Classix Nouveaux frontman Sal Solo talks us though the making of their UK smash hit ‘Is It A Dream’
“When we released our first album, ‘Night People’, in 1981, we were one of a whole bunch of bands that became part of the New Romantic movement. The scene was basically just a tiny handful of exclusive clubs in London, where people were only admitted if they looked right. The music was all very much electronic and robotic, which at the time was considered really new. That was the environment Classix Nouveaux came out of. By the end of 1981, when we were recording the follow-up to ‘Night People’, the New Romantic movement was already last year’s thing, and everybody was trying to find a new direction. Spandau Ballet had become like a soul group, for example.
“We were signed to Liberty, an EMI subsidiary. They used to have their big offices in Manchester Square, near Oxford Street in London but it’s been demolished now. It was famous for The Beatles’ covers where they were looking over a balcony. On the ground floor, EMI had a recording studio. People today might not realise it, but when we did our second album, ‘La Verité’, recording time was ridiculously expensive. To save the company money, rather than pay for an external studio, they would provide artists with time in Manchester Square. You would quite often find us or Duran Duran in the building, working out new songs.
“One morning, I was waiting on the tube platform for a Jubilee line train to Bond Street so I could go to the Manchester Square studio. This little brassy riff came into my head, which became the main melody on ‘Is It A Dream’. To me, it sounded like a Stevie Wonder solo. I got to the studio and we recorded it as an instrumental. We had a habit of putting one or two instrumentals on an album, so that wasn’t unusual.
“Classix Nouveaux were always interested in new inventions. What was a new sound you’d never heard before? What new instruments were coming out? We used Roland guitar synths and we also had a vocoder keyboard. I had the idea that if you could plug the microphone in to the vocoder and alter voices, maybe you could do that with other things in as well. So I plugged in a little rhythm box from an old organ, and that’s the sound you hear at the beginning and the end of ‘Is It A Dream’. We’d often use a number of different instruments playing the same thing to get an interesting sound. I had an EDP Wasp synthesiser, which I used on the track. The Wasp was quite small and had batteries so you could carry it around. We used that a lot onstage.
“We were known for using electronic drums and we had a Simmons kit. We also used these strange drum boxes that you’d hear on 1970s disco songs. They made those sort of ‘booooo!’ percussion sounds, except we’d tune them, and BP Hurding, our drummer, would play everything live rather than using a sequencer. Unless you had very good monitors, it was really hard to stay perfectly in time if you used sequencers or reel-to-reel tapes onstage, and so it was important for us to keep things live when we toured. Some bands who used tapes around then really struggled. The other distinctive thing about our sound, particularly on ‘Is It A Dream’, was Mik Sweeney’s bass. He built his own fretless bass with little LED lights in the neck and he had a very distinctive way of playing. All in all, we were really happy that on a lot of our music – but especially on ‘Is It A Dream’ – we had sounds that you’d maybe never heard played together before.
“I don’t actually remember how ‘Is It A Dream’ changed from being an instrumental to becoming a song. The lyrics for that and the whole of ‘La Verité’ are pretty upbeat. We’d had quite a negative attitude on our first album, and that really came from punk. ‘Is It A Dream’ was about appreciating what we have. Young people inevitably look for some kind of purpose and meaning and naturally assume that whatever is already there, whatever they already have, and whatever their parents said, isn’t it. Rather than saying there’s nothing to look forward to, I was suggesting it may not be totally out of the question that we could have peace, we could have satisfaction and that we could find what we’re looking for.
“‘Is It A Dream’ was our biggest hit in the UK and it’s interesting how that came about. There was a Saturday night TV show called ‘OTT’, presented by Lenny Henry and Chris Tarrant. Everything on ‘OTT’ had to be live. They wanted Slade, but Noddy Holder wouldn’t sing live, so they asked us instead. We went ahead and performed on there and the next week our song was in the Top 40. We looked a bit weird compared to the average band at the time, but I think probably all the shrieking that I did on ‘Is It A Dream’ might have caught the public’s attention.
“I still love the song, but I wish we’d done it at a much slower pace. Classix Nouveaux always tried to experiment with new things. We were very drawn to the idea of using sounds that hadn’t been heard before, but we used to do everything so quickly! If we’d just slowed down a little bit, we might have had more chance to enjoy everything going on in the song and all the interesting sounds we were playing with back then.”
Classix Nouveaux’s ‘The Liberty Recordings 1981-1983’ is out on Cherry Red