New Musical Express
7 August 1982The Lethal Charms Of The Strawberry Switchblade
Strawberry Switchblade are two Glasgow ex-punkettes who sing about trees and flowers and scare their audiences. Kirsty McNeill finds out why
Glasgow during the fair. And nothing disturbing the quiet, lazy Sunday in my street... until, that is, Rose and Jill walk down it.
I shut the windows to exclude the draught from a flurry of neighbouring net curtains, and turn to gaze on a dancing mass of black and white polka-dots, ribbons, buttons and bows. One of Rose's obsessions: "I've got polka-dot cups, glasses, teacloths, curtains..."
The other obsession is Strawberry Switchblade. Fronted jointly by Rose and her friend Jill, the group has already produced some of the most hauntingly sad melodies that I've heard in a month of Sundays. And people are talking. Their manager Barbara reports a constant flow of enquiry. It started with a name...
"Rose had the wonderful name for a group from James Kirk, and she just had to do something with it, so she said to me, Right Jill, friend from punky days...The first time I saw Rose she was a wee punkette with a wee spike sticking right out of her head and a wee yellow and brown striped trouser suit, and I just thought Oh my God!
"I used to call her Bumble-Bee. We really enjoyed going to see groups then; there weren't many people there just to pose - everyone looked a bit silly. You couldn't buy the clothes or the pointy shoes: you had to go down Paddy's and get horrible things. I suppose we were influenced by the motives behind the music: it just took us a while to get started!"
Following the departure of their drummer and bass player to a demanding job and Boys At Sea respectively, Strawberry Switchblade are now reduced to a duo: singer Rose and guitarist Jill. It's an arrangement that they obviously find completely satisfactory, and they are planning to work with tapes for a while. The absence of external influences and interference has had the very positive effect of heightening their own enthusiasm, while at the same time uniting them strongly as a songwriting team.
"Rose and I totally agree on what we think are the best songs. We're not taking into consideration complicated bass lines or whatever, and we can do exactly what we want. Actually it's just because Rose is totally dominant and I'm totally submissive! I'm scared of Rose - she may be half the size of me, but she can boss me around anytime.
"We wrote the music and lyrics for Seaside [retitled By The Sea] together, which was so much better: we screamed and screeched till we got a bit that we liked! It's really difficult to play because it's got these bar [sic] chords... I used to go and watch people playing guitar to see what they were doing. I'm a bit scared to learn new techniques in case I get all flashy."
"I'd soon let you know if you were," retorts Rose.
Confident in the quality of the songs they are currently working on, Rose in particular is quite adamant in the refusal to over-complicate arrangements or bury the sound under 'busy' productions. "We definitely don't want a 'full' sound. We like it basic - you can hear everything. If you put too much in, everything gets lost, and our songs would sound terrible if they were all cluttered up. In fact, what we'll do is get simpler!
"But I wouldn't want the songs to become distorted - they must sound the way WE want them to sound, and we don't need anyone to say, Do this, do that. We know exactly what we want to do; it would, however, be good to have some technical help in achieving it."
They describe the soft, almost wistfully unspecific nature of their music as a 'folky-pop' sound; for which Rose's detached, quietly rich vocals are a perfect match. Particulalry so on 'Trees And Flowers', with the sad, simple lyrics exploring and explaining an inordinate fear of open spaces. Jill has had agoraphobia for years, and I wondered how it affected her when she's on a stage.
"Somehow it doesn't seem so acute - I'm very very nervous; very scared. But I'm so busy thinking about what chord comes next that I don't have time to think about anything else. Sometimes I feel I've got to run off the stage, and my knees are shaking too much... but as long as I'm actually inside, it's not so bad. I just like showing off!
"It used to be much worse: I've had it on and off since I was about 15. Feeling tense or depressed can bring it on - and then I don't want to go out at all and I can't go out; and if I am out I feel really scared, and just want to get back home.
"But it was a lot more scary when I didn't know what was wrong with me - I thought I was going mental. When I found out what it was, and a lot of other people had it, it seemed much better - and I knew I wasn't going crazy. I met some women who had been in the house for about twenty years, virtually never going out at all. It can get out of control sometimes: at one point I couldn't go out unless my dad was with me - and even then it was only down the path and into his car or something. Sometimes, especially at night, I feel that everything's made of plastic; it's all some kind of Lego-land!"
Can you define the fear?
"It's really giddy. And you feel totally panicky, and think you're going to black out - and the only thing you can think of is you've got to get back inside somewhere. I always think, well, I can run into somebody's house and hide under something, and they can phone for someone to come and get me. But sometimes when you get in it doesn't help; it's rotten, because you can't run out either - you just don't know where to go. You just have to bang your head against the wall...
"But Rose just hits me and goes, Shut up, I can't be bothered with idiot neurotic fools like you!
"So Jill calms down, and everything's back to normal..."
As she sits grinning broadly under an oversized polka-dot bow, her face framed with huge red pom-pom earrings and yards and yards of spotted ribbon, it's rather hard to believe that Rose has the born ability to terrify and intimidate strangers.
"Well I don't know how, I really don't: I mean I've frightened big neds before!"
"Rose thinks she looks like a bad fairy," says Jill. "I remember in Maestros, the second time we'd ever played, there were these heavy metal fans standing right down the front, and when we walked on stage they were in fits of laughter, shouting, God, are you the lead guitarist, hen?
"And when I started playing they just collapsed about the floor. So I scowled the whole time, and everybody thought I was a really moody nasty bad fairy - but I'm really quite pleasant..."
Rose butts in with cries of "Kill the hippies - stiletto meets nose!"
"I would have done that," Jill goes on, "but I would have fallen over - my guitar's too heavy. I get chronic lumbago from it; I wish I was the singer!"
Their euphoria is obvious and infectious...
"We're really excited. At one point we were rehearsing every day, but it was exhausting. We nearly died, so we had a weekend off. Rose had to be carried home to Darnley on a stretcher! I'm always meeting people who say, You're in that group Strawberry Switchblade - you're not very good are you?"
"That never happens to me; but then they're probably so scared of me they daren't say."
"Obviously it doesn't work with me. I must look too much like a good fairy."
"Try a big boil on your chin..."
Before disappearing to make last minute adjustments to the polka-dot trouser suit she was still sewing up on the bus on the way in, Rose totally dispels the slightest hint of any cutesy-ness, by making her voice slip into a quite disgusting Derek and Clive-type croak. (The hoarse, pervy wheeze, with some guttural Glaswegian thrown in for good measure.) Jill says she can't do that one...
"The only voice I put on is when my cats talk through me - it makes my voice go funny, doesn't it, Peter?"
Peter, their photographer, fiddling with lenses and moving furniture, nods in complete agreement.
"Right I'm ready - now where's posey Rosie...?"