8th October 1983
Things We Did In Our Holidays
Johnny Waller goes sightseeing with the Europeans
"It would have been great having a Channel 4 documentary team following us around America on tour" - Europeans vocalist, Fergus Harper.
"Tough - You'll have to put up with me instead!" - Sounds writer, Johnny.
"I'm sorry, you can't touch that food...It's for Sister Sledge!"
Hungry keyboard player Steve is about to make himself a ham sandwich in the band's dressing-room when the above rebuke reminds him of the Europeans' lowly stature in the realm of today's music market.
Sharing a dressing-room with soul sensations Sister Sledge is fascinating yet humbling - like getting close to royalty and being snubbed - but even the loss of a ham sandwich cannot quell this young group's wide-eyed eagerness to devour America in one huge gulp.
The Europeans - a little known funky pop outfit - have become part of the new British invasion to the states. When I join them in Boston, they babble enthusiastically about "a lot of screaming girls at the front of the stage" at their dates in California and send postcards to people like Radio One DJ David Jensen and record producer Vic Coppersmith saying "the tour is going unbelievably well."
It is difficult to know whether to believe this or not. Despite the band's immediate affability - coupled with a lot of confidence and support from their record company A&M - the Boston gig is poorly attended thought the Europeans' quirky, strained exuberance finally wins the audience over. I am not so easily convinced.
In the minibus going to the next gig, these four young innocents abroad bemoan their (comparative) lack of success.
"I guess that's just the way of the world" sighs Fergus with a smile of resignation.
Drummer Geoff scowls back at him and spits "well, the way of the bloody world is going to have to change then."
Unshaven guitarist Colin raises one leading eyelid, surveys the agitated drummer with vague amusement and goes back to sleep.
LOCATION: PROVIDENCE, RHODE ISLAND.
Probably the American equivalent of Norwich or Exeter, Providence is a nice sunny town and The Living Room is a friendly little club...but who wants to play sunny, friendly gigs with an audience that barely numbers forty?
However, The Europeans struggle on, and although their lacklustre stage presence and lack of genuine charisma is a distinct disadvantage, they work hard at exhorting the audience to enjoy themselves and are eventually rewarded with shrieked demands for an encore, which they perform with elation mixed with relief.
Afterwards, there is little time for either self-recrimination or congratulation, as we all jump into the mini-bus and drive through the night to The Big Apple.
LOCATION: NEW YORK CITY.
Having already played in town earlier on the tour - "the gig at the Ritz was great" they tell me earnestly - The Europeans buzz all over New York like natives...zooming up to their booking agency, FBI (run by Ian Copeland, brother of the Police's Stewart) to talk to the attractive girls that work there, then dashing across town to visit MTV, the cable TV all-rock station.
Everything The Europeans see still looks bright and shiny to them, so they probe and investigate like playful kittens. They're desperate to be a successful band, and if they can combine the inevitable striving and struggling with having a good time, they figure, why not? And who can blame them?
Well, actually, me for a start.
Having observed the band at close quarters for a week, both on stage and off, I reckon they're selling themselves short with their poppy, inoffensive funky dance music.
Admittedly they try to deny the 'dance band' tag - "a danceable band I'd say" asserts Colin, while Steve explains, "I see us as a band who write songs, some of which are bloody great dance tunes."
Nevertheless, the Europeans place a high premium on getting an audience to move, seemingly regarding physical reaction as the only appreciation worthy of their music. The journalist, meanwhile, stands somewhere near the back musing over the lack of emotion and intellect contained in the show, then puts the point to the band when they've cooled off.
"I get really excited when we play small, sweaty clubs" confesses Colin. "Sometimes I just lose control. The first band I was ever into in a big way was early Alice Cooper - it was just wild, there wasn't anything else around like it at all...just wild!"
Wild is just fine, I agree. And when you hear the Europeans ecstatically raving about Motown and Hall & Oates, then listing 'River Deep Mountain High' and 'Dancing In The Streets' in their top five records of all time, you begin to think they really could tap that rich vein of soul that runs through deep emotional music as it stabs away at your heart. But then they go and do something as incredibly dumb as a rock'n'roll cabaret routine of introducing the individual group members as though they were Kajagoogoo-like heart-throbs. It's hideous!
Whether it's adrenaline or a subconscious debt to rock'n'roll culture, the unsavoury aspects of the Europeans' live show - the emphasis on fast dance music, the constant exhortations to have a good time - tend to overshadow their excellent use of melody, heavenly harmonics and some quite stunning guitar work.
And so, when I hear Friday's gig has been scheduled for downtown Brooklyn at the height of the Jewish new year, I decided to pass on the prospect of another performance of forced enthusiasm in dismal surroundings and instead go to see Big Country at the Ritz. They were brilliant.
LOCATION: NEW YORK CITY.
The Europeans aren't brilliant, but they show flashes of excellence, especially when they're bold enough to slow down the frenetic pace and allow the emotion and drama to flow, as on the magnificent 'Going To Work', to my mind quite effortlessly their best song. By comparison, the rest of the set is rushed and anxious.
"I know that" mutters Fergus with an air of resignation. "Maybe we'll write some more relaxed songs soon, but we keep thinking we have to grab people's attention, so we want to keep the momentum going."
"It's just us really wanting to go for it" adds Geoff.
There's no doubting the Europeans' ability to be occasionally exciting, but they lack a sense of drama and pacing in a set so highly strung there's no room for real tension.
Nervously, but full of serious intent, they admit that they consider themselves "unique" musically. I cite vague influences and resemblances to the Thompson Twins, Talking Heads, Fashion and Kajagoogoo, but they remain unimpressed, admitting only "we're similar in a way to XTC, where nobody seemed to buy any of their records though they were quite well-likes."
But you must feel a certain affinity with other bands now that you're part of the new British pop invasion over here...
"I don't feel we're PART of that" interrupts Ferg.
"We're part of it in as much as we're British and we're here!" clarifies Geoff. "Other than that, we've not had the same degree of success that bands like U2, Eurythmics, even The Alarm, have had...but you find that when you meet other British bands here, like Flock Of Seagulls who are staying at our hotel, you tend to speak to each other more readily because you're three thousand miles from home.
"But really" admits Geoff, "the only reason we're here is that the president of our record company really likes us."
That night, in Manhattan's Peppermint Lounge, the Europeans played their best show since I'd arrived, claiming a well-deserved encore and exuding a boyish confidence which suggested they'll soon be anything but failures."
LOCATION: CENTRAL PARK.
In the stifling 90 degree New York heat, the Big Apple's residents stretch out for a lazy Sunday as the Europeans have a day off before returning to Britain.
The sun blazes down mercilessly as families stroll along Broadway, goggle eyed, winos and hoboes wake up in doorways and wonder where they are, bag-ladies clutch all their earthly possessions to their bosom and search you out with pleading eyes as the steam hisses mockingly, drifting up from the roasted sidewalk. To escape all of this, the Europeans retreat to the calm of the boating lake in Central Park, away from all the joggers and skaters, ghetto-blasters and body-poppers.
We take up the theme of failure again and Geoff makes light of it by saying "we just need more confidence, that's all."
He explains that a lot of what I've seen - the stage shows, their enthusiasm for the whole rock "business" - isn't pre-planned and co-ordinated. "It's easy to arrange things presuming you're going to be successful" he states, "but the difficult thing is to organise things when you're not being successful, just to enable yourself to keep going."
"And we've coped with not being successful really well!" laughs Ferg.
Geoff again: "Someone once said that success is the capability to withstand failure - and we've been failing long enough."
"But we've managed to convince the record company we're going to be successful" confides Ferg. "As long as we stay confident then other people seem to be confident of our success as well!"
The Europeans' greatest strength is also their most damning weakness: that fierce, raging desire for success. It both inspires them with a wild determination and tempts them to compromise for the sake of expediency.
It blunts their originality and leaves them with a band name that is bland and meaningless. "But I don't think a band name should mean anything anyway." Counters Steve. "But I think it's a great name cos it's BIG - and it has no preconceptions so we can easily move on musically."
But the problem is that it's so unoriginal - there has already been at least one other band called that (they came form Bristol, featuring Specimen guitarist Jon Klein and released a single on Heartbeat) as well as a TV film starring Lee Remick.
And so these Europeans - who desperately want not only commercial but artistic success - will never reach the heights of the records and artists they so admire. Chic's 'Good Times' will always be out of reach until they become more self-determined.
Mind you, they'll never starve either...but the hunger for artistic satisfaction can never be fulfilled by such crumbs of comfort.
Young men live on dreams.
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