Backstage Pass: Classix Nouveaux: Sal Solo’s ‘Guilty’ feeling

 By Pete Braidis
SAL SOLO (third from left) was the frontman for Classix Nouveaux, which had an MTV hit with “Guilty.” EMI Records (U.K.)/Simon Fowler
SAL SOLO (third from left) was the frontman for Classix Nouveaux, which had an MTV hit with “Guilty.” EMI Records (U.K.)/Simon Fowler
Ah, the ’80s. A time of MTV, “ALF,” “E.T.,” the USFL and “C.H.U.D.” A great time indeed. And, a time of the New Wave in music.

Bands like Human League, A Flock Of Seagulls, Visage, Duran Duran and many others were making fashion statements as much as they were musical statements. Their outfits were often unintentionally hilarious to look at, and sometimes the music was as empty as a bottle of gin at Keith Richards’ house.

However, there were some bands who were able to rise above the vapidness and create some pretty enjoyable music that crossed dance and rock with synth-pop. Classix Nouveaux was one such band.

They made an instant impression back in 1981-82 when their video for the pop classic “Guilty” was all over MTV. It appears on numerous ’80s compilations to this day.

Guitarist/vocalist Sal Solo was the band’s frontman, and he was quite a sight. Covered in rouge and cloaked in a dark, flowing cape with a shaved head he looked like Nosferatu the vampire but had an eerie appeal, as well. Around the time of this interview in June 2002, he had been recording solo (no pun intended) for many years, with his music a far distance from his Classix days. He was happy to talk about all eras of his career.

I was always a big fan of Classix Nouveaux in the ’80s. It was hard to learn much about you in America except through MTV, which played “Guilty” constantly. Where you guys ever aware of that at the time?

Sal Solo: Not really, because we came here with “Guilty” before MTV. You know, “Guilty” was released in 1981, and the first time we came to America all we did was we went to a big kind of concert place in Manhattan called The Ritz.

Oh yeah, I know it well.

SS: They were sort of introducing the New Wave of British bands, so I think that the week before us was Adam And The Ants and the next week was gonna be Spandeu Ballet then Duran Duran and then a few months later we came back and did a bit of a tour where we played Chicago and D.C. and some other places — I can’t quite remember them all — but this was probably the spring or the summer of ’81 …

What kind of happened was our most successful period in Britain and other countries came around just after that, around ’82, so we just didn’t come back to the States, really. That’s why you didn’t hear much! (Laughs) I do know a few people who were fans because of MTV.

The funny thing is, my impression of the United States the first time, maybe because it was Manhattan, was kind of taller buildings, bigger cars and fatter sandwiches, and it seemed very superficial.

So, I didn’t especially want to come back for a while, but then when I eventually did come back in the late ’80s, then I had a very different opinion because I somehow just started meeting people and the place is about people and not just about buildings! (Laughs)

Your music, in general, was always somewhat guitar-based. You had synthesizers, but you definitely strayed away from being like a band such as Human League.

 SS: Yeah, I think that was sort of strange in a way, because it was always really a guitar rock band, and we were always doing the stadium gigs and really, it was just as near to U2 as it was to Spandau Ballet or something like Human League, as you say.

And a lot of people didn’t really understand that, because they thought that the fashion was only about beat boxes and so on. But in a way, new movements in music, I think, generally speaking, kind of happen by accident. They’re not planned. I don’t think that a group of bands get together and say we’re going to start a new wave of music; it’s just a case of being in the right place at the right time.

And what was called the New Romantic thing at the time … I remember the first time that phrase was ever used. It was in one of the rock papers in the UK — it was NME or Sounds or something — and I think it was a member of the public that wrote in and said something about the New Romantics and mentioned Classix Nouveaux, Ultravox …
I loved Ultravox.

SS: And Japan was the other band, I think, and all of us were groups that had been around a little while before that, but we weren’t really noticed because it wasn’t a fashion then. Interestingly, well, Ultravox was more kind of electronic than most of those early groups, but it was still more regular drums-and-guitars type stuff.

What’s amazing about the “Guilty” video is that visually it influenced other videos, like Kim Carnes’ “Bette Davis Eyes.”

SS: Well, they weren’t only influenced by it; they specifically copied it. It was the same director. I know the story very well.

Was it really?

SS: Yeah, yeah. I know the story very well because Kim Carnes was with EMI and we were with EMI. Obviously, she was like an older country singer trying to sort of be hip and get a new hit. So, I guess she looked through the reel, or EMI-New York looked through the reel, through the new British stuff, and when they saw “Guilty,” she said this is what I want. And so they fly out the director specifically from England to basically try and copy it. The only difference is we had red curtains floating around and she didn’t. Otherwise everything stayed the same! (Laughs) 

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