Swimming into the Fire
After being dropped from Fiction the band were given use of Polydor’s in-house demo studio, where they met engineer/producer Pete Wilson. The good results meant they were immediately signed to Polydor, who distributed and financed the Fiction label. Soon after the signing, the band recorded ‘The Swimmer’, again with Pete Wilson producing at the Polydor studios, Stratford Place W1. The record was released to favourable reviews but poor sales. However, the sparkling production, good performances and tight arrangement had real promise and it seemed as if a solid team had formed.
The band embarked on a short Dutch tour culminating in the NeuPop festival in Rotterdam, with the Ramones and the Undertones. The Passions fell prey to a bogus photographer who was granted backstage access and then stole all their gig cash. This depressing event was alleviated by the Passions being voted best band of the festival. Barbara remembers: ‘A string on my guitar broke in the middle of the show, and it being daylight, Gary's healing beam (gleam?) was failing to work its usual magic. The guitarist from the Q-tips noticed his distress, and mine, and handed us up his beautiful white semi-acoustic guitar for me to play for the rest of the set”.
The Swimmer tour quickly followed. At the Manchester Rafters Club gig on the 8th October 1980, members of U2 attended, as a result of the Dublin connection with Barbara. They were very interested in the band’s sound and the echoing guitars.
During this period the band were booked into the Clink rehearsal studio in Southwark to write more material. David remembers it like this: ‘Clive and I were jamming a three chord idea, more out of boredom than anything. Richard was sitting at his drums smoking, probably worrying about something. Clive and I got bored of playing but Barbara said she liked the chords and to keep on playing. Barbara wrote some words. “I’m in love with a German film star” she said. Richard stopped smoking and looked very excited. “That’s a hit single” he said. That observation gave us the confidence to persevere. The rest of it took about 20 minutes and then we went and had a cup of tea’. However Barbara remembers that the words to the first verse came into her head while talking to Budgie at the Moonlight Club the previous night, writing them on a scap of paper in the club’s toilet and then producing it at the rehearsal. The band recorded a John Peel session shortly afterwards, slipping his name into the chorus of the song.
The band returned to Polydor studios and recorded ‘I’m in Love with a German Film
Star’, again with Pete Wilson. There was no follow up planned and Polydor did not seem to have any idea what would happen subsequently. They scheduled the release for January 1981 when, they said, there would be little competition. They forecast sales of 150,000 and instructed the pressing plants accordingly. Everyone who heard the record, or even the demos said it was a hit and there was a considerable ‘buzz’ about it. The band at this stage had no manager or publisher. These two factors and Polydor’s complete lack of any long term plan for the band sowed the seeds for what followed. The record was released in February 1981 while the band were touring the UK. With hindsight their time would have been better spent writing a similar follow up. However, the record generated immediate and dramatic interest, gigs became sold out and the tour extended to include a headline London date at the Lyceum. Among the support acts at this gig were a very young Depeche Mode.
Screen 3, a band from Norwich, supported the Passions at two gigs during this period. Here’s what Neil from Screen 3 has to say:
“I've been checking my diary from the time, and the exact dates that Screen 3 played supporting you, were Feb 4th 1981 at Norwich UEA, then 12th Feb 1981 at University of Essex.
My notes re the Norwich gig state that 'we only got it because they (The Passions) were getting there late due to a TOTP appearance, so there was room for two supports. Probably the best gig we've ever done. Their manager liked us and also the man from Polydor. The gig was a sell-out'.
My notes about the second gig:
'Bit of an anti-climax. Hardly anyone there because Essex Ents didn't promote it properly. We didn't play all that well either. Made about 25 pounds profit. Got some free beer. Passions saw the second half and like it. We've to send a tape to their manager who will make sure it gets put onto someone's desk at Polydor'.”
Radio play was continuous with Capital making it ‘Peoples Choice’. It was the second most played record on British radio for a two week period, just behind ‘In The Air Tonight’ by Phil Collins. It was also record of the week in the New Musical Express. Top Of The Pops was hastily scheduled and the band went through the charade of pretending to record a new version for the programme, as everyone did. The tapes were handed over with a wink. After taping the show the band were driven in a limo to a gig at the University of East Anglia. The band were on tour in Leeds when the programme was aired. They rushed into a pub after sound checking and persuaded the landlord to change channels on the pub TV. After watching the show he turned and said “That’s not you!”. Due to huge demand all available stocks of the record sold out within two weeks of release. This meant that while the song was playing on the radio every 5 minutes and with two Top Of The Pops appearances to promote it, people couldn’t buy the record. The record went straight into the charts and reached 25. It was impossible to now buy the record and it took a panicking Polydor two weeks to press up further supplies. By then the radio plays were over and peoples’ attention moved on.
The band interrupted their own tour to support Roxy Music for a short UK tour and were briefly courted by EG Management who were Roxy’s managers at that time, but who lost interest when they realised the band had already assigned their publishing to Eaton Music, a working relationship that has lasted to the present day. However Clive and Barbara were invited by Bryan Ferry to help him finish 'He'll Have To Go'.
Polydor then tried to arrange more recording sessions with Pete Wilson but due to clashing commitments these did not materialise. Pete was due to work with the Jam and the Passions were still gigging. It seems crazy now to have broken up the creative partnership that produced ‘German Film Star’, but the band had little confidence in dealing with Polydor and did not have a manager. In retrospect its clear that a manager who knew what they were doing would have been more able to represent the band’s interests. Instead the band were booked into Surrey Sound Studio in Leatherhead to record the follow up single and album with Nigel Gray producing. Nigel had previously worked with the Police and Siouxsie and the Banshees. The results were a follow up single ‘Skin Deep’ and the album ‘Thirty Thousand Feet over China’, the latter containing the two Pete Wilson produced tracks ‘The Swimmer’ and ‘German Film Star’. The differences between the two producers are glaringly demonstrated. (The Nigel Gray produced tracks being rather thin and flat compared to the sparkling Pete Wilson stuff). The band always felt at the time that Nigel Gray was very distracted and distant during the recording sessions. The combination of an inappropriate, non-commercial follow up single and completely different sound was a disaster for the Passions. During the course of the Surrey Sound recordings Bob Black, manager of the Modettes, was taken on as manager, but this was too late to effect meaningful change.
At this point the band played a gig at the Project Arts Theatre in Dublin and afterwards Barbara, David and Richard travelled to Dingle in County Kerry for a short break. The Fureys happened to be staying in the same hotel so the three Passions went to their gig in the town that evening. The next day Barbara and Richard went for a swim at a deserted beach and Richard got into serious trouble with a rip current and was in danger of being swept away. Luckily Barbara managed to grab him and the two of them got back to the beach. David was dozing in the car and remained oblivious to the whole thing. This was taken on the beach just prior to the swim.
‘Skin Deep’ was released to unimpressed fans of ‘German Film Star’, indifferent reviews and corresponding poor sales. ‘30,000 feet over China’ was then released and the band embarked on an extensive UK and European tour. The band say that they were aware things were slipping away from them and that the tour was a chance to escape the confusion in London. The tour got off to an inauspicious start when the lighting designer did a runner after the second gig in Bath and a replacement had to be hastily found. The tour proceeded around the UK culminating in a London date at The Venue which was recorded and four tracks were eventually released as a freebie with the ‘Africa Mine’ single.
Dale Farrow attended one of the gigs on this tour and recalls:
“Like many people not part of the particular West London music scene of the punk and immediate post-punk period my first encounters with the Passions were when I was still at school via John Peel's legendary Mon to Thurs 10 to midnight show, listening to a little transistor radio under the bed clothes. I distinctly remember hearing songs from the "Michael and Miranda" album and immediately falling in love with them, great, catchy songs with hooks from Barbara's vocals and Clive's iconic guitar playing, Claire's more "contemporary" bass playing all given direction and strength by Richard's drumming. Being a teenager in a small South Lincs market town didn't make it easy to get to gigs to ever see bands like the Passions and so the nearest I got was to perform their songs in my own band, "Reflex" (how many bands have there been called that over the years?) where we played what the local paper described as "a note perfect rendition of German Film Star". Gill, the singer, said when she saw it that she should hope so as it doesn't have many notes in it and with the way they have printing errors in that particular paper it was probably meant to say "not perfect"!". However, it wasn't until after I'd finished my A levels and went to college in Sept 1981 that I actually got to see the band - how big a coincidence was it (this was only the first of many involving the Passions and I) that in my very first week at Leicester Polytechnic, The Passions would be playing the "Fresher's Ball"?! My first week at college, first week away from home for that matter, should have been all about me settling in to my accommodation, meeting loads of new people, getting the reading list and buying the books on it and queuing for hours with all the others waiting to get the all-important grant cheque (all of which happened of course) but for me I just couldn't wait until the Saturday night. Finally it arrived - I was like a 5 year old on Christmas Eve! I'd been telling my new friends how great the Passions were, most of them had only heard German Film Star, and although we all piled into the Student Union together, nearly all of them went straight to the bar, I went straight to the stage, right at the front, right in the middle. There must have been a support act but I have absolutely no recollection of them at all. Then it was time. On they came, Richard with the ubiquitous shades settled behind the drums, Clive with his no-nonsense approach but heavenly sounding guitar all chorus and delays, David who had by now taken Claire's place on bass, bounding about the place like a spaniel puppy and Barbara, all hair and mystery! I was entranced, I didn't know a band could sound like this, so different from the records but so much better. The whole thing went by in a blur, it was all over and I walked back to my digs in a state of euphoria, I was high as a kite purely on the music and performance. I was 18 years old and my first week away from home was ending in a way I couldn't then and still can't now adequately describe.”
Two weeks in Scandinavia followed, the highlights of which were meeting Joey Ramone in Stockholm, who pronounced the gig “A lot of fun” and Richard excelling himself by being thrown out of a live TV show. Recording was stopped because as Dave Edmunds was performing ‘Girls Talk’, Richard could be heard shouting “Sexist rubbish”. This earned him a V sign from the guitarist and a near kicking from the bouncers. The tour then carried on through Holland, Belgium, France, and Italy to its premature end in Verona. While the band were having ‘serious disagreements’ in the hotel lobby the tour manager received a call informing her that the venue had burnt to the ground, destroying the band’s equipment in the process. Enquiries later revealed that during the connection of the lighting rig a switch had been thrown igniting gas which had somehow built up in the ventilation ducts. (This may or may not be connected to a fascist fire bomber who was operating in Verona at the time, burning down venues playing ‘decadent’ music.)
Clive abruptly left the band at this point and the three remaining members flew back to London and recorded ‘Africa Mine’ with Pete Wilson producing (and playing Clive’s guitar parts). The single was released with a bonus record containing 4 tracks recorded live at the Venue: ‘The Square’, ‘Why Me’, ‘Snow’ and ‘German Film Star’.
The band needed to re-group and set about auditioning musicians to fill the gap left by Clive, whose departure had deprived the band of their only real musician and a large part of their sound. Lester Square from The Monochrome Set tried out and though creative and able just didn’t fit. Through the radio DJ Charly Gillett the band were put in touch with guitarist Kevin Armstrong from Local Heroes, who were signed to Gillett’s Oval Records. Kevin then put the band in contact with keyboard player Jeff Smith who had previously played with Lena Lovich. This, for better or worse, was the new Passions. Something fundamental had been lost and the band were never to recapture their previous form.