Carrie Bradshaw, The Dude and Andy Warhol weren’t the only old friends who paid us a visit on Superbowl Sunday in 2019. It was amidst a Taco Bell/T-Mobile cross-promotion that we heard Andy Cox’s iconic opening riff to “She Drives Me Crazy,” the singular smash from his group Fine Young Cannibals and a song that helped make 1989 one of the all-time great years for top 40 radio.
The Two-Tone ska movement that evolved alongside post-punk in the U.K. during the late 1970s enjoyed perhaps the most streamlined segue into the next decade of the two genres. The Specials (who had transitioned into the Special AKA and Fun Boy Three) and Madness would both find great success on the new wave circuit, while David Wakeling and Ranking Roger of the English Beat would race up the charts as General Public. Meanwhile, FYC — comprised of the other half of the group otherwise known as The Beat in Cox and bassist David Steele, along with Roland Gift, former saxophonist/singer for Akrylykz — would follow their collective roots in the throwback sounds of American R&B. Named after the 1960 film starring Robert Wagner, George Hamilton and Natalie Wood, the Cannibals released their eponymous debut on IRS Records in December of ’85, and leaned heavily on their influences in old Motown and ATCO soul, earning them a top 10 hit in their native England with the single “Johnny Come Home” but only critical acclaim and college radio airplay here in the United States.
“We all shared a love of the Stax sound in the Cannibals,” Gift told the British magazine On: Yorkshire in 2017. “That was the thing that brought us together and Otis [Redding] was probably my favorite singer, and he still is, so those influences will definitely be there.”
Yet by 1989, the Cannibals were aiming to evolve their style in line with the rising tide of the future sounds in clubs across England. And following a string of contributions to film soundtracks — namely Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild and Barry Levinson’s underrated comedy classic Tin Men, where they factored prominently in the script as the house band — the trio began delving deeper into the burgeoning dance movements emerging from Manchester, London and Bristol at the time through acts like 808 State, Soul II Soul, The Wild Bunch and Smith & Mighty.
“The dance music thing is like the punk of the Eighties,” Cox told Rolling Stone in 1989. “Or rock & roll in the Fifties. It seems to be the thing that is the most vibrant part of modern music.”
Their excellent second LP, The Raw & The Cooked, was released in America on Feb. 20, 1989 to laudatory kudos and extensive airplay on modern rock radio. At 10 songs and a hair under 36 minutes, the record expertly captured the group’s sonic transition in real time, which also can be attributed to Cox and Steele’s temporary house music outfit Two Men, A Drum Machine and A Trumpet and their sole 1988 single “Tired of Getting Pushed Around.”
“The Raw & The Cooked was a major premiere for us on 92.7 with ‘She Drives Me Crazy’ going immediately into highest rotation and it then exploded on our request lines and with the entire air staff,” explains Denis McNamara, the one-time program director for the influential Long Island, NY modern rock station WLIR/WDRE. “We all knew it was a smash. The cover of the Buzzcocks’ ‘Ever Fallen In Love’ was immediately a rave for our audience since the original was a long time punk anthem for WLIR and this new cover was a smoother and more lyrically driven version of a classic. ‘Good Thing’ was also an early premiere favorite with a big push from us that broke it with listenership way prior to its pop hit chart top status on ‘regular radio’ as we referred to our more conservative commercial competitor outlets. We were such big fans. I remember being personally invited to see Roland Gift star in a Shakespearean limited play at Stony Brook University during the life of the album. If I remember correctly, his label would have much preferred if he had toured with the band at the time instead of forwarding his acting career. He was quite good, a very talented artist and an incredible singer. I only wished they had done more albums as I’m sure our friend Roger Ames, their label head in the U.K., did too. It was truly a great recording.”
That ability to walk the thin line between the underground and the mainstream is precisely what The Raw & The Cooked brought to the FYC recipe, as so prominently heard on such tracks as the aforementioned “She Drives Me Crazy” — which peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in April of ’89 — as well as deeper album cuts as the soulful “Funky Drummer”-sampling “I’m Not the Man I Used to Be” and the propulsive acid-house inflected “Don’t Let It Get You Down.” Credit David Z, longtime Prince collaborator and one-time member of Lipps, Inc. (“Funkytown”), who along with the Cannibals and Jerry Harrison of Talking Heads helped produce the record. The resultant dance/rock blend would gain exposure not only on top 40 radio and MTV but urban radio as well — namely via the album’s fifth single, “I’m Not Satisfied,” a song reflective of the impact Prince had on their direction, cumulating in a trek out to Paisley Park Studios in Minnesota to work with Z.
“I thought they were really different at the time,” he explains. “I was looking to get out of doing the kind of pop records that I had done a lot of in a row, because everyone wanted to sound like what was going on at the time. To me, they were a different animal than existed in the U.S. back then. When they came to Paisley Park to record, which was a really weird experience, they didn’t think there was any culture in Minnesota. I remember Roland getting off the plane with a bag of brown rice. Evidently, he didn’t think he could get it here, so he brought his own. It was a total culture shock for them, because in Minneapolis at the time, they looked like complete aliens with their shaved heads and skinny jeans. I remember taking them to First Avenue, and David Steele said to me, ‘Everyone is so tall here!’ I thought that was really funny.”
Elsewhere, all three of the songs featured on the Tin Men soundtrack — including “Tell Me What,” “As Hard As It Is” and the album’s second Hot 100 No. 1 “Good Thing” — flesh out the LP, as well as their aforementioned inventive reimagining of the Buzzcocks’ Love Bites highlight “Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)” from Something Wild, which, according to former 120 Minutes host and current Sirius FM on-air personality Matt Pinfield, received high ranks from Pete Shelley and company.
“It was so interesting they ended the album with The Buzzcocks cover, which was truly one of the greatest songs to come out of the punk era and still holds up,” Pinfield told Billboard. “It was so cool their take, and how they put a groove on it. I remember talking to The Buzzcocks once about it, and they thought their version of the song was really cool. They weren’t thinking, ‘Oh, look what you did to our song!’ But rather how great it was they took the time to re-imagine it. They seemed quite flattered about it at the time, actually.”
Despite the overwhelming critical and commercial success experienced by The Raw & The Cooked, which was further enhanced by third single “Don’t Look Back” peaking at No. 11 on the Hot 100 and the LP itself reaching the No. 1 spot on the Billboard 200, activity in the Cannibal camp in the ensuing years fizzled to a gradual halt. In 1990, a tepidly received remix album, The Raw & the Remix — featuring the handiwork of such prominent producers as Flood, Delicious Vinyl’s Matt Dike, Jazzie B, Nellie Hooper and Derrick May among others — was released in December along with a version of the Cole Porter standard “Love for Sale” as part of the Red Hot + Blue AIDS benefit album earlier that year. London Records then released a greatest hits type compilation in 1996 called The Finest that included two previously unreleased Gift/Steele compositions: “The Flame” and “Since You’ve Been Gone.”
From there, the three men went their seemingly separate ways: Gift delivered his self-titled solo debut in 2002 to moderate fanfare and plays the U.K. ’80s nostalgia circuit as Roland Gift and the Fine Young Cannibals. Steele would go on to produce English R&B vocalist Gabrielle’s 1993 LP Find A Way as well as release a pair of solo albums in 2004’s Fried and 2007’s Things Change. Cox, meanwhile, formed the band Cribabi with Japanese singer Yukari Fujiu and delivered one full-length, Volume, in 2002. And while the prospects of a Cannibals reunion are perhaps as likely as a surprise announcement of The Smiths getting back together, as Superbowl Sunday signified, the band, The Raw & The Cooked and especially “She Drives Me Crazy” still very much resonate with the public 30 years after conquering American airwaves.
“I remember reading an article about Taylor Swift,” recalls David Z. “She was working at the time with Jack Antonoff in New York on 1989. And she said how she wanted to do a song like ‘She Drives Me Crazy.’ She said, ‘I really think ‘She Drives Me Crazy’ could be on the radio now. It’s that timeless.’ I thought it was odd at first coming from Taylor Swift, but it was really cool. It seems like Fine Young Cannibals got underneath everybody and they’re still there.”