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Heard Yesterday

The Forgotten Music of Strawberry Switchblade

Delectable Duo  The 1980's "Pop Princesses that Never Were" Jill Bryson (left) and Rose McDowell (right) of the forgotten synth-pop project Strawberry Switchblade. 

There is an alternate universe in which it is still 1985 or 1986. MTV still plays music. Madonna and Cyndi Lauper are still, like, really hot; and the center of every small town social set is a weekend trip to the mall. Malls are big centers of shopping activity that encompass clothing, movies, books, arcade games, such as Pac Man and Frogger (spend them quarters, kids); food, drink, toys and, most especially, MUSIC. Music is everywhere, an endemic part of the shopping mall experience, as ingrained into the fleshly soul of every consumer as that weird, plastic, fresh merchandise smell (which invariably gets all mixed up with the smell coming out of the Cinnabuns, or the dank effluvia of the bath and body-works store). 

However, in our present universe, shopping malls no longer exist. Cyndi Lauper is receding into the fabric of... time, after time. At 60, Madonna is not far behind. Our own shopping mall, in our own hellish, decrepit Midwestern dung pit of a city, is virtually vacant; the stores are all locked up, with iron gates in front of them, the hallways dark and empty, eerie and deserted. They may or may not psychically still resonate the banal, jazz-infused pop tunes proffered by past artists like Huey Lewis or Phil Collins; and they may not even remember the cinematic vehicles of such luminary thespians as Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and, God help us, Bobcat Goldthwait.

There are only three large businesses left in the mall, in the wake of the Online Evolutionary Step Forward (otherwise known as Amazon): A down-at-the-heels department store named Rose's, an Applebees, and a Planet Fitness. I go to the Planet Fitness in the morning, walking there easily from my current apartment. Given its former shopping mall location, perhaps it is appropriate that I listen to Madonna while I work out. And, also, the lost, forgotten canned pop obscurity called Strawberry Switchblade.

For those not in the know, Strawberry Switchblade were a girly singing duo comprised of two female vocalists, Jill Bryson and Rose McDowell, both hailing from Scotland. The latter, McDowell, would go on to work with alternative and neo-folk groups ranging from Current 93 and Felt,  to the notorious Boyd Rice (a.k.a Non), with whom she released an album of Sixties psychedelia called Spell back in 1993. Rose also sang the vocals for Non's song "Eternal Ice," and Rice mentions her on a track called "Down in the Willow Garden," on his Music, Martinis and Misanthropy album from 1990. (Additionally, Rose also has a vocal track on Non's 1997 album God and Beast, if I remember correctly.)

She's a little slip of a thing; or, at least, she appeared to be when taken side by side with the tall and boldly striking Rice; both, matter-of-fact, are equally compelling people to look at.

McDowell formed Strawberry Switchblade initially as a four-piece. The group recorded a demo that sounds like them singing over some polite drums and a bass line. I can't discern lyrics, but, with Strawberry Switchblade, it's a little difficult to do anyway.

Quickly dropping that, they picked up their Casio keyboards, apparently bought a drum machine, and focused on yearning, tear-choked and somewhat haunting new wave pop melodies with a quirky, tiny eighties synthiness that marks them as undeniably dated, artificial; beautiful, in a strange sense.

It's a little like finding a lost cassette, or a box of them, in the dumpster out behind the mall. Maybe they're sharing space in there with a cardboard cut-out of Shelley Long that the theater had to get rid of after one of her Troop Beverly Hills movies folded. You take the little audio-cassette tape home because you have a cassette player, out of nostalgia. You pop the thing in, it warbles a muffled, low-quality sound. But you get to hear Strawberry Switchblade singing their songs from some time warp where this sort of thing could still be heard over the intercom at the Walgreens.

A record album is a hard thing to review; it's too weirdly complex, usually, to review like a movie. On the other hand, some albums (not to mention any names) are so redundant that it's hard not to write them off in a few sentences--and miss the requisite word count.

I'll leave the listener of Strawberry Switchblade to decide whether they fall into the former or latter category. Myself, I'll just say: there's something deceptively, subliminally... invasive about these rather cold and generic, saccharine attempts at Reagan-era pop music stardom. The vocals are a somewhat indiscernible, overly processed drone of confusion over pre recorded drum beats, synthesizer brass, and weird, electronic sounds that seem to have been borrowed, at times, from somebody's doorbell alarm. Or, in other words, there is nothing about the generic, electric and canned tunes of Strawberry Switchblade that would impress in this era of Fruity Loops and personal computers that can record and produce a symphonic range of digital instruments that make this stuff sound so dated, so anemic; so sad.

Some of it channels Katrina and the Waves. Other stuff sounds like various strains of elevator music or muzak; or, maybe, the background theme to a forgotten television show from thirty years back.

Nonetheless, you WILL wake up from troubled slumber, find these dream-pop vocals coursing through your subconscious, as if they creep with just that much more subtlety into the unawares mind, programming the listener for... what? I don't know.

Bryson and McDowell were a little too goth to be pop, too "Strawberry Shortcake" to appeal to the dark crowd. Looking like Diamanda Gallas meets Cyndi Lauper, their dream-pop cum bubblegum vocals DID, however, push the song "Since Yesterday" into a chart-topping success, reaching number five on the UK singles charts.

Other songs on their eponymous debut album, such as "James Orr Street," (which seems to be mourning, in a really melancholy and sobering fashion, the leaving of a place where someone has grown up), catch the ear in a morose yet playful manner.

Note: The following lyrics are quoted under the provision of FAIR USE, for the purpose of criticism or social comment.

A note dropped through the door

Tells us to go

Oh but I know

That you will tell them to

Go somewhere else

Because you know that

I want to stay in this house forever

I don't want to ever leave

How could I ever live in another

This is where I want to be

A few other snatches of melody stand out, a stab or two at altering the sound a bit, as when it takes on a slightly psychedelic Sixties feeling here and there. However, I must confess: not much of what is here is distinctive; most is somewhat, well, redundant, with a few melody lines and a few snatches of lyric swimming to the surface. Otherwise, the album begins with "Since Yesterday," swims to the one or two really memorable moments, such as the song "James Orr Street" already mentioned, and wraps up with a new wave folk music cover of a song about some cheating hussy named "Jolene." Bryson and McDowell both hail from Scotland. Is this tune Scottish? (Actually, a simple Google search proves it is, in point of fact, by Dolly Parton.)

Since "Since Yesterday" is the one stand-out to remember, and since the theme of it so encapsulates why I am writing about Strawberry Switchblade to begin with, we can have a few lines from it. Under the provision of FAIR USE, again.

Just close your eyes and then remember

The thoughts you've locked away

When tomorrow comes you'll wish

You had today

And as we sit here alone

Looking for a reason to go on

It's so clear that all we have now

Are our thoughts of yesterday

And those lyrics are very true, more so now for me, personally, than ever before. Because, with the death of two close family members recently, with my own health issues due to age, with moving to an area of the city where you can visually see the impact of time spread like a thin veneer over the sights and sounds of a shopping mall you remember from 1988—"thoughts of yesterday" float upward, into my consciousness, more and more as I get closer to old age, the past of my boyhood receding into the distance.

Strawberry Switchblade are ghosts of a not-too-distant past; yet, it is still an era that seems, increasingly, alien, as if I know that, one day, it will be looked back upon with the curiosity, and in the same strange manner, that we look back upon the Forties; and I'll be a doddering old man by then, if I live.

I think about such things at the gym, listening to this album, remembering that the mall bookshop used to be exactly where I am standing pumping iron. Before, that is, it was remodeled to accommodate the fitness center. The rest of the old mall is closed up, gated; silent and dark. It reverberates the spent energy of the consumerist past; all those bourgeois lost souls still treading the scuffed, dusty tiles, looking for a good buy. Or, a distraction.

One imagines the somehow comforting cowboy visage of Ronald Reagan presiding over it all; a gentle, benevolent father-ghost; the spirit of an America That Was; not, necessarily, That Which Is To Be

Strawberry Switchblade seem to pine for that "yesterday."

The last thing I'll say about them is I can't figure out if they took their act seriously, or if it was some self-referential joke, an attempt to subvert the pop paradigm with generic banality. As if, presenting themselves in a ridiculous, dichotomous manner, singing against a canned background of puerile music, they were making a statement about the homogenized tawdry trash then being shat from the bowels of the recording industry. (Of course, that situation certainly hasn't changed in the intervening decades.)

Whatever the case, some of this music is haunting, but maybe for reasons other than it originally intended to project.

And so I listen, walking to the empty husk of the local mall in the morning, for my workout. Because we do what we can to stave off the past, to defeat the carrion bird of prey that is the creeping, ravaging decay of TIME.

Both women, incidentally, have continued in music, Bryson after a long hiatus. Strawberry Switchblade remains a rarity, a forgotten "gem" from a past that is steadily losing all meaning in the present shuffle of our lives and destinies. May this ghost of the 1980's haunt us all; it was a damn great era, both for music, and for many other things.

Tom Baker
Tom Baker

Author of Haunted Indianapolis , Indiana Ghost Folklore, Scary Urban Legends, Midwest Maniacs, Midwest UFOs and Beyond, Scary Urban Legends, 50 Famous Fables and Folk Tales Notorious Crimes of the Upper Midwest : tombakerbooks.weebly.com. 

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