The Sinceros coalesced out of a number of bands that were playing around London in the late seventies, just as punk was cooling down, and new wave was heating up. Drummer Bobbi Irwin had been working with Danny Adler’s ambitious and challenging off-kilter pop-funk outfit Roogalator, but soon joined up with bassist Ron François in the R+B-inflected Strutters. Meanwhile, keyboardist Don Snow came aboard from a late incarnation of The Vibrators. This trio--Don, Ron, and Bobbi--toured and recorded with Lene Lovich and Les Chappel for Lene’s 1978 debut album, "Stateless" (as quintessential a slice of new wave as one is likely to find) and were thus fortunate enough to have participated in the historic "Be Stiff" tour that year. Finally, singer-songwriter-guitarist Mark Kjeldsen, who worked with Ron and Bobbi in the Strutters, had been getting his solo career off the ground with a single on Robin Scott’s Do It label (“Are You Ready”/“Something’s Happening”).
The newly-dubbed Sinceros played their first gig on 11 August, 1978, in Stoke Newington, London. In an era when labels were eagerly signing bands in an attempt to cash in on the emerging new wave/power pop scene, The Sinceros were soon recruited by Epic Records, and sent into the studio to record an album’s worth of tracks in 1979. Though the boys brought some of Les and Lene’s offbeat quirkiness with them to producer Joe Wissert, as evidenced on the final product--titled "The Sound of Sunbathing" and released in 1979--their greatest strength lay in catchy, hook-laden pop.
The album opener, “Take Me To Your Leader” is a smart slice of minimalist pop that owes (and pays) a debt to Ric Ocasek and The Cars, with its staccato guitar undergirding, its dabs of electronic keyboard, Mark’s hiccupy, aloof lead vocal, and the obscure, almost surreal imagery of the lyric. Chosen as the band’s debut single, the risk of mimicking Roy Thomas Baker and the boys from Boston paid off, and the song got a quite a bit of FM play around New York City and other large US markets, though never quite crossed over to the AM charts.
“Worlds Apart” is something else altogether: remarkably upbeat power pop bolstered by propulsive drums, an inventory of “bells and whistles” coming from Don Snow’s keyboard bank, and, of course, that remarkably catchy “Whoah-oh-oh-oh!” refrain. 1979 was year-zero for power pop, and “Worlds Apart” should have rocketed up the charts. Unfortunately, with the embarrassing wealth of fantastic singles flooding the US airwaves (The Knack’s “My Sharona”, The Records’ “Starry Eyes”, Bram Tchaikovsky’s “Girl Of My Dreams”, The Only Ones’ “Another Girl, Another Planet”, hell, even the Fabulous Poodles’ “Mirror Star”), “Worlds Apart”, wisely released as a single, sadly got lost in the shuffle. A true pop classic.
After that fantastic one-two punch, we get “Little White Lie” in which Mark does his best imitation of the angry-young-man-styled aggro-rock of Graham Parker or Joe Jackson. A tale of romantic deception (a recurring theme in Mark’s lyrics), the song’s memorable instrumental break touches on both ska and surf. The problem here is that The Sinceros are so downright likeable that they stumble when trying to carry off bitterness.
“So They Know” would seem more in keeping with the band’s nice-guy persona. Over chirpy guitars and subtler keyboard textures, Mark offers emotional support to a friend who has endured some sort of (presumably romantic) loss.
Don Snow’s “Hanging On Too Long” closes the original vinyl’s Side One on a downbeat note, as he describes the break-up of a relationship that’s run its course. Very much in keeping with Mark’s songwriting style, “Hanging On Too Long” earns extra points for the nice details in the lyrics, especially when he describes his exasperation thus: “You tell all your friends about the records I play/You’d think nobody listens to Chopin today”.
The US Side Two opens with a little burp of electronic keyboards on “I Still Miss You”, before heading into what is the most overtly new wave arrangement on the album, with angular, quirky guitar and keyboard figures, accompanied by a (very) mildly humorous lyric.
With that out of their system, the boys return to what they do best, that is, playing straight-ahead pop-rock, unwed to any specific sub-genre. “Quick Quick Slow” features an endearing ever-so-brief guitar solo, and vaguely doo-woppy harmonies in the background.
The jaunty, strutty, toe-tapping “My Little Letter” continues in this vein, a casual kiss-off (“You don’t feature in my main feature no more”) that, typically now, portrays the protagonist as fearful of a face to face confrontation with his soon-to-be ex.
Despite the wealth of fine power pop on display on The Sound of Sunbathing, it’s the sole ballad, “Break Her Heart”, buried deep on Side Two, that emerges as the true standout of the album. With its plaintive guitar line, its gorgeous, soaring melody, and Don’s exceptionally well-sung lead vocal, “Break Her Heart” is a downright classic. Astonishingly, it was never released as a single, nor has it ever been covered by another performer. Really, mainstream performers like Barbra Streisand could work magic with this one. As it stands, The Sinceros are at the very top of their game on this bona fide buried treasure.
Finally, Ron François takes a turn at the mic on his self-penned “Good Luck (To You)”, a mid-tempo Philly-soul styled number that ends the album on an upbeat note. As the song fades amid a swirling, rhyming keyboard round, at just over half an hour, that’s it for The Sinceros’ The Sound of Sunbathing; it’s over all too quickly.
Fortunately for you, dear listener, we’ve appended a few bonus goodies onto this CD release of the album, rounding out our collection with three non-LP Sinceros tracks released prior to the band’s second LP.
The B-side of the “Worlds Apart” single features Ron singing “Walls, Floors, and Ceilings”, recorded 13 November, 1979 by Long Island’s WLIR radio at “My Father’s Place”, a long-established night spot in the village of Old Roslyn, NY. As evidenced here, the band were a tight live unit, evincing a genuine modicum of studio-like sheen even on stage.
“Are You Ready?” is a 1980 re-recording of Mark’s one-off solo single from 1978 (re-issued in 1980 on Backdoor and French Vertigo). This version adds both a question mark to the title, as well as a (mildly irritating, it must be said) keyboard figure that recurs in the chorus. A fine slab of casual reggae-fied pop,
this version of “Are You Ready?” was also released as a single, aimed to preview the Sinceros’ second long-player.
“Up There” was the flip to this single, another live recording, this time taken from The Sinceros’ set at New York’s illustrious Palladium, down on East 14th Street, 13 December, 1979. Illustrious too was the ticket that evening: in addition to the Sinceros, the crowd was treated to sets by fellow power-pop greats Bruce Woolley and the Camera Club, The (American) Beat, and 20/20.
After a heavy round of touring the US and UK, including a stint opening for Hall and Oates just as that duo’s fortunes began to soar, the boys went back into the studio to record the follow-up to their debut, to be oxymoronically titled (what else?) 2nd Debut, with blues and pub-rocking bassist Paul Riley at the controls. The record--which sounds rather tepid and timid to these ears--was perhaps wisely rejected by Epic Records, who called in famed Elton John producer Gus Dudgeon to oversee a revision. Dudgeon, not surprisingly, worked up the tracks into a frothy pop delight.
Now re-titled Pet Rock (remember them?), the record’s first track was also the band’s best-ever song: “Disappearing” (released as a single) is a haunting and beautifully-sung (by Don) piece of production pop. Additional standouts are the Side Two opener “Falling In and Out of Love” (covered by Tracey Ullman, who certainly knows a winning sugar-sweet pop tune when she hears one), and Ron’s “As The World Turns” (featuring a typically magnificent guitar solo by ex-Record Huw Gower).
If anything, the sparklingly-produced and superbly-written Pet Rock was superior to The Sound of Sunbathing, abandoning any and all traces of new wave quirkiness, and placing in their stead a straight-ahead full-bodied pop-rock sound.
Pet Rock and “Disappearing” should have been smashes, but shockingly, neither the album nor the single hit the charts, and The Sinceros, having not achieved the success their radio-ready pop so richly deserved, parted company in 1982.
Since The Sinceros, Bobbi Irwin has enjoyed a long and successful career drumming with Nick Lowe, and sessioning for many others, including Lowe’s co-Rockpiler Dave Edmunds, Bryan Ferry and Van Morrison.
After releasing a Roy Carter-produced solo single (“If You Love Me”/”I Like It”) on CBS in 1982, Ron François briefly hooked up with Julian Cope and The Teardrop Explodes before relocating to Australia, where he achieved chart success with The Eurogliders, and revived one of his rejected tracks from The Sinceros’ 2nd Debut under the short-lived moniker Panic Poets, the winsome “Come Out And Play” (re-titled “Let’s Go”). Now going by Roni François, he runs a recording studio in Point Clare, NSW, Australia. His website may be found at ronifrancois.com.
Don Snow has had no trouble keeping busy. Even while a Sincero he worked with Fingerprintz on their superb Beat Noir LP of 1981. His joining Squeeze shortly thereafter was a potentially wonderful development, but the timing was all wrong: that band’s next album, Sweets From A Stranger, was far and away their weakest effort to that time, and precipitated their (temporary, it turned out) break-up. Unfazed, Don, over the years, has been an in-demand sessioner, working with the likes of Roger Daltrey, Judie Tzuke, Tina Turner, Joe Cocker, Tom Jones, and many many others. He even found time to score a continental hit of his own with “25 Years” a slab of 80s-styled funk recorded under the band name The
Catch. Don released two albums as The Catch (1984’s Balance On Wires, and 1986’s Walk The Water), after which he reverted to his own name for a 1989 single “Ordinary Girl”, released on Polydor. He has since taken the name Jonn Savannah, and, in addition to the ongoing demand for his session work, has self-released a series of new age records. Having now set up shop in south Jersey (that’s New Jersey to you!), his website is at jonnsavannah.com.
Of the four Sinceros, it is sadly--rather, tragically--ironic that main songwriter and prime mover Mark Kjeldsen was the only member to never enjoy any genuine chart success. After a brief stint with Danny Adler in 1983, Mark quit the music industry, becoming a social worker for the London Streetwise Outreach Project. For this organization he penned a very thoughtful and carefully researched report on the troubled lives of homeless boys in London, documenting their patterns of drug use and street hustling, and the high risk of their contracting HIV. Shortly thereafter, Mark worked for his Danish-born father’s vegetable oils business, also in London.
Mark himself was to die of AIDS in 1992, only a few short years before drug therapies were made available that might countervail many of the most devastating infections brought on by the disease.
Jonn Savannah remembers:
'Strange I know, but I know very little about Mark. Though we all spent a good deal of time touring he was a very private person. I didn't even know he was gay until after the band split. The main thing I remember was his desire to play music. There was a lot of disagreement personally within the band (as ever!) and he would always say, "Come on guys...let's just play". He was a very aware, sensitive and intelligent guy, with an acid wit and a lust for life. Apart from that I know very little--I never hung out with him apart from when we were on tour. His dislike of corporate rock bands was never hidden--I don't think he was ever particularly driven by the lure of money and saw straight through people who were.
'Mark was very into The Sinceros and thought we were the best bunch of musicians to put forward his musical ideas. The four-way pull from all the band members constantly stretched us and did provide some angst, but Mark knew we were a good team. When the band eventually split I heard that he said, "if I couldn't be successful with the Sinceros I'm unlikely to be successful with anyone else."'
Although Mark was to never truly enjoy the fruits of his prodigious talents, he has, at least and at last, left a precious gift that we, his fans, can enjoy over and over again as we listen to his too-brief catalogue of unassumingly wonderful songs, as we sing them in our heads, and as we share them with our friends and loved ones.
As a fan of The Sinceros--and especially Mark--since I first heard them back on the late, great, WPIX in New York, 1979, it is a pleasure, a thrill, and indeed an honor to have been asked to write the liner note for this, the band’s first-ever digital release.
It is to Mark’s memory that this CD is dedicated.
Thanks to Jonn Savannah, Erik Kjeldsen, Huw Gower, and Will Birch.