of everything in the charts, to people who actually like what you do for what you do.
Andy: I remember being in Boots [the chemist] in the Arndale [famous shopping centre] in Manchester. Surrender was out and it was Christmas. I was in the queue getting something for my mum and there was this girl with her Grandad, who had a record token – remember those?! He had the seven-inch of Surrender. And she was saying “are you sure Grandad, because we can get something else?”, and he was saying “no, I want this”. It was the proudest moment. It wasn’t necessarily who we were targeting [laughs] but to have the luxury, even once – and we only did have it once with this record – of being that mainstream… it meant something to him. It didn’t mean what we meant it to mean, but it meant something. That’s the beauty of having a mainstream record. A lovely moment. I’m glad to have had that moment.
SDE: When you were recording the second album, were you aware that you were not going to appeal to such a mainstream audience?
Andy: Yeah, pretty much. I don’t think we were deliberately sabotaging anything, but it was certainly a case of, we won’t have this luxury again, so now that we have, let’s do what we really want to do…
SDE: Was “It’s Better To Travel” not what you wanted to do then?
Corinne: No, we just didn’t know what we were doing. It happened by accident that we fell upon Paul O’Duffy (the producer) and even the three of us – Andy, Martin and myself – we didn’t really know each other. Andy was on Factory [Records], Martin had been in Magazine and The Chameleons – I didn’t really anything know anything much about their stuff. And we’re suddenly in a studio making a record together. And the fact that we finished anything was quite fortunate, because it could have been a disaster. I’d never been in a band before – well I was in Working Week for about one week – and I was in a band at college, but I’d never been in a recording studio before. We were working with a producer we had never worked with before. We had a major label record deal, which none of us had ever had before. It was like… wow, we’re in a studio. I mean I was too embarrassed to even sing half the songs. I was so shy being in a studio with other people listening.
SDE: You’ve had a longstanding working relationship with Paul O’Duffy – what was his impact on the record?
Andy: He’s brilliant at what he does. In hindsight, we were very lucky to run into him at a time when he needed to make his name, because he is something quite remarkable. We were very lucky to have that experience with him. That wouldn’t exist [gestures towards a copy of It’s Better To Travel that’s on the table] in anything like the way that it does now. He’s a remarkable individual – annoying [laughs] – but remarkable.
Corinne: He was annoying when we first got together because he was trying to make sense of three people’s different ideas, and we all think we know what we’re doing, but he had the overview, and had to deliver something to a record company that makes sense to them. So for a while, you know, he’s kind of the enemy and we put up a fight as if he was trying to take our ideas and homogenise them. But actually he wasn’t really like that.
Andy: He wasn’t like that enough. He could have been a much bigger name, if he’d been more cut-throat.
SDE: How did the songwriting process work on this album?
Andy: On this one, we’d been working a while before Paul got involved, so we did have some structure. Chord sequences, melodic ideas.
Corrine: I used to have to take time off work to go up to Manchester, because I still had a proper job. So it was like ‘I’ve got to have my wisdom tooth taken out’, and then ‘I’ve got to have another wisdom tooth taken out!’ and this went on and on. So I get up there and I’d have to wait until one o’clock or two o’clock for them to get up, and I’d be thinking that’s another day we’ve lost. Aren’t supposed to be writing a song? And he’d say [gestures towards Andy] you just don’t get it do you? You write a song when you feel like it, it’s not a nine to five job.
Andy: [laughing] I don’t think I ever said something as clichéd as that!
Corrine: Well, getting up early in the morning has never been part of your agenda. There was me thinking, I’m all dressed and getting ready to write a song. But it doesn’t really happen like that.
SDE: What’s your view on the health, or otherwise of the record industry at the moment?
Corrine: Where do you start..?
Andy: I can’t get enthusiastic. It’s democratic in the sense that everyone can get a copy Logic for next to nothing, and a keyboard, and off you go, in your bedroom – we all can do it. But to me once we all can do it, it devalues everything. Because you take away the artistry. All that technology and you can make a record in 5 minutes.
SDE: There is the argument that says it was good to have the old system of record labels, because you had to get signed up to release a record which became a natural filter to get rid of all the rubbish. And if you heard a record on the radio, it had gone through a process right or wrong that was some kind of quality control.
Andy: Exactly. There was a reason those things were in place, and it would come out of the other end, maybe not to your taste, but it was well executed. You can judge the health of the industry, if it is an industry still, by what we’re talking about now. Reissues, catalogue. We’re not talking about current things. Generally speaking that’s what they are focusing on. And what they’ve cottoned on to, as much as anything else, is that first of all the current crop of things is not good, but also the people who you’re targeting will not pay money for it, whereas you bring out something like this [the It’s Better To Travel reissue] and I would imagine the target audience are older, with a bit of disposable income, who still have the mentality that they should pay. They want the artifact, they don’t want an MP3.
SDE: Was the 2CD format of this reissue a done deal, or was there ever the possibility of putting a DVD with some videos in there also?
Andy: I’ve been keen to explore DVDs, but have been told it’s not a format they want to embrace. I don’t know why.
Corinne: They did put out a digital download of some of our videos, including some of the ones from It’s Better To Travel.
Andy: I think it’s great – First of all that they’ve done it, and secondly that they wanted us to be involved. I shouldn’t have to feel that it’s great, it should just be the way of things, but it hasn’t often been that way. So I’m actually very pleased with how they’ve put it together. We both are, I think.
Andy and Corinne were talking to Paul Sinclair for SuperDeluxeEdition
It’s Better To Travel 25th Anniversary reissue is out now.