The Passions – Thirty Thousand Feet Over China (1981)
by Kris Smith
Just one of several squat-based post-punk groups to remake/remodel themselves as 80s popstars (see also Scritti Politti, Thompson Twins), The Passions were a different proposition on each of their three albums: different line-ups, different sound. Their first album is competent post-punk; their third, capable new wave; but Thirty Thousand Feet Over China is where The Passions really play out. It’s an evocative, impressionistic classic.
It starts with the hit (#25, their only UK chart single, released in a dozen countries) ‘I’m in Love With a German Film Star,’ which might be familiar either from this or its many cover versions, and while it’s not uncommon to find a breakthrough track unrepresentative of a bands’ typical material, it’s untrue in an important sense here: like ‘Film Star’ the following nine tracks are taut, propulsive but introspective mood pieces, unencumbered by such gaudy baubles as choruses or singalong lyrics.
This is not a party record; luckily it’s no pity party either. Instead the listener is rewarded with meditative contemplations set to effect-laden but economical guitar arpeggios, crisp drumming, and deft, syncopated bass playing, all topped with Barbara Gogan’s haunted, soaring vocals. ‘German Film Star’ transmits a sensuous but hazy, ethereal atmosphere far greater than the sum of its parts (singer meets actor in pub; so what?) and that skill continues through ‘Someone Special’ with its song-as-Carrollesque-storybook:
“you’re not what you seem.. distant as a dream.. I can’t write what I feel.. I think I’ll just stay on this page for a while.”
The pace picks up on the excellent ‘The Swimmer’, and life moves from narrative to metaphor:
“I’m saving my strength for the next race, running with the crowd, holding my breath above water, are you ready for the next dive?”
‘Small Stones’ is The Passions In Dub. Post-punk bands absorbed reggae – it would be easier to count the ones that didn’t – and refracted it through a contemporary northern European lens. The result, and this record is no exception, was an earthly dread, deracinated roots, the spaces in the music anything but safe:
“Small stones get stepped on all of the time; people walk all over you if you don’t know your own mind.”
‘Runaway’ addresses an apostate, perhaps even with one eye on the Passions’ earlier, more political material, or their prehistory as socialist R&B group The Derelicts:
“all this talk, just talk, of revolution and change.. worry no more.. choose your new religions, settle down in your new niche.”
‘The Square’ is the scene for an illicit, abortive midnight meeting and a lyric that exemplifies Gogan’s ironic style:
“Why didn’t you come when I knew you would?”
‘Alice’s Song’ is, lyrically, as wintry as the rest of the album sounds. Snapshots of narrative;
“you don’t want the words to a story you won’t understand.”
Thirty Thousand Feet Over China was a summer release, but it doesn’t show. Then again, for many, the summer of ’81 wasn’t a very sunny place to be.
‘Skin Deep’ is last, a perfectly reasonable – if anticlimactic – second-side closer but surely a nightmare to promote as a single at any time, let alone as follow-up to a surprise international hit. The barely audible vocals don’t join the jam until half way through, and the groove fades out, resolving nothing; a musical life in microcosm, perhaps.
The Passions don’t wallow on this album, though, rather they observe; ‘Bachelor Girls’ sees the city’s ripped backsides.
‘Strange Affair’ dissects a relationship from a distance. Stoic, impassive, the group surveys the social landscape – then buttons up their collective raincoat against the chill coming off the Regents Canal, and walks on home.
Further records followed but within two years the band was gone, never to return. This album is their definitive statement.