Fine Young Cannibals
Fine Young Cannibals
With only two albums to their name—not counting a later greatest hits collection and a remix—Fine Young Cannibals made a big splash on the pop music scene during the late 1980s. The trio of vocalist Roland Gift, guitarist Andy Cox, and keyboard/bass player David Steele, initially had a hard time selling their blend of soul and pop music, but a London television appearance playing “Johnny Come Home” had record producers and music consumers clamoring for more. Their debut album, self-titled Fine Young Cannibals, subsequently sold over two million copies and tracks “She Drives Me Crazy” and “Good Thing” form The Raw and the Cooked enjoyed weeks at the top of the U.S. singles chart. The second album cemented the band’s fame as well as Gift’s near eclipse of his band mates in press coverage. With significant critical and fan support to sustain a healthy touring and recording schedule, the band’s members have nonetheless chosen to pursue other career paths amid calls for their return.
In 1984, Cox and Steele were looking for a singer to front a new band. Having split with the English Beat,
Members include Andy Cox (born January 25, 1960, in Birmingham, England), guitars; Roland Gift (born May 28, 1962, in Birmingham), vocalist; and David Steele (born September 8, 1960, on the Isle of Wight) keyboards and bass.
Cox and Steele sought to form band and, in 1984, invited Gift to join them as lead singer; released Fine Young Cannibals, 1986; The Raw And the Cooked, released 1989; later issued remix, The Raw & The Remix, 1990; released greatest hits album, Finest, 1996; their music was used in films Tin Men, in which they did a cameo, and Something Wild; Gift’s acting projects and Cox and Steele’s producing/recording jobs have kept the band members busy during the 1990s.
Addresses: Record company —MCA Records Inc., 70 Universal City Plaza, North Hollywood, CA 916081011.
the ska-inspired English band that produced the 1979 hit cover of “Tears of a Clown,” they had established themselves as skilled pop-rock writers. However, they did not share the recognizability of English Beat lead singers Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger. Cox and Steele’s talent search was extensive; they listened to hundreds of demos, only to pick a former saxophone player who had been in a English Beat opening act, Roland Gift. Cox said in the Chicago Tribune, “We’d been looking for just the right voice for months, going to see people all over the world, in fact, before we discovered Roland singing round the corner from us…. The moment we heard him, we knew we’d found the right guy.” Their offer elevated the singer from a temporary job as a used-fur coat salesman at a London flea market.
The trio named themselves after the 1960 Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner film All the Fine Young Cannibals, liking the name but never having seen the movie. The group’s slow start continued to drag on, as I.R.S. Records—with whom Cox and Gift still had a contract—balked at their new name and lineup. What finally jump-started Fine Young Cannibals was a 1985 appearance on the London television program The Tube, which was followed by a recording deal with London Records. Released in 1985, the album Fine Young Cannibals spawned multiple U.S. and U.K. hit singles and led to a 1986 U.S. tour. By comparison, however, The Raw and the Cooked was even more successful with its two number one hits. Released after a three year hiatus, the second album was described by Daisann McLane in the Village Voice as “more rocking, more mainstream than the dance pop of their eponymous debut album.” Sounding a rare note of discord, critic Jon Páreles was unmoved by a 1989 performance, and he commented in the New York Times, “[they] have returned to ordinary pop topics and clichés, retaining only the mildest of ironies by setting morosely lovelorn lyrics to uptempo tunes.” Páreles did allow, however, that “The Fine Young Cannibals have a sure sense of what makes a pop song tick, along with the chutzpah to borrow from the best.”
The diverse musical influences of Gift, Cox, and Steele created a sound that was hard to pigeonhole. As Rolling Stone writer Steve Pond explained, the band “thought that their music—soul-based pop written by musicians reared on punk and ska and as fond of De la Soul as they were of Otis Redding—crossed enough barriers that either no radio station would play it or every stationwould.” Steele and Cox entered the music business with an interest in punk music, a form that Steele later came to see as outmoded. He commented in Rolling Stone, “For me, people who are still obsessed with the Clash, the Sex Pistols and the Buzzcocks, that are not into De la Soul or whoever … they’re mixed up. They don’t understand how punk can connect with hip-hop. To me it seems like there’s a direct line: punk, 2-tone, whatever, then hip-hop.” The Steele-Cox partnership can be credited for giving Fine Young Cannibals its “balance [of] retro grooves and high tech hip,” according to McLane who further noted, “[their] smart pop craft is the major reason the Cannibals have conquered the big-buck U.S. market that unlike Britian’s, is ruled by radio airplay, not image.”
Roland Gift, on the other hand, stands out as the voice and face of Fine Young Cannibals. Pond described Gift as “strikingly handsome” with a “fluttery, almost freakish voice.” Gift is very stylish—he clearly loves clothes—and his visibility as lead singer turned him into a sex symbol, particularly in Britain. McLane explained that Gift’s multi-racial good looks—his mother is white, his father is black—were the height of fashion, saying, “Ethnic crossover is to the current pop scene what androgyny was to the 70s.” Gift’s dramatic on-camera presence in Fine Young Cannibals videos recommended him to several filmmakers. The singer landed a sexy part in the 1987 British film Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, in which he has a nude scene. Two years later, he appeared as a Jamaican gangster in Scandal, a film about a 1960s British government sex scandal. Reportedly, Gift turned down an offer to play Che Guvara in the movie version of Evita for two million dollars. Acting promises to be more than a passing fancy for Gift, who is pursuing roles on stage and screen.
Gift’s work as an actor is often targeted as the primary reason for the on again-off again status of Fine Young Cannibals. Many other factors, however, are at play. The group does not like to tour and was more often engaged in projects such as providing songs and incidental music for director Barry Levinson’s Tin Men, in which the trio had a cameo as a bar band. Steels Cox show a reluctance to cooperate in promoting the band, leaving a more enthusiastic Gift to talk to the media about the band—and himself. The pair of musicians have been involved in a wide range of projects when not performing as Fine Young Cannibals. They record as “Two Men A Drum Machine And A Trumpet,” produce tracks for British acts, and did music for the John Hughes film Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
Although there has been speculation about hard feelings between the band members because of Gift’s acting jobs, little is communicated in print. Gift gave his own take on the situation in the Chicago Tribune: “The whole idea of what a group can be is very different today…. The old image is a bunch of musicians living together inseparably. The reality is that it’s a springboard to doing all kinds of projects.” In 1996 the band released a greatest hits album, Finest. It included three previously unreleased songs and prompted Billboard’s Larry Flick to reflect, “Makes ya wish for the return of the band.” At that time, however, it had already been seven years since Cox, Steele, and Gift had recorded together.
Fine Young Cannibals, I.R.S./MCA, 1986.
The Raw And The Cooked, I.R.S./MCA, 1989.
The Raw & The Remix, MCA, 1990.
Finest, London/MCA, 1996.
Billboard, November 16, 1996, p. 78.
Chicago Tribune, April 16, 1989, sec. 13, p. 22-23.
New York Times, September 17, 1989, p. sec. 1, p. 79.
Rolling Stone, October 5, 1989, p. 47-52.
Village Voice, September 19, 1989, p. 33-35.
—Paula Pyzik Scott
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