❉ 40 years on from their first hit single ‘Guilty’, Sal Solo and friends’ music still holds up, writes Ian Harris.
“The post-punk era in Britain brought forth some extraordinary vocalists, such as Billy Mackenzie and Jimmy Somerville, but Sal Solo also possessed an astonishing vocal range… Sal’s voice was just one striking thing about him, the other was his image. Completely bald and dressed often all in black, Sal looked at times like a New Romantic Nosferatu. So they had the looks and the talent, why were they not more successful in their homeland?”
If you own any New Romantic compilation albums there are two things pretty much guaranteed. The first is that you’ll wonder who on Earth thinks the likes of Johnny Hates Jazz, Hue And Cry or even Graham Gouldman and Andrew Gold’s Wax are in any way ‘New Romantic’. The second is that the compilation will definitely include Classix Nouveaux’s sole top 20 hit Is It A Dream in the track listing. For those that want to dig a bit deeper Cherry Red have compiled almost every Classix Nouveaux track together on a new 4CD set, The Liberty Years, with only a couple of alternative remixes missing.
Classix Nouveaux emerged as the ’70s turned into the ’80s, initially from the ashes of classic punk band X-Ray Spex. Spex Drummer BP Hurding and guitarist Jak Airport joined with bassist Mik Sweeny and the extraordinary frontman Sal Solo in 1979. Airport left before the band signed and was replaced by Gary Steadman. The post-punk era in Britain brought forth some extraordinary vocalists, such as Billy Mackenzie and Jimmy Somerville, but Sal Solo also possessed an astonishing vocal range including a piercing falsetto.
Sal’s vocals (once described by an unkind critic at the time as sounding like ‘an owl being attacked with a breadknife’) was just one striking thing about him, the other was his image. Completely bald and dressed often all in black, sometimes with added cape Sal looked at times like a New Romantic Nosferatu. So they had the looks and the talent, why were they not more successful in their homeland? The band were superstars in Eastern Europe, particularly in Poland for some reason.
Perhaps some of the ‘What is New Romantic?’ confusion comes from bands that were absolutely part of that small scene. Visage, Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran were all very much part of that scene, Classix Nouveaux, rather like Japan, were not in the midst of it, but they fitted right in. Like Spandau and Duran, they were not a pure ‘synthpop’ band like Depeche Mode or The Human League. Sal pointed out at the time that there wasn’t a synthesizer in the group, although on stage he would frequently brandish a WASP synth about. At the time the band probably fitted in best with the rather nebulous ‘futurist’ tag, which would cover the obvious synth bands but also take in what is best described as off-kilter or left-field pop; the likes of Magazine, Siouxsie And The Banshees, Bauhaus and even Public Image Ltd were all seen as being of a muchness. This was forward-looking music, lyrically sometimes dealing with science fiction subject matter, and Classix Nouveaux fit right in there, especially their first two singles The Robots Dance and Nasty Little Green Men (‘like we see on Star Trek’ as the lyric has it).
The box set contains all three Classix albums; Night People (1981), La Veritie (1982) and Secret (1983) along with an eponymous collection, based around the debut, that was issued in foreign markets. So there are some track duplications between the first and second discs, but it does mean the debut single is included, which was originally issued on the indie label ESP. The Robots Dance sets out the Classix sound of a conventional guitar/bass/drums set up, but with elements that makes it stand out. There are electronic effects but the bulk of the track is driven by Mik Sweeny’s prominent bass line. As much as Sal is an underrated singer, Mik (often the co-writer with Sal of the band’s songs) is a very underrated bass player. Not quite as fluid as Mick Karn but his playing nevertheless stands out in the band’s discography.
In late 1980 the band signed with EMI offshoot Liberty and the second single, Nasty Little Green Men continued the science fiction elements of the debut. The following year’s Guilty single gained the band their first major exposure, alongside its video, which was homaged/ripped off by Kim Carnes’ rather more better known Bette Davis Eyes (same director, natch). It fell just short of the UK top 40 (as would most of their subsequent singles). In keeping with their stylish image the debut album Night People arrived in a very smart black and gold gatefold cover (reproduced in the box, which is a nice touch) although in eccentric style the title track didn’t feature, but had turned up as a B-side to Guilty. Sal’s lyrics often seem to show him as a lonely and persecuted figure (“Guilty you found me” “No sympathy (No violins)/For such as we (No violins)” and later “Although we’re free chains await both you and me”). The album does not really have a weak track and climaxes with the gothic Protector Of Night.
In some ways Classix Nouveaux could be held up as almost a parody of a new romantic band. They had the ruffled shirts, the exotic haircuts (Sal aside of course) and song titles like Tokyo, 1999 and Or A Movie are as textbook as they come. I suspect comedian Waen Shepherd, creator of delusional New Romantic singer Gary le Strange in the early 21st century, owns every Classix Nouveaux record.
Their second album, La Veritie arrived on the heels of late 1981 single Never Again (The Days Time Erased) which had a video so bad it apparently reduced drummer BP to tears when he saw it. It’s on YouTube, you can make up your own mind…again it’s almost like a parody. Creepy kids in old time clothing (tick), apocalyptic nuclear set and backgrounds (tick) and Sal in ridiculous garb (cape and what was once described as a ‘sausage skin’ outfit in Smash Hits) tick.
La Veritie was very such part 2 of Night People although despite containing their biggest hit I’ve always found it a bit lacking compared to their other albums. The three strongest tracks were all issued as singles. Stylistically it continued the black and gold colour scheme, and also like its predecessor it opened with a very synthy instrumental called Foreward. Foreward on La Veritie segues into the aforementioned Is It A Dream, quite why this track caught the public’s ear when other singles didn’t is a bit of a mystery.
That isn’t to do Is It A Dream down, but Guilty and follow-up single Because You’re Young (not the David Bowie song) were just as strong. It is very catchy and the electronics are a lot more prominent (especially on the 12” mix, which sadly and oddly, is not featured in this box). The call and response vocals in the chorus provide a good hook along with lots of -shun rhymes which perhaps influenced Stock Aitken and Watermen in the writing of I Should Be So Lucky. Or perhaps not. I remember being very taken with the band’s appearance on Top Of The Pops, complete with requisite early 80s Quantel effects, and Is It A Dream joined my ever expanding collection of 7” singles, along with follow up Because You’re Young, which I actually preferred but in typical Classix fashion stalled just outside the top 40.
At this point Gary Steadman left and was replaced by Finnish multi-instrumentalist Jimi Sumen. Sumen had already released a number of albums under his own name and one as The Jimi Sumen Project. I would highly recommend trying to track down the Project’s Screen Play album and the solo Between Orient And Accidents which is one of the best synth pop albums I have ever heard. Seriously, it’s like a long-lost sibling of Japan’s Quiet Life album (it even closes with a cover of Quiet Life’s final track The Other Side Of Life). These albums have never been issued outside of Finland on vinyl and cassette. If any enterprising label wants to bring them out on CD and or digitally I would recommend them without any reservation to any fan of early 80s pop. The addition of Sumen sadly did not see an increase in the band’s fortunes and non-album single, which briefly saw the band as a quintet, The End… Or The Beginning? stalled at no.60 in late 1982.
EMI pulled the plug on final album Secret before the band were happy with the mixes. Nonetheless I think it stands as their finest album. A change of producer brought in Alex Sadkin, best known at the time for his work with Duran Duran and Thompson Twins. The sound palette opens up with opening track All Around The World including Indian percussion from the great Pandit Dinesh, who added his talents to a lot of Blancmange’s work around the same time. Tracks like Manitou (my favourite Classix song), No Other Way or The Unloved could all have been singles although they may not have halted the band’s commercial slide.
Neither of the singles from Secret, Forever And A Day or Never Never Comes (strangely reminiscent of Simon Dupree and The Big Sound’s Kites) charted at all perhaps due to EMI’s lack of promotion. They were certainly in no way inferior to other Classix singles but in a way the band that had started out as futuristic were suddenly out of time. Even Secret’s cover, dispensing with the gold and black livery of its predecessors looks dated and a bit cheap, despite coming from Edward Bell (who I’m sure you know did the cover for Bowie’s Scary Monsters… three years previously). I remember seeing it in the racks in record shops (remember them?) at the time and assuming it was an early album as it looked a lot less stylish than the band’s other work.
That was where the band’s time at EMI ended. Sal went solo (you knew that sentence was coming didn’t you?) and returned to the top 20 with the beautiful single San Damiano (Heart And Soul) which showed his Christian faith dominating his lyrics. This is a path he still walks today, producing Christian music and working with Catholic teens in America. In parallel to this he also spent some time as vocalist and front man with French sci-fi band Rockets whose albums very much in the Classix mould are well worth seeking out, a bit more easily obtainable than the Jimi Sumen albums!
There was a final single in 1985 credited to ‘Sal Solo with Classix Noveaux’ but its absence here (being on MCA it is out of scope) is not a great loss, it is really Classix in name only. It’s a great shame, and a bit of a mystery why Classix Nouveaux were not more successful, it must be down to bad luck. They certainly had the talent and songs. I would love to see the band reform and play their old songs live, but I don’t know if that will ever happen. Whilst I wait in vain for that to happen this comprehensive box set will hopefully bring the band some reassessment and respect. They may have been very much of their time but 40 years on the music stands up. If you’ve enjoyed Is It A Dream on a compilation (or even Guilty or Tokyo which turn up now and again) you’ll like this box. As I said earlier Is It A Dream is not an outlier in their discography, if you like that you’ll like the rest.
❉ ‘Classix Nouveaux: The Liberty Recordings 1981-1983’, (QCRCDX106) released February 26, 2021 by Cherry Red Records. RRP £19.99. Click here to order directly from Cherry Red Records.
❉ Ian Harris has been a contributor to We Are Cult since its inception in 2016.