When the Beat (known as the English Beat in the U.S.) split in 1983, the group’s vocalists, Ranking Roger and Dave Wakelin, formed General Public, and guitarist Dave Cox and bassist David Steele set about creating something of their own. Aside from the experience and knowledge from their time with the Beat, a vague notion of adding both jazz and soul to the Beat’s ska roots, and the decision to feature a strong vocalist, there was no real master plan.
The latter proved harder than they could have imagined. More than 500 potential singers auditioned before, despairing of finding someone, they decided to seek out a singer whose band had once supported the Beat. They found Roland Gift singing was a barroom R&B band named the Bones, looking like Sidney Poitier but sounding like Otis Redding. He was everything they had remembered; he was their man. Gift had spent his teenage years in youth theatre, until the advent of punk made music his passion. As punk gave way to the two-tone ska which gave rise to groups like Madness and, ultimately, the Beat, Gift took up saxophone and singing in a local band.
Fine Young Cannibals’ name came from an obscure 1960s film starring Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood. Resisting pushes to team them up with a producer, the band released a demo version of ‘Johnny Come Home’ as their first single. Its instant success allowed them to find a producer whose sound was more compatible in Robin Miller for the first Fine Young Cannibals album (which contains the group’s trademark overstated version of Elvis Presley’s ‘Suspicious Minds.’) For the Johnathan Demme film Something Wild, they reached back into Gift’s punk past with a version of the Buzzcocks’ classic ‘Ever Fallen in Love.’ Five years later, a second album emerged, The Raw and the Cooked – the raw side made up mostly of songs the group had contributed to Barry Levinson’s film Tin Men. The single ‘She Drives Me Crazy’ was a worldwide number one hit.
Since then, the Fine Young Cannibals have remained elusive, though their 1996 greatest hits album The Finest featured the newly recorded track ‘Flame.’