Obviously, I’ve been thoroughly enjoying another Record Store Day session to coincide with Black Friday but whilst that is ostensibly about the joy of vinyl, let’s not forget that Christmas is coming and with it some of the year’s best and most surprising remasters and deluxe editions. The office postroom has been busy coping…
One I had been particularly looking forward to was the 30th anniversary reissue of Hipsway’s self-titled debut album which I certainly remember spinning aplenty all those years ago.
Of course, for most they are a band who were just really a one-hit wonder with the astounding 45, “The Honeythief”, back in 1986 but I had always liked back at the album quite fondly – and sadly, not many of us bought it.
They were a band built around a very sinuous sound that managed to sound languid and clipped at the same time, combining the deep Bowie-esque vocals of Grahame Skinner with the strong pulsing bass-lines of Johnny McElhone and the laser-like pickings of Pim Jones. Try the extended versions that are included and you can see just how tight a platform they were capable of laying down and unlike many remixes they add more to our understanding of the songs’ various dynamics.
And I shall say it now, it sounds better than it did 30 years ago and genuinely sounds entirely fresh for about 90% of the whole album. It’s a real treat. Think the best album Nile Rogers didn’t produce – crossing Duran Duran with “Let’s Dance” and throwing in all the spikiness and intelligence of Orange Juice – who I am now truly starting to believe were just about the most influential band you’ve never listened to properly.
So why weren’t Hipsway more successful?
Let’s start with McElhone as, firstly, it allows me to put in one of my favourite ever Top Of The Pops clips, and secondly, because he is a man with an impressive credentials. His time in Hipsway is bookended by teenage stardom courtesy of Altered Images and over a decade’s worth of success with Texas.
In 1983, Altered Images had one final tilt at the big time with a more mature recording called “Bite” which is another of those albums I still cherish and probably will get round to expounding upon here one of these days. We still had the simply heavenly Claire Grogan warbling but there was a more sophisticated backing that borrowed those terrific choppy Chic riffs so beloved of Postcard Records and would emerge even more powerfully in Hipsway.
I am not going to apologize for wanting to watch that clip again.
Sadly, Altered Images broke up after the comparative failure of “Bite” – shame on you all – and McElhone teamed up with the velvet voice of Grahame Skinner and together with drummer Harry Travers put together a suitably enigmatic portfolio of songs. Being part of Glasgow’s scene which included the criminally ignored Friends Again and The Bluebells, they would soon come to the attention of the avid talent scouts who were all over the city at the time and they were soon signed to Mercury Records who put a lot of faith in their likely success.
The music press got right behind them too, particularly Record Mirror, and were continuously espousing the band’s virtues. I certainly remember them being very impressed by the promotional give-away of Hipsway-branded socks, which seemed a merchandising first at the time. NME were a little sniffy at first, thinking them too obviously influenced by Bowie’s enigmatic “Station To Station” – though wasn’t every new-wave-isn band of the time? – although I felt it’s “Let’s Dance” that leaves the bigger imprint. Eventually, even they would come round and announce their status as likely contenders.
However, the record buying public had chosen to ignore all the hype and the excellent first two singles “The Broken Years” and the majestic “Ask The Lord” simply failed to sell and things looked bad. Nowadays, it is certain that a record company would not keep faith but hats off to Mercury they stuck with it and gradually, radio picked up on the sublime “The Honeythief” as mysterious a song as you will ever hear, set to a dark threatening dance rhythm.
The rest of the album has many similar highlights in a vein that seems to presage the soon-to-be massive INXS. “Bad Thing Longing” and “Upon A Thread” keep this slightly threatening claustrophobic mood that had made the single such a success. Meanwhile, another track “Tinder” was chosen by McEwans Lager (another true 80s artifact) as the soundtrack for one of their (hugely expensive for the time) commercials. Admittedly, it may not look like it now but it was a real zeitgeist ad.
They had the look and they undoubtedly had the sound. HIpsway seemed to be right at the very point of world domination.
But despite a hit in the US, it just never happened. They disappeared quicker than they had taken to appear. McElhone left to set up Texas. A second album took three years to make and sank without trace and now Hipsway seem just a footnote in pop history.
So how can this have happened?
The answer lies to my mind in the second failed single “Ask The Lord” which was inexplicably remixed by the producer brought into finish off the album, Paul Staveley O’Duffy who would go on to produce Swing Out Sister and Curiosity Killed The Cat (who also seem to have borrowed some of Hipsway’s magic formula). He had replaced Gary Langan, the original producer, and added polish to the whole album. “Ask The Lord” had already been released and so he created a new version which, to his mind, took the best bits of “The Honeythief” to make what would become the follow-up.
Sadly, he took the veneer not the edge of the band’s sound and a really great song became a lost 45 for the second time, mired in too much over-production… and with it went the band’s progress. Both versions are on the remaster so if you’re of a mood, you can compare and contrast.
The real tragedy is that the final release from the album, “Long White Car”, never reached a wider audience either. It is a beautifully moody piece that has all the exemplary plaintive qualities of The Blue Nile, combined with the elegiac nature of a song like Aztec Camera’s “Killermont Street” or Deacon Blue’s “Raintown”. Contemporaries all, of course.
In the new sleeve notes, the band lament its demise too but it was always a simply wonderful recording.
And on such decisions are pop fortunes made and indeed lost. Momentum counts for everything and this is why so many bands burn out. For many it is a simple dearth of material worthy of following the initial break-through.
I don’t think this was the case for Hipsway. They should have been so much bigger – so shame on you Mr Record Executive. Listening to the album all over again has been hugely enjoyable and I am certain that, by the number of other acts I have cited that quite a few of them thought so too and mimicked and plundered many of its highlights.