Jane Kennaway \ Biography
January 1981: hotly tipped for top, Jane Kennaway tapes an all-important Top of the Pops appearance for her debut single IOU, a deserving indie hit now reissued on a major label, and poised at #65 on the national chart. Jane's lucky break owes much to the misfortune of teenager Honey Bane, who has charted a few places higher with Turn Me On, Turn Me Off, but is stuck at an airport and unlikely to reach BBC Television Centre in time to perform.
None of that matters. IOU is a brilliant, witty song by an artist with talent to burn, whose hooks and looks suggest that mainstream success is a foregone conclusion. Alas, disaster strikes at the eleventh hour. Honey Bane arrives in time after all, and Jane is bumped from the show. Despite a string of classy singles produced by Andy Duncan, Thomas Dolby and Steve Lillywhite, further chart success proves elusive, and Jane Kennaway never gets to finish her album, despite a personal intervention by Bowie producer Tony Visconti.
For the youngest daughter of Scottish writer James Kennaway, it could - and should - have been so different. Born in 1955, Jane spent her early years travelling the world with her parents, an itinerant yet charmed childhood which included a year spent living on a boat in Kashmir, as well as extended spells in France, Switzerland, Spain, Majorca, Italy, New York and Beverly Hills. James Kennaway had found fame with his first novel Tunes of Glory in 1956, later filmed by Ronald Neame with Alec Guinness and John Mills. Other novels include Household Ghosts, The Mindbenders, The Bells of Shoreditch and Some Gorgeous Accident. He was also a successful screenwriter, with credits including Violent Playground and The Battle of Britain. However tragedy struck in December 1968 when Kennaway suffered a heart attack while driving on the M4 motorway, this following a night out with the actor Peter O'Toole. He was just 40.
Jane wrote her first song aged 15, shortly after the death of her father. 'I just sat down at the piano and wrote a song. I was playing it in my mum's restaurant, and somebody from Apple Corps came up and said, "Hey, can we record this song? We think you're great". I turned them down at the time, but that inspired me to go on. Dad used to say to me, you are not born an artist, you become one. Something happens in your life to make you what you become. His death was the "something" that happened to me.'
Her formative years were spent at several exclusive boarding schools, including St Denis in Edinburgh, and Cheltenham Ladies College. Here Jane continued to write songs, albeit somewhat removed from contemporary influences. 'It's a fight to survive in places like that. It teaches you independence. Then, when I was 17, people started saying I had a voice, which I'd never ever contemplated. I'd always wanted to be a songwriter because I was never interested in performing at all. Then I got a job in a band that went to Italy, and carried on singing.'
The Italian engagement offered glamour of a sort. 'After Cheltenham Ladies College had taken my sister Emma through the sixth form, the school said that it couldn't cope with another Kennaway and that I'd have to leave. We both went to Italy and did our first professional music gig together, backing the Patrick Sansom Band - an unlikely sounding name for two Libyan brothers, one of whom was dying of kidney failure and the other determined to pay off the hospital bills.' This first and last tour by the Kennaway sisters ended with the pair wiring their mother Susan for funds to get home.
In 1978 Jane formed a band called The Sneaks, singing lead and playing guitar, and financed by working in The Ken Mackintosh Big Band, doing the rounds of Northern working men's clubs and Mecca ballrooms. Not to be confused with other new wavers of the same name, The Sneaks were co-fronted by droll writer Tom Hibbert, but broke up without making a record, the high spot of their brief career being a support slot at The Marquee. 'We were really excited at finally getting the gig, and I decided to go out of the dressing room and have a look at the audience. They were all really heavy looking punks, so I went back and told the band we'd better change the set and put all the fast numbers at the beginning, straight through with no breaks. We went on and went through them. I saw this punk sitting on the side of the stage, stubbing his cigarette out on the drummer's foot. Finally he said to me, "Can't you play any faster?" To which I replied, "Only if I've got a train to catch".'
Keen to promote beautiful Jane any which way, managers Robin Eggar and Buzz Carter (aka Deckstar Management) also pushed their client towards acting work, including auditions as a Bond girl, and cult TV series Rock Follies. 'Not that I could act,' admits Jane today. 'But Rula Lenska was extraordinarily kind to me. I also found myself doing a lot of session vocals for adverts and jingles, and a gig at Reading Festival doing backing vocals for a sort of Australian Elton John.'
The following year Jane and Deckstar put together a more polished pop project, Strange Behaviour, placing this under the musical direction of drummer Andy Duncan, already a favourite of legendary producer Tony Visconti. 'Andy slowly whittled down my choice of musicians and put his in,' explained Jane. 'I don't have that musical accuracy or production. I've no ideas about that, I have to leave that all really open for everyone else to organize.'
An inspired choice, Duncan would later find enormous success with everyone from the Bee Gees to David Bowie, Seal to Simple Minds. Strange Behaviour eventually settled on a line-up including Wims (guitar), Eugene Organ (guitar) and Keith Wilkinson (bass), while Jane signed a publishing deal with DinSong, a boutique subsidiary of Virgin run by Carol Wilson. 'Jane was immensely talented,' recalls Wilson, who pressed up a four song promotional EP and the end of 1979. 'She wrote beautiful songs, looked great, and had a good personality and attitude.'
So far, so good. Unwilling to follow the lurid example of Toyah and Hazel O'Connor, however, Jane Kennaway and the emerging new wave scene made for uneasy bedfellows. Although the strength of her songs, voice and presence was never in doubt, Strange Behaviour looked somewhat less smooth than they sounded, and gave rise to an image problem. Laughably, some even hinted that Jane herself was too old at 24. Reviewing an early gig at Fulham pub venue The Greyhound, Paul Sexton wrote of 'taking in great gulps of the sheer greyness of the place, towards the back of the hall I noticed a lady of indeterminate age (youngish, let's leave it at that) in clothes somewhat livelier than the setting. Next thing I knew she was on stage. Jane and SB play music that doesn't fit snugly into any category. This certainly isn't pop in the usual sense, perhaps an extension of pop which takes a little longer to digest. She's a strong-voiced blonde surrounded by three guitars and a drumset, with a sound that draws heavily on those axes without drowning her. No, she floats nicely on a set of "new" music with considerable melody and inventiveness, but not a little aggression when it's needed. Jane's voice is agile too, never better shown than on their final number, IOU.'
Similar Stalinist style problems afflicted New Musik, the underrated synthpop group formed by producer Tony Mansfield, who asked Jane to provide backing vocals on Sanctuary, a minor British hit in June 1980. 'I'm really worried about England and where music's going, especially the melody since new wave came in,' Jane confided to the music press. 'I'm very strong on melody. I can write my melodies before I even touch a guitar. And I just feel that the melodies always follow the chord changes in half the songs I hear now. I'm sure they wrote it while they were playing a guitar, and their fingers dictated the melody instead of their heads. I find that the saddest thing.'
Having failed to match the DinSong deal with a major recording contract, Jane and Deckstar released standout track IOU as their debut single on a tiny independent label, Growing Up In Hollywood. Issued in October 1980, the first 3,000 copies retailed at just 50p, accurately reflecting a set of sharp, ironic lyrics about recession and credit - and a desire to break into the charts. Thanks to the memorable chorus and ascending guitar hook IOU quickly picked up heavy airplay from mainstream radio deejays as well as John Peel, and was further promoted by punishing gig schedule around London, visiting pubs and clubs such as the 101, Greyhound, Moonlight, Dingwalls, Rock Garden, Bridge House and The Venue, as well as far-flung outposts in Richmond, Hailsham and Warwick.
This dues-paying exercise paid off in December when IOU was re-released by Deram, a minor major, who funded a wittily kitsch video clip (now viewable on YouTube), and were rewarded with a national chart placing at #65. Then came the Top of the Pops debacle, compounded by an unhandy Musicians' Union strike which obliged Jane to withdraw from several major radio interviews. Thankfully, the photogenic singer attracted a stack of complimentary press: 'A voice that could turn water into wine, a writing talent that creates a seemingly endless supply of golden goblets, and a level of musicianship that makes the rest of the current crop seem like vin very ordinaire' (Melody Maker)
'A set of future classics, original phrases hung on instantly memorable tunes' (New Music News)
'Kennaway is an attractive blonde with features reminiscent of Marianne Faithfull on a good day and a voice several hundred times better' (Sounds)
'Lyrical intelligence blessed with commercial appeal, Jane Kennaway will surely go very far' (NME).
Print interviews revealed a serious, introspective artist more interested in albums than singles, and still greatly inspired by her late father. 'I felt that he should have been better known as an author, and so I should carry on. Every now and then I think I'd like to meet him and see what he thinks about what I'm doing. I think he would like it. Perhaps he wouldn't have approved of the stages I went through before, of the punk thing. The Sunday Times said he was a terrifying sort of person. He wasn't at all. He was a strong, magical person, dynamic and talkative.'
Given her background, it was hardly surprising that Jane Kennaway's inspirations were as much literary as musical. 'I rest heavily on my lyrics. When most people hear a record I don't think they look at the lyrics first, I think that's the second or third listening. Most of my lyrics I rate, but when you get down to singles it's got to be something really catchy, repeating a slogan, which I'm just learning to do now. I think in the last two years there's been a real onslaught of fantastic singles, but as far as satisfying albums, I'm afraid I'm very hard pushed to find anything I'm willing to listen to. Which is a dilemma, because that's what I think I'm good at.'
Despite an excellent Radio 1 In Concert showcase at the Paris Theatre in December 1980, reactions to live performances by Strange Behaviour were generally mixed. 'One of the major problems is venues, because if I play in a rock pub I'm not essentially gritty enough, I'm not "one of the boys". So that makes it difficult. The Venue is about the only place where people sit down and listen. The following will come when people have heard the songs. I think of Pink Floyd, before their amazing stage shows. They were nothing to watch, they stood absolutely still, just playing. But because I knew all the music it didn't make the slightest bit of difference. And I think that my sort of music is the same. Unless you know it, it's perhaps hard to come to terms with. With mass communication, it makes it so hard to be an individual, and sometimes I think that the world is changing to the point that the minority is going to fade out, and it's all going to be a majority Muzak, a compromise, a democracy in everything, in every art. It's just terrifying. And when I think like that, I just think - well, I'm still prepared to be me, I'm still prepared to go down, and if I never make a lot of money it's not gonna change it.'
January 1981 saw the publication of The Kennaway Papers, a book edited by Jane's mother Susan, and detailing the Kennaway's relationship with spy writer John le Carré. Ironically, le Carré's half-sister Charlotte Cornwell had taken a lead role in Rock Follies, for which Jane herself had auditioned some years earlier. The book, combined with the modest chart showing of IOU, prompted more media coverage for Jane, though not all of it useful for a serious female artist. Deckstar partner Robin Eggar also points to friction between Jane and her backing band. 'IOU came out of a basic conflict between pre and post-punk musical values. It was a great favourite with Mark Knopfler at the time. Strange Behaviour were older, and looked it, with experience and expectations from playing with richer artists. Jane may have sounded posh, but at heart she was a Bohemian who didn't like being told what to do. And don't forget that back in 1980, while the business was run by middle class boys, artists were still supposed to be working class and rough with it. The number of girls singing was a very small percentage compared to now, and, while lip service was paid to feminism and equality, attitudes towards women were inherently sexist. So being posh and female made it doubly hard to get a deal, let alone break out. The rule I have learned is, get a hit however you can. Then you can rewrite the contract, and the rule book.'
Deram followed IOU with a second single, Celia, produced by Steve Lillywhite, then a rising star thanks to his early work with Peter Gabriel, U2 and Siouxsie and the Banshees. Released at the end of February, the melodramatic ballad was promoted with a suitably grandiose video clip directed by Russell Mulcahy, and somewhat reminiscent of Pink Floyd movie The Wall. Too dark and moody for a pop audience, however, Celia failed to chart. 'Which wasn't really a surprise,' says Jane today. 'Everyone warned me it wasn't a hit, but I wanted to release something I knew I'd remain proud of. And I still am, although IOU and Celia were very different records, and I probably was a bit too hard to categorize at the time. The management said I was always too soon, or else too late.'
'Sometimes talent is not enough,' adds publisher Carol Wilson. 'Many other things contribute - like luck, finding a sponsor in the form of a record company, radio producer or journalist, and so on.' Today, IOU sounds like the greatest hit that never was, and cries out to be covered by a contemporary artist with an eye for topicality. 'Whenever I hear Laura Marling I feel this pang of regret,' adds Robin Eggar. 'Thirty years ago Jane was that good. Probably we weren't tough enough with her. And she wasn't single-minded enough - pun intended.'
Jane and Deram tried again in July with Year 2000, a collaboration with synthpop maestro Thomas Dolby. Like Lillywhite, Dolby was part of the Deckstar management stable, and had mixed sound for Jane at several early live dates. By now Dolby was a rising star himself, having guested on records by Lene Lovich and Foreigner, and with his own debut album The Golden Age of Wireless just released. 'Thomas was very meticulous, far more than I was used to,' says Jane. 'I had a reputation as One Take Jane, but he insisted on phrasing each word differently, even recording them separately. He was quite a boffin, very scientific. But he did introduce me to speeding up the beats on an early drum machine, and said it was the sound of the future. Damn right it was.'
Year 2000 also failed to chart, while the loss of quirky indie credibility meant that press was now restricted to tabloid fluff. All too typical was feature run by the Mail on Sunday in June 1982, titled Rock Follies Mark 2, and profiling three female artists striving to live down privileged, silver spoon backgrounds in an industry where 'the old school tie holds no sway.' Alongside Bella Russell (sister of Lord Russell of Liverpool) and Mary-Lou Sturridge (sister of Brideshead Revisited director Charles), Jane was written up as a hitmaker with IOU, still in the process of making an album for Deram. 'Well, it was an airplay hit rather than a chart hit,' Jane corrected journalist Mary Houghton. 'And as a result I received masses of party invitations. It amazed me. But I'm certainly not in this business to get to the right parties.'
Unfortunately producer Bob Carter fell ill during sessions for Kennaway's first album, and although Tony Visconti offered to take up the reigns, Deram cancelled her contract. As a result Jane also parted company with management company Deckstar, and released fourth single I'm Missing You on her own label, completing a short tour while pregnant with her first child. Although other low profile releases followed, Jane switched her focus to raising a family. Today, after several years spent living in France, she resides in Cornwall. 'I still write and perform and produce,' says Jane, a busy portfolio worker. 'I also teach music, do some festival promotion, and write original songs for funerals, birthdays, weddings - and even a jingle for a local political party in Essex. My various collaborations and bands have included Skirt, Mes Amies Plastique, The Sugar Mummies, Bone Idol, DJ Faraway and A Different Kind of Honey. I've had a lot of fun!'