The Liberty Recordings
Released 26 February 2021
Boxset with everything released by new wave/new romantic act Classix Nouveaux from 1981 to 1983, when they were signed to Liberty Records. The band were led by Sal Solo and formed in the aftermath of X Ray Spex’s dissolution. They are probably best known for their 1982 hit single Is It A Dream. Ian Canty hears the story of the night people.
Soon after their excellent 1978 debut album Germ Free Adolescents, X Ray Spex, one of the most original bands of the initial UK punk explosion, were in turmoil. A tour undertaken to promote the record had taken a heavy toll on inspired lead singer/lyricist Poly Styrene and she left the band in 1979. For a while the remainder of the group searched for a suitable replacement for her, in the frankly unlikely hope that someone could come forward of equal mettle. The auditions quickly showed that there was no-one who could really take Poly’s place, that kind of unique talent was simply a one off.
Even so, drummer B.P. Hurding and guitarist Jak Airport did see something in the striking, bald-headed figure of Sal Solo (born Christopher Scott Stevens). He was previously the singer with a new wave act called The News, who released the single Blue Thru on the GTO label in 1978. He also played the synthesiser, which would come in handy later for developing the new sound. The trio broke apart from the rest of Spex and brought in bass player Mik Sweeney, another former News member, on bass, to complete the line up.
Even though their first live date was under the banner of “Classix Nouveaux – ex X Ray Spex”, they soon jettisoned any lingering thoughts of reviving the Spex name and launched into a career in their own right. Certainly if they retained the X Ray Spex moniker it would have given Solo a tough if not impossible act to follow, so a new name and new start made perfect sense. Lessening the link with the past further, Airport soon dropped out and was replaced by Gary Steadman (ex-Eater). It was this version of the band that made the first Classix Nouveau recordings, a three track EP issued their own ESP label in 1980, with Robots Dance being the lead tune. This 7 inch made the independent charts and combined with TV appearances and a general “buzz” about them, meant they were soon signed up by Liberty Records, a long running imprint that was at the time distributed through EMI.
The sound of Classix Nouveaux at the time of the debut recordings is kind of like Peter Gabriel (and occasionally more Brian Pern) fronting an early Spandau Ballet. Hopefully dear reader, you haven’t hit the small x in the top right hand corner of the screen on reading that, because they aren’t as bad as that somewhat glib comparison might lead you to believe. There’s some quite entertaining new wave dance/rock contained on this first LP really, if you can set to one side Sal’s tendency towards the overdramatic in his vocals. Still that approach was popular at the time. Unsurprisingly there’s little crossover with Spex in Classix Nouveau as only B.P. remained and by 1981 the punk explosion already seemed world away. A very different world called for a different approach.
The first two discs of this set pick up on their early career with both versions of their first album, which was entitled Night People in the UK and its overseas equivalent Classix Nouveaux (US and elsewhere), plus associated single sides. Dealing with the Classix Nouveaux version first, this substitutes the flowing guitar pop with a comical lyric of Nasty Little Green Men and Robots Dance for Or A Movie and Solider and also rejigs the running order of Night People. To my ears this tips it slightly towards a new wave sound here, whereas Night People puts us a tad more firmly in a synth dance field.
Both versions of the album are diverting enough, if of course Sal’s very mannered vocal style doesn’t completely put you off. Foreward is, as one might suspect, an introductory instrumental piece that hints at the grandeur of Ultravox! and the sequenced dance beats of near-hit single Inside Outside does the trick. Guilty is a real powerhouse with some meaty drums, 623 and Run Away (which is bumped forward on Night People) are both solid New Romantic dance tracks and the bass-driven and catchy Tokyo was an obvious choice for a single. A slow and moody set closer in The Protector Of The Night rounds the LP off well.
On disc one there are three bonus tracks included – Test Tube Babies, which really shows their roots of a punky past, Night People itself where Sal’s vocals skate dangerously close to self parody and the “New” version of Robots Dance. Disc two has Inside Outside in both 7 and 12 inch versions, the unexceptional We Don’t Bite (Come A Little Closer) and Old World For Sale, with the latter sports plenty of riffy guitar.
Though the album and Guilty, Inside Outside and Tokyo singles hit the lower end of the UK charts, they didn’t quite make the breakthrough that their promise and press might have led some to expect. However, 1982 was to be the year Classix Nouveaux were fleetingly right among the big boys and girls. La Vérité found the band at their height and when single Is It A Dream crashed into the UK Top 20, they finally achieved mainstream success.
The good news is there certainly is a fair amount to enjoy on this LP, aside from that hit. They begin the album with another scene setting Foreward and the dramatic sweep of keys make To Believe worthwhile. Because You’re Young, extracted as a single which just missed the UK Top 40, had just the kind of theatrical delivery and dance beat to scale the charts back then, plus an intriguing electronically generated “steel drum” sound.
I Will Return made me think of late-period Magazine, though Sal’s vocals are a bit O.T.T. and although the shrieking backing vocals that featured on the first album return on Never Again, this tune is one of their best. The title track throws everything but the kitchen sink into it, including some kettle drums, but the album does lose its impact a little as we go along. Of the bonus tracks Where To Go caught my ear, a solid new wave thud with plenty of guitar and the fast and bassy It’s Not Too Late would have certainly livened up the dancefloor of any self-respecting new romantic disco.
By the time their final album Secret arrived, Gary Steadman had been replaced by Finnish guitarist Jimi Sumen and the band were far removed from their edgier, early material. The slight hints of a possible kinship with Magazine and Punishment Of Luxury were now absent, as this was very much a record aimed squarely at the pop charts. Even so, it struggled to match the impact of their previous platter. The synthesised sound here was more electro funk, which was gaining credence at the time, like on Manitou (which has extended and instrumental versions among the bonus tracks) and No Other Way. The near AOR ballad When They Have All Gone pointed towards Sal’s later solo career, but Heart From The Start is a more interesting effort in that direction.
Whilst listenable enough, Secret really didn’t do enough to truly grip me. Though the bass-led Forever And A Day was their first 7 inch to miss the charts completely since Nasty Little Green Men, it is engaging look back to their earlier sound. The bonus tracks include two takes of Forever And A Day’s b side Switch, which was a marked departure. More of a sound collage of big beats, samples and voices, it is interesting to speculate how they may have developed in this direction. There are also three versions of new romantic dance single The End…Or The Beginning and an extended cut of Forever And A Day.
After this LP, Liberty dropped the band and with Sal already planning a solo career, Classix Nouveaux were finished. There are some good and entertaining efforts scattered on all these albums, but I couldn’t help but feel they really never quite got it together to record a consistently satisfying LP – though La Vérité isn’t far off. Even so, there is much to digest and Sal Solo gives an in depth look behind the scenes in the accompanying sleeve booklet. Classix Nouveaux for a while did hold their own in the new romantic bunfight and had a way with an appealing pop hook, something which shows up well on The Liberty Recordings.
All words by Ian Canty – see his author profile here