How I wrote ‘Breakout’ by Swing Out Sister
Corinne Drewery and Andy Connell explain how the 1986 World Cup and a panic-inducing deadline inspired their sophisti-pop hit single
Arriving in the mid-80s, Swing Out Sister stood out with a unique style of sophisticated cinematic jazz-infused pop. The group started as an instrumental duo comprising Andy Connell on keys and Martin Jackson on drums, before being joined by fashion designer Corinne Drewery to add vocals. Prior to releasing their debut album, they put out the single Blue Mood in 1985 and it didn’t chart, but they would become known across the world just a year later with the song Breakout. It reached No 4 in the UK in the autumn of 1986, and rose to No 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the US and also resulted in a Grammy Award nomination for Best Pop Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group.
Continuing to record and perform as a duo, Corinne and Andy have just released a tenth Swing Out Sister album, Almost Persuaded, giving the pair a good excuse to reflect on the hit single that launched their careers…
“I was a designer at that time, and had started my own fashion label, but I’d always wanted to be a singer. I’d never written any songs before, but the music suggested things to me and I took words that I’d written down just after I’d had the fractured skull. I fell off a horse and hit a wall, so I’d been unconscious for a week and then spent three months recuperating. As you can imagine I was in quite a delirious state and the lyrics were quite interesting, but they were just stream of consciousness things. I don’t know why I was writing them down; I wanted to know if I was going to get my marbles back!
“You sort of have an idea of what you want a song to be about, and it never ends up being what you think it is – it writes itself. Sometimes I’ll think of a word or a line and I think I know where it’s going, but it comes to me in little phrases and I think, ‘Maybe I’ve thought of this one before somewhere.’ I do think songs are like premonitions sometimes.
“It was a bit of a panic really. We had some demos and put out our first single Blue Mood, and then we did the demo for Breakout. I was in London living in a squat at the time, and the record company phoned up and said, ‘You better have the demo in by first thing on Monday morning, or you’re dropped!’ It was only a two-single deal. But Andy had gone on tour somewhere in Europe with A Certain Ratio, and Martin was up in Manchester. This was 1986 – pre-internet and mobile phones – so I couldn’t get hold of them! There was nothing to record it on, but I had a Walkman and a cassette player in my room, so I started recording it on that. My flatmate was saying, ‘Shut up, I’ve got to get up for work in the morning and I’m trying to get some sleep!’ So I had to wait until she went to work, remember what was in my head, and then just sing it. Then the courier bike took the cassette off to the A&R meeting at Phonogram, and luckily they liked it!
“I think I was in such a panic that the lyrics came without too much analysis, but I remembered people saying, ‘Write what you know about,’ so I was describing my situation and how I was feeling at the time. When I’d had the accident and that near-death experience, it made me realise I didn’t want to go back to being a fashion designer, and I decided I needed to do what I wanted to do. But it was quite scary because it was a well-paid job. Andy and Martin had been in various bands, struggling along. I said, ‘I’m going to hand in my notice because I really like doing this,’ and they both said, ‘Oh no, don’t do that, you’re the only one who’s got any money!’ But I wanted to make a go of it. I didn’t have any overheads or too much to lose.
“The blissful part of songwriting is when you’ve got all these ideas suspended in your mind and you’re not quite sure what they are. When you have to decide and make something final, in a way that’s the greatest achievement because you’ve finished a song, but it’s the saddest part as well because you can’t do any more to it. Actually every time we do a gig we reinterpret the songs and they’re never the same, so we never get bored of Breakout.”
“It was the Mexico ’86 World Cup and the TV theme was the most shocking piece of drivel you’d ever heard, so I turned the volume down and played the bass line [to Breakout]. I think of was secretly trying to be Joe Zawinul of Weather Report, but I was convinced it summed up the World Cup that year.
“One of the things that people would have noticed about that record at the time was the horns. I’m not entirely sure how that came about. I think we’d been listening to Richard Niles’ Slave To The Rhythm, but we all had different ideas: Corinne wanted a Motown sort of brass and I wanted almost the big marching band type thing, and Martin didn’t want any! It was a very odd thing because it’s disappointing when you have an idea in your head and you have to compromise. It came out nothing like any of us anticipated, which I think is better.
“It was supposed to not work, actually! We were already shopping the demos around because the label had told us that the single wasn’t going to do anything. The mid-week charts said it was 90-something, but we got one TV slot on the Thursday, I think, and it was just a couple of minutes on a children’s programme. Corinne wore her big mac and haircut, and the next week it was at 40-something and the week after that it was at No 4!
“We’d taken it into the radio promotions people and they said, ‘Yeah it’s a nice song, but it’s not what anyone’s playing.’ So I think it was just one of things that didn’t happily fit in, in quite an interesting way.
“I don’t think we had the key change in the demo – we weren’t sophisticated enough to know those things – so I think that came from Paul the producer. We were always listening to Stevie Wonder records and it was almost mandatory that the last chorus would go up a tone. I like it, it’s a little bit ‘old school’. It’s a good trick and one of the things that works well on radio – it gives it a lift at the moment you need something more.”
“We should hate it with every bone in our body, but I’ve always loved it. There are some parts of the song that I think could’ve been stronger, but I love the sound of the record. There’s an excitement in there. We didn’t know what we were doing, so it’s got that youthful exuberance. We certainly tried to get that energy again, but it’s a thing you can’t replicate and that’s the beauty of it, in a sense. It’s a cliché but it’s like lightning in a bottle – the stars align in a particular way and you can’t repeat that.”