Strawberry Switchblade

A Personal History by Alistair Fitchett

Strawberry Switchblade never fitted in. They were faces of the year in 1985, before disappearing into the obscurity they had emerged from; a peculiar punctuation to a peculiar decade of New Pop.

There was a lot of talk about New Pop in the '80s. Eventually it came to mean the type of sanitised chart fodder as churned out by the likes of Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, Culture Club, Nik Kershaw or Howard Jones, whereas it ought to have meant the likes of Vic Godard and the Subway Sect or Scars. Paul Morley, who wrote about the New Pop in the NME in the early '80s put it perfectly in his book 'ASK'; "If life was less complicated and everything had gone according to plan, Subway Sect's 'Ambition' would now be regarded as one of rock music's greatest number ones, and groups influenced by Subway Sect, like Fire Engines, would now be more successful than Duran Duran."

Strawberry Switchblade were classic New Pop; categorised by most alongside Howard Jones, but in truth belonging to the Morley defined elite. Their roots display their right to belong, and their whole story strengthens their hold.

Rose McDowall and Jill Bryson were classic Glasgow punks. In the true spirit of the times they created a personal visual revolution with mixed up style that was completely Pop. Attendants to the punk rock explosion that electrified Glasgow in the late '70s, they were a part of the bohemian art scene who adored the New York Dolls and who followed local peculiarities Nu-Sonics from pillar to post in their brief and blinding 'career'.

As the Nu-Sonics dissolved, so the Sound Of Young Scotland began to develop across a range of individuals and groups, showing what was possible in the post-punk fall out of the New Wave. Art student David McClymont picked up a plectrum and joined ascendant Nu-Sonics metamorphosis Orange Juice on stage in the dingy but brilliantly off the wall Vic Bar at the Glasgow School Of Art in 1979, and performed on a double bill that also show-cased Edinburgh's TV Art (later to become Josef K). Elsewhere the important noises of Scottish youth were also blossoming, in Edinburgh's intense, fractious and funky Fire Engines and their upstart reflections Scars.

Ludicrously glamorous and with a sharp attack in their guitar driven noise, Scars were probably the most ill-treated and misrepresented of all the nascent talent to appear in the end of the decade confusion, even more so than Orange Juice would eventually prove to be. But their sole FAST single, the murderous sounding 'Adult(ery)' / 'Horrorshow ' stands still as testament to the potential for frustrated genius to make classic Pop.

Meanwhile, the fledgling darlings of New Pop, Orange Juice, had recorded a live version of 'Felicity' as a flexi-disc and intended to release it with a fanzine in true punk-rock style. The fanzine was to be named after a James Kirk song, and was to be called 'Strawberry Switchblade'. The fanzine never materialised, however, and the flexi eventually appeared as an addition to the debut Postcard single 'Falling and Laughing'. The name, however, was another matter.

Appropriated in true Pop Art tradition, Strawberry Switchblade became Rose and Jill's moniker in their own chase towards Pop stardom.

The debut Strawberry Switchblade single was, and is a classic of pastoral pop. 'Trees and Flowers' - a song perversely about the fears of the open air (it was about Jill's agoraphobia) - mixed acoustic instrumentation with Rose and Jill's great and individual vocals.

What was so great about Strawberry Switchblade was the imperfection. It was in their look (they called themselves the 'scabby witches from Glasgow'), and it was in their sound. At a first, cursory listen their harmonising vocals sound squeaky clean, crisp, like a million other girl groups. What set them apart was the harsh edge that barely disguised accents brought.

'Trees and Flowers' had terrific pedigree; produced by David Balfe and Bill Drummond , it featured, among others, a pre-stardom Roddy Frame, plus Mark Bedford and 'Woody' from by then stadium stars Madness. On Balfe and Drummond's own brilliantly titled '92 Happy Customers' label, it was a perfect showcase from which to build for the future.

'Trees and Flowers' and the minimalist 'Go Away' on the flip was a great foundation to build obsession on. When it came out in 1982, Scott and I were just turning 16, and had a glorious summer of cycling behind us. As we moved through winter into '83 with Jon, Gav, Vic et al, the obsession grew, and inevitably alcoholic afternoons would end either to the strains of 'Trees and Flowers' or the taped Peel session.

That John Peel session had four songs, and included a version of 'Trees and Flowers'. There were also versions of 'Secrets', 'Little River' and (a truncated) '10 James Orr Street' ; songs which would later all appear on the debut LP. It was a great collection of songs, and there are wonderful memories of lying out late at night in the woods up near the castle with those songs playing softly on a beat-up mono tape player. The sound was perfect; pure 'Just Like Gold' Aztec Camera, stripped and bare, open eyed and excited. It was a brilliant summer to be sixteen.

We found out more about them too that summer through the Juniper Beri Beri fanzine that Jill herself had a sleight of hand in, along with Stephen and Aggi of the Pastels. Juniper Beri Beri was a major inspiration - the first fanzine I'd ever seen, it opened my ears to new sounds, a whole new underground - and by the end of that year I'd written my own first attempt. Called 'Been Teen' after a Dolly Mixture song, it chronicled among other things the new influences on my life of bicycles and pop such as the Marine Girls, April Showers, Orange Juice and of course Strawberry Switchblade themselves.

The year that followed was a quiet one for Strawberry Switchblade, and we longed for more than just the few treasures that we had uncovered. New hopefuls appeared, notably in the guise of the fledgling Sunset Gun, but after the glossed over single version of 'Be Thankful' failed to live up the expectations set by the sketchy, brittle demo, our thoughts once more returned to the promises of Strawberry Switchblade. That promise was eventually delivered on in the guise of the single that gave them their proverbial five minutes of fame.

'Since Yesterday' was a slice of Pop confection custom baked for the most demanding of bitter-sweet teeth. Everything was in its place; it soared and swooned in just the right amounts, and fittingly it made Strawberry Switchblade stars in the public domain. It catapulted them from sharing photocopied pages with the Pastels and the Membranes to sharing the glossy colour pages of Smash Hits with Duran Duran and Boy George, and it sat them in peculiar juxtaposition with Mike Reid on Saturday morning TV.

But 'Since Yesterday' didn't happen overnight either. It came out in October of 1984, a day starred in my diary - a day when afternoon lectures at the Art School were ignored in favour of the record store and several hours shooting pool in a grimy Glasgow basement bar. Somehow it fitted the moment. Don't ask me how.

'Since Yesterday' came initially with a great fold out poster of Rose and Jill bathed in red light which seemed to create a heart shaped halo around their somnambulist faces. Ribbons cascaded from their hair and we spent many evenings drunk beneath their presence.

It made for a fabulous party record - everybody loved it (as they also loved April Showers' 'Abandon Ship' - the perfect soul brethren sound of Glasgow's New Pop revolutionaries), and the fledgling Strawberry Switchblade fanclub of Troon began to grow. Okay, so it numbered about ten by the time the New Year parties ground to a begrudging halt with broken leather ties and not-so anonymous greetings cards and drunken vows of alcoholic induced infatuations, but within a month it seemed you couldn't move for polka-dots and ribbons; everyone claiming them for their own.

Not that we were sore about it. Strawberry Switchblade went way beyond snobbish elitism, and when 'Since Yesterday' finally hit the charts in the January lull, we were the ones cheering loudest. Some of us even went out and bought it again, and sod the marketing ploy of issuing a cash-in picture disc.

To those who knew nothing of the vagaries of Pop history, 'Since Yesterday' probably made sense only as a great example of disposable Pop. Which was fine, of course. But flipped over, the record betrayed their roots, with the haunting, pared down 'By the Sea' and their fine take on the Velvet Underground's 'Sunday Morning'. Glimpses of the bigger picture, a heartening signal; and somehow you could never picture Nik Kershaw covering 'All Tomorrows Parties'...

That Strawberry Switchblade were New Pop according to Paul Morley's definition was now clear to a few, but for most, who inevitably couldn't have cared less, they belonged to the post New-Romantic fancy, and this image was cemented by the fact that Rose and Jill undertook a tour as support act to the then huge Howard Jones. An ironic situation, perhaps, but one devised to give them maximum exposure. They seemed to be received well at their shows, and it was at this point that the promotional flexi-disc for their LP surfaced. With Janice Long raving about their individuality between snatches of the songs, this made for a strange artefact which has probably been mainly consigned to jumble sales alongside copies of 'New Song' as a generation of Howard Jones fans grew up to buying Phil Collins CDs.