A year or so before U2 would explore it’s American soul influences, another import from across the Atlantic was already there with their unique blend of pop and vintage soul. The Fine Young Cannibals were an explosive hit in Europe, but in America that notoriety was limited initially to MTV. Eventually the power of “Johnny Come Home” would reach the top ten and bring the band’s debut album into the US top 50s album chart.
One of the things that made the Fine Young Cannibals (FYC) so special was it’s lead vocalist Rolan Gift. Gift, a mixed race refugee from the defunct ska band Akrylyka, had a boyish charm that made his Otis Redding inspired delivery all the more appealing. Two other members David Steel and Andy Cox, were refugees formally of the Beat. All of these players had ska as a common influence.
The ska factor left an imprint on The Fine Young Cannibals, but it would be American soul was the predominant musical influence. Like Fun Boy Three and The English Beat before it, the FYC’s music had a distinctive vintage sheen about it. More specifically, their sound was firmly rooted in the 1960s both aesthetically and technically. The video for the hit “Johnny Come Home” for instance frames the band as an extension of the ’60s era aesthetic established by Fun Boy Three in the early ’80s.
One of the albums biggest hits “Suspicious Minds” was a remake of the 1969 Elvis classic. Even when the band was not covering something old, the mostly analog arrangements featuring organ, saxophone and various string instruments sounded like it could have been recorded 40 years before. Robin Millar, the man behind the discovery of Sade, carefully crafted a vintage sound that like all of his productions was still contemporary.
Some of the albums most beautiful tracks like “Couldn’t Care More” and “Funny How Love Is” stay close to civil rights era songwriting norms with clean arrangements and Gift’s voice firmly in front of a expansive sound stage. On occasion bursts of muted trumphet ohoosed old world charm and Jazz Age sophistication. That put The Fine Young Cannibals in rare company with acts like, The Style Council, Sade and Lloyd Cole and the Commotions. Unlike most of those acts, FYC had a easygoing pop accessibility about them, making the sophisticated production all the more surprising.
In addition to romantic and melancholy of the albums ballads, there was a healthy mix of rousing pop songs that still manage to sound vintage. The best of those was of course “Johnny Come Home”, a song that had universal appeal bits of everything from rockabilly to gospel thrown in. I remember loving it as much as my parents did (something that almost never happened in the 1980s unless it was a Michael Jackson song).
Obviously, we weren’t the only ones to love FYC. Soon what was once considered edgy college radio pop had become a favorite of VH-1, MTV and BET (one of the few times a video was popular on all three major video networks). Interestingly, it seemed that older R&B fans embraced FYC more readily than younger audiences. I suspect that it was simply because the group’s sound reminded them of their youth.
The Fine Young Cannibals represent the best of the of the British pop/soul movement that would later include Simply Red and Rick Astley. Like many new musical phonomons from England, FYC would become the new pop for a few short years before breaking up at their commercial and artistic peak with The Raw and the Cooked in 1988.