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  • Tony Harris

FLEETINGLY ATTRACTIVE


One of those unavoidable cliches you read in the music press is when they talk of the "difficult second album"; the album that is inevitably much in demand from the record label keen to follow up on a successful debut. That debut had almost certainly been packed with songs honed over many nights of live performances so that they had an in-built tightness, familiarity and above all quality control.


The second album is usually to be squeezed out in the midst of endless rounds of global promotion and so often is found to suffer. It's probably why so many debut albums are so highly rated by audiences and follow-ups often struggle. I always think ABC's "Beauty Stab" is the classic example - though when listened to now it's a lot more enjoyable than it was in 1983.


I do think it's a cliche, however, as often the follow-up is far more considered as the artist has become more familiar with the recording process, with their audiences and inevitably their own sound. The sophomore albums of everyone from Led Zeppelin to Duran Duran all demonstrated significant leaps in their musical career progression.


There do though, seem to be very few examples of a genuinely stellar first album that brought no follow-up at all. Such though was the case for Fairground Attraction's "First Of A Million Kisses" - a band that within less than 10 months of their release had been awarded two Brit awards (for best single and best album) and within 18 had all but disappeared and their major hit relegated to advertising a supermarket.


What makes it even more strange is that they appeared largely out of nowhere and despite their success brought no real imitators to fill their gap once they had disappeared - at least not for many years.


Most of us who bought this album will have been first exposed to the band by the ubiquitous "Perfect" which hit the number one spot in the UK as well as Australia and South Africa and proved popular across Northern Europe. In the US, it only really found traction amongst either the country audience or a little college rock.


But what was their sound?


It was part-folk part-jazz part-Cajun all wrapped up in an Indie vibe. But where had this melange come from?


There are elements of the album's production that have the introspection of Everything But The Girl - perhaps on songs like the touching "Comedy Waltz" - and this also picks up naturally enough some of the Celtic influences of bands like Deacon Blue and Aztec Camera but without some of the panorama that they inevitably brought by then.



They looked like buskers and sounded like very accomplished ones at that - not least because of the acoustic backing of Mark Nevin and the gentle swinging rhythm of Ray Dodds. But it is really the use of the guitarron - a Hispanic acoustic bass played by Simon Edwards that created such a unique sound.


Remember 1988 was the year of Stock Aitken and Waterman, American RnB and by the end Acid House. The indie world was breaking up with the demise of The Smiths (Nevin would go on to collaborate with Morrissey) and then The Housemartins.


Fairground Attraction were a complete but delightful anomaly that sadly seem perhaps something of a novelty now.


And yet Eddi Reeder's soaring vocals manage to drive an album of varied influence and pace without seemingly pausing for breath. She had been a backing vocalist with the Eurythmics and I suspect you had to go some in order to match Annie Lennox vocally.



The band though seem not to have come from any major scene and certainly not one that had had much success. There had been some noise around traditional country/jazz bands such as The Boothill Foot Tappers and The Shillelagh Sisters but without anything more than a few sales and some late-night radio play.


And yet here came Fairground Attraction using that most un-80s of instruments a clarinet on the Dixieland-styled "Clare" - a wonderful narrative of the enduring ghost-like dominance of "the other woman". It was remarkably catchy and one of the highlights of the album.



A second single lit up the airwaves later in 1988 as "Find My Love" picked up an almost Bossa-nova feel to soundtrack the summer. It too made the top 10 and the band looked set fair for success - especially in Japan who greeted them riotously.


By the time they won their awards in early 1989 at the infamous ceremony hosted by Mick Fleetwood and Samantha Fox which is still one of the greatest live TV car crashes ever, their career looked to be hitting the skids with the next two singles not making the Top 40 and the album now virtually all played out.



However, they had the best part of a second album ready and were debuting it during live gigs over in Japan but all really was not well and despite their live shows being tremendously popular, the differences within the band and especially Reeder and Nevin ensured that the clashes became fiercer and the band split before the second album could be completed.


A stunned record company put out a second album "Ay Fond Kiss" which was made up of unreleased tracks, covers and B-sides but nobody really (your author excepted) was really that excited and their flame was snuffed out. And it's a shame that the second record is so obscure nowadays because actually they turned their hand to all manner of different approaches (including Reeder's first musical attempts at the work of Robert Burns) and it hangs together really quite well.


"The First Of A Million Kisses" is still an enormously accomplished recording but its unusualness seemed to only catch fire for a very brief period albeit very very brightly. It seemed like a breath of fresh air at the time but one that did not require any real repetition to the assembled listenership of 1988-9.


The band had the kind of image that reflected indie trends and their acoustic feel seemed to at least come from a similar world to Billy Bragg or Terry & Gerry but there was no politics, and no statements. Their decision seems to have been to follow the folk and jazz traditions much more closely with narratives and moods but without the anger or irony that characterised much of the indie scene at the time. Listen to the eerie mood they set around the eponymous track "Fairground Attraction" - all swirls and eddies.



All of which makes their vanishing all the more surprising - they had a unique sound and were lyrically timeless. But there were no bandwagon jumpers and no imitators and only records like the wonderful "Pure" by The Lightning Seeds from later in 1989 seemed to want to pick up this kind of positive but authentic outlook - and even that was not a massive hit.


Perhaps the fact that they weren't really an indie band at all was their undoing and so fell between popularity and credibility quicker than most, losing the opportunity to correct any misconceptions. Maybe, when the performed tracks like "The Moon Is Mine" they just looked too bloody cheerful.


The Europeans seem to have taken to this sound more willingly, however, and you can hear their influence in acts like Vaya Con Dios, Liane Foly and even, such more recently, Caro Emerald where this kind of vagabond jazz vibe can prove so popular still.


History has not been kind enough to this album, although it's not one you often see discarded in the charity shop bins. Perhaps all over the world there are people who still have a lasting affection for it that reminds of an odd but delightfully sunnier time.


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