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Fine Young Cannibals: Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth

Too much of a good thing may be driving the band crazy

British band, 'Fine Young Cannibals'

Fine Young Cannibals, as viewed through a cracked mirror, in 1985.

Dave Hogan/Getty

Roland gift and David Steele are walking down a street in a gray, mostly industrial section of north London. A car drives by, and the woman at the wheel looks at Gift and waves. He grins and waves back.

Steele stares at the car as it drives away, then looks back at his partner. ”Who was that?” he asks, puzzled. Gift stops in his tracks and looks confused. ”I don’t know,” he says, finally. ”I guess I still think that if somebody waves at you, they must know you.” He shakes his head. ”I keep forgetting that maybe they just recognize me.”

These days, lots of people recognize Roland gift, and his two colleagues also. Gift, David Steele and Andy Cox are Fine Young Cannibals, and Fine Young Cannibals are the latest group of Brits to conquer the American charts. After a modestly successful first album and three years of silence, they came back with two Number One singles (”She Drives Me Crazy” and ”Good Thing”), a third contender (”Don’t Look Back”) and an album — The Raw and the Cooked — that has monopolized the Number One album slot for most of the summer.

Fine Young Cannibals are not sure how to explain it, really. Steele thinks it’s partly because of their unusual look: two skinny, pale white guys, with their hair cut very short on the sides and longer on top, and a strikingly handsome black man. Cox says, ”Every year there’s one British group that does well in America, isn’t there? You pull on the handle, and this year it’s three lemons and us.” And they all thought that their music — soul-based pop written by musicians reared on punk and ska and as fond of De la Soul as they were of Otis Redding — crossed enough barriers that either no radio station would play it or every station would.

This year, every station has. The Raw and the Cooked is smart dance pop with an edge — an album that uses three decades of soul music to inform and invigorate basic pop songs. Far more assured than the band’s debut, the record adroitly works a middle ground between the spare funk of Prince (a major influence on ”She Drives Mc Crazy”) and the drive of Sixties R&B (which surfaces in ”Don’t Look Back”). What sells the record, though, are insanely catchy melodies, inventive arrangements and Gift’s fluttery, almost freakish voice.

And so Fine Young Cannibals are about to take it on the road. They don’t much like to tour, but after months of what they call ”stupid fucking meetings,” they performed on Saturday Night Live and remembered how much they enjoyed playing live. They’ll do a quick one: four weeks in the United States, a handful of shows in Great Britain, apologies to the rest of the world. So they’ve been getting together in London, rehearsing their sixteen-piece band and sweating the details.

And now Roland Gift, the most recognizable Cannibal, the voice and the look in the spotlight, puts down the telephone and turns to his band mates in a north-London photo studio. ”They want to know,” says Gift to the others, ”if we’re willing to share a dressing room.”

Steele and Cox look confused. ”Share it with who?” asks Steele.

”Ourselves,” says Gift.

”Where?”

“‘On the tour.”

Cox frowns. ”That’s bizarre,” he mutters, baffled that anybody would think they’d want separate dressing rooms.

”I dunno,” says Gift with a laugh. ”Maybe somebody’s leaked some stories.”

This, to be sure, is a band with an odd dynamic. When the group was formed, Steele and Cox were the ones with a track record; since then Gift has captured most of the attention. In the hiatus between albums, Steele, 29, and Cox, 33, worked behind the scenes producing acts like the Wee Papa Girls and Pop Will Eat Itself and recording a British dance hit as 2 Men, a Drum Machine and a Trumpet; Gift, 28, meanwhile, was highly visible, acting in the films Sammy and Rosie Get Laid and Scandal. Steele and Cox are sardonic and cynical, with a reputation for being uncooperative; Gift is a self-described optimist who says he doesn’t mind doing promotion. Steele and Cox aren’t always the most cordial of companions, but they can be open and frank in interviews; Gift is a pleasant conversationalist who always seems to be holding something back. Steele and Cox both live in Tooting, a town in south London; Gift lives in Islington, just north of the City, London’s financial center. Add it up, they know, and it’s enough to start people asking questions.

”I don’t think people believe it when we say that we don’t mind Roland’s acting,” says Steele. ”They really believe it bothers us. But I don’t see why we would be upset, really. Why should we mind? If we were sitting at home getting bored, then maybe we’d mind a bit. But at the same time he was doing his films, we were doing other stuff. And if we’d been doing production and he’d sat at home bored, he’d have gotten pretty pissed off.

”It sounds phony, doesn’t it?” Steele continues. ” ‘Oh, we don’t mind.’ It’s like ‘We all treat animals really well’ and ‘We have great family lives.’ ”

Cox, who’s apparently been half listening, hears this last bit, shoots a baffled look at his partner and says, ”What are you talking about?”

Even if they sometimes don’t listen to one another, Gift insists that the band belongs together. ”I mean,” he explains, ”this group was sorta meant to happen. Since I’ve become a man, I’ve become more fatalistic.”

Steele and Cox both turn and stare at Gift. ”A man?” says Cox. ”When did you become a man?” asks Steele.

”Just this year, really,” says Gift, shrugging off the skeptical looks of his band mates. ”I think the transition from boy to man has taken me, probably, about two and a half years. I am actually a man now, whereas six months ago, or three months ago, or even two months ago, I was probably still verging on boy.”

So what happened?

”He started shaving,” says Cox with a grin.

”He got more hairs on his chest,” says Steele.

Gift forges on earnestly. ”It’s just sort of a feeling,” he says. ”It’s nothing to do with teenage spots or sexual problems, really. It’s just a feeling. You just eventually wake up and think, ‘Oh, yeah, I feel different today.’

”I’m not kidding,” Gift says, looking at his chuckling partners. ”I’m actually quite serious.”

Andy Cox and David Steele are on London’s Tottenham Court Road. It’s early evening, and they’re on their way from a subway station to a nearby Japanese restaurant. They pass a Scientology and Dianetics center, where a handful of people are visible through the glass storefront.

”That is a strange place,” says Steele. ”But we should get our personalities tested. It’s free, you know.”

Scientology, it is suggested, may end up with much of Elvis Presley’s fortune, since Lisa Marie Presley and her new husband are both devoted members. This might interest Fine Young Cannibals, since their version of Elvis’s ”Suspicious Minds” was their second hit.

”Yeah, I heard about that,” says Steele. ”I’ve been to Graceland twice, the first time on a VIP tour and the second time on my own. The second time was a lot better. I hate anything VIP, anyway.”

But the special tour did take Fine Young Cannibals to areas of the house off-limits to the public.

”Yeah,” Steele says. ”They show you the upstairs.”

But not the bedroom where Elvis frolicked with kittenish young women in white panties and not the bathroom where he died.

”No, not the bedroom,” Steele says. ”But we should go back now. What with us being on top of the charts and all, they’d probably show us the bedroom now.”

”The bedroom,” adds Cox, ”and the panties.”

Two of the three cannibals have come to a homey, noisy restaurant to eat Japanese food and talk about themselves — and for David Steele and Andy Cox, that’s a job that requires a few rounds of beer and sake, the better to cope with a disagreeable promotional chore.

”I used to be anti-American,” announces Steele, between sips of sake. ”But since I’ve become anti-American, which was, like, ten years ago, there’s not much that’s good about England anymore: the clubs, the shoes and the fish and chips… in some places.”

When it comes to the upcoming American tour, though, they’re trying to be as optimistic as possible.

”I think the tour will be good,” says Steele. ”And we’re usually pessimists, because if you think something will go wrong and it doesn’t, that’s good luck. But if you think something will go right, you’re tempting fate.”

In fact, Steele and Cox often seem to wear their pessimism and cynicism as a badge of honor: They may sell millions of records, the reasoning goes, but they can’t sell out if they don’t give a shit.

”People think we’re being funny or awkward, but all we’re being is true to ourselves,” says Steele. ”When groups start, they have a certain attitude: ‘Fuck it all, bollocks.’ And as they get more into the business, they lose that. They think, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s an important TV show, we gotta act proper.’ We try to keep that attitude — but it’s getting harder to keep it, because there’s more to lose.”

Certainly, that attitude was what brought Steele and Cox into music in the first place. Steele was raised on the Isle of Wight — site of a famous pop festival where Jimi Hendrix played and Steele’s mom took him ”to look at the hippies” — while Cox grew up in Birmingham, but both of them were drawn into music by the rude spirit of early British punk music. That spirit also informed 2-Tone, an offshoot movement that featured racially integrated bands playing ska, the hyperactive precursor to reggae.

Cox and Steele first performed onstage with the Beat (for legal reasons dubbed the English Beat in America), a spirited six-piece Birmingham band that hit the charts with a cover of Smokey Robinson’s ”Tears of a Clown” in late 1979. ”The first record was good,” says Cox of I Just Can’t Stop It, released in 1980, ”and then we were trapped touring and trying to whip one out in time for the company.” Steele says the band began to lose the crucial attitude — you know, ”We don’t give a fuck” — on its second album, Wha’ppen, released in 1981, and lost it completely by its third, the band’s critically acclaimed 1982 swan song, Special Beat Service. The group then split up amid no shortage of ill will. Lead singers Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger went on to form General Public, and though Steele and Cox had co-written most of the Beat songs from the beginning, many observers didn’t expect much of them.

They went looking for a lead singer, but not necessarily one who sang ska. ”You don’t dedicate your whole life to a certain beat,” says Steele. They were convinced that great singers ”must be two a penny.” It took them more than a year to find anyone, and at one point, they resorted to an announcement of their search on MTV. When they finally called Gift, it wasn’t because of his voice, but because they remembered his onstage charisma from his days playing saxophone in the Akrylyx, a band that had opened for the Beat. Says Steele, ”Calling Roland was almost half a risk, half a joke, really.”

Fine Young Cannibals (named after All the Fine Young Cannibals, a 1960 movie that none of them has ever seen) quickly collaborated on a version of ”Move to Work,” which appeared on the first FYC album. In the United States they were contractually bound to I.R.S. Records, which had signed the Beat, but they say that didn’t stop I.R.S. chief Miles Copeland from discouraging the project. ”The first time Miles met Roland,” says Steele, ”he offered Andy and me a job in the Howard Devoto band. In front of Roland. That’s how great he thought we were.”

”Never happened,” says Copeland. ”I was never putting a band together for Howard Devoto, and I’m not stupid to say in front of Roland, ‘Oh, by the way, do you guys want a job in somebody else’s band.’ I mean, I just do not understand how they could even have thought this. We thought Roland was great from day one. The biggest problem was going to MCA and American radio and getting them to realize that this guy was brilliant when radio said, ‘You gotta be joking — with a name like that this is not a serious group.’ ”

Fine Young Cannibals, the group’s first album, did extremely well overseas, less so in America despite heavy MTV play of ”Johnny Come Home” and ”Suspicious Minds.” And then the band members took their hiatus, surfacing only for solo projects, for a version of the Buzzcocks’ ”Ever Fallen in Love,” for the Something Wild soundtrack, and for several songs and a cameo appearance in the movie Tin Men.

During the break, Gift remembers, he was trying on pants in a clothing store when he overheard two saleswomen talking: One asked the other if he was ”that guy from Fine Young Cannibals,” and the other sniffed, ”One-hit wonder.” ”I really loved those trousers,” says Gift, ”but I couldn’t bring myself to buy them.”

Finally, last year, using several different studios and working with Prince associate David Z, Fine Young Cannibals finished the second album. In the United States the label still lists I.R.S., but the band says the record is actually handled by I.R.S.’s distributor, MCA Records. But whoever released it, it’s a certified American hit — a prospect that still leaves Steele and Cox puzzled as they order another round of sake and try to dissect the secret of their success.

”The funny thing,” says Steele, ”is that Americans get so excited about us when De la Soul should be on the cover of Time magazine. ‘Cause their LP was so far ahead of anything else…”

He shrugs. ”For me, people who are still obsessed with the Clash, the Sex Pistols and the Buzzcocks, that are not into De la Soul or whoever,” Steele says, ”they’re mixed up. They don’t understand how punk can connect with hip-hop. To me it seems like there’s a direct line: punk, 2-Tone, whatever, then hip-hop.”

Lest they be unduly pigeonholed, Steele and Cox go on to talk about other musicians they like, from their opening acts on the tour — Neneh Cherry and a female a cappella band called the Mint Juleps — to James Brown and Jerry Lee Lewis, who knocked them out when they saw him in San Francisco a couple of years ago.

”In a small way, that attitude he had, that he didn’t give a fuck, is what we try to do,” says Steele of Lewis.

”Though hopefully,” adds Cox, ”we won’t go crazy.”

Roland gift is on TV. it’s just before 8:00 A.M., and he’s being interviewed on TV-am, an English morning show. Gift is being cordial to the interviewer — a chirpy blonde whom an associate describes as ”something of a bimbo, really” — but he’s also playful. She asks about the title of The Raw and the Cooked, which she’s heard refers to the album’s one side of unadorned dance tracks and other side of lavishly arranged Sixties-style soul songs.

”Actually,” Gift says, ”it’s named after what our guitar player drinks before he goes onstage. A half pint of Guinness, two measures of port, one Irish whiskey and one raw egg.”

The interviewer looks confused by Gift’s straight-faced lie. ”But I was told,” she says, ”that it has to do with the music.”

”Nah,” he says. ”That’s just a vicious press rumor.”

I feel like I’ve been an ad man for the past year,” says Roland Gift. “I don’t feel like I’ve been a singer.”

It’s eleven on a cloudy London morning, and Gift has been playing the adman today. He got up at six this morning, only half an hour earlier than he’s been rising lately; but instead of practicing his tai chi, the way he usually does, he got dressed, put on his makeup and went over to the TV-am studios for his television interview. Then he headed back to his Islington flat, one of the units in a three-story brick building that sits in the shadow of a huge old church. And now, an hour or so later, he’s settling into a conference room at the Groucho Club — a low-key private club of which he is a member — for an afternoon of interviews.

Gift sits at the conference table dressed in black, finishing a cup of coffee and alternately playing with his spoon and toying with an ear lobe. He’s unfailingly polite and cordial and at the same time soft-spoken and private: There’s a delicacy about him that doesn’t always come across in videos or onscreen.

Talk of his fame, his sex-symbol status and his newfound clout makes him uncomfortable. The other night, Gift says, he and three friends went to the theater, and during intermission, one friend went into a restaurant and tried to make a reservation for after the show.

”They said, ‘Sorry, absolutely not,’ ” says Gift. ”And then he said, ‘Can I book a table for Roland Gift, the well-known singer and actor?’ And they said, ‘Yes, no problem.’ I didn’t think things like that really happened. So in that instance it was quite useful — but that’s as far as it goes, really.”

Still, he’s the band’s designated face, and he won’t admit to ever wishing that Steele and Cox would share some of the promotional burden. ”I can’t wish that,” Gift says, ”because it’s a fruitless wish. In the beginning, I was worried that if people interviewed David and Andy without me, I would just be seen as their backing singer.”

Of course, what happened was the opposite of what he was worried about. On record, Gift’s distinctive voice immediately grabs listeners; in videos and on the movie screen, his exotic good looks and streetwise but courtly presence make him a formidable sex symbol. And suddenly, Steele and Cox were the ones in danger of being overshadowed.

”Yeah, yeah,” Gift says, wearily. ”I mean, we have all been in groups in the past, so we know how it does work and how the singer does get the focus of attention. That’s just the way it is. It doesn’t make me feel more important than them, and I don’t think it bothers them, really. I think what would really upset them is if royalties were just assigned to Roland Gift.”

Gift has already done two vocal tuneups for the tour, playing shows in London and in Hull, where he sang standards, accompanied only by a guitarist. The show in Hull, particularly, must have had some resonance: It took place in the town where he grew up, in a club once managed by one of his two younger sisters, and his accompanist was the guitar player from his first real rock band. Gift was born in Birmingham of a white mother and black father but moved to Hull, a poor fishing town on the northeast coast of Great Britain. His father wasn’t around when he was growing up, and his mother supported the family by dealing in objets d’art.

”I was always embarrassed to bring anybody home,” Gift says, ”because our house was just full of junk. You could hardly see the carpet.”

Gift figured he would make a mark somehow, but at first he thought it would be in acting. At age thirteen, he won his school’s actor-of-the-year award. At the same time, he adds, ”I’ve always sort of felt like I could sing. I remember, ages and ages ago, seeing this program about blues singers, and I could just feel it, I knew that I could do it. But I hadn’t learned how to do it.”

He started to learn in the Akrylyx, a local band. His main job was to play the saxophone, but he also sang the odd tune, convinced that he was the best of the band’s three singers. It led to plenty of band intrigue — ”It was like I, Claudius or something,” Gift says — but before anything was settled, the band broke up. Gift moved to London, couldn’t get his musical career started and was working at the Camden Market and playing in a blues band when Cox’s girlfriend called him.

But at the same time, Gift hadn’t completely given up on acting. ”I did fancy having an Equity card,” he says. ”I wanted a card just so I’d be available in case anything came up, but I wasn’t gonna go out and hunt for it.”

After the first FYC album, he didn’t have to hunt for acting jobs, because producers came to him; he got the offer to do Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, for instance, after one of the filmmakers saw him on the British TV show Top of the Pops. And while he’s turned down most of the acting offers that have come his way, he still has plans in that field: Next year he’ll be appearing in London with the Royal Shakespeare Company, in a production he can’t talk about because it hasn’t been properly announced. (The rumor mill says Romeo and Juliet.) There’s also been some talk of his appearing as Che Guevara in Oliver Stone’s film version of Evita.

”With punk, it was the attitude that anybody could do anything,” Gift says. ”That’s the thing that got me involved in drama as well. That’s why I’m interested in working in drama a lot, really — because it’s become the property of the well-off, and it never was meant to be and it shouldn’t be. You know, I go to the theater and I’m the only black person in the audience. It makes you think, ‘This is fucking crazy.’ ”

Plans like this, though, are bound to lead to more questions about the future of Fine Young Cannibals: Can they sustain a career if their lead singer keeps moonlighting in the movies and onstage, will they squander their momentum with another three years between albums, or will they break up altogether? Steele, for one, says a two-year gap before the next album sounds reasonable, three years is more likely and four years would be a bit excessive.

As for Gift, he sees no end to the band. ”It’s a bit like a relationship, a group,” he says. ”You don’t say, ‘My darling, I’ll be with you for five years, and then I must go.’ If we had to go our separate ways, that would be acceptable, but I see no end to it. I’m really happy doing what I’m doing, making music and making films and that kinda stuff. And I wanna see where that takes me.”

He grins and for some reason returns to the topic that so amused his fellow Cannibals. ”It’s all to do with becoming a man,” he says. ”I recognize a lot more things about myself, now that I’m a man.”

Andy Cox just thought of something. ”I think one of my relatives was cannibalized,” he announces, out of the blue.

David Steele looks up with a start. ”Cannibalized,” he says.

”It’s true,” says Cox. ”The first fleet arrived in Australia in 1788, and three convicts escaped, one of whom was called Cox. You can check it out, it’s in the history books: the Pierce Expedition. And they went into the outback, and they were desperate after a few days, and they decided that the first one who fell asleep, they were going to eat him. And Cox was the one, you know? They ate him. And he came from the northeast of England, which is where my father’s family is from. My sister just moved to Sydney, and she’s looking into it, and she was telling me this morning that she thinks it’s true. That would be ironic, wouldn’t it?”

Steele, a Cannibal in name only, grimaces. ”Very ironic,” he says. ”But leave me and Roland out of this one, okay?”

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