Thursday, 8 November 2012
96 Reveal - Fischer-Z
Purchased : 13th August 1988
Tracks: The Perfect Day / Leave It To The Businessmen To Die Young / I Can't Wait That Long / Tallulah Tomorrow / Realistic Man / Fighting Back The Tears / Big Drum / Heartbeat / It Takes Love / So Far
This was bought on order from Save Records in Rochdale for £5.99.
It was a major surprise, early in 1988 , to come to the Singles page in Record Mirror and see a review ( not a favourable one ) for a new Fischer-Z record , "The Perfect Day" . The following week it was the opening video on The Chart Show and it made the 75-100 section of the charts after picking up a bit of radio play. This "comeback " album duly followed.
Fischer-Z came to my attention in May 1979 when they appeared on Top Of The Pops to perform "The Worker", their second single which was just outside the Top 40. I thought it was fantastic and it still is one of my favourite records of all time. Unfortunately it became one of the very rare instances in those heady days of a single going down the charts after featuring on the programme. Front man John Watts, in a Record Mirror interview two years on, blamed it on the production which emphasised the "nice poppy keyboards" instead of the voice and guitar ( i.e. him ). I don't think that performance has ever made it on to TOTP2 but there's a contemporary appearance from a Dutch TV show on youtube which suggests that his own prattish stage antics might have been the problem ( in similar fashion to Howard Devoto whose over-squeamish appearance the previous year was thought to have scuppered Shot By Both Sides ) .
That was as near as they ever came to a hit in the UK though they were popular in Europe ( quite how much I've never been able to ascertain ) particularly in Germany and Portugal. They recorded three albums before splitting up in 1981. John Watts thereafter continued as a solo artist with some success in Germany. I'm not sure why, in 1987, he decided to resurrect the brand name without reuniting with the other three musicians. The line-up for this album is a six piece with an extra guitarist and female backing singer but as sole writer and producer of every track Watts is clearly in charge.
This purchase wasn't without risk; after all one single doesn't make an album and the second single vanished without trace or me hearing it. I'd also heard the odd John Watts solo track in the intervening years and not been impressed; they'd sounded leaden and unmelodic.
"The Perfect Day" ( a Top 20 hit in Australia ) kicks off the proceedings with the pure tones of Jennie Cruse singing the refrain "It's a game everyone has to play" then there's a pause which is a second or so longer than you'd expect before the music comes in, a pulsing bass and the clanking keyboard noises last heard on their original contemporaries The Flying Lizards's Money. Then Watts enters with that unmistakable voice, a brittle tenor always threatening to break down and frequently doing so , into a high-pitched yowl somewhere between Robin Gibb and Neil Young. It's not always likeable but certainly distinctive. The song details sad lives spent waiting for something to turn up with a despairing chorus that hints at depression setting in - "you come for a day stay for a week". The song is brisk enough to begin with but becomes frantic at the end as if time is running out for these people. It's a stunning return to form. I've also just noticed some definite similarities to We Didn't Start The Fire suggesting that Billy Joel thought so too.
The next two tracks are an immediate return to the pedestrian guitar rock of Watts's solo years. "Leave It To The Businessmen To Die Young" gives the lie to the album's title being lyrically impenetrable. Many of Watts's songs are like overhearing someone on the phone, full of personal references which defy a comprehensive interpretation. The verses are addressed to a girl who seems too good to be true but what that's got to do with businessmen popping their clogs is anyone's guess. Musically it's very dull with sparse verses exposing a particularly harsh Watts vocal and a lame chorus.
"I Can't Wait That Long" continues the theme of impatience but could also concern the arrival of Care In The Community about which you'd expect Watts, a former mental health worker to have an opinion. The song is from the point of view of a wanderer having some sort of breakdown in public and remembering when he was "shut and bolted". It's serious stuff but again it's musically too lame to grab your attention. The main interest is the credit for original keyboard player Steve Skolnick. I don't know if he came in to lay down a part or the track had been started prior to 1981 ( more likely given Watts's outrageous belittling of his outstanding playing on "The Worker" quoted above ) but it's barely audible and represents the only contribution any of Watts's original colleagues made to the post-88 model's music.
Matters improve with "Tallulah Tomorrow" whose high-life guitar stylings and tumbling vocal delivery suggest Watts had been listening to Graceland. Tallulah is a presumably elderly lady who has died Benny Hill - style in front of the TV but unlike him "still waiting for her moment to come on" . It's that compassion for unfulfilled lives that should have put Watts on the same pantheon as Morrissey or Jam-era Weller but it never happened. Watts details Tallulah's removal from the house drily enough leaving it to the wistful melody, Cruses's ethereal backing vocal and child like xylophone to express the sentiment.
"Realistic Man" features only Watts and new musical foil Ian Porter ( the only player apart from Watts to appear on every track ). If the credits are correct Porter deserves great credit for getting amazingly authentic-sounding string sounds from his keyboard. It's another deeply personal song conveying a stoic acceptance of personal betrayal to a slow sad waltz with echoes of Therapy ?'s Diane.
"Fighting Back The Tears" starts off a more consistent second side although it's probably the weakest track of the bunch. The unrelenting rimshot snare beat and minimalist clipped guitar might be a riposte to the Police comparisons that dogged them first time round but don't actually help to shore up an indifferent song. There seems to be more than one narrative voice here with Watts both victim and transgressor but there's no tune to anchor it.
"Big Drum" the second , completely ignored, single seems to be a comment on the emptiness of over-produced eighties music. There's a fair resemblance to Tears For Fears's Change in the music but there's an attractive plantive chorus and good pace to the song.
The final three songs are more introspective and concerned with love. "Heartbeat" is virtually a tribute to Talking Heads with Watts doing an uncanny impersonation of David Byrne on the verses and replicating that scratchy white funk guitar throughout. Gospelly backing vocals from sessioners Judy la Rose and Lorenza Johnson and percussion from former Haircut 100 man Mark Fox complete the picture. The chorus adds some melody with Porter underscoring it with a Propaganda-ish epic keyboard line. It's not Watts's greatest song but the vim of the performance carries you along.
"It Takes Love" returns us to the turn of the decade white reggae sound of The Planets or Boomtown Rats's Banana Republic for the first of two hymns to domesticity. Watts does it almost entirely in his highest register and too loud in the mix which is a bit hard on the ears and the Bobby McFerrin scat in the background ( probably also him ) is equally irritating. The Sapphires ( presumably the UK soul trio who put out a couple of singles on Stiff earlier in the decade ) make the chorus a bit more appealing but it's a bit of a dog's dinner. Incidentally one Mark Donnelly is credited on sax but it sounds more like an abrasive trumpet to these ears.
"So Far" is much more acceptable blending the quirky synth sounds of Scritti Politti's The "Sweetest" Girl with the choppy guitar sound of Steely Dan's Haitian Divorce. Watts sings it in the softest tones he's capable of as befits a song of comfort to a partner fretting about lack of finance - "It's only money and what's money without us ?" Cruse makes her only appearance on this side and her soothing tones reinforce the message. She gets a chance to shine on the middle eight where she sounds like Judie Tzuke. It ends the album on a high.
Predictably enough this album did nothing chartwise; it's so stylistically diverse and unanchored to anything else that was happening in 1988 that it's difficult to conjure up what sort of audience attract. Watts continued making Fischer-Z records for the next 8 years shedding more members as he went and other than them not getting radio play or appearing on shelves I've no real reason for their failure to appear here. We will come to Fischer-Z again but going back rather than forwards.