18 January 2015

Susan Fassbender & Kay Russell

So I'm in this small but fashionable club in Central London, a late-night watering hole with an expensive bar. It's teeming with young men, some wearing sagging trousers, who are either ludicrously blitzed on cocaine or so obnoxious and arrogant they don't even need to touch the stuff (it's hard to decide what conclusion about their behaviour is worse). There's not enough dancing, but plenty of glares, sharp elbows and shoulder barges. It's like a cramped, darkened pen filled with angry Stags locking horns, testing out the strength of the competition.

A beefy, blonde-haired wide-boy tumbles down the stairs by the entrance near where I'm standing waving his arms and shouting "EVERYBODY OUT OF THE FUCKING WAY!" As he passes me, he sneers and says "I was only fucking joking! It's a joke! Jesus, maaaan!" then rolls his eyes, staggering off to the venue's soundtrack of chart-based EDM and the aggressive, commercial end of Hip-Hop. It's the kind of place where you'd guess Dapper Laughs is considered a "legend" by 75% of the clientele.

So, you could say I was there against my will. Not my kind of place. I'm too old, not enough of a thrusting young banker, estate agent or salesperson, and too badly in need of a carefree good time and not a slightly threatening environment full of Alpha A male poseurs. But then something funny happens. I hear a slightly Orange Juice styled guitar line. A familiar thudding bassline throbs out of the PA. Then a squeaky synth frill. Then the opening lines "Sometimes I get so low/ there's only one place I can think of to go…" The DJs dance along in the booth to this one-hit wonder relic from 1980, and there are no protests - people carry on having their own peculiar version of a good time, and the record fills the venue, offering light relief by actually being a good track (as well as the irony of the fact that this club is about as far flung from my idea of "The Twilight Cafe" as it can get).

I realise it's the third time I've witnessed "Twilight Cafe" getting revived in an unexpected setting in a year. Once was in another much more welcoming club where retro 60s and 70s tunes were more the order of the day, the other when I witnessed legendary Scottish pop band Bis revive the track. From a DJ'ing perspective, it's a ripe pick (I own it myself, and have indeed played it out myself). You can find copies in second-hand shops for 50p. It's seldom heard on the radio these days, but familiar enough to people who know their pop music to get a few feet straight on the dancefloor, and strong enough that the brilliant and simple persuasive beat can coax the floating voters too. A win/win situation. DJs are vain enough that they enjoy getting a chance to do something both populist and slightly unexpected
 at the same time, and if they can do it and get change from a pound coin, then they are truly blessed. (entry continues below) 

The sudden reappearance of the track got me thinking about Susan Fassbender and who she was, and what she did next. I'd seen a clip of her on TOTP2 on BBC2 some years before, smiling prettily behind long flowing hair and glasses, looking pleased as punch to be on the show. Steve Wright, BBC Radio 2's well known hunk, offered little information but mocked her in his intro, stating that she looked like a doctor's receptionist.

I realised I'd better dig around online. And the truth is, there's not much out there, a few scraps of interviews and YouTube clips aside. It would seem that Fassbender, born as Susan Whincup in Bradford, was something of a minor prodigy, being an accomplished musician on the piano, clarinet and timpani by the age of thirteen. She eventually met Kay Russell who became her songwriting partner, and they wrote furiously together, getting signed to the small indie Criminal Records for their efforts in the process.

"Twilight Cafe" was written in response to the label's demands to have something that sounded more like a hit, and punched far above its weight, a rare case of the artist out-scoring the record company's abilities. The track took on such a strong life of its own that Criminal signed it over to another party, CBS, who provided it with a safer journey into the Top 40.

In a fairer world, Fassbender and Russell would have been set up for at least the next few years. "Twilight Cafe" would have been the top ten hit it deserved to be and not the number 21 mini-hit it became, and further hits would have flowed forth. But things went dumper-bound very quickly. The slightly reggae-tinged follow up "Stay" failed to even enter the top 75 despite some media publicity, perhaps partly due to the decision to credit the track to the garbled sounding Fassbender Russell. Chirpy in a slightly too plasticky, poptastic way, it lacked the cool and poise of "Twilight Cafe" and perhaps also partly suffered as a result of that.

Third single "Merry Go Round" was released under the Susan Fassbender name again, and is a greater success artistically speaking, managing to pull off the hat-trick of being poppy, mournful and pretty damn good, focussing its lyrics on unemployment and anonymity.  The sound again veers towards the alternative pop music dominant during the period, with a keyboard riff that wouldn't have sounded completely out of place on a Teardrop Explodes single. Despite that, its failure was the final straw for CBS, who sent the two women packing without honouring a release of their album. They failed to get signed elsewhere, eventually drifted apart to become wives and mothers, and the game was very clearly up. It's hard to stay involved with writing and performing music even when you have some spare hours in the day - parenthood often eliminates those possibilities entirely.

Then around five years ago, Kay Russell unexpectedly re-emerged with the news that she was going to put some the pair's demos out for general release on iTunes. Following a lot of the usual tedious legal to-ing and fro-ing with the music industry, the album of demos emerged in 2012, and in places really underlines some other slices of goodness we were denied. In particular, "Eliliath" - the track below  -manages to yet again pull off the trick of being hauntingly catchy, focussing on the delusions of either a mentally ill person or a genuine psychic seeing a world others "cannot see". "You call me stupid or psychotic or both" spits Fassbender, "drug me up… until I feel I'm dead". Delicate glockenspiel lines dance under airy synths and an insistent chorus. It's poppy, celebratory and yet doomed sounding at the same time, in love and hate with its subject matter.  (entry continues beneath YouTube clip).

Tragically, Fassbender committed suicide in 1991. There is no information available on what happened, and to all previous online enquiries a daughter of hers has confirmed her death but asked not to be engaged in any further conversations on the topic. This should be respected. It doesn't seem as if we'll ever know about what else she wrote, recorded or did privately until a time when someone close to her feels ready to communicate something - and that may very well never happen.

What we do have, however, is what's out there, and what Kay Russell - whose own contributions are at least half of the story - has very generously released to the world. While Fassbender usually got the sleeve credit, it would appear that they were a songwriting duo in the classic sense of the phrase, able to create wonders together that they struggled to produce to the same effect while apart. "It was a bit weird and strange," Russell once remarked, "we seemed to be able to write in ANY style, when we were writing together".

As ever, it's tempting to speculate on what went wrong with their careers. Possibly the enthusiastic ordinariness of Russell and Fassbender seemed at odds with both the studied post-punk cool of the times and the glossy sheen of new pop. The pair do look slightly more seventies than eighties in some YouTube clips, and while that might not have mattered too much initially while they existed on the cusp of the two decades, the image might have eventually grated on the cooler kids in their darkened nightclubs. Behind the hard hitting eighties production there's also a tint of the classic seventies singer-songwriter craft, which is no crime at all, but may have seemed slightly too knowing, introspective and intricate for the decadent pop scene that dominated at the time.

I'm guessing wildly, of course. It's all I can do. Whatever the reasons, what we have is all we've got, and it's better than you'd think, and deserves a lot more written about it than anyone has so far bothered to do. Consider this my little attempt to nudge a few more people in the right direction. 


Arthur Nibble said...

Fully agree with your comment about Steve Wright. One of radio's ugliest DJ's with a nose that could cut cheese. Also, Probably the UK pioneer of that godawful "Zoo" style of radio show where you get more waffle and far less music, Chris Evans and Christian O'Connell being other holders of the "me me me" award.

23 Daves said...

I wasn't bothered by Steve Wright's ugliness, Arthur, until I heard him sneering about Susan Fassbender. Previously he's had colleagues sticking up for him for all the criticism he's received about his physical appearance, but after remembering all his comments on TOTP2, it's difficult to sympathise in the slightest.

Meanwhile, Christian O'Connell used to be an amazing and genuinely quite subversive Radio DJ in his XFM days in the early noughties. Not anymore, obviously.

Arthur Nibble said...

I wasn't a fan of "Twilight Café" at the time, but since you uploaded the tune, I can't get its cunning simplicity out of my head. I need to wipe it, where's that download of "Headlights" by Driver 67?

Christian O'Connell was great on Xfm, but he now spends chunks of his Absolute Radio show blathering in the round with the travel reporter, the newsreader, and Christian's old sidekick from a previous radio stint in Bournemouth. Harmless enough, funny on occasions, but I'd rather hear more 'discs' spun - I hear enough blah at work.

radioman01 said...

Anyway - getting back to the subject - what a fascinating story, what there is of it. Thank you for writing about them. They deserve to be more than just a blip on the radar. A pity the pop-buying public were/are so shallow, re appearances.

Reimer said...

Always sad to read of such frustration and failure, and with such a tragic ending still so far from the era when rediscovery of lost/neglected talent became practical. yet another reason to hate 1991.

That club you were in sounds like the fourth or fifth Circle of Hell. You should have left them a present, ticking in a holdall.

23 Daves said...

Yes. It was one of the grimmest places I've attended in recent years. Always amazes me what environments pass for "fun" in some people's minds.

Thanks for the comments, everyone.

AJ said...

Great Post