Tuesday, October 29, 2013

An Appreciation: THE FIXX

An Appreciation:



     In 2012, while the world wobbled it's way around the sun and humanity took another step closer to extinction, British Band THE FIXX celebrated the 30th Anniversary of their 1982 debut album, Shuttered Room, by releasing a brand new studio record entitled Beautiful Friction. While some journalists - and even fans - proclaimed the album and tour as a reunion or comeback, they couldn't have been further from the truth. Over the past three decades, The Fixx has never really gone away. Sure, there's been huge gaps between albums, but those have been filled with constant touring and working on projects outside of the band. And while some called Beautiful Friction a return to form, The Fixx has never made a bad studio album in their entire career. But before I talk a little about Beautiful Friction, let's go back to the beginning when I first became aware of The Fixx... and it all started with... Split Enz!?

By the time Split Enz's True Colours came out in 1980, I was already a fan. I'd somehow missed their early to late '70s period, but once I heard a song called "I See Red" in 1979, I was hooked. The following year, a more commercial sounding Enz released True Colours and actually had a U.S. hit with "I Got You". Because I was such a fan of that album and the "I See Red" single, I went backwards and started collecting all of their records. That is how I came to admire the talents of Phil Judd, who shared a bulk of the songwriting and vocals with Tim Finn. Judd had helped to form the band in '72 but only appeared on their first two albums before jumping ship. At the same time the Enz were finally having hits outside of their native Australia, Judd had found his feet with a quirky trio called The Swingers. Judd and his mates scored a monster hit in Australia with a ditty called "Counting The Beat". To say this single went massive down under is an understatement.

The Swingers
     So, by 1981, The Swingers were big business in Oz, but their album Practical Jokers wasn't released in the U.S. until the following year. By the time the album was released stateside in '82, it had been rejigged and retitled Counting The Beat with new artwork. I snatched it up on the week of release. So, a while later (a month? two months?), I walked into my local record store, Licorice Pizza, and saw a promo poster for The Swingers' album.... but the poster wasn't just promoting The Swingers - it also featured an album by another new band called The Fixx!  So, in my infinite wisdom, I figured that if I liked The Swingers, then I would also like The Fixx. I waited for my next paycheck and a few days later, I owned Shuttered Room, The Fixx's first album!


     When I listened to Shuttered Room, I fell immediately in love with this band. The first thing that immediately struck me is that their recordings were layered with different 'hook's that could draw a listener in, whether it was Cy Curnin's vocals, Rupert Greenall's keyboards, Jamie West-Oram's guitar or the dynamics of drummer Adam Woods and bassist Charlie Barrett. The album was diverse while still sounding cohesive. It was as if the band were still maturing, still moving forward, even while recording the album. Producer Rupert Hine did a magnificent job in helping to create a musical world that only The Fixx were capable of inhabiting. The Fixx were standing tall on Shuttered Room but were still finding their feet.         Initially, I was drawn to a few songs in particular: "Stand Or Fall", "Red Skies" and "The Strain". These still remain my favorites off the album, but it took a few spins for the rest of it to sink in. Tracks like "Some People" and "Lost Planes" didn't immediately 'connect' with me for some reason, but eventually I was spinning the album daily. I went from liking the album alot to loving it! 
     I started adding Fixx songs to mixtapes that I'd make people. One guy I worked with said that MTV was playing a few of their videos. Now, this was 1982 and everyone knew about MTV but not everyone had it. So, when I went over to his house with some co-workers/friends, we all ended up sitting in the family room, glued to MTV... and on came the "Stand Or Fall" video. Everyone wanted to head out, but I would not budge until that video was over. I don't remember anything else about that day or what other videos I saw, but I finally knew what MTV was all about and I loved it. Around the same time, KROQ started playing "Stand Or Fall", "Lost Planes", "The Strain" and "Red Skies" in medium-to-heavy rotation. It was quite exciting to pick up an album by an unknown band and then, over a short period of time, get to the point where you were hearing them on the radio a few times a day!  Oh, and KROQ were playing a few songs by The Swingers, too... the band that brought The Fixx to my attention in the first place!
NOTE: Unbeknownst to me at the time, the Shuttered Room that I was listening to was an American version of the album - the UK and U.S. versions differed by a few tracks... 

     In 1983, The Fixx released the first single from their sophomore album, due later in the year. The single, "Saved By Zero," sounded as if the band had taken all the best elements from their debut album, rolled them together and created their most cohesive and stunning recording yet. Every musical element of the band gelled together perfectly. Though The Fixx had been lumped in with other New Wave and Electronic/Synthpop bands before by lazy critics, "Saved By Zero" immediately set them apart from the crowd. Fueled by EVERY member of the band, the song blended the atmospheric keyboards with a unique guitar sound that would become The Fixx's calling card. The single came in the standard 12" format as well and featured a completely different vocal and mix, complete with an alternate set of lyrics apart from the first two lines of the song and the chorus. "Saved By Zero" still gives me goosebumps 30 years after it was released.
     I remember heading over to Music Market in Costa Mesa to buy the second album, Reach The Beach, on the day it came out in 1983. I actually stood around waiting as they unpacked the boxes, checked in the product and put the LPs on the shelves. But anyway, while I was buying Reach The Beach, I noticed that they also had the import version of Listen, the second album from A Flock Of Seagulls, which had not been released in the U.S. at the time. I snapped that up as well and headed home to spend the rest of the day/week/month listening to these two albums. KROQ had already picked up on "Saved By Zero", but nothing else from the album was in rotation yet, so it was a completely new and exciting experience once I put the needle down on the record. I have to admit that I wasn't completely sold on "One Leads To Another", the album's lead track. I liked it, but it didn't send shivers down my spine like the rest of the album did. But, man, when I heard Reach The Beach, I was floored. The band had finally settled on a cohesive sound and with producer Rupert Hine, they created the blueprint that many other guitar/keyboard bands would follow in the years ahead. Pretty much everything about the album was perfect. There were melodies galore, plenty of atmospheric keyboards, West-Oram's unique guitar sound and, of course, the mighty vocals of Curnin. Drummer Adam Woods' playing was powerful in some parts, subtle and groove-laden in others. Bassist Charlie Barrett was out of the band by this time, so bass duties were handled by former Interview member Alfie Agius (on "Saved By Zero" and "One Thing...") while Dan K. Brown played bass on "The Sign Of Fire." Brown would join the band full-time after the album was released.  
     Soon enough, "One Thing Leads To Another" became the band's biggest hit to date and The Fixx were off and running. Even my sister Kristin became a fan. She was 14 or so and we'd walk together up to Licorice Pizza and sing the song "Opinions" as we made our way down Chapman Avenue towards Brookhurst. I think I took her to the Fixx autograph signing at Camel Records in Huntington Beach where she got to meet Cy! This was the first of maybe six times that I've 'met' the band over the years and they've all been incredibly kind every time. After that autograph signing, I went to Irvine Meadows and I saw The Fixx open for A Flock Of Seagulls, which was a really weird coincidence because I had purchased both of their sophomore albums during that trip to Music Market as detailed in the previous paragraph!  


     A year later, The Fixx released their third album, Phantoms. By this time, the band were huge on MTV and they premiered the album's first single, "Are We Ourselves?" to a lot of fanfare. The track solidified the band's standing as one of the truly unique bands of the '80s. Again with Rupert Hine producing, The Fixx released an album that relied heavily on angular, brittle arrangements but lost some of the atmosphere that made Reach The Beach such an astounding album. The songs were shorter than the previous albums as well (the album's first two singles, "Are We..." and "Sunshine...," were under the 3 minute mark!). Where Reach The Beach was moody and brooding, Phantoms was much more straightforward and edgy. The album's harder approach was more than likely due to the band's relentless touring schedule, which toughens up any band who achieve success and have to continue to work hard to maintain it. A magnificent burst of energy is all over Phantoms, which works for most of the songs while a few of them seem half-finished, to be honest. Highpoints include "Sunshine In The Shade," "Woman On A Train," "Less Cities, More Moving People," and the aforementioned "Are We Ourselves?" Was Phantoms disappointing?  For those wanting another Reach The Beach, then yes. But for fans wanting to hear the band grow and expand their musical horizons, then no. For me, Phantoms would be the first of many Fixx albums that would take root and then reveal themselves to me over time. The first two albums took no time at all to worm their way inside of my head, but from here on out, The Fixx's albums would take a little longer to appreciate, but once I connected with them, they would become constant staples of my voracious musical appetite!  Each and every one of them... 


     Three albums in three years plus constant touring meant it was time to take a little break so there was no new Fixx album in 1985. Thankfully, when they returned in '86, they did so with an album that felt more like the logical follow-up to Reach The Beach. The moody, atmospheric overtones of that album were present in spades on Walkabout. The songs on the album were longer, more layered and had a deeper emotional edge to them. Again, it was obvious that the entire band brought something special to each of the songs. Greenall's keyboards would accent, enhance and embrace the songs while West-Oram's guitar would drive them home. West-Oram seldom just strums a guitar - he manipulates it to create a unique sound that is truly his own. On Walkabout, he paints the songs with lovely brush strokes courtesy of his six string. Woods and Brown create rhythms that are far from simplistic. And Curnin never sounded more passionate and confident. Each song is layered with sounds, hooks and atmosphere. There are so many tracks on the album that still sound glorious today including "Secret Separation," "Built For The Future," "Treasure It," and "Camphor". While it seemed like the band had lost a little traction, commercially, they were still one of the greatest acts on the scene. And believe it or not, that has not changed over the years.

REACT (1987)

     Live, The Fixx are fantastic. To stand there in the same 'room' as these five men is electrifying. I've seen them in concert more than any other band in my life. With that being said, I also have to say that I don't like live albums. At all. By anyone... except maybe Elvis Presley (and I don't really listen to those much, to be honest, although I need to own them because he's ELVIS!) The Fixx's first live album, React, includes four exclusive studio tracks including the awesome "Don't Be Scared" and a new take on "Red Skies". It should also be noted that the new tracks are the band's first without Rupert Hine. The songs are definitely edgier and more rocking than their previous output, yet they still retain that Fixx magic. However, I have to be honest in stating that I have only listened to the rest of the album once. And 26 years later, I don't have any desire to hear it again. But that is not to say it's bad, because it is not a bad live album at all. But it's LIVE, and I just don't care to hear the audience screaming out lyrics or whooping it up during the quiet parts. No thanks. For those of you who dig live releases, then by all means track down a copy. Heck, it's worth it just for the four studio tracks in my book... but if I want to hear The Fixx live, I want to be standing in the same room watching them! (NOTE: For all of you hipsters,  if you watch the "Red Skies" video below, you'll notice that Dan K. Brown was sporting a beard some 25 years before you started listening to fake Folk music like Mumford & Sons and started buying the latest in trendy hobo fashions!)


     Leaving MCA and signing with RCA saw changes in the sound of the band. With all five still present and accounted for, 1988's Calm Animals followed the path set by React's "Don't Be Scared": more rock guitar and an earthy, grounded sound. With this album, The Fixx moved away from the constraints of New Wave and became a bonafide Rock quintet without losing any of their charm. Produced by William Wittman, Calm Animals proved that The Fixx were capable of remaining a great band outside of Rupert Hine's production. Songs like "Driven Out," "Precious Stone" and "The Flow" were standouts on the album, but the whole thing is solid from start to finish. The atmospheric mood of their MCA albums may have been missing, but it was replaced with renewed confidence. However, MTV and radio had moved on from the bands of old and were not as interested in The Fixx's progression, no matter how good they still were. That, in itself, was a shame. The band were more than capable of holding their own yet they were pushed aside in favor of a new breed of bands that, to be honest, are long gone and forgotten. Thankfully, The Fixx had no intention of stopping. From here on out, they may have slowed down a bit in terms of albums, but they were not out for the count... 

INK (1991)

     It took the band another three years before Ink was released upon the world. While the album is quite wonderful, the band worked with a few different producers (Hine, Wittman, Scott Cutler and Bruce Gaitsch) in order to usher the band into a new decade. What is most obvious is that the band were continuing to refine and redefine their sound while the record label (back to MCA, believe it or not) were obviously trying to pair them with a producer that could provide a hit (or three). Most of the album works perfectly ("How Much Is Enough?" "Crucified," "No One Has To Cry," "All Is Fair") while the Bill Champlain/Bruce Gaitsch-penned AOR-heavy track "Falling In Love" falls flat on it's face. If The Fixx wanted to be AOR, let them do it on their terms, and don't force them!  The album is filled with strong songs apart from that misstep yet it wouldn't be enough to get them back on the charts. Unfortunately, the band decided to take a long break before heading back into the studio. Seven years to be exact...


     While the band recorded their Happy Landings EP in the interim, it took seven years for the band's next full length, Elemental, to hit the shops. For the first time since Reach The Beach, the band were reduced to a quartet with the departure of bassist Dan K. Brown. With new bassist Chris Tait on board, the band released a fine set of songs that mixed their earthier Rock sound with their more atmospheric beginnings while adding some new elements to their sound. Instead of the album heading off in a few different directions like Ink, Elemental was far more cohesive. "Two Different Views," "Going Without," "Is That It," "Fatal Shore" and the title track were outstanding tracks that mixed new and old sounds together wonderfully. The album may not have gained them many new fans, but it was most certainly deserving of more attention. Elemental was a welcome return to one of the UK's finest outfits (now, if only everyone else realized that!)

1011 WOODLAND (1999)

     A year after Elemental, The Fixx released the acoustic/live album 1011 Woodland. While I've managed to ignore the few live tracks on the album, the rest of 1011 Woodland features acoustic renditions of some of the best of the band's back catalog. If anyone had any doubt about their songwriting skills and musicianship, this is the album that proved once and for all that The Fixx were ace in both departments. Though it wasn't a 'hits' collection per say, there were plenty of Fixx chestnuts galore on this fine platter as well as some obscure tracks for us real fans to sink our teeth into. Though there were no new tracks, the acoustic arrangements created a new experience for listeners and, for all intents and purposes, freed the band musically from the New Wave chains that so many folks saddled them with. 


     It took the band another four years before a new album was released. Want That Life came out in 2003 and featured new bassist Gary Tibbs, formerly of Roxy Music, Adam & The Ants, The Vibrators, Code Blue and many other bands. Curnin, West-Oram, Greenall and Woods were still holding the fort down, creating some fantastic new music. Here is what I had to say about it over at All Music Guide: "For 20-something years, the Fixx has always been misunderstood. During the band's well-deserved brush with fame in the '80s, the band were often labeled 'synth pop', even though the main elements of the band's sound have always been Cy Curnin's emotive voice, and Jamie West-Oram's distinctive guitar. Rupert Greenall's keyboards have added atmosphere and feeling to the band's sound, but the Fixx are not (and have never been) a synth pop band. And when other '80s bands are reuniting for 'nostalgia's sake' (ie: big money), the Fixx has always been with us because it's what they love to do. Curnin, West-Oram, Greenall, and drummer Adam Woods started the band 25 years ago, and all four are still creating vital music together in 2003. The Fixx are one of the few bands that can maintain a distinct sound while maturing with every release. Want That Life is their first studio album since 1998's Elemental, and is the most consistent album they've released since the classic Reach the Beach in '83! With new bassist Gary Tibbs, the band is as mesmerizing as ever. With songs structured around intimate grooves and Curnin's ageless voice, this is an album that draws the listener in, song by song. "Touch," "Are You Satisfied," "No Hollywood Ending," and "Straight 'Round The Bend" are filled with a warm and welcoming vibe (thanks to producer Martin Rex). "You Don't Have To Prove Yourself" and "Taking The Long Way Home" are uplifting slices of pop. The world music rhythms of "We Don't Own The World" only enhance Curnin's anti-war lyrics, creating a track that is both intelligent and infectious. Although there are no sure-fire 'hit singles' on this album, there are ten songs that prove that the Fixx are still an important band. If comparisons are in order, then this is their Avalon (Roxy Music). If you gave up on them years ago (shame on you!), then it's time to see what they are up to today."

     Another nine years passed before the band released their next studio album. The magnificent Beautiful Friction (2012) featured the return of bassist Dan K. Brown to the fold as the band revisited the edgier sound of Calm Animals. The quintet proved on Beautiful Friction that they are still as relevant as ever. Reviews from fans and critics were extremely positive and the band's profile was higher than it had been in nearly two decades. Initially, I didn't think the album was as inviting as Want That Life, but repeated listenings have proven me wrong - Beautiful Friction is a fantastic slice of Fixx magic. How many bands are out there working after three decades with their line-up intact and their recent studio album being hailed as one of their finest?  Go ahead... think about that for awhile. I can assure you there aren't many!

    Yes, 31 years on, I'm still a hardcore Fixx fan with many memories of seeing them on various tours throughout the years. The Fixx has created a body of work that is far more substantial than any of their peers. And they keep on touring, which allows new generations to experience them exactly the way I did for the first time some 30 years ago.
     In this feature, I've skipped a few compilations and live albums, but the albums I've discussed remain the core of their collection and should be part of YOUR collection. You should also check out all four of Cy Curnin's solo albums. Simply wonderful stuff there, too!


Peace, Love and The Fixx
Stephen SPAZ Schnee


Unknown said...

Brilliant article and well researched.
Two bands I loved in the 80's were The Fixx and Cactus World News. My dream gig would have been to see them both on one stage! anyways thanks for reminding me of a great band. Cy Curnin was way ahead of his time and still is. X Sue

D.D. said...

Great read. Thanks for sharing your knowledge of the Fixx. Their music has been a lifelong companion of mine and I'm so glad they're back to making such fantastic music.

Big Red Dawg said...

Wow - you covered every base. Bravo. Great work for a great band. My wife and I have been fans since the 80's and we finally got to see them earlier this year as they toured in support of Beautiful Friction. Great show and a great bunch of guys - we hung out after and ALL OF THEM took time to meet everyone who did and I got all of them to sign a vinyl copy of Reach The Beach - it now hangs proudly on my wall. Great music, great people. Long may the Rock!

Les Glover said...

Absolutely brilliant article and has put me right up to speed with this great band, you could say I've had my fixx

DARON72 said...

I live in Montana so unless I do some heavy trekking I won't be able to see them live but I'm probably the biggest Fixx fan in MT!!! Do you happening to know if any vinyl repressing of their MCA (now Geffen) albums are in the works? Also, does anyone know how to get a copy of their SNL performances? I've been looking for years and was not allowed to watch SNL in 1984 as I was 12 years old.