The 1980s saw the second British invasion morph from the icy synths of New Romanticism in the opening years of the decade, to the new wave pop of the second half. Part of that pop explosion came as a more sophisticated variety with jazz and sometimes soul as inspiration. Not surprisingly, this movement gained the most momentum in England, where everyone seemed to grow up loving American R&B.
If you were to compare American soul to it’s British counterpart like chocolate, the Yankee variety would be milk chocolate while the English version would be dark. Not so sweet, but sweet enough to evoke to music that inspired it. While British R&B struggled for acceptance in America, pop artists who tried to meet soul music half way had better success.
A steady stream of so called sophisti-pop bands would eventually dominate English pop on the American charts by the second half of the decade. There was plenty of variation in the approach. Style Council, Level 42, Simply Red and Sade were just a few to score hits.
This filtered down from the sometimes serious jazz of level 42 to the pop jazz/easy listening of Johnny hates Jazz and Simply Red. Regardless of the style, the more sophisticated end of British Pop had expanded significantly since the early days of Bryan Ferry’s solo work, ABC and Spandaul Ballet.
For me the sweet spot of sophisticated British pop came between the years of 1985 through 1987. During that time Lisa Stansfield, Simply Red and Level 42 were all exploring their respective off shoots of Black American music and presenting it as pop (soul, blues and jazz respectively). One of those breakout hits (World Machine) from Level 42 spawned a style of jazz pop fusion that was emulated successfully mostly outside of America. Of those would be heirs to the jazz pop throne one band stands out, despite having the title as a one hit wonder (they hardly had a hit at all in America).
Curiosity Killed the Cat was a funny name for band. As the name might suggest, the band had a distinctive laid back style that sounded like a more pop oriented version of Level 42 made for teenage girls. The Level 42 similarities were especially relevant due to the excellent backing band driven mostly by Nick Thorps bouncy bass and the somewhat flat yet emotive vocals by Ben Volpeliere Preriot.
Just before Keep Your Distance was released in America, MTV’s 120 Minutes show featured a sniplet of an unsigned Curiosity Killed the Cat performing live. Their sound was rough, scruffy and soulful – very promising. Despite the slick production of their debut, their soulful influences remained.
Much of Curiosity Killed the Cat ‘s soulful charm came via it’s American producer. Stewart Levine was the man behind the hit album Picture Book by Simply Red just a few years earlier. Unlike Picture Book with it’s Irish blues and homages to American soul, the songs on Keep Your Distance are solid pop compositions with light jazz influences. The mostly light hearted material is split between upbeat cat and mouse love songs and slick ballads.
The Cats might have been easily dismissed due to their poster boy pinup appearance. Despite this Volpeliere Preriot’s backing band were solid musicians. “Misfit”, perhaps the only song familiar to many Americans was not even the better of it’s nine tracks.
Like many English “Blue Eyed Soul” releases, Keep Your Distance uses soulful back up singers heavily, but unlike many overseas attempts at sounding soulful, the backing vocals sound completely natural in the jazz influenced arrangements. This might be one of the best $.99 punch-out albums you could have bought. And I got mine a year or so after it’s original release!
Curiosity Killed the Cat was big in Europe. The video for the song “Misfit” was shot in New York in anticipation of making a dent on the American charts. The video was a homage to Bob Dylan and featured Andy Warhol who directed in what would become one of his last projects before his death. More interesting was Volpeliere Preriot’s curious move-like-Jagger styled dancing.
Andy Warhol’s video aside, Keep Your Distance is a surprisingly good pop album with just enough depth to keep adults interested and eye candy (by ’80s English school girl standards) to make Curiosity Killed the Cat a household name in England if only for a New York minute.