Time Capsule: Strawberry Switchblade, Strawberry Switchblade

Every Saturday, Paste will be revisiting albums that came out before the magazine was founded in July 2002 and assessing its current cultural relevance. This week, we’re looking at Strawberry Switchblade’s eponymous first and only album, a soaring New Wave classic plucked out of the DIY catacombs of Scotland in 1985 on the heels of the duo’s perfect UK hit “Since Yesterday.”

Music Reviews Strawberry Switchblade
Time Capsule: Strawberry Switchblade, Strawberry Switchblade

In 1981, Jill Bryson and Rose McDowall formed a duo called Strawberry Switchblade. Five years prior, the two Glasgow women had become fixtures in the UK’s bohemian art scene. They obsessed over the New York Dolls and the Nu-Sonics, and McDowall, while living in Paisley, was a member of a punk band called the Poems. Around that same time, Bryson was getting a degree in mixed media at the Glasgow School of Art. McDowall and Bryson were close before they were bandmates, making noise at Scottish pubs and befriending bands like New Pop and Edwyn Collins’ Orange Juice. When those two groups came together and recorded a live cut of “Felicity” and had wanted to make it a flex-disc release, a fanzine called Strawberry Switchblade—named after a song penned by OJ guitarist James Kirk—was planned in conjunction but never happened. “Felicity” did eventually release, along with Orange Juice’s “Falling and Laughing,” and Kirk gave McDowall his blessing for her to use his zine’s name for her new band.

The early days of Strawberry Switchblade are as mythical as you might expect. After playing at a John Peel show in Scotland in the fall of 1982, he invited the then-four piece to do a session for his BBC Radio 1 show. McDowall, Bryson, Kirk and Shahid Sarwar followed that up with a spot on David Jensen’s Radio 1 show later that week. The KLF’s Bill Drummond caught wind of those sessions with the Teardrop Explodes’ David Balfe and signed Strawberry Switchblade to their label, Zoo Music (an imprint of Warner), with Balfe becoming their manager. The first Strawberry Switchblade single, “Trees and Flowers,” which is currently going viral as an audio clip on TikTok, was released by 92 Happy Customers, Will Sergeant’s (of Echo & the Bunnymen) label. The single alone sold 10,000 copies and was beloved by Peel. Featuring Aztec Camera’s Roddy Frame on guitar, Bryson wrote “Trees and Flowers” about her own experiences with agoraphobia. “I can’t but see that the sun has risen to my window, my world of my home sweet prison,” she sang. After producer Bill Drummond helped get the band signed with the Warner Music subsidiary label Korova, he got them involved with a full-time backing band for touring and a new producer, Robin Millar. It didn’t take long, though, for McDowall and Bryson to go back to being a duo and hire Red Box-collaborator David Motion to oversee their recordings.

By the time 1984 came around, Strawberry Switchblade started gaining widespread notoriety in Europe. “Since Yesterday,” just their second-ever recorded and released track, was a Top 5 hit on the UK Singles Chart—and it reached the Top 10 in Ireland, as well. McDowall wrote the song a few years prior; it was initially titled “Dance” and was a fixture of the group’s live shows in 1982. Before it became “Since Yesterday,” it’s only recorded iteration as “Dance” is the one from Jensen’s Radio 1 session when they were still an unsigned, relatively new band. While many have believed that “Since Yesterday” is a song about suicide—and a verse like “Well, maybe this could be the ending / With nothing left of you / A hundred wishes couldn’t say / I don’t want to” would justify such a read—McDowall said in 2015 that it’s a song about nuclear war, as it was penned when the Cold War was still ongoing.

Korova chose “Since Yesterday” to be Strawberry Switchblade’s debut single for them, and its successes took a while to kick in. It was initially released in October 1984, but failed to break the Top 40 until the second week of January, thanks to some seriously aggressive post-Christmas promotion from Warner exec Rob Dickins. Cue TV advertisements and magazine shoutouts and, in due time, “Since Yesterday” was a bonafide hit, spending 20 weeks total on the UK charts. The track didn’t chart in continental Europe, Australia or Canada, but it gained a lot of traction in Japan—a foreshadowing of the band’s eventual successes in the country.

In April 1985, Korova released Strawberry Switchblade’s only studio album. It was an eponymous release, pushed out with high expectations because of the integration of “Since Yesterday” into the mainstream. “Let Her Go” and “Who Knows What Love Is?” would both chart—#59 and #84 in the UK, respectively—but fail to seize any semblance of commercial success. While “Since Yesterday” had the pop gusto to make a mark, much of Strawberry Switchblade wasn’t nearly as palatable to the general music-consuming public. They were much more in line with a pre-commercialized iteration of the Cure than they were Kim Carnes or the Human League. Later on McDowall would come to prominence as a Alex Chilton-like “floating member” of many alt-rock and neofolk bands, including Current 93, Coil, Psychic TV and Nurse with Wound. It was the kind of work that cemented her as something of a goth hero—and it led to Strawberry Switchblade getting incorrectly categorized as similarly gloom in the four decades since their debut, partially due to the duo’s songs being included on goth mixtapes and in DJ sets at goth clubs around the same time.

But what two polka dot dress-clad women in bows made true in 1985 is simple: Strawberry Switchblade is one of the greatest New Wave debuts (and records, in general) of all time. They were on the cover of Smash Hits once upon a time, but their first LP was far more rebellious in the eyes of what kind of pop music was appealing. Their cover of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” completely reinvented the pop classic before Whitney Houston ever got her hands on it; “Go Away” and “10 James Orr Street” were such desolate synth-pop songs that even Suicide might have been a bit bummed out listening to them. “Let Her Go,” however, sounds bright enough for ecstasy and swells into a metallic guitar solo. That “And I know I would let go” chorus seemingly unspools the melancholy, if only for a moment. “Little River” has an opening drum beat akin to something that, on a molecular level, might make sense in Footloose—only to stretch out into something far more in line with the stuff New Order was making right after transitioning out of Joy Division. “At first saw the sunrise, but not for too long,” McDowall sings. “I wish the wind would blow, I wish it was strong.”

That was the multi-dimensionality of Strawberry Switchblade’s work, though, and McDowall and Bryson had a penchant for making misery sound syrupy. McDowall wanted to be the female Leonard Cohen. “People say: ‘Oh, it’s music to kill yourself to,’” she told The Guardian in 2015. The palette of Strawberry Switchblade is as colorful as the wardrobe McDowall and Bryson donned on-stage—a style that was no doubt influential in J-pop and, eventually, K-pop circles in Asia, where their biggest fan base was. By the time the 1980s were over, songs like “Go Away” and “Being Cold” made them peers with Julee Cruise, while “Secrets” and “Deep Water” kept them in conversation with the Pet Shop Boys. But, from “Since Yesterday” all the way through “Being Cold”—and into tracks like “Ecstasy (Apple of My Eye)” and “Black Taxi,” which were only available on the Japanese release of the album—the nocturnal moods of Strawberry Switchblade’s work collided head-on with crack-shot jolts of golden pop standards, even if the charts didn’t reflect it.

There’s a synergy across Strawberry Switchblade, be it the horn solo in the outro of “Who Knows What Love Is?” or the bed of synths and machine drum glitches fluttering on “Deep Water.” It’s the type of music that so clearly held no consideration for what art once fascinated the two women who made it. Gone were the days of McDowall and Bryson’s obsessions with the New York Dolls. Hell, even their spiritual connection to Orange Juice was all but lost when the final cut of the album came out. However, McDowall especially was a classic punk—playing drums standing up in the Poems like Maureen Tucker (it should be mentioned that Strawberry Switchblade’s cover of “Sunday Morning” is life-changing) and then, eventually, turning synth-pop into her own playground of flamboyant sorrow sutured shut by elegantly-phrased, vibrant, pervasive melodies. Strawberry Switchblade often displays the same kind of instrumental minimalism you might find in the underground grumblings of that early 1980s English DIY, proto-indie scene. There’s a refreshing amount of dynamic, ornate set pieces on the album, too—be it horns, synth layers that sound cut straight from Giorgio Moroder’s studio banks, or chamber choir levels of falsetto harmonies.

Strawberry Switchblade, spiritually, followed in the footsteps of bands like X-Ray Spex, the Slits and the Adverts. But if punk rock nurtured McDowall and Bryson into adulthood in late 1970s Glasgow, then synth-pop gave them the tools to write about it. It’s a shame that Strawberry Switchblade completely fractured by 1986, on account of Bryson’s agoraphobia and McDowall feeling dampened by growing fame. Had the formula been built to last longer, who knows how massive the duo could’ve been. I mean, in just a few years, they went from being regulars at local pubs to coasting around Japan in a limousine—all thanks to the blitzkrieg catchiness of “Since Yesterday.” But Strawberry Switchblade should never be pigeonholed by their most famous single.

As evidenced by TikTok’s appreciation of the band and their four-piece demo of “Trees and Flowers,” Strawberry Switchblade’s lone album is a timeless effort that took a long while to present itself as such. McDowall and Bryson never really fit into the synth-pop world that became evocative of the 1980s, nor were they ever considered as hard-nosed as New Wave giants like Depeche Mode after Vince Clarke left the group (though Depeche Mode loved Strawberry Switchblade). They were too late to the party to be like the Cars or Blondie. They weren’t commercial enough to be A-ha, Duran Duran or, even, the B-52’s. There’s a darkness to “Deep Water” and “10 James Orr Street” that makes them cousins of some kind with Echo & the Bunnymen; a pop sensibility on “Since Yesterday” and “Who Knows What Love Is?” that calls to mind the work of Clarke’s Yaz or Erasure. In another universe, “Beautiful End” is as popular as Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away”; “Michael Who Walks By Night” could’ve been a Psychocandy deep cut (McDowall has opened for the Jesus and Mary Chain before).

The 40-year influence of Strawberry Switchblade is much more embedded far beneath the surface of modern pop music than it is some generational, formidable imprint you can grab hold of. While that “Trees and Flowers” demo making rounds on TikTok sounds like it played a key part in the creation of “Steeeam,” an internet hit by Clairo’s short-lived band Shelly, much of McDowall and Bryson’s pre-breakup are necessary pillars in the over-arching foundation of modern synth- and nocturnal-pop. It’s alive in the Weather Station’s nimble, watercolored falsetto or in the post-modern synth starbursts of someone like Cate Le Bon. It lives on the fringes of rock ‘n’ roll and electronica, exuding the danceable mystique of Yaz’s “Too Pieces” (“Another Day”) and the pensive, dubby transcendence of Bauhaus’ “She’s in Parties” (“Let Her Go”).

Once a crucial part of Scotland’s 1980s musical history, along with Big Country, Cocteau Twins and the Pastels, you can hear Strawberry Switchblade’s ethos now in the dressings of any contemporary artist who colors their own sadness with perpendicular technicolor makeup. While McDowall and Bryson weren’t the first pop band to contradict themselves on tape like that (the Beach Boys nabbed a stranglehold on that trope pretty quickly 20 years earlier), they brought sugary songs about agoraphobia, nuclear war and the doldrums of life as a mid-twenties Glasgow punk into European clubs. Strawberry Switchblade were short-lived, yes, but seeing them making it to the mountaintop so long after starting their ascent has been well worth it. They’re the type of band you hear for the first time and love straight away.

Matt Mitchell is Paste’s music editor, reporting from their home in Northeast Ohio.

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