35 Years Ago: Why the Fixx’s Chart Slide Shouldn’t Have Begun With ‘Phantoms’
The Fixx made the mistake of making a more adventurous, more serious album after their huge breakthrough with 1983's Reach for the Beach.
It didn't help that they never quite fit into any obvious radio-programmer box in the first place: Were the Fixx new wave? Post-punk? Pop? Rock?
Frontman Cy Curnin's band were, in fact, bedeviled by their own sense of musical risk, even at their peak. "One Thing Leads to Another" might have zoomed to No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart in 1983, becoming a fixture on the then-new MTV. But they'd released a pair of less successful, but arguably more interesting songs – the moodier No. 20 hit "Saved by Zero" and the rockier No. 32 single "The Sign of Fire" – on either side of it.
"The Fixx sound is the happy side of schizophrenia," Curnin admitted in a 1991 talk with the Sun-Sentinel. "It's like one minute, 10 million miles an hour and very sharp, acute sounds and then the next minute, you'll be falling down into a hole that's got lots of color and atmosphere in it and hardly any rhythm. That's what we enjoy – the exploring and experimenting with dynamics, really building tensions up, letting the thing go and parachute down a bit. That's where the joy of music is for us and that's the way our minds work: We're pretty weird in conversation."
They seemed to cop to it with "Are We Ourselves?," the most successful single from the August 1984 follow up Phantoms. A song about shifting public personas, it reached No. 15 on the Billboard pop chart while topping the mainstream rock list. But nothing else clicked with radio, mostly because – as guitarist Jamie West-Cram told Creem in 1985 – they simply picked their best songs for Phantoms, even if they didn't sound "Fixx-y."
Phantoms would be asked to do something that the Fixx were never willing – or maybe even creatively able – to do: Replicate a confirmed success. They didn't, and it didn't, just edging into the Top 20 while selling a fraction of what the multi-platinum No. 8 smash Reach the Beach had.
"Sunshine in the Shade," the second, perhaps too-similar single, could only get to No. 69 on the Billboard Hot 100 – and barely cracked the mainstream-rock Top 40. "Less Cities, More Moving People" – a message song set against an almost rockabilly-ish vibe – then disappeared without a trace, though the single might have fared better had it arrived first.
Watch the Fixx Perform 'Are We Ourselves?'
Ironically, the lineup was becoming set just as they entered these choppy commercial waters. Bassist Dan K. Brown, who'd earlier appeared on "The Sign of Fire," officially joined during sessions for Phantoms.
"We were going through bass players at the rate of two a week," drummer Andy Woods told the Sun-Sentinel in 1986, "and were getting ready to go on tour when our manager suggested Danny. We immediately thought he was great after hearing him; and so it was just a matter of enticing him to join the band rather than have him work as a session musician."
The completed five-man unit, along with producer Rupert Hine, shaped Phantoms in an open, collaborative way. They came away with an air-tight group vision, and an important artistic culmination, no matter what the charts reflected.
"We get on, so there's a sort of relaxed atmosphere in the band, and a good number of things we do talk about a lot among ourselves," West-Cram told Creem. "Some of the ideas developed in those discussions come out later in the songs. For instance, the idea of the title Phantoms had to do with the way people really feel inside as opposed to the facade people quite often use – which is unavoidable. Whoever you are, it's very difficult to be totally honest all the time. Yet, you have feelings that you'd like to express, if only you could find the word."
They worked for a long time on moments like "Less Cities, More Moving People," making sure everything – right down to its interesting cadence – was just right. "The song took quite a while to develop," Adam Woods told Modern Drummer in 1985. "We had it together, except for a satisfactory feel. The bass player, Danny, and I were originally playing around with reggae. We also had this vague idea about camels stomping, in order to add an Arabian touch to it. And the shuffle just happened. We just started doing the shuffle and then playing 'Less Cities.' It seemed to fit."
The song may have flopped, but Curnin remained proud of its broader message. "It was this sort of nomadic gypsy sense that we had," Curnin told Songfacts in 2012, "and the way we sit on our couches and wait for the news to come to us instead of going out to find out what's really happening. That's my anti-soundbite song. Cities that were based on deltas and riches were one thing, but cities that were built on misinformation and supply chains are short lived."
Listen to the Fixx Perform 'Facing the Wind'
Elsewhere, Phantoms took chances both large and small. The Fixx traveling more deeply into melody, in particular on "Wish," "Facing the Wind" and "I Will." But they kicked things off with "Lose Face," which found Woods tapping on found objects from an Indian shop in London. The more explorative "Woman on a Train" was co-written with Jeanette Obstoj, in a pre-amble to their success with 1986's reincarnation-themed Top 20 hit "Secret Separation."
They'd reached a point of true symbiosis with Hine, who'd also helmed Reach the Beach and their 1982 debut Shuttered Room. In fact, sessions for this third album briefly shut down when he was asked to collaborate on a pair of songs for Tina Turner's comeback album, Private Dancer. Hine took Curnin and West-Oram along with him, and both appeared on Turner's No. 5 smash "Better Be Good to Me," before returning to work on Phantoms.
"He is a true producer in that he knows how to draw out the best performance without interfering, he knows how to work with people, and sound," keyboardist Rupert Greenall told the Morning Call in 1984. "Rupert is our unbiased selection committee, a role no one in the band could fill because we're just too close to the material. After we've laid down a few tracks, he stands back from them and selects the best ones."
Ultimately, however, it mattered more than the Fixx hadn't met some unspoken expectation to repeat themselves, and – maybe more importantly – to conform more snugly with some preconceived genre. They never reached the Top 20 again. Walkabout only got to No. 30 in 1986, then 1991's Ink stalled at No. 111, and they took a lengthy break.
"By the time the '80s ended, it became very difficult for that non-genre to exist," Hine told Songfacts in 2011. "There were other bands in the '80s – bands like Simple Minds – that hovered between those same schools as well, and all those bands' days became quickly numbered, partly because the record companies insisted that they became either definitely pop or definitely rock. They were no longer happy to have this sort of no man's land in between. And that, to me, was a problem. That's when they fell from the top end of the charts."