Fine Young Cannibals


Andy Cox: “It is all very strange, yes – having dinner with Madonna and Warren Beatty, getting invited to Jack Nicholson’s house, Michael Jackson wanting to meet us… It’s all a bit bum welly, isn’t it, as we say in Birmingham.”

Roland Gift: “I am very ambitious, yes – like a Demon. It’s like this character that inhabits my body. Sometimes it just fills me, just to remind me: don’t forget fucker, you’ve got something to do.”

David Steele: “The one thing I learnt with The Beat was: if you compromise anything, you’re fucked.”

On the day Bette Davis dies, a toytown trolley bus on the Universal Studios Tour trundles round some of Hollywood’s cleverest and most celebrated tricks: the giant ‘Jaws’ water backdrop, the Burning Building effect, the ice-tunnel illusion, an 8.3 earthquake simulator, and finally the Bates’ motel from ‘Psycho’, now sadly defaced and decorated for another movie.

On the last bus of the day, Japanese and Fat Yank tourists snap happily at the rickety old porch and pointed attic where, unbeknownst to them, Mother’s chair still sits, accompanied – for some reason – by an empty Corona beer bottle and a large lump of strange excrement from some unidentified and unidentifiable creature. Those tourists paying special attention through their zoom lenses notice something/someone clawing at the net curtain – a haunting, hideous, vision of contorted, evil, agony. Some look concerned, others snap away at what they assume is part of the tour. at the bus drives away and they look back, only one or two see the grinning face of Roland Gift.

On the day the Fine Young Cannibals sell their six millionth copy of ‘The Raw & The Cooked’, they introduce me to Hollywood’s Prince of Charm Warren Beatty, I touch Madonna, and begin to discover what it means to be unspeakably, unreachably, Big In America.

Along with Janet Jackson, Tone Loc, Aerosmith, and Paula Abdul, FYC are the sound and vision of Contemporary Young Urban America 1989.

All video energy, fast/sharp pop, modern and nostalgic at the same time, FYC are an English example of how to be enormous in the States without being bland, polished, product; to still be human, funny, intelligent, and almost radical. This year they have sold more records than Madonna, Prince, and Michael Jackson: more than anyone except Bobby Brown and Guns ‘n’ Roses. Think about it. 

The band’s general press angle is that they are taciturn, awkward, and miserable. This time they are talkative, awkward, generous, and charming.

How has success on this scale happened ?

The band have a clue but not the answer and seem to have remained both a- and be-mused by it; nonplussed and non-committal. I already know the two ex-Beat boys from my time in Handsworth and they still both speak in the same dry Brummie mumble. Gift was born to be a star (a lead singer and an actor) but, for now anyway, seems unusually humble.

Andy Cox: “Well, there are huger groups… But it is very surprising, yeah.”

David Steele: “It is kind of weird getting to this level. Why we have isn’t really our problem… There’s no real accounting for it. A year ago, it didn’t look like anything like this could happen. We hadn’t put out a record for three years.”

Roland Gift: “I don’t think I have actually appreciated it yet.”

Their reluctant explanation of the success is: it wasn’t the cover versions, or the soundtracks, it wasn’t David Z, it wasn’t calculation or compromise. It wasn’t marketing but a bit of it was the videos. It’s the music or a miracle or an accident.

DS: “We just do what we do. It’s very honest, our music. One thing I learned in The Beat was: if you compromise, you’re fucked. In The Beat I was 17, I thought that’s what you do – release a record and it goes in the Top Ten. When one didn’t, I didn’t know what was going on. Then me and Andy had two years out of the whole business. We’ve just stuck to what we wanted.”

FYC have sneaked into every market: black urban dance, white English alternative (“we still get played alongside The Cure and Joy Division”), the pop-rap and 60s nostalgia crowd…

DS: “Any group that doesn’t look like The Alarm’s roadies is weird here. Americans think we’re complete freaks. They think we’ve got this gimmicky look. Also, the films kept the name in the public eye while we weren’t doing anything. We get all the young girls and gay guys come for Roland, as a sex symbol. A lot of yuppies… The funny thing is, we don’t get attacked for only doing what the fuck we want, for being offensive. We get attacked for being yuppies, which is the last fucking thing we are.”

How much money have you made ? People tell me a pound an album minimum.

AC: “We’ve got a lot more than we thought. It keeps rolling on. Each figure becomes redundant. Now they’re saying it’ll sell ‘til Christmas. We’ve made so much money, it’s like a joke.”

DS: “It’s funny people like us suddenly making so much money.”

RG: “What do I do with the money ? Make life more comfortable, I’m going to New Zealand for Christmas, paying for my sister to come. I can do things like that now. Money’s not what I live for but I’m not going to turn the buck down when it comes.

When did you begin to realise it was happening ?

AC: “Everybody said at the start ‘this shit is hot man’, but none of us were prepared for it at all. The first LP could have done a lot better, so could ‘Johnny’ as a single. So it was hard to know what to expect. Everybody says ‘Suspicious Minds’ was big here but it wasn’t. It’s just a lie by the record company – to make the biography more interesting.” (It didn’t make it that interesting.)

DS: “The first impression I got of how big we were was when the 6,000 tickets in New York went on sale and they got 58,000 calls in one day. Then I thought: ‘it’s not a hype’. They say it’s going to Number One and then it does and you think: ‘well, so it’s Number One.’ Then the second single gets to Number One and then the LP and then we sell more records than Madonna. Well, it’s a joke, isn’t it ?”

What did you do when it went to No. 1 ?

(Steele’s answer couldn’t be more Brummie.)

DS: “Nothing. For myself, it’s not an achievement, because it worries me. I think we must have made something crap. All the music that sells as much as we do is Crap. We’re appealing to morons, aren’t we ?”

He considers for a second and laughs: “That’s a ‘humorous aside’, by the way.”

Many a true word spoken in jest though…

“Well, this yuppie tag is disturbing, yeah. I mean, when you grow up in Birmingham or you’re English you go through your whole life hating these people and suddenly there’s 10,000 of them watching you. It’s horrible.”

On the day that David Steele has a dream about Gore Vidal giving him a bag full of drugs like Dolly Mixtures, FYC drive through the ice-tunnel illusion. Twice. We sit in the car while an ice wind roars through the silver tunnel and the road rocks and revolves, like balancing on blancmange.

“We feel like that all the time,” says David Steele, droley.

Steele is a sardonic, strident, barrage of exemplary belligerence and stroppiness. ‘Ordinary’ to the point of being wilfully obnoxious, he could give Dennis Skinner and Brian Clough lessons in brilliant principle and provocative dogma.

“Our press officer has basically stopped me and Andy from doing press ‘cos we offend people. It’s our sense of humour. If I think you’re a wanker, I’ll tell you to your face.”

Just before they go on stage, the tour manager ask if he’s going to check on the punters at the front.

Cunts is the word I think,” he mutters, so darkly sarcastic even I’m shocked.

FYC, he corrects me later, are “cuntish not pretentious.” Well he makes me laugh anyway.

His refusal to go through the motions of civility and his disregard for the people he has to deal with – in the press or the record industry – are such that in Los Angeles he refuses to receive a platinum disc from the band’s American record company. Even when it’s brought to the dressing room, Roland Gift has to do the niceties.

“I don’t give a fuck about those things. I know it makes me look like a cunt. I know people will think I think I’m too good to do them,” says Steele bluntly.

Although Gift is often the only one prepared to talk to Fleet Street, Cox and Steele are constantly accused of being envious of his public profile. But their attitude is genuinely “if he wants to talk to them it’s up to him.”

Steele is more concerned with watching baseball, drinking Port and Tsingtao, beating the band at Tarot, finding Barney Rubble Range socks, and match-making between me and Delores, an air hostess who has flown from Detroit to see the gig. He says his ambition is to change his name to Vince Morocco (a guest in a hotel the band once stayed in). His description of touring the States is the best i’ve ever heard: “it’s like a school trip. It’s just a big gang taking a lot of drink round America.”

On the day I touch Madonna, FYC contemplate if they’ll lose touch with people; whether so much success could suck the life out of their group, out of their very lives. Gift is yet to really experience the paparazzi pursuit, although he must know it’s coming.

“I go to cheap restaurants. I like to watch the pennies, you see. The paparazzi go to expensive restaurants that serve shit food. I had that thing in The Sun, because I’d said that people in Scotland should burn English holiday homes. I’ve got to be careful about what I say…”

When Roland Gift finds himself saying: “as Warren Beatty said to me the other day,” he gives an awkward cough of ironic apology.
“I’m aware things like that sound poncy, yeah. A bit wanky. I would only talk about those things with real friends, who it would make sense to. Sometimes it’s difficult, yeah. I haven’t lost many friends. It can happen. But I don’t see it as my problem. Some people think I’ve changed, yes. I have changed, shit yes. I’d have changed if I were a doctor or a policeman, after four years… If you’ve got a hit album, doing TV shows that other people are doing, it becomes a loose sort of club. Life’s like that, it was the same on the dole.”

Has it taken over your life ?
“It is my life in a way. It hasn’t invaded my existence ‘cos it’s not separate. If I look back in my life, it is so obvious that this was the direction I was taking. If it stopped, I wouldn’t feel it was the end. It’s not life and death to me, no. It probably used to be but it’s not anymore…”

FYC weren’t prepared for this just yet – but they knew how to do it. They just did it quicker and bigger than intended. They deal with it very calmly, almost as if it’s all some sort of strange accident. They work hard, resist play, have thought about the details, been nostalgic and modern together, always likeable but rarely extreme. The truth is though, this is a pop/life rule: there are no accidents.

On the first day of the World Series, the day the bloke who cuts the grass at the stadium is captioned as a ‘Turf Artist’, David Steele gives me a Fortune cookie that says: ‘You will travel North with a new friend’. America, it’s a great place to be and an even greater place to be hugely successful/famous.

FYC’s American hotels have rooms so huge that a 5-a-side tournament is organised. The day I leave I discover that what I thought was a cupboard is in fact a second bathroom. The air conditioning in Los Angeles is so extreme you put a jumper on to get into the car.

For the Fine Young Cannibals, David Cox enthuses, American fame is being given paintings in oil paints and Styrofoam of Elvis live on stage by the artist Johnny Neptune.

“On the back is a list of all the people he’s given them to – ‘Neptune-owners’: Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison. At the bottom of this list it says: ‘and now the Fine Young Canlibans’ – because the marquee at the gig in Atlanta was misspelt. It said: ‘the Minute Juleps and the Fine Young Canlibans’. It was that kind of place.”

On the day FYC sell their three millionth American copy of ‘The Raw & The Cooked’, FYC admit the tour is not a crazed whirlwind of drugged debauchery, gangs of nubile groupies, long limos and long hookers, nose candy and the routine sound of TVs being hurled through hotel windows into swimming pools. (Unless that was the day before I arrived).

Ask Cox if they’ve had any trouble on tour and he’ll ponder and say: “Well a couple of girls ran on stage.”
As Jeff Bridges would say: Rock ’n’ roll ! Phew !!!

“Yeah, I know. It’s not so much Club 18-30 as the Gulag Archipelago.”

The shows reveal their vices and virtues – the way that other groups’ virtues are FYC’s vices: the pop music they make is precise and intelligent, persuasive and intricate (‘Good Thing’, ‘I’m Not Satisfied’, ‘Drives Me Crazy’). Live, they’ve turned themselves into a lively, groovy, troupe with two cool musicians and dancers, vocals and instruments from East London’s exuberant Mint Juleps.

FYC are a very clever balance. Almost too clever, too careful. When Cox and Steele appear either side of Gift in scruffy yellow college jackets, they’re still in stage gear, kept separately for the show. They look good, and stay true to themselves but don’t think they’re going to just turn up. Asking them about this, they simply say the jackets are lucky.

Rather than contrivance, FYC have a simple professionalism and stubborn control over every detail (groovy Prince-ish dance details, subdued shadows, swopping, instruments).

It’s all rather tidy but FYC always go for a quiet cleverness rather than the hyperbolic gesture. It’s safe but not as safe as you might expect for a group in their position: there’s no rabble-rousing, just one simple encore, no naff band introductions, no dry ice, none of the usual bluster for a stadium group. Gift even purrs a “you’re too good for us” jibe at the usual American fans hollering and whooping. In the context of mass, crass, America what they represent is quiet subversion. They amble on stage to the theme music from the classic 50s/60s TV series ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents…’ and just walk off after an hour without a word of farewell.

As enjoyable as it is, the live show is clearly not the place for risk. The shows run so smoothly that there’s not a word exchanged between the three principals. All the spontaneity and colour comes from the Juleps’ Sesame St. panache – much to FYC’s credit.

DS: “Just to have the girls playing keyboards was a big decision ‘cos they‘re not proper musicians, they’ve never been in a band before. That took two months’ work. We could easily have got some adequate fat session musician in. I hate ugly musicians.”

Harder hip-hop beats, sharper cover versions, and ferocious guitar solos remind you FYC are often overlooked, easily ignored: Cox and Steele’s fervent interest in hip-hop goes back years (“Arthur Baker would have produced the last Beat LP”) and Gift cites NWA, Tone Loc, and De La Soul as current favourites (“but no House”).

Steele fervently points out the kids at the front who clearly see an excitement I don’t, and defends the lyrical simplicity by saying: “’The one good thing in my life has gone away’ is a great pop lyric.”

“We were the first group to use rap techniques, breakbeats in a commercial way – before people like S’Express. The experimentation is on the 12”s. Like the cut-up on ‘Johnny’ was sampled by Eric B and ‘Pump Up The Volume.’ Our 12”s aren’t a million miles away from what De La Soul do.”

Dressed almost permanently in a De La Soul t-shirt, Gift’s personal nightmare would have been if the FYC tour had split De La Soul up (two vs. one voted in favour of leaving the tour). Originally, the American tour also featured rapper Young MC and Neneh Cherry.

They are terribly fair. Although he stands by the album, Steele admits the 60s pastiches are “too easy for the group to do now. Same with the cover versions” and agrees “we probably wouldn’t have written them without the film. ‘Don’t Look Back’ is shit, yes, definitely the dullest thing we’ve done. Everybody was doing dance remixes, so we did the opposite. Now with all these mega-American rock groups, it is kind of boring.”

Gift is prepared to concede that the show has no aggression but playfully suggests I leave the tour bus when I accuse them of being bland (we’re halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco in the middle of the night at the time).
“We’re not aggressive compared to Public Enemy. I don’t feel aggressive on stage. More melancholic than violent. Maybe it is too tidy. Maybe not. Maybe the next tour.”

Live, Gift’s singing is less mannered (Gift just sounds affected), although he’s lost that Sean Connery intonation he had on ‘Johnny’, and although he tackles the prestigious LA show with a surprising authority and swagger, he’s a rather corny, slick showman, almost cabaret cool. His introductions are almost exactly the same every night. “Aren’t they lovely ?” is not the most spontaneous Juleps tribute. ‘Delicious’ is closer.

Again he’s almost unreasonably fair.
“Yeah, I know what you mean. I used to think that was unacceptable but the show is for people to see once.”

Only the persuasive single ‘I’m Not The Man’ (a deft meditation on being male that asks “what makes me the man I am ?”) has an emotion that survives his actorly professionalism. His excuse – that he performs it as his ‘My Way’ Sinatra number – is a double bluff: the rest is a bit ‘Porgy & Bess’ for me.

“It’s very theatrical. When I sing to the girl on one knee, it’s like a joke, but that gesture’s just as real as it ever was. It’s fun – for her, for her friends. You haven’t seen me do it to a boy yet have you ?”

No, but I’ve seen your only sexy, dangerous moment – the Swinging Queen/hand on hip bit at the start of ‘Drives Me Crazy’. Very convincing, Roland.
“That’s not just for the boys no (laughing). I don’t mind !”

On the day Roland Gift gives me a bottle of champagne and a dollar bill (and then takes them back) he tells me, “Trashing a room is a bit like wanking. It’s pretending to do something. It’s only making the maid clear it up. We’re not into violence… My dream is to have a club in Hull, like Jake La Motta, make a fool out of myself every night.”

Mild, mischievous, and very together, Gift has a sly bashful charm. His view on Michael Jackson’s motive for wanting a meeting is unprintable. He maintains a certain distance from the other two but that seems just like a sensible space (maybe he just doesn’t need to spend all his time with them). He can be as direct as Steele when he wants to be. When he’s had enough of being photographed by the NME, for example he simply walks away without saying anything. When someone asks when he’ll be back for the soundcheck, he says: ‘When I feel like it’.

Gift spends his days swimming, reading, doing Thai Chi, and eating. (He has his own Thai Chi and macrobiotic experts on tour.) Now 27 – “I was born old though. With pubic hair and teeth” – there is much talk of entering maturity and manhood, “being true to myself”, and remarks like “My body is my temple”, which could be a sign of things to come.

“It’s all about going to a new place. You can do it just sitting in a room, in a chair – just sitting on your own. One hour goes by and then two and you think, how long can I do this for ? You can get into that because as each minute, each second goes by, you’re going to a different place.”

Gift’s pseudonym on the tour is Leroy Saveloy.

On the day Andy Cox and I stand in the ‘Psycho’ shower, making ‘eek eek eek’ violin noises, MCA throw a party for FYC. FYC do not attend. Hollywood’s Prince of Charm Warren Beatty, Madonna, Lionel Ritchie, Chris Quentin (Brian Tilsley Deceased) and Daisy from ‘The Dukes of Hazard’ do attend, along with an American Record Company Executive who walks round all night with a cute crust of cocaine coating his hooter. A voluptuous woman tells me Madonna’s penultimate video cost $ 876,000. FYC’s entire album cost £ 50, 000.

Backstage, the terror that the imminent arrival of Beatty and Ciccone can induce in 25 people successfully working in the music industry is awesome to witness. Some LA sleaze in a Mafia tux and a Vegas hairpiece sets up (with considerable fuss) a barrel of draught Guinness that the band immediately label as “nasty.”

Figuring I have nothing to lose, I introduce myself to Warren Beatty and tell him he should seize the opportunity to give me an interview.
“I, er, haven’t, um, done a one-to-one interview for, er, fourteen years,” Beatty grins looking stunned by the revelation himself (stylishly stunned as he does everything). Not to be deterred by almost a decade and a half of press silence, I find myself mentioning that I have my tape recorder with me – news that appears to panic him so much he introduces me to the woman by his side: Madonna – bravely attending without security, petite and seemingly not pregnant, and looking like a Madonna lookalike who is backstage doing dance routines with her mates.

The following day, whilst the liggers and minions like myself babble on about nothing else (not without an obscene amount of fairly ribald innuendo and exaggeration, FYC seem more excited by the ice tunnel or the Bates Motel shower. Mind you, they did have dinner with Madonna and Beatty the night before.

“Yeah. Warren Beatty at the head of the table, Madonna in the middle, and us three. It’s a different meal from what you’d have in Birmingham really,” says Andy Cox.

On the day David Steele identifies the excrement in Mother’s attic in one word (“Mother’s”), the band now calling themselves C.W.A. (Canlibans With Attitude) sing and chat with hip black chat-show mega-star Arsenio Hall on ‘The Arsenio Hall Show.’ Against the odds, against all the traps and trappings of such enormous sick-success, FYC are almost normal, almost freakishly normal. They’re almost obnoxiously ordinary.

Do you want to prove a point ?

DS: “I don’t really want to talk about that sort of thing. I don’t think you need some sort of phony manifesto. Everything we do has a definite principle, like having the Juleps. We reject The Alarm roadie look, we reject the The Smiths-are-God theory. The Indie-Credible idea to us is a joke. None of our videos have foxy black chicks in lingerie. You can’t imagine how difficult it is to do that.”

The dilemmas are creeping in. Alhough they’re playing Brixton Academy instead of Wembley Arena, in Canada they’re so huge “If we don’t play stadiums, it’s like telling people they can’t come.”

The balanced FYC appear on The Arsenio Hall Show and even introduce themselves: “I’m David”, “I’m Andy”, “I’m Roland and we’re the Fine Young Cannibals.”

But Steele’s blatant boredom quickly surfaces when Hall makes the mistake of baiting him.
“I don’t talk to people,” he says unwisely, baiting him back.

Cox steps into the breach with his tale of a relative being cannibalised on the 1788 Pierce Expedition – a perfect American talk show story. One suspects it won’t be the last time he tells it.

On the day FYC are number one in Canada for the 19th week (sextuple platinum), sitting in the Frank Sinatra Suite, surrounded by bowls of fruit and champagne, an hour before a sold out show in LA, I meet Andy Cox for the first time in several years – since we lived in fairly down-at-heel houses in Handsworth – and ask him if he’s having a good time.
“Well I’ve had better,” he says, with the deadpan timing of a pro. “Then again, I’ve also had worse.”

A Travis Bickle hairdo, a new pair of $15 jeans, and a sense of humour that makes Steven Wright look like Robin Williams, Cox’s aim in Los Angeles is to find the Thai restaurant he’s heard about – that has a mini-golf course attached.

The highlight of San Francisco for him is the regular hints on what to do in an earthquake (‘How To Ride Out The Big One’), particularly: “if you’re on the 19th floor, forget it.”

Cox is on the 19th floor but The Big One hits San Francisco two days later (after we’ve left).

With a gig the following day, Andy Cox is the Cannibal who turned down an invitation to go to Jack Nicholson’s house after the show – in favour of “a cheese sandwich in my room and some TV.”

On American National Coming Out Day, on a crowded tour bus, I ask Roland Gift if he’s ever had sex with a man. He’s unflustered and mischievous enough to make me ask three times.

“Well, what makes somebody gay ? I’m not afraid of sex. I’m not afraid of my sexuality. I’m not afraid to relate to a man as equally as I can to a woman.”

So, have you ever had sex with a man ?
“Huh ? I’m not gonna answer that question. I don’t mind being asked. I don’t really answer because, er… it’s not the issue. We can talk about it.” He grins. “I’m such a big stud, I don’t need a break when we’re talking about sex. The lyrics talk about ‘she’, yes, I think I’m honest about my sexuality. I don’t purport to be anything I’m not. I don’t say I’m one way when I’m another. I just don’t say.”

So you won’t say ?
“I won’t say.”

On my last day on the FYC tour and the first day of the future, we find ourselves looking into the future. FYC say they “never” talk about what the band should be.

“I don’t want to talk about music,” says David Steele – not something a musician on tour usually says. (If only.)

“I don’t know where it comes from or what we’re trying to do exactly. Vaguely, the next one will be heavy, heavy, rhythm with good songs over the top. We tried ‘Tell Me Why’ with a hip-hop beat but it just didn’t sound good. Now, if we want to work with someone interesting, like a rapper, it’s in their interests to work with us…”

“It’s easy to get over-pretentious about what you’re doing. I saw Robert Smith saying (does the voice): ‘we have to split The Cure up ‘cos we’re not doing what we set out to do’. He doesn’t realise they’re just a dodgy Goth band. He thinks they’re doing something important.”

Gift: “I’d prefer to let it go and see how it comes out. New directions for the sake of it don’t work. I like the humour of the band, that it’s got a kind of cool but not too much. We don’t take ourselves too seriously.”

Despite a mass of rumours, Gift has no films fixed.
“I’m going back to Hull in March for a couple of months. I want to have a bit of time off. I’m young. I’ve got my health, got my looks… I’ve got the hairstyle (laughs).”

Are you ambitious ?
“I am very ambitious, yes, like a Demon. I don’t know why. It’s like this character that inhabits my body. It’s constantly there but sometimes it just fills me, just to remind me. Just to say: don’t forget fucker, you’ve got something to do.”

What do you want ?
“I want to do what I want to do and I don’t want to do what other people want me to do. Selfishness as a bad thing is a con, a load of bollocks. If everybody was selfish they wouldn’t do shit jobs for no money just to make some fat bastard even fatter and richer. They wouldn’t take the abuse and pay they get as a nurse or a teacher. So selfishness is something to be fostered, along with compassion and consideration.”

Would it be better not to get too huge ?
DS: “If it turns into a job then yes. In Japan we’re not mainstream at all – only the coolest, trendiest people are into us. I prefer that in some ways, yes, in other ways, no.”

RG: “Maybe. Maybe it would be better to tone it down a bit. But it’s like turning over the next card. It’s irresistible. It’s a new place. My instinct is to see what happens ‘cos whatever happens, I think I can handle it. It’s like swimming. Sometimes you swim two miles and then three and then more. It’s different. The further you go, it’s going to a place you’ve never been before.”