There was a time back in the early eighties when Susan Fassbender and her band seemed to be all over the television. Apart from appearances on ‘Top Of The Pops’ promoting the only one of her songs that saw any chart action, Susan also appeared on Saturday morning programmes like ‘Multi-Coloured Swap Shop’ and ‘Cheggers Plays Pop’. In reality Fassbender probably didn’t appear on television as much as the passing of time playing tricks on our memories fools us into thinking she did, but for a short while there it did feel like her band was a fixture on the kids’ programmes of the day.
Apart from the fact that the songs Fassbender wrote with her songwriting partner and guitarist Kay Russell were extremely catchy pop songs that were impossible to ignore, maybe another reason that they were regulars on the box is that they always appeared to be enjoying performing. Kay Russell’s infectious smile alone made it difficult not to stop whatever else you were doing at the time and to give the band your full attention.
Fassbender studied classical piano and clarinet from the age of thirteen, and eventually started writing songs with her friend Kay Russell. As Kay recently told Pennyblackmusic, “We were mates in Bradford, where we both lived, and both were unemployed. Once I heard Susan play the piano, I thought we could work together, so I suggested it, and then I formed a band around us.”
The first released fruit of this collaboration turned out to be the only time either Susan or Kay would trouble the (all important back then) Top 20. ‘Twilight Café’ hit the charts in January 1981 and stayed there for eight weeks, eventually peaking at number twenty-one. Strangely the single was credited solely to Fassbender. The reason why Kay was only credited as a co-writer and not a performer has been a mystery for many years now, so it’s right that Kay can shed light on why this happened.
“The record company thought ‘Fassbender’ was a memorable name, so we went with it,” Kay explained to us. “The second single ‘Stay’ came out as ‘Fassbender Russell’ but then the record company said that name sounded like kitchen equipment so we reverted to ‘Susan Fassbender’ for the third single ‘Merry Go Round’, although the sleeve also states ‘featuring the Fassbender/Russell band.”
After ‘Twilight Café’ disappeared from the charts it was followed by the no less catchy and reggae-influenced ‘Stay’, and given its good-time feel the song suited the happy image the band displayed on their television performances. It is a mystery why this song which was, and still is, the equal of ‘Twilight Café’ never made any impression on the UK charts. Again it’s classy, catchy pop music and deserved more attention.
Susan and Kay tried to recapture some of the first single’s success with ‘Merry-Go-Round’, which was even more radio-friendly and appealing than those previous two singles. Again the single failed to make any impression despite television appearances and the fact that the song was impossible to ignore. Kay wrote the music for all three singles: “We wrote inspirationally; occasionally one of us would have more input than the other-either musically or lyrically. The music for the three singles is mainly mine.”
After the chart failure of the last two singles Fassbender and Russell seemed to disappear from the music scene, but as Kay explains that wasn’t really the case. “We didn’t leave the business. The band was split up by our second manager who thought Susan would be more successful as a solo artist, with his own session musicians backing her of course!” But demos were made with a view to releasing them as an album at the time.
In these days of downloads and music being available with a single click, many people forget or just don’t understand how important chart positions were back in the eighties. There was no internet to enable musicians to build up a following and get their music out there; it was all down to the record labels. No chart action meant no releases, simple as that. So three decades after they were recorded, Platform Records have assembled a collection of fifteen songs that were intended for the Fassbender / Russell album that never was.
“The second two singles didn’t achieve enough chart success, so the proposed album never came out onto the market,” Kay reflects today. It’s taken a long time for these songs, which are presented in their original demo form, to get a general release, and it’s partly through Kay’s hard work and belief in the songs that Platform Records are releasing a download of not only the Fassbender / Russell demos but also of five Kay Russell solo tracks.
There has always been interest from fans who wanted more after those three 45s but it seemed unlikely that any more would be heard from Fassbender/Russell. Thankfully, however, the internet helped, “I investigated YouTube about two to three years ago,” remembers Kay, “and discovered the interest from fans. This motivated me to try again. I had a lot of material and had it digitally re-mastered as far as possible and sent it to a publisher in Edinburgh (Platform Songs-MC). They chose what they thought would be a good mixture, and I think they’ve made a good decision about which tracks are included and also the order in which they appear on the album.”
‘The Demo Collection 1981-1985’, kicks off with the original demo of ‘Twilight Café’ and, although obviously not as polished as the version that hit the charts, there is still no doubt as to why this song gained so much attention back then. Like most of the band’s songs the track is dominated by Susan’s keyboards and Kay’s guitar. Watching the girls on television way back then must have taken some attention away from their vocal performances. The fact is, even on a demo of this standard, both Fassbender and Russell were not given credit at the time for just how strong they were vocally.
‘Lies’, which is the second track on this compilation, shows a side to the girls that was never revealed on the singles. It is an atmospheric piece which, if released at the time of recording, would have ensured a longer and more fruitful musical career for both Susan and Kay. It is just one indication that the duo was not given the credibility they deserved. Kay’s not so sure that’s the case, “Credibility is subjective,” she says today. “I did once meet a Manic Street Preachers fan who expressed the opinion that we were before our time!”
Most of the songs on this collection obviously have a slightly dated sound to them, but it’s not as distracting as you might think. Given a contemporary production many of these songs would sound even better than they do in this form. Kay agrees with this. “I think a few could be updated or covered by other younger artists or bands,” she responded when asked if she would like to revisit or change any of these songs.
But the biggest surprise is not that a collection of thirty year old demos reveals another side to this band, or that somehow the vocals that they laid down then have only just shown that both Fassbender and Russell were exceptional singers. It is the five Kay Russell solo tracks that even most fans didn’t know existed that are worth the price of admission on their own.
‘Matter of Time’ is the first solo Russell song that we hear and, although there are obvious hints of the duo’s work in there, there is a harder, funkier edge to this song than those recorded by Fassbender and Russell together. It’s more than impressive and displays Kay’s knack of writing memorable melodies perfectly while taking her into new territory. It also includes a scorching guitar solo. While Kay’s other solo cuts here like ‘Crisis’ and ‘Too Crazy’ slot in perfectly with her work with Susan, it is ‘Matter of Time’ and ‘Yesterday’s Hero’ which stand out. The latter really could be lifted off this album and released as a single today, and be successful with barely any changes.
The collection closes with ‘Walking in Space’, another solo Kay song that once again proves that there’s much more to these girls than just catchy pop songs. Kay creates another atmospheric pop song, full of hooks but never sounding lightweight or banal.
Surely an artist who could create such affecting music must still be writing? “I have some demos which remain on cassette tape, not mastered, as yet,” explained Kay before going on to explain that she is still writing. “I definitely would release new material but would prefer some younger people to record and perform it. Not everybody wants to go back on stage at 60 years old!”
For a collection of thirty-year-old demos ‘Twilight Café’ leaves a lot of contemporary albums in the shade. It is going to appeal to a much wider audience than just those fans who remember Susan Fassbender and Kay Russell fondly from those three singles and their television appearances. The twenty songs available for download will not only attract the attention of eighties’ music fans, but of those who like their pop music, especially when sung by females, with a little more depth and edge.
Although, hopefully, we will hear more from Kay Russell in the future, it appears that this fine collection will probably be the last opportunity we will have of hearing the music that Susan Fassbender made. Susan committed suicide in 1991, but after the band broke up it appears that she did continue writing and during the time between the break-up there was contact between the two friends before Susan’s passing.
Kay explained what happen after the band folded: “Susan and I both got married. We worked separately at this time, only getting together, rarely, for a chat. I didn’t get a chance to hear what she wrote during that period, but she heard the songs I’d written alone, and with one or two other songwriters. Her favourite was ‘Walking in Space’. Around 1983, I think it was, we did compose together again in a small studio in Nottingham, but nothing much came of this, and the songs never got beyond guitar, keyboards, drum machine and vocals. ‘Now You’re Gone’ is one of the songs from this period included on the ‘Demo Collection’.”
One of the biggest surprises of the year so far, this collection of demos has a lingering quality that keeps drawing you back to listen over and over again. It is not just the immediate attraction of the three singles, but each and every one of these tracks has something to offer. Fassbender and Russell wrote and performed pop songs with substance that will still stand up in another thirty years. While the songs in this demo form at times do sound like they belong to the decade that they were recorded in, the melodies and vocals are timeless.
‘Twilight Café (The Demo Collection 1981-1985)’ is the best set of demos you are likely to hear all year. In fact forget the demo part. It is one of the best collection of songs you will hear all year.