Sporting an eye-catching blend of pretty bows, ribbons and polka-dots, Strawberry Switchblade, AKA Rose McDowall and Jill Bryson, inevitably made quite the impression when they emerged from the spiky Glasgow pub scene in the mid-1980s. Yet despite projecting a twee Lolita-ish image that was deceptively bright their minds were as dark as Scotland at three o’clock on a winter’s day.
Issued on Echo & The Bunnymen guitar legend Will Sergeant’s own indie label, the duo’s debut single Trees And Flowers was championed by John Peel but failed to chart, despite being co-produced by future KLF mastermind Bill Drummond and featuring Aztec Camera’s Roddy Frame and members of Madness.
Their Sophomore single saw the pair move away from that Bluebellsish folk-pop sound to embrace the new wave, and proved they had substance to their goth-meets-Geisha girl style, too. The elegiac Since Yesterday had started out as a cult live favourite called Dance, the only surviving recording being a BBC session the band performed in 1982 for David ‘Kid’ Jensen’s Radio 1 show.
With its opening fanfare pinched from the fourth movement of Sibelius’s Symphony No. 5, two years on and Since Yesterday had been transformed into a glorious slice of bittersweet pop with skittery electronics, subtle melody lines and coyly understated vocals. You could be forgiven for thinking it sounds like a nostalgic tale of dying love, though it is, in fact, about nuclear war.
How very 1984.
Mind you, Since Yesterday took so long to climb the charts that the calendar had already moved on. When the 45 first made the most tentative appearances at a lowly 89 in late October, Wham!’s slightly frothier Freedom was top of the pops. By the time the colourful Caledonian duo peaked in fifth position three months later, Wham!’s succeeding single — Everything She Wants c/w Last Christmas — had already parked itself as the festive No.2 (famously behind Band Aid) and been flipped for a second wind in early ’85.
New year, new opportunities.
Well, sort of. I wonder if Amy Winehouse ever saw this Tim Pope-helmed vid…
The girls’ eponymous debut album soon followed, and contained the singles Let Her Go and Jolene, a radical rendition of Dolly Parton’s classic that owed more than a passing debt to Donna Summer’s I Feel Love. Despite sounding like The Proclaimers doing sex change plinky-plonk synth pop both tracks had their moments. Nothing, though, would hit the heights of Since Yesterday and the group had imploded acrimoniously early in 1986, their demise hastened by Bryson’s agoraphobia and McDowall‘s own struggles with the psychological pressures of sudden fame.
In 2005, Warner Music released The Platinum Collection, a 16-track career retrospective of the band on one CD, though to my knowledge, the one solitary Strawberry Switchblade album proper hasn’t ever been reissued on physical formats outside of an expanded repackage in Japan, though it is available on all the usual streaming suspects.
Perhaps it wasn’t peachy enough. Lalalalala!
BONUS BEATS: For some reason, at some point in late 1984, I chose to purchase the 7” 45 of Since Yesterday rather than the 12” which boasted a wistful cover of Sunday Morning of the girls’ beloved The Velvet Underground. As with the majority of my vinyl collection it’s now under the custodianship of my sister in London.
BONUS BEATS 2: One of the last features Neil Tennant penned under the deputy editorship of Smash Hits magazine was his report on the that year’s Brit Awards, then known as the rather stiff BPI Awards, held at London’s swanky Grosvenor House Hotel on 11 February 1985. That day was, spookily, Jill Bryson’s 24th birthday, and even more spookily, makes her 60 today. It was the one where a monosyllabic Purple One turned up to collect his Best International Artist gong accompanied by a giant white bodyguard who looked a bit like Giant Haystacks’ older brother.
Over to a future Pet Shop Boy:
“Until he accepts his second award – after which he leaves – Prince and his two bodyguards sit at the same table as Strawberry Switchblade. ‘What did you talk to him about?’ I ask them. ‘We were struck dumb,’ confesses Jill. Apparently there was no conversation whatsoever. Once the broadcast is over, a lot of people start to leave, although celebrations continue ‘til one. David Cassidy marches out, not quite as tanned as George Michael, who’s almost orange.
The Frankie lads are looking pretty ‘bladdered’, as you’d expect, discussing where to go on to. Holly is wandering round, very relaxed: ‘Ello, ’la,’ he says. ‘I’m pissed.’ And he’s not the only one. Strawberry Switchblade, their manager and me, set off to find Bronski Beat’s dressing-room but somehow end up in the kitchens. Instead, we nip into a little room where Gary Crowley interviews Rose and Jill for cable TV, and I have a word with Elaine Paige about what Prince said when she presented him with one of his awards: ‘Sounded like ‘mumublemumblemumble’ to me, and I was standing next to him.’
Shortly after Prince’s death in 2016, the Herald Scotland newspaper asked the birthday half of the Switchblades what she remembered of that night.
Did he say anything to you, Jill?
“No. You’re joking. Absolutely not. He was on the other side of this big round table with his bodyguards. And they were crawling around on the floor. I don’t know if they thought there was a suspicious package or something. I think he kept his dark glasses on as well. And he was so tiny. We just sat giggling on the other side of the table.
“It was great fun. I remember Neil Tennant was there and at that point I’m not sure if he was a Pet Shop Boy. He was still writing for Smash Hits. And I remember running about with him in the [hotel] going into the kitchens and being ridiculous. But yes, Prince in his dark glasses and his bodyguards. It was surreal.”