By Chelsea Spear
The Passions first came to me on a cloud of cinema nostalgia, flickering with maroon-tinted images of Laboratory Aim Density Girls and smelling faintly of vinegar. John Heyn, best known for co-directing the infamous Heavy Metal Parking Lot, had cut a short film of China Girl images to the tune of “I’m In Love with a German Film Star.” The images and footage of China Girls left me gobsmacked (more about that here), but the song lingered in my mind long after I first viewed the short. Though the British band’s albums were elusive on this side of the pond, a copy of Thirty Thousand Feet Over China surfaced in a bag of donations my boyfriend received at his job in a library.
The album was worth about what I paid for it, if not a bit more.
To be fair, having a version of “I’m in Love with a German Film Star” in its entirety is a rare treat. The shimmering confection, its melody gilded with dreamy guitar lines and kept afloat on a metronome-steady beat, scintillates on many levels. The catchy melody and gossamer production make it a winner in its own right, but it also seems to predict many of the coming bands and musical trends. Lead singer Barbara Gogan’s voice—which one can describe as both “throaty” and “chirpy”—sounds like the first draft of Elizabeth Fraser’s golden throat, and the combination of meandering guitars and unfaltering percussion would later find full flower on various albums released through 4AD. Plus, it’s just a damned fine song.
If you like “German Film Star,” I have good news for you: Thirty Thousand Feet Over China has seven more songs that sound just like it. Unfortunately, that level of consistency is the album’s greatest shortcoming. Dreamy guitars and gauzy production can only get you so far, and the rest of the songs fail to cast a spell as beguiling as the album’s lead track.
Sticking it out to the end of the album, though, yields some pleasant surprises. “Bachelor Girls” weds The Passions’ proto-goth sound to a Buddy Holly-style rave-up complete with a faster tempo and a more rockin’ melody. The lived-in imagery of the lyrics suggests the fun and liberation of a single girl’s night out on the town, dancing to her favorite bands. Barbara switches to a high register that brings to mind a young girl singing along with the radio as she readies for her night at the clubs, perhaps anticipating the fun of the evening. “Skin Deep,” meanwhile, is mostly an instrumental, with a rolling, surfy melody and a wall of crunching guitars. In the liner notes, the band members cite Gang Of Four’s influence on the lyrics (which are apparently about the anti-skinhead/anti-racist movement cutting through London in the Thatcher years). While the vocals were buried too deep in the mix to discern a social message, the fast staccato drumbeats and heavy guitar sound also suggests a hat-tip to Gang Of Four.
The bonus tracks offer both more of the same and something new. The live versions of tracks not on the album sound crisp and new, but the skittering “Don’t Talk to Me (I’m Shy)” finds the band applying their dreamy aesthetic to a nervous narrative, complete with sharp, sped-up guitars, a spiky melody, and a highly appropriate vocal performance from Ms. Gogan.
Unfortunately, The Passions’ zenith might as well have been a siren song. Fiction’s second choice for a single—the moody quasi-instrumental “Skin Deep”—failed to set the charts on fire. After a collaboration with Bryan Ferry on the song “He’ll Have To Go,” a lineup change, and the third LP, Sanctuary, the Passions called it a day. “German Film Star” became a standard of sorts on the New Romantic and New Wave scenes; apart from Heyn’s use of the song in “Girls On Film,” the Foo Fighters and Pet Shop Boys protegée Sam Taylor-Wood covered the song. The jangly, dreamy pop they perfected has become a genre unto itself, as recent albums by Fever Ray and St. Vincent will attest. For a band that never quite got their due, one almost hopes that in retrospect they see the influence that they brought to the modern pop scene.