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Chewing the Fat With Fine Young Cannibals

The English band expertly mix genres for their second album and prepare for stardom

Fine Young Cannibals

Andy Cox, Roland Gift and David Steele of the English pop trio Fine Young Cannibals, 1986

Dave Hogan/Hulton Archive/Getty

A few weeks before the release of The Raw and the Cooked, Fine Young Cannibals’ new album, Roland Gift and Andy Cox are in New York City, taking a break from their schedule of interviews and photo sessions. They’re at a party for David Lynch, the director of Eraserhead and Blue Velvet, in celebration of his painting exhibition. For at least fifteen minutes, on this Sunday afternoon in January, this SoHo gallery is the center of New York’s art world.

The gallery is too crowded to examine Lynch’s mysteriously anguished canvases, but then no one has come to view the paintings. These parties are for getting dressed up, sponging someone else’s booze and working the room.

And Gift, the fascinatingly handsome twenty-seven-year-old singer of Fine Young Cannibals, is effortlessly stealing some of Lynch’s limelight. He is unusually polite, if also reserved, whether talking to fans or to Lynch, whom he briefly meets. His speaking voice is much deeper than his fluttery singing voice, and there’s a gentle poise in his manner that seems almost aristocratic — until he returns from the bar muttering angrily, less because there was no more champagne to be had than because the barmaid dismissed his drink request with an extremely sullen twitch of typical New York attitude.

Andy Cox, Fine Young Cannibals’ guitarist, surveys the crowd from a calmer corner of the room. Cox, 33, is a cheerful cynic whose taste for mischief has gotten him in trouble with some journalists. Though he is not as sharp-tongued as David Steele — the Cannibals’ bassist and his former partner in the English Beat (the excellent ska-influenced band from Birmingham that released albums in the late Seventies and early Eighties), who has remained in London to supervise a dance mix of ”Good Thing” — Cox seems to take a perverse delight in attending this dislikable function.

After a half-hour of minimal mingling, Gift and Cox get ready to leave the party, in search of a bar. A kid who’s been staring at Gift for a while approaches and blocks the singer’s path to the stairwell.

”Hey, man,” the kid says, ”weren’t you in Frankie and Rosie Get Laid?”

Before the release of the Raw and the Cooked, Fine Young Cannibals’ second LP and their first in four years, Roland Gift was probably better known for his starring role in a film that is properly called Sammy and Rosie Get Laid.

That’s about to change. A striking combination of retro-soul and hip dance grooves, the result of accident as well as design, the Cannibals’ new album doesn’t just avoid the increasingly common sophomore slump — it’s got enough radio-ready hooks to push the band from celebrity to stardom.

From his London home, a few days later, David Steele, 27, describes his remix of ”Good Thing” as sounding ”almost like a rap group, with Roland singing and these Motown singers in the background.”

That historical juxtaposition sums up The Raw and the Cooked, which matches references to Sam Cooke, the Supremes and doo-wop (the ”raw” part), with Prince and up-to-the-second dance beats (the ”cooked” part), The former style dominated the Cannibals’ 1985 debut LP, but it’s the latter mode that seems to represent the band’s future.

Consider, for example, the fate of ”She Drives Me Crazy,” the band’s new single. The song did well at alternative and college stations, where ”Johnny Come Home” and ”Suspicious Minds,” from the Cannibals’ debut, were first heard. But after ”She Drives Me Crazy” joined playlists full of the Replacements and Violent Femmes, it also erupted on black urban stations, in between Bobby Brown and Tone-Lõc. The Cannibals achieved the rare trick of bridging these two formats as a result of the transitions that took place in the band between albums.

Cox and Steele are the only musicians from England’s ska boom of 1979 who have adapted to the next decade, and their success is easily explained — from Sonic Youth to That Petrol Emotion, much of the best music currently being made by New Wave veterans incorporates the rhythmic dimensions of hip-hop and rap. ”The dance-music thing is like the punk of the Eighties,” says Cox, ”or rock & roll in the Fifties. It seems to be the thing that is the most vibrant part of modern music.”

Even if, as Gift says, the Cannibals are still ”off in the New Wave section” in America, the scope of The Raw and the Cooked reflects the clash of tastes within the group.

”I hate almost everything,” explains Steele, who goes to dance clubs in London several times a week to track the mercurial changes in house music, the Chicago-based dance groove that is the U.K.’s latest obsession.

”I don’t really like house music, because I find it quite inhuman,” counters Gift, who longs for the glory days of soul, before ”guitars got really heavy and dominant, and singing went out the window.”

Perhaps Cox best described the range of The Raw and the Cooked when he called the album ”thirty years’ worth of pop music in thirty minutes.”

“God,” he says, grimacing. ”I was so drunk the day I said that.”

”We never even referred to the name the Beat,” says Gift. ”It is only really recently that we can speak the name,” adds Cox. Asked about the English Beat when the Cannibals’ first album came out, Cox and Steele readily damned the band. Cox told one writer, ”It’s sort of like we were ill with a really embarrassing disease, and now we’re better and we don’t like to discuss the symptoms.” Steele had his own analogy: ”It’s like if you went out with this dodgy girlfriend and then you see her three years later and think, ‘My God, how did I go out with her?”’ (There may be an element of deliberate overstatement in quotes like these. As Steele admits, ”We tend to get sick of journalists and try to offend them.”)

If Cox and Steele aren’t in a hurry to reestablish relations with former band members, they have taken a gentler view of the band’s work. ”It has gotten to the point where I can say the Beat made some good records,” Steele says. ”At one point, I hated them all.”

When the band broke up in 1983, Cox and Steele resolved to learn from the Beat’s mistakes. They recognized that the group’s large size made for too much artistic compromise and decided to keep their next group small. They agreed to tour infrequently, so as not to lose their enthusiasm. (”Touring,” Cox declares, ”is designed so morons can do it, and it turns you into more of a moron.”) And they would record slowly. ”At one point, the Beat didn’t have any good songs,” says Steele, ”but we put an LP out anyway.”

”We had something to prove,” he continues. ”Because when the Beat split up, people thought, ‘Oh, they [Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger, the group’s singers, who later formed the short-lived General Public] are going to go on and you guys are nothing.’ I don’t think it came out that we used to write a lot of the music, Andy and I — ‘Mirror in the Bathroom,’ ‘Too Nice to Talk To,’ most of the first LP. I think the only well-known song we didn’t write was ‘Save It for Later.”’

In search of ”a proper singer” who also looked good, Cox and Steele listened to an estimated 400 to 500 demo tapes. At one point, they thought they’d found a vocalist, only to learn that he was fifty-five, bald and fat.

Too many months into their depressing quest, the pair tried to locate the saxophonist from the Akrylyx, a band that once opened for the Beat. If they were looking for a singer, why call a saxophonist? Says Cox, ”We were desperate, desperate men by that time.”

The saxophonist was Roland Gift. Says Steele, ”We were too shy to ask him, so we made Andy’s girlfriend phone him up.” He laughs, knowing how ridiculous that sounds. ”We are kind of weird people.”

In 1976, when punk went overseas to England, Roland Gift (yes, it’s his real name) was fourteen and living in Hull, a drab fishing town northeast of London. A self-described misfit, Gift did what every other nonconformist teen in the U.K. did — he joined a punk band. At sixteen, he left school.

But for Gift, being just another punk singer was unsuitable. ”I needed something that had a bit of skill to it,” he says, which is how he came to learn the saxophone. At the end of the Akrylyx’s set, Gift would sing a song. ”It was just fucking awful, just shouting,” he says.

He moved to London. In the Bones, his next group, Gift sang blues and jazz standards and began to harness his startling voice. He gave up acting in community plays to focus on music.

Gift doesn’t talk much about his background, to protect his family from unwelcome publicity and to protect himself from stereotyping. ”I don’t really like talking about it because people will then start expecting certain kinds of behavior. It’s very close to a kind of racism. I imagine people saying, ‘Well, no wonder he can dance, he’s got black blood in him.’ I don’t think black people are born better dancers than white people. I don’t think they’re born better singers.”

”Look at [Ranking] Roger,” Cox interjects happily. Gift smiles.

”You might as well say black people have got bigger cocks than white people,” he says.

One writer dramatically, and incorrectly, described Gift as ”the half-caste son of a carpenter and a nurse.”

“Oh, my God!” Cox yelps, failing to his knees before Gift after hearing the description.

”It’s Jesus! He’s come back!”

‘Half-caste,’ ”Gift says. ”That sounds awful, doesn’t it? ‘Half-caste becomes a serial killer. Mixed marriages never work. Beware!’

”My mother is white, and my father is black,” he says. ”I don’t feel any conflict, like the black side and the white side of me are at war.” He chuckles.

Once the trio began to write. Gift says, it was clear that Sixties soul was ”the thing we all agreed on and liked.” Cavalierly, they took the band name from All the Fine Young Cannibals, an obscure 1960 film none of them had seen.

The trio also shared a fondness for clothes, which is reflected in their Fifties style, mostly gray slacks and pastel cardigans. And in their attention to detail, Cox and Steele even had their guitars painted in the same color pink.

The last song they wrote for their debut LP was ”Johnny Come Home,” a first step toward modern dance music. They released a twelve-inch mix of ”Johnny” and their campy remake of Elvis Presley’s ”Suspicious Minds,” then updated the Burzzcocks’ punk epic ”Ever Fallen in Love” for the Something Wild soundtrack.

Barry Levinson (the director of Diner, Good Morning, Vietnam and Rain Man) heard the debut album and asked the Cannibals to write songs for Tin Men, which is set in Baltimore in 1963. Although they were moving away from Sixties soul, Levinson ”was paying us a lot of money,” Cox says. Four songs, which make up most of the ”raw” half of their new album, were written for Tin Men, in which they had a cameo as a club combo.

As a result of Tin Men and a few TV appearances, Gift was offered a number of acting roles. The first one he took was Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, a dizzy 1987 film directed by Stephen Frears, it is about social and racial tension in modern London. Gift played a mysterious, stylish nomad, named either Danny or Victoria, and had fifth billing in the credits. His nude love scenes probably have accounted for a chunk of the film’s home-rental proceeds.

Steele and Cox stumbled onto a second career of their own. As ”a little experiment and half a joke,” Cox says, they started recording a house-music track. ”Tired of Getting Pushed Around,” released under the pseudonym Two Men, a Drum Machine and a Trumpet, was a major dance hit. ”The phone was ringing off the hook with people wanting to be produced,” Cox says. Their first two efforts were U.K. hits: the bubbly ”Heat It Up” for the Wee Papa Girls, a British duo, then the disco-metal ”Can U Dig It?” for Pop Will Eat Itself, England’s version of the Beastie Boys.

Between the tracks for Tin Men and Something Wild, the Cannibals had already recorded enough material to fill up half of their next album. For the second stage of recording, their record company urged them not to produce themselves. The trio discussed calling the Latin Rascals, the daring dance producers, and also mentioned Gil Evans, the late jazz arranger.

But there was only one potential producer the Cannibals could all agree on. ”We said, ‘Get Prince for us, we’ll work with him,”’ Cox says. ”It’s a bit like asking for Elvis or Phil Spector. Obviously, Prince is too busy, and we are not really beautiful girls.” In the meantime, he adds, ”we had plenty of time sleeping and shopping and eating delicious meals.”

In response to this ploy, the record company suggested a member of the royal retinue; David Z, an engineer and arranger for Prince and producer of Prince-ish tracks for Jody Watley and Sheila E. The Cannibals worked with him on three of the ”cooked” tracks, including ”She Drives Me Crazy,” which is clearly influenced by Prince. But even the modern tracks integrate ”raw” elements reminiscent of the Tin Men project: ”I’m Not the Man I Used to Be” puts a Kangol hat and Adidas shoes on Marvin Gaye, while ”Don’t Let It Get You Down” may be the first acid-house, track with a trumpet solo. Consequently, the album holds together, despite having been recorded over several different years, in the midst of sleeping, shopping, meals and movies.

Aside from sarcasm, drollery and sharp sweaters, the Cannibals’ most distinguishing common trait is a cautiousness that borders on suspiciousness. It’s apparent in personal matters, such as meeting fans, as well as professional decisions, like finding a producer. In a career that rewards shameless self-promotion, they are — in Steele’s analysis — ‘repressed extroverts,” unwilling to fully commit themselves to running on pop’s fast track.

Gift, for instance, turned down a number of more glamorous roles for a minor part as a temperamental West Indian in Scandal, a film directed by Michael Caton-Jones, about the sexual ignominy that drove Britain’s Conservative government from power in 1963. Like many black actors, he has found that the majority of available roles are Rastas and pimps. ”Obviously I don’t like the stereotyping,” he says. ”I wouldn’t outlaw that kind of role completely. There are such things as black pimps. It depends on the story. You know, it’s a bit of a cliché being a black singer.”

He’s been cautious about roles because he’s seen musicians destroy credibility in two fields with one bad part. ”That’s what I was worried about when I took Sammy and Rosie,” he says. ”I was really scared in a way, because I know that you can fuck up two careers.” ”Four Careers,” says Andy Cox.


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