Listen to this track by unabashed brassy British pop song poppists Haircut 100. It’s “Fantastic Day” as taken from their first and last record to feature frontman and chief songwriter Nick Heyward, that being Pelican West from 1982.
That record would yield three big hits, with this one included, charting at #9 in the UK. Another would be “Favourite Shirts (Boy Meets Girl)” that showed off their interests in funk-flavoured pop. They’d have another hit from that record, “Love Plus One” that made waves here in Canada, as well as scoring a top 40 placement in the US.
But, this song has always been my favourite from this short-lived band that made a big splash. Of course, they were very much of their time. This song straddles lines that would be tricky today. For one thing, the band employed a full-time saxophonist – Phil Smith. This was easy as pie in the 1980s, of course. Another thing is that they were not ironic in any demonstrative way. They had a happy-go-lucky sort of image that completely sold them to audiences.
That certainly comes through here. Just listen to this song that just crackles with optimism and joie de vivre. If you’ve seen the video for “Fantastic Day”, it’s pretty easy to take it all at face value, with all of the smiles, fake car trips, preppy nautical clothes, and caps worn at jaunty angles.
So if everything was so fantastic, what the heck happened with this band?
Nineteen eighty-two was a tumultuous year for the band, with their success seemingly being instant. Other than being way cute and everything, a lot of this was down to the quality of the material. But, the songs were the product not of the collective members where the writing was concerned, but rather rested squarely on the writing talents of Nick Heyward.
Say what you want about sweaters, jauntily-angled caps and rakish grins, the songs themselves are effervescent, with lyrics that are often inscrutable, yet no less interesting because of the things that are hinted at in them; stress, mitigating influences that work against happiness, crying in the night.
What? Crying in the night?
Once again, it’s the song that sounds happy, but isn’t quotient at work again. Some of the pain of love can be found in here as well as the euphoria it brings. The same can be said, perhaps, of the whole ride the people in this band took as fame and popularity took hold, particularly for Heyward who took the lion’s share of the burden with writing the songs, and fronting the band.
Success is not a static thing; it requires momentum, connection, and continuity. This is particularly true when you’re talking about the music industry. You’ve got to keep going. It doesn’t have time for your personal stress, your ability to communicate with other people, your insecurities, or your health.
I think that this is why so many artists fall prey to illness, and drug addiction. They’re creative, sensitive, and maybe a bit more spiritually fragile than most. That’s a huge generalization of course. And some people deal with it better than others. But, it can take its toll.
For this band, Heyward had to duck out because the stress became too much for him during a time when they needed to build on their initial success. He was ill (clinical depression, and nervous exhaustion), and he needed rest. So, he took time off to get it. By the time he re-entered the studio, percussionist Marc Fox took over lead singing duties, as well as songwriting. Nick Heyward left.
The group continued on without him for another record, but the traction was lost. Of course, Heyward would bounce back with some of his best work ever by the next year with his first solo record, North of A Miracle. His solo career was modestly successful, long-lasting, and marked with these same kinds of happy-sounding, sophisticated pop songs with enough shadowy corners to them to make them interesting.
And amazingly, the band would reunite in the 2000s, thanks to both VH1 Bands Reunited in 2004 and in 2009 through Facebook (!) when Heyward invited his former bandmates to join him onstage while touring solo that year. They’d perform this song and the rest of Pelican West in its entirety in 2011 at London’s 02, among other dates that year. They are a going concern today, working up new tracks and overseeing the re-issue of Pelican West.
Optimism won out with a happy ending!
For more information about Haircut 100, check out Haircutonehundred.net for news, upcoming tour dates, and other stuff.
Here’s the full episode of VH1’s Bands Reunited, which sheds some light on the kinds of pressures they faced, but also shows how happy they were to see each other again after so long.
For more information about Nick Heyward, there’s always Nickheyward.com, isn’t there?