Gary Daly - vocals/keyboard; Eddie Lundon - guitar; Dave Reilly - percussion/synthesizer; Gary "Gazza" Johnson - bass; Kevin Wilkinson - drums; Steve Levy - oboe; Anthony Thistlethwaite - saxophone
Disco was dying on the cusp of the Eighties, but its blaze of glory through pop charts and dance clubs left a mix of fascination with new musical technology and nostalgia for the jazz- and blues-fueled innovations of decades past. As the playing field leveled at the top of the pop charts, Liverpool suburbanites Gary Daly and Eddie Lundon traded in their post-punk duds for a drum machine and synthesizer. After several years of testing the creative limits of this newfound artistic medium (and adding Reilly to keep the beat), China Crisis hit the scene with a sound similar to their new wave antecedents (see: Roxy Music) and supplemented by experimental forms of more mature genres.
With two albums* and four new instruments between '82 and '84, China Crisis headed stateside having carved themselves a niche in the pop music world. Spearheaded by singles "African and White" and "Wishful Thinking," the group explored R&B, reggae, progressive, and jazz themes while departing from the comparatively homogenous pop scene.
But the masses like homogenous pop, and this approach did not take China Crisis to the top of the charts, through Madison Square Garden, or onto MTV. It did, however, establish a trend of critical acclaim and an entirely distinctive sound, which sufficed to keep the band together well after 1990 and several changes of the pop music guard. That commitment brought them, instead, to Irvington, NJ where the Crisis put forth a complex and artistically advanced set that the crowd may have been able to dance to, but could definitely appreciate.
Like the piano key necktie, questionably styled hair, block lettering on oversized t-shirts, and all things Eighties, these songs are out of place in modern pop culture yet they possess an undeniable element of genius. Most of the set has Daly, Levy, and Thistlethwaite sharing the lead melody, jumping in and out of the rapid current driven by Johnson's complex bass lines and Wilkinson's lighting-fast fills. Even when the Crisis abates with "Christian" and "The Soul Awakening," instrumentation remains highly variable yet precisely controlled, a testament to exactly how broad their creative limits were.
To hear that level of artistic ability applied to pop music is refreshing, even if it that ability didn't produce the commercial success China Crisis sought or, perhaps, the genre needed. Whether or not we heard "Working with Fire and Steel" in the "popular New York discos," as Daly hopefully touts, it is no great leap to imagine city hipsters swaying coolly to every beep, blip, slap and croon of the Crisis' chaotic calm. Doing otherwise implies you're either immune to quality musicianship or a much better dancer than me.
*China Crisis' debut album, released in 1982, is titled Difficult Shapes & Passive Rhythms, Some People Think It's Fun to Entertain. Their sophomore effort, released in 1984, is titled Working with Fire and Steel Possible Pop Songs, Vol. 2. Six future albums kept their sound, but shortened the titles.