Music

How we made Breakout by Swing Out Sister: ‘The record label hated it. It wasn’t cool to be upbeat’ | Culture

Corinne Dreweryvocals/co-writer

I’d fallen off a horse and fractured my skull. I was incapacitated – I couldn’t move – so with nothing to do but recover, I started scribbling down loads of notes. I was having strange, dark, creative thoughts. I didn’t think I was writing lyrics, but they ended up being the basis of Swing Out Sister’s first album, It’s Better to Travel.

Even though I was miserable, the Breakout lyrics are positive and defiant. I was trying to write myself out of the situation, create the world I wanted to be in. The song is very autobiographical. I’d been a fashion designer, but had got into debt running my own business and ended up working for a high street fashion company. I’d fallen into the trap of doing a job I didn’t intend to.

Once you’ve had a near-death experience, you think about what you want from life. I’d always wanted to be a singer. Breakout is about following your instincts, even if it’s pie in the sky. After I recovered, I started auditioning for bands and formed Swing Out Sister with Andy [Connell] and Martin [Jackson] after I met them sleeping on the floor of a north London squat.

Breakout was a hybrid of our tastes rolled into one: bits of Isaac Hayes, Weather Report, Earth Wind & Fire, Steely Dan, Diana Ross. We wanted the effect of Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, that top-of-the-world feeling.

Andy and Martin had given me the backing track on cassette. But then our label suddenly said they were sending a bike to pick up the finished demo next morning – and we’d be dropped if they didn’t get it. I panicked and tried to sing the vocal that night. But my flatmate told me to shut up because she had work the next day, so I was whispering it to myself all night. I sang it at eight in the morning, still half-asleep.

For the studio version, we recruited Paul O’Duffy to produce, and the arranger Richard Niles. So we had some sophisticated arrangements with horns and strings. But I was intimidated and felt it was dishonest, because it didn’t sound like us any more. I started crying and didn’t want to sing it.

We were in Trevor Horn’s Sarm studio, which was very expensive per day. Everyone was trying to keep it casual but coax me into singing. Andy said, “Name me your favorite records.” When I reeled off all these divas, he asked me if I thought Shirley Bassey and Dusty Springfield would have complained about the arrangements of their backing tracks. Point taken. I sang the song.

The record label hated Breakout. Acid house was coming, everything had lots of attitude, it wasn’t cool to be upbeat. But people could tell the song was sincere. Lots of people have told us it was their coming out anthem.

Andy Connellkeyboards/co-writer

It was the 1986 Mexico World Cup and the theme music for the TV coverage was dreadful. I knew it was going to annoy the hell out of me for the next three weeks, so I thought I’d knock my own theme together and play that whenever instead of the coverage came on. I must have osmosed World Cup fever into Breakout, which was a very out-of-character song for us, because we tended to be more on the maudlin side. I still think it could be a World Cup song.

We had a few fights in the studio with Paul while recording Breakout, but they were always creative ones. I’d play jazz chords and he would watch my hand on the keyboard and take certain fingers off. There’s still one jazz chord in the chorus that I wouldn’t let him change. It’s a B-flat 13 sus 5.

The horns at the start of Breakout are what everybody remembers, but for me, it’s the aching cellos in the chorus that give the song its weight and a bittersweet quality. After the mastering, I said, “If that’s not a hit, we’ll never have one.” But I was the only one who thought so. The A&R department told us, “Don’t expect anything.” But Breakout got to No 6 in America and the greatest thing was when the marching bands at NFL games played it – but with 50 more horns than we’d had.

Corinne was very recognisable, so she had disguises on tour. Once, I’d arranged to meet her in New York and while I was waiting, there was some crazy woman on the street laughing at a skip – who turned out to be Corinne in disguise. She’d been told that if you’re in New York and you expect trouble, just act madder than everyone else.

Breakout changed everything. I have lots of talented musician friends where a song like that didn’t come along, and the moment that changed everything didn’t happen. For something like that to make such a difference to the way your life turned out, it’s frightening, really.

Swing Out Sister’s Blue Mood, Breakout and Beyond: The Early Years Part 1 is released on 19 August on Cherry Pop Records.

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