“Breakout: now you’ve found a break to make it last”. Swing Out Sister’s signature tune, and they certainly did that. But where are they now?
by Mark Keen
Some people would probably define Swing out Sister by their two big hits at the start of their career, but they would be missing so much more beyond these early pop hits. SOS only really came to my attention in 1987 after the first two hits whilst I was wallowing in the self-pity of being dumped by my one (and only) girlfriend. The group took their name from a 1945 American musical/comedy film (apparently the band hated the name, and I must admit it did initially put me off as well).
SOS started quietly in 1985 with a minor hit “Blue Mood” which just missed the top 40, but in many ways more representative of the first album than the next two pop hits. However, they made it big in 1986 with “Breakout” – a big hit both in the UK and in the States. The lead singer, Corinne Drewery (as mentioned in the Sade ‘where are they now’ – they were contemporaries at Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design) cut a striking figure with her Cleopatra bobbed hair which still remains as glossy today as it did then. She would be supported by two group members on the first album campaign, but then would remain a duo up to the current day.
The follow up hit “Surrender” would retain that momentum in 1987 again hitting the top ten in the UK. Their debut album “It’s Better To Travel” (what a great name for an album) would hit the number one spot in the UK and the top 40 in the USA. The album was a true smorgasbord and I loved it. A familiar name to SAW fans will be SOS contributor Gary Barnicle who also played the sax on Kylie’s “Let’s Get To It” album and a featured musician on a favourite of mine, Sonia and Big Fun’s “You’ve Got A Friend”. The album included a number of styles and it really is worth checking out. I loved the jazzy-Summery “After Hours” and the epic instrumental track “Theme (From It’s Better To Travel)”. This track really signified the often filmic qualities of their songs. The album would get a well deserved reissue by Cherry Pop Records in 2012 to mark its 25th anniversary.
There were two further minor hits from the first album with great videos filmed during their time in the USA promoting the album. My favourite would have to be “Twilight World” which deserved to be a much bigger hit. I love the line “don’t be fooled by love songs and lonely hearts”.
It would be 1989 before the follow up album “Kaleidoscope World” would appear which I would describe as their masterpiece. It arrived with critical acclaim and hit the top 10 in the UK, although the singles would make much less impact. Perhaps the retro style more akin to Burt Bacharach than Blackbox, did not do the singles any favours. However, “You On My Mind”, was an inspired first single with its 1960s vibe and video inspired by ‘The Thomas Crown Affair’.
Further videos were made, and were released on a 1989 video tape complication which I remember picking up for £1 from PoundStretcher in Hull. There were loads of copies. I resisted buying them all! Check out the videos for “Waiting Game” (the lead release in the USA), “Forever Blue” and “Where In The World”.
Around this time there was a great cover of “Windmills Of My Mind” released in Japan, where their career would really start to take off. They certainly were big in Japan. The Japanese have great taste obviously!
Three years would pass before the third album and another change of styles would beckon. “Get In Touch With Yourself” would follow in 1992 and was more 70s soul influenced. The album was criminally underrated just scraping into the top 30 in the UK, although things got off to a lively start with the first single release, the cover of “Am I The Same Girl?”, returning SOS to the UK top 30 for the first time in three years, and enjoying considerable success in the USA.
Although the follow up single “Not Gonna Change” was not a top 40 hit, it was again a forgotten gem with a great Frankie Knuckles remix. I love the sentiment of this song.
It felt like the chart momentum was lost a bit after this, but SOS had really moved on from craving chart success. The last bite at the cherry would be in 1994 with a cover of “La La Means I Love You” from the ‘Four Weddings And A Funeral’ soundtrack which would be their last top 40 entry.
The resultant album in 1994 “The Living Return” saw a more live approach to recording and was a departure again for SOS. Hopefully the success of the ‘Four Weddings’ soundtrack put some pennies in the coffers.
I must admit I lost track of SOS for a number of years as a number of subsequent albums had Japan only releases, with considerable success I might add. There were albums in 1997 “Shapes And Patterns”, “Filth And Dreams” (1999) and “Somewhere Deep In The Night” (2001) which piqued my interest again after I picked up a promotional CD copy by chance in a second hand record shop for 99p. I loved it as it felt like a return to the orchestrated feel of “Kaleidoscope World”.
There would be further albums “Where Our Love Grows” (2004) and “Beautiful Mess” (2008) whilst the band would continue to tour particularly in Asia and Japan. By 2014 SOS were busy again starting a PledgeMusic project entitled ‘A Moveable Feast’ and this would culminate in the recently released (2017) 10th album “Almost Persuaded”. This album received some excellent reviews and was a significant hit on the US Jazz Albums chart.
I thought I would leave you with another video to celebrate the unique sound of Swing Out Sister…
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American here. Loved this band from the first time I heard “Breakout” and I’ve followed them since. They never got the attention they deserved on this side of the Atlantic. Perhaps they had a taste of American-style global mass popularity with those initial hits and decided after a while that they no longer cared to conform to the formulas and pressure that drive that kind of chart success. I was nevertheless pleased to see them soldier on as they found a strong cult following anyway, especially in Japan (I noticed the Japanese script on some of their album sleeves). They evolved from their poppy synth-and-beats sound to a mellower organic sort of vibe, but I am generalizing as they could still go into thumping dance floor mode when they pleased.
Drewery and Connell are quite a match with her smooth alto tones and his frequently John Barry like compositions (especially the instrumentals: I’m not the only one to feel some of them would make great Bond movie themes). It wasn’t just their sound I liked, I also loved their aesthetic: Corinne always looking gorgeous and chic with her Louise-Brooks-bob and Andy in his smooth casual jazzman linen jackets and trousers. I also like how they return to some of their early material and remake it with a different production: I’ve heard three versions of “Incomplete Without You,” and I like them all. As for their newer work, my favorite from “Almost Persuaded” is the title tune and “Happier Than Sunshine.” As they are no longer a major, mass-market act, it’s probably harder for them to get an album release financed, but if they decide to do another on-line fund raiser for their next project, I’ll contribute. It would be money well invested!