Article & interview with Barbara Gogan
by Brian Cousins
The Passions emerged form the London Punk scene in the late '70's but had their roots in the pub rock and squat rock scenes that preceded it. Original member, principle songwriter and vocalist/guitarist Barbara Gogan spoke to PSF about the band and her subsequent career last year when she was in Brooklyn. Originally from Dublin, Gogan had settled in London just as the economic decay of the '70's was having a profound impact on the living standards of the average person, conversely it was also a great time to be an artist.
At the time of our conversation, the specter of Brexit dominated the conversation and colored Barbara's memories of late '70's /early '80's London. Much of the politics of that time has come full circle with the rise of nationalism around the world and its reemergence in the U.K., leading to a general sense of unease and anxiety about the future. Now in the time of COVID-19, these concerns are all the more real. So much has changed in the intervening years but yet so much now remains the same.
London was similar to New York in the mid-'70's: abandoned buildings, extreme inflation, and temporary work opportunities which all led to a makeshift, can-do, pro-active environment. Out of which emerged not only the Clash/Pistols but also the Slits and Raincoats, along with such diverse talents as Vivienne Westwood, Derek Jarman and Jamie Reid.
With the emergence of the reggae-tinged Slits and the folky lo-fi inventiveness of the Raincoats there was a feminist and female perspective for the first time in rock. Not just serving a singer or token member, women now formed their own bands and did their own thing. And there were the great egalitarian bands of the time with the Au-Pairs and Delta 5 where fe/male co-membership was normalized, which at the time was as radical as the racially-mixed bands like the Specials and the (English) Beat.
So the Passions, two women and two men (Gogan, drummer Richard Williams, bassist Claire Bidwell and guitarist Clive Timperley), emerged into pubic view on Fiction Records, home to the Cure, with the ardent support of John Peel, (three sessions by November '80) as one of these egalitarian, politically correct units. The roots of the band were formed a few years prior when Gogan staring playing in a mainly female band the Derelicts, with friend Sue Richards in West London. She recalls the atmosphere of those times:
"I know it sounds nuts, but we weren't supposed to be doing that- girls didn't play electric guitar, it wasn't done. There was another band in East London, the Stepney Sisters, an all-woman band, (but) there was very, very few of us.
"Because of this (sexism in the London scene), we would get a room above a pub, charge 3 quid at the door, we made a living from gigging. And the 101'er's (Joe Strummer's pre-Clash band) were doing the same kind of thing. They were like our bratty kid brothers; they would follow us everywhere and steal our venues. At one point, I didn't speak to Strummer for two years, I was so mad at him and he was trying to nick our bass players as well. We all came out of West London pubs."
Gogan also explained how the Passions came about. "Clive (Timperley - guitarist) had played in the 101'er's and the Derelicts had broken up and there was a year when we weren't doing anything, then Claire (Bidwell Bassist and co-songwriter with Gogan) approached us about forming the band. And then the 101'er's broke up because Strummer was forming the Clash."
Gogan remembers just how difficult it had been for her to even purchase an electric guitar in those days. "You couldn't actually buy a guitar in a guitar store, they (men) wouldn't let you play them, and psychologically it was daunting. A very good friend, she worked in the acoustic guitar dept. of Fender Sound House and she confirmed that the guys in the electric dept. there just weren't having it- they wouldn't allow any chick to try out a guitar."
Once the band formed, things came together quickly for them. After a one-off single on Soho records, The Passions were signed to Fiction Records and coupled with the Cure.
"We toured a couple of times with the Cure but we didn't hang out with them, even when we on tour- we were pretty political, we were older, we were squatters. They were much more... suburban. We were feminists... they were apolitical but funny... We were totally different psychologically. At the time, I wasn't really into their music but now I listen to it and it's so beautiful.
"I love, love the Buzzcocks. Totally influenced by the Buzzcoks in my guitar playing style. And I love the Damned as well, they're so much fun. And the Pistols were incredible, I saw them a bunch of times- they were frightening."
Listening to Michael & Miranda (1980), the Passions' first album today, it's clearly post -punk in every aspect: from the social realism of the lyrics, the abrasive sound and stark B&W sleeve design. It's not hard to see why they found a champion in John Peel. It's an intellectual and considered sound which aims to challenge and engage rather than shock and outage the listener. The meshing of the Gogan's and Timperley's guitars, which would become so distinctive on the next album, was clearly forming. With prominent bass, jagged rhythms and non-4/4 time signatures with vocals chanted or spoken rather than sung, this is music striving to redefine conventions and suggest new perspectives. Today, it sounds very much of its time but it's a sound that still challenges and engages. Chris Parry, head of Fiction Records, produced the album as he did with the Cure's debut and gave the band a similar flat sound. A first Peel session recorded beforehand is more fluid, as is a second session from May '80. Gogan comments that Parry "for all his faults had vision." The Passions also find some kindred spirits: "We used to play with the Au-Pairs a lot, we were often paired together, and that was with the first album."
The Passions had arrived- it is hard to over-estimate the importance of John Peel's support. His regular playing of their records on his BBC Radio 1 nightly show plus three sessions in a year would have established a cache and presence in the U.K. indie scene that no other taste-master could affect at the time. In short, they were cool as fuck.
It would seem that all they had to do would be to continue and refine this sound, as there was an audience eager to embrace them. Yet something very peculiar for such a young band happened. It was as if the band shed a skin and a new version of the band emerged.
This new version of the band was a combination of a line-up change and a restlessness that Gogan admits to. "I get bored," she flatly claims. Claire (bass/vocals) left the band and was replaced by Dave Agar who Gogan describes has having a much more soulful sound and whose playing was "in the pocket" or on the money. Also, the guitar sound developed: "Clive and I played and meshed our sounds together. That's what really happened. But most of the lead guitar was mine" To quote Roxy Music (who they would later support on tour), it was the "rhythm of rhyming guitars."
In the space of a few months this distinct new sound emerged. Gogan's voice, in itself a beautiful instrument, embraced melodies and a new producer was found in Nigel Gray (who had worked with the Police and Siouxsie and the Banshees). The band switched to Fiction's parent label, Polydor, a more conventional label for a more conventional Passions. Gogan also took over song writing duties and focused more on the romantic and less on the political- "that was really hard, because I did feel it was only me now."
On the third and final Peel session from November '80, this remarkable transformation is complete. Four songs that would feature on the next album are fully formed and polished. And importantly the socio-sexual dynamics of the band changed with the focus on Gogan supported by three males. All that was missing was a big hit single, which duly arrived with "I'm in love with a German Film Star."
Thirty Thousand Feet Over China, the Passions second album, was released in August '81. It's a much more colorful and abstract version of the band that distances itself from the everyday issues of the previous outing. The music and songs seem to float off into the ether and create a safe space away from the concerns of the world. With "Film Star," the band had created a haunting romantic sound that resonated with the great record buying public and radio listeners alike. This lead to several television appearances and pop stardom was beckoning along with the pressures of fame. However, Gogan states bluntly that the promotion department at Polydor "was worse than useless." They hadn't anticipated any success for "Film Star" and demand far exceeded supply for the record. People simply couldn't buy it as enough copies weren't available. It stalled at #21 on the pop charts. "Fiction, had we stayed, it might have been better." Polydor also didn't really see beyond the sex object stereotype and really didn't feel comfortable with a non-traditional female as the leader of the band. Gogan suggests that they were "cumbersome," by which she meant 'inept.'
There were constant live shows in U.K. and Europe (none in the States) but somehow things became too pressured for Clive. "It all got to be too much for him, he had this amazing girlfriend at the time... they wanted to form a band together."
So another member decided to move on. Gogan continued on with the rhythm section and added new players for a third album and live shows. Kevin Armstrong (later, musical director for Iggy Pop, also a member of David Bowie's band at Live Aid) played on the next album, which also featured synths.
This third album Sanctuary was released in '82 and shortly afterward Polydor dropped the band from the label. This stands as a harsh verdict of the record. Recently reissued on Rubellan Remasters (on CD for the first time) and featuring all the additional material from '82 as bonus tracks, the album features strong material, great musicianship and clear production.
Gogan is still annoyed over the release of the title track in edited form as the centerpiece single. The band had insisted that it would work and demanded that it be issued. Polydor instructed Mick Glossop, the producer, to shorten it for single release so he removed the whole middle instrumental break without the band's knowledge or approval. Gogan was first aware of the edit after its release; tellingly, this version is not included on the CD re-issue. The unaltered version closes the album in epic fashion and shows the band morphing and grasping for a new direction.
The album has many of the strengths and weaknesses common to the state of the art recording of the time. There is concentration on technique and audio shine over spontaneity and passion. The band under Gogan's control had developed into a highly proficient unit and there are many great moments on the album but it also left her burnt out and with the need for a break.
Gogan laments, "bands are a bit like a marriage, we grow together, they go through the hard times or they split up... If we had taken the time after we lost the deal with Polydor, taken the time to explore, played some small venues, taken the time to explore more options... who knows..." And this time it was Gogan that wanted to move on as "London was too much for me."
The Passions remain a fascinating band, one that certainly grew and adapted at an astonishing rate. The band on the Peel session from late '79 bears little or no resemblance to "Sanctuary," the title track from'82. This development has to be due to the only consistent member and her sense of musical adventure and dexterity. So many bands of real talent just seem to fade from view so it would be a shame if the Passions did not find a new audience. Their first two albums are essential listening (Cherry Red have issued expanded versions of both) but to date there has been no comprehensive collection. Yet.
Info on the 2019 reissue of Sanctuary
The 2008 reissue of Thirty Thousand Feet Over China
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