Strawberry Switchblade … Billy Sloan’s Best Scottish Albums – Strawberry Switchblade
Strawberry Switchblade. Strawberry Switchblade. Released – 1985
It’s to their undying credit that Jill Bryson and Rose McDowall managed to grin and grit their teeth.
Because even with the low expectations of breakfast television, Mike Smith’s line of questioning still left a lot to be desired.
“Don’t you get to the point where you thinkâ€¦ I wish God we adopted a tracksuit look?” ” he said.
Perched on the BBC Breakfast Time couch – alongside co-hosts Selina Scott and Nick Ross – the DJ seemed obsessed with the distinctive polka-dot and knot style of Strawberry Switchblade.
â€œIt almost sounds like a stupid question to ask, but did you want to be really different? ” he added.
If Smith had done his homework, he would have realized how far off target he was.
For several years Bryson and McDowall had injected a much needed color into the Glasgow music scene.
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I saw them hanging out in venues like Maestro’s, Satellite City or The Mars Bar in all their glory, long before I even considered forming a band. There was no one else like them.
â€œThe look was pretty much there from the start. We had a real aesthetic, â€Jill recalls.
â€œWe used to buy 50s style dresses with full skirts in thrift stores and they often had polka dot patterns.
â€œWe also liked the Spanish dolls. Rose managed to find a flamenco dress, which looked amazing – I think it was in a kid’s size – at Paddy’s Market.
â€œI had borrowed a sewing machine and made my own clothes from fabric bought from Remnant Kings and Mandors, near the Glasgow School of Art.
“By the time we decided to form a band, even though our look got us noticed, it never detracted from the songs.”
Bryson and McDowall first met at a punk club at the Silver Thread Hotel in Paisley, run by a local DJ called Disco Harry, in 1977.
Soon they were part of a crowd that attended the first concerts of The Nu Sonics, now Orange Juice, and TV Art, later known as Josef K.
McDowall was the first to set a musical marker. In 1981, she formed The Poems which released the single Achieving Unity on Polka Records with a catalog number Dot 1.
The local music scene which also included The Pastels, The French Impressionists and Aztec Camera further energized the duo.
â€œI liked all the energy and the simplicity of punk. It was very accessible and women were more involved in it, â€said Jill.
â€œThere were people like The Slits, Siouxsie Sioux, Gaye Advert and Tina Weymouth. Until then, it looked like something forbidden to you as a woman. So it really spoke to me.
Bryson and McDowall were encouraged to cement their friendship musically.
They form Strawberry Switchblade with Janice Goodlett on bass and Carole McGowan on drums.
The name comes from a fanzine by James Kirk, guitarist of Orange Juice.
Bryson learned some basic guitar chords on her own by reading Bert Weedon’s instructional guide, Play In A Day, first published in 1957.
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â€œI had no musical experience. I had never played an instrument or tried to write a song, â€Jill revealed.
â€œTo begin with, I would sing a melody and record it on a tape. Then pass it on to Rose so she can write some lyrics. It was that basic.
â€œWe had a ridiculous naivety. But that was what was so great about punk.
â€œAnyone could get up and play something or shout into a microphone. You don’t have to spend years learning an instrument.
Strawberry Switchblade debuted at The Spaghetti Factory, just before Christmas 81.
â€œWe booked the gig and then thought, I guess we better write a few songs,â€ Jill said.
â€œWe had six new songs by the time we played. There was a lot of snow and no one could get out of the house. So we ended up playing with the Orange Juice members who had come to support us, and the restaurant staff.
“I was really nervous, but just the fact that you were on a little stage singing through a microphone with a guitar plugged in made me feel good.”
Over the next 12 months, they recorded demos at the Hellfire Club and gave concerts as often as possible, garnering positive reviews in the music press. Then they got their first big break.
The line-up, now reduced to a duo after Goodlett and McGowan stepped down, were offered a coveted John Peel Session on Radio One.
â€œI don’t think he even heard our demo,â€ Jill recalls.
â€œSuddenly we were in this real 24-track studio instead of the little four-track we were used to at Hellfire. It was amazing even if you had to record the songs very quickly.
“We also recorded a session for David Jensen three days later.”
Bill Drummond, the Scottish pop maverick behind The Teardrop Explodes, has taken over their management.
Their impressive debut single, Trees And Flowers, was released on 92 Happy Customers, a Will Sergeant larun from Echo And The Bunnymen, in July 1983.
Drummond then signed the band with Korova Records and work began on their debut album with producer David Motion in London.
The 11-track LP included the single Since Yesterday – which reached No.5 on the UK charts – and key songs such as 10 James Orr Street and Who Knows What Love Is?
The reaction was instantaneous. They were cover stars in Smash Hits and embraced in Japan, where female fans identified with their unique style.
But the relentless demands of their record company to fulfill their promotional commitments turned out to be their downfall.
They entered a grueling period later described by Bryson as when “everything about music and business went drastically wrong.”
â€œSuccess has come so quickly and it puts a lot of pressure on you,â€ Jill admitted.
â€œI guess the record company wanted a return on their investment, shall we say. So you started to feel like a commodity. I struggled with it.
â€œIf you go with the attitude, I’m going to be in show business and I’ll do whatever it takesâ€¦ great. But we weren’t like that. We both had a more indie sensibility.
Two other singles – Let Her Go and Who Knows What Love Is? – failed to trace.
A bouncy cover of Jolene – Dolly Parton’s classic 1973 hit – peaked at a modest number 53.
For a period of 12 months, Bryson and McDowall were arguably the hardest working women in pop, but a grueling schedule took its toll.
â€œThe things the label was asking us to do just got more difficult,â€ Jill revealed.
â€œYou weren’t allowed to say no if we didn’t want to be interviewed by Playboy magazine.
â€œIt was also very weird to be pushed into doing stuff like The Rod Hull and Emu Show. It didn’t feel like the right thing to us.
â€œThere was no support. It was more about getting the hits and doing heaps of
money. I didn’t feel there was consideration for us.
â€œThey were constantly trying to smooth us out or soften us to make us more palatable.
â€œGroups like The Cocteau Twins or The Cure weren’t pushed to compromise. But all they wanted to do with us was get rid of our rough edges and put us in a category we didn’t belong to.
Not surprisingly, their friendship has suffered as well.
â€œRose and I didn’t know each other very well so it affected our relationship,â€ Jill said.
â€œIt got to the point where we weren’t communicating well anymore. It didn’t work. â€œNone of us were happy. And nothing beats so much pain.
Strawberry Switchblade broke up in 1986. Bryson continued for a while but realized it wasn’t for her.
â€œI did a few shows but I couldn’t really hack it. I didn’t want to do it on my own eitherâ€¦ I wanted to be part of something, â€she said.
â€œI didn’t like being a prominent person either. The music industry was a little too ruthless for me.
But the music of Strawberry Switchblade endures.
Next year, Domino Records will release an album containing a series of previously unreleased tracks with their full approval.
â€œStrawberry Switchblade has been a great time in my life. Despite all the difficulties, I loved it, â€said Jill.
â€œThe general memory I have of the group is therefore very positive. I am proud of what we have accomplished.
JILL Bryson faced her biggest fear on the band’s very first song.
Trees And Flowers, was inspired by her years of suffering from agoraphobiaâ€¦ an anxiety disorder triggered by open spaces.
It reached third place on the independent charts and John Peel listed it in his Festive 50.
â€œI found the lyrics really difficult. This has not been easy. But I thought, I can only write about what I know, â€Jill revealed.
â€œIt didn’t overcome my condition. It was still there. I missed a lot of stuff because of it.
â€œI loved playing even though it was terrifying at times. The condition lasted until I was 40 years old. So it was a miracle that I could do anything with the band.
Their biggest hit, Since Yesterday, was another song with a serious message.
â€œRose says it’s nuclear war. I really liked the idea that you could have a happy pop song – a Top 5 hit – that wasn’t just about love, â€Jill said.
They promoted Since Yesterday with a surprise appearance on Noel Edmonds’ Live Live Christmas Breakfast Show, one of the most watched shows on the festive program.
â€œThe record company asked us to work on Christmas morning. They told us it would be good for the single, â€Jill recalls.
â€œThe show was broadcast live from the top of the British Telecom Tower. We then went to Charing Cross Hospital with Kim Wilde to visit the patients. I think we scared the children. It was hilarious. ”
Strawberry Switchblade peaked at No.25, but a follow-up album failed to materialize and the group broke up.
â€œWe didn’t have another hit single, so it put pressure on us to come up with more songs,â€ Jill said.
â€œAt that point, we weren’t really writing together anymore.
â€œWe started working on a second album but things got really tough. They said why don’t we have one side with Rose on it and you on the other?
“What was the point of that? It is not a group. I was not interested. If I had wanted to be a solo artist, I would have.
â€œYou had to be strong as a unit to withstand the pressures of a major label. You need to be united. Everything collapsed. It was very sad. ”
* THE Billy Sloan Show airs on BBC Radio Scotland every Saturday at 10 p.m.