Strawberry Switchblade is perhaps the very epitome of 1980s bubblegum pop.
The band, taking its name from a Postcard Records fanzine, was formed in 1981, in Glasgow, Scotland, by Jill Bryson (guitar and vocals) and Rose McDowall (guitar and vocals). There were a variety of other minor contributors to the group, including future Cure drummer Boris Williams, but the bulk of the writing and performing was handled by Bryson and McDowall. One of the few fans of the band was one Bill Drummond, who was then the manager of Echo & The Bunnymen. He managed to get the band signed by Zoo Records and then got them into a studio to record their first single, the loopy, largely instrumental "Trees & Flowers." The song featured Roddy Frame of Aztec Camera on guitar, which brought it to a wider audience who probably wouldn't have otherwise bought the single, which ended up selling about ten thousand copies in 1983. The bouncy drum machine beats and gentle, happy guitar and synth melodies, along with the flowery, girly vocals was off-putting to a lot of others, however. Though the lyrics were often wholly depressing, the little girl theme would plague the band for the entirety of their brief career as Strawberry Switchblade, as many simply were unable to tolerate the unbearable cuteness of the tunes. This image was much furthered by the look of Rose and Jill -- black and white polka dot dresses; large masses of teased hair and ribbons; large, garish barrettes; and translucently white faces with stark red lipstick. They dressed almost identically for all their live shows and photoshoots. They had a bit in common with the New Romantic acts that were their contemporaries, and ended up influencing the appearance of a sizable sect of second-wave goths in the late 1990s.
Meanwhile, "Trees & Flowers" was noticed by a BBC Radio 1 DJ (not John Peel, although he was a fan, and the band would go on to record a Peel Session prior to the release of their only album in 1985, which featured the delightful "Cut You With The Cake Knife"), and received moderate airplay for a few weeks. Their next single, "Since Yesterday," was released in mid-1984 and received a much better reception than its predecessor. It peaked at #5 on the Brit charts, but was largely forgotten by the time the band's self-titled debut album was released by Korova Records in 1985. It was produced by former Cure bassist Phil Thornalley.
Strawberry Switchblade — Strawberry Switchblade
- Since Yesterday
- Deep Water
- Another Day
- Little River
- 10 James Orr Street
- Let Her Go
- Who Knows What Love Is?
- Go Away
- Who Knows What Love Is? (reprise)
- Being Cold
Most of the lyrics dealt with rather typical teenage angst subjects, but they sounded so good that it didn't really matter. They could've been putting their shopping list to music, and I (for one) would've still enjoyed it. Rose's vocals, while very sweet-sounding, are singing about sometimes dark subjects (such as being used for sex and then left on the roadside, as one example), but I'd wager that if a non-English speaker were to hear these songs, they'd get the impression that they were listening to the theme for a Saturday morning cartoon. The overuse of synths kind of makes most of the songs sound like what video game music would evolve into in the late 1990s and early 2000s. And while the songs are as pure bubblegum pop songs as you could want, they show surprising depth. "Another Day," for example, consists entirely of a debate with oneself about making a phone call, what one might say, and how stupid one would sound regardless of what was said.
Strawberry Switchblade was perhaps unique among the vast plethora of New Wave bands that popped up in the 1970s and 1980s, not in the fact that they sang depressingly-worded songs, but in that they sounded like they were having a lot of goofy 1980s party fun while singing them. The Cure, New Order, and The Psychedelic Furs, among others of the New Wave era, did this from time to time, but not consistently and almost never on single releases.
Anyway, the band broke up in 1986, only a year after their only album was released, but not before a number of b-sides had been recorded both before and after the release of the album, none of which saw the light of day until the album was rereleased in 1999 by WEA. It contained nine additional tracks, including an unlikely cover of Dolly Parton's "Jolene," and several extended remixes of album tracks. Also included was the song "Ecstasy (Apple of My Eye)," which, by my reckoning anyway, has got to be the most bouncy, saccharin-sweet song I've ever heard. It is extremely infectious and highly feminine, and I would hope that it could bring someone out of even the darkest depths of dysthymia. The song was originally supposed to be a commercial jingle for a breakfast cereal, but Rose reneged on that deal and turned the song into its current incarnation. Here's an excerpt of the lyrics:
In a kiss lies so much more than touch
and my life has found a new temptation
and ecstasy has meaning once again
I find suddenly I'm closer to you
and I find all my wildest dreams
have come true
while I spin round
my heart is beating for two
and I am wishing
it will always be you and I
The lyrics are accompanied by the happiest-sounding synths and drum segues this side of The Cure's "Friday I'm In Love," if I may be so bold as to make a comparison.
After the band broke up, Jill Bryson, who has always suffered from agoraphobia (the subject of "Trees and Flowers") retired from the music industry and, last I heard (mid-2001, from a friend of hers), she was driving a taxi in Glasgow. Rose McDowall went on to join several bands, such as Current 93, Nurse With Wound, Sorrow, Psychic TV, Felt, and Boyd Rice's Non. She is still an active member of Current 93 and Sorrow, and has had a daughter (born 1978) and a son (born 1990).
It's been at least a main era since they broke up (has it really been that long?), but Strawberry Switchblade still maintains a small following of fans, most consisting of people that discovered their music after the band broke up. None of their material saw release in North America until 2006, when Warner Brothers released a career retrospective CD. It contains many of the tracks that appear on the WEA Japanese release, and so now maybe they can get a bit more well-deserved recognition and availability.
Looking in deep down at all that's gone
The pain you feel goes on and on
Close your eyes and fall
Beautiful fall, beautiful end
Much info in this writeup was gleaned from the excellent Strawberry Switchblade website -- http://www.strawberryswitchblade.net/