Cowboys International: Revisited

Cowboys International

Cowboys Internationals’ album Original Sin is the kind of obscure, seminal, out-of-print recording that rock critics love to champion because it clearly provides some type of missing link whose absence may have rendered certain developments in rock music as mysterious, unforeseen events. In this case, Original Sin presented a group that featured musicians who had played or would play with such important bands as the Clash, P.I.L., Original Mirrors, Dominatrix, and Billy Idol.

Just as important are the direct antecedents that served as influences here: Bowie, as usual, is present, but in this case two of his incarnations are fused. There is the early popster Bowie, ever ready with the grand gesture and the romantic sentiment, and the Berlin-era studio monster, Electro-Europa Express Bowie. Both figure prominently in singer Ken Lockie’s mythology, as do Kraftwerk, Bill Nelson, and some other, less-well defined influences. But the influence that this album has wielded, directly or indirectly, on later performers is the real story.

Cowboys International are often credited with creating the blueprint for the New Romantic sound, and I suppose that is true, but it’s difficult to think of one New Romantic band whose music exhibited so much depth that it could be listened to seriously rather than as clubbing background noise. None of them could have pulled off the soulful groove of “Future Noise”, a song that could have fit perfectly onto side one of Bowie’s Low album. It also reminds me somewhat of the style Bill Nelson achieved on his Sound on Sound album. There are moments that foreshadow the new slashing, angular guitar work that Keith Levene would unleash on P.I.L.’s Second Edition or that Andy Gill played on Gang of Four’s Entertainment! album. Groups like ABC and Spandau Ballet tried very hard to create tracks like Cowboys’ “Today”, but they never achieved the kind of widescreen sound that the band does here, a perfectly realized balance between sweeping, romantic strings, broad washes of synthesizer color, and a rigid techno-beat. Unlike his contemporaries, Ken Lockie and his loose collective of musician friends created music that actually matches the quality of the influences that it aspires to and thereby transcends comparisons, becoming its own original statement.

Take the opener, “Fixation”. It begins with a blast of industrial noise before morphing into a song that presages Bowie’s ’90s sound (which is a neat trick, but remember that Bowie is the master of the fusion of influences, and it isn’t unthinkable that he was reinterpreting the sound of this band). The chorus is wonderfully melodic, using the pentatonic melody that also featured prominently in the work of many New Romantic bands. “Memories” features a lengthy introduction that gives no hint of what the song will eventually become. What is amazing is that every song on Revisited, which is the Original Sin album with five additional tracks, is completely perfect, yet generally very different from the song that immediately precedes or follows it.

Another influence that isn’t usually mentioned in conjunction with Cowboys International is that of Roxy Music, and by that I mean not just lead singer Bryan Ferry, but the entire group in its various incarnations. The prog-rock instrumental interludes that were present in the Eddie Jobson-era group gave way to the meditative soul groove of the Manifesto, Flesh + Blood, and Avalon years. But the band always interjected an element of musical surprise into their best work, little twists and turns that underlined the mercurial moodiness of Bryan Ferry’s lyrics. Cowboys International do that too, and it is what rescues this album from obscurity and makes its reissue on CD a joyous occasion for anyone who is obsessed with the development of British pop music.

The only reasons I can see that this album fell into obscurity are that first, it is the only album that the band managed to release before its members scattered to the winds, and second, it refuses to be any one thing, instead reveling in a romp through British rock and pop musical styles of the previous decade that consigns many groups to the also-ran bin. As a musician once told me, if you have a product that does one thing and does it well, you have a product that is very easy to sell. If the product combines a number of elements and is open to a variety of uses, then it becomes much harder to sell. Fortunately for listeners with open imaginations and sharp ears, Revisited is one seminal rock critic-fave that delivers on its promise.

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