For those of you who don’t know them, both Holly and Ian have long pedigrees. Starting out as a teenaged Glaswegian jazzer with rock leanings, Ian began his career in the mid-’70s playing saxophone for Deaf School, the theatrical Liverpudlian art-rockers who also gave us Madness/Elvis Costello producer Clive Langer. In the ’80s Ian took a left turn into programming, becoming an early exponent of that decade’s techno-pop via his own project Miro Miroe. From there, he moved on to sleek, glossy electronic productions for Pete Wylie (‘Sinful’), Laurie Anderson (‘Strange Angels’) and Roger Waters (‘Radio K.A.O.S’). Amongst other unlikely adventures, he helped to pioneer digital home recording, flung together the ‘Lonely Planet’ theme after a two-hour crash course in ambient downtempo, and played the sax on Wham’s ‘Club Tropicana’. By the early ’90s, he’d also met and married Holly as a result of working on her second album, ‘Parts Of My Privacy’.
A striking singer, Holly had been part of the flash and swill of the 1980s Los Angeles pop scene, into which she’d delivered ‘Full Grown Child‘ (a fairly average, commercially obscure album of New Wave pop-rock featuring, among others, future King Crimsoneer Pat Mastelotto). ‘Parts Of My Privacy’ was a much more psychologically involved work – a thematic dark-night-of-the-soul electronic ballad record, showcasing her passionate vocals, pulsating synths and Ian’s jazz-noir saxophone. It was based on Holly’s live ‘Fragile Human Monster‘ show – part rock torch-song revue, part performance art – which she performed in L.A and around the UK and Europe. Exploring her fractured psyche and pursuing human connection, while putting a contradictory twist on pop star roles, the show was a shamanic exploration of trauma and angst; persistently breaking the wall between performer and audience, and unafraid to fall on its face if it had to.
In some respects, Holly’s development at the time anticipated that of Tori Amos. Both travelled from brash hairsprayed Angeleno rock (‘Full Grown Child’, ‘Y Can’t Tori Read’) onto more eccentric, higher-achieving confessional efforts. Only one of them had hits and a grand piano; but then, only one of them regularly beat up an inflatable Edvard Munch ‘Scream’ doll onstage. The latter was one of the show’s regular features when I encountered Holly and Ian for the first time, one random night in Edinburgh in a year when they’d taken the Fragile Human Monster to the Fringe.
This in turn led to me becoming a regular at FHM gigs back in London at which Holly would deliver her naked-hearted synth ballads, display scars, converse with the audience and deliver climactic primal screams while Ian prowled the stage behind her, playing multiple saxophones and serving both as musical foil and wary backbone. Over the years, a diverse handful of support performers included Tim Bowness (with his occasional ambient folk band Samuel Smiles), Mark Bandola (ex-Lucy Show), psychedelic London songwriters Susan Chewter (Wise Wound) and Dean Carter, and Chapman Stick ace Jim Lampi. With varying degrees of buy-in, reluctance and affection, each were pulled into the culture of the show in one way or another. It was an intense cabaret of madness, compassion, stress relief and ongoing healing. Depending on how you felt on any given evening, it could be touching, ludicrous, therapeutic, alarming… you certainly had to leave embarrassment at the door. It was all too much for one show to contain for too long, and after several memorable years it finally burnt out.
For the last few decades, Ian’s continued his own explorations – early live techno and Big Chill electronica with Shen and Chance Element, ecstatic dance with Urubu, recreating the sax solos from ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ with the Roger Waters band, and innumerable jazz projects. Holly, meanwhile, has made a bigger name for herself in jazz cabaret in London and elsewhere, shaking down familiar standards with her own particular mixture of sass and kook: beyond the wigs and the campery, however, there’s always been a remarkable singer and performer. Over the years, Ian’s been a frequent contributor to Holly’s jazz bands, but they’ve not formed anything together until now.
In some respects – and on the evidence of their first single – The Cricklewood Cats doesn’t fall too far from what Holly and Ian have been up to in recent years. Rather than a return to the synth-pop balladry of ‘Parts Of My Privacy’, it’s a kind of virtual rockabilly with a strong flavour of jump blues and jumping jive. Ian’s “everything else” consists of plenty of saxophones, plenty of programming, bass, backing vocals and the ubiquitous ukelele; Holly’s collaborator on the lyrics is Tanya Chantier, who’s previously contributed to her jazz songs. Shake Your Skeleton’ is a life-affirming rattle-along on lusty, mocking baritone sax, with Holly setting the lighter and more vulnerable aspects of her balladry and cabaret aside in favour of delivering one of her gutsiest alto-range vocals to date. See above for the video cut (by Ian) from footage in ‘The Skeleton Dance’, a Walt Disney short from 1929.
The song pulls off the neat trick of simultaneously sounding faithful, sounding like a revival, and celebrating the art of the virtual band. As a consequence, there’s not much room for originality. All of the life here is in the happy, immediate unity of performance and production; and Ian cheerfully cites Louis Prima, Brian Setzer and The Cure’s 1983 swing diversion ‘The Love Cats’ rather than making any claims for breaking new ground. Still, The Cricklewood Cats seems to have brought out some of that same sense of fun and expression which Ian and Holly brought to the lighter side of the ‘Fragile Human Monster’ shows (yes, there was some of that too). I’m hope that as they grow into the project it becomes more of a channel for some of that era’s breadth of perspective and for Holly’s songwriting voice. Certainly their sheer musicality is intact.