Welcome to London: How the British embraced Tori’s work in 1991

Tuesday 27 September 2011, by Cécile Desbrun

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When Tori turned in Little Earthquakes to Atlantic Records in 1990, it was like nothing else you could hear at the time and the executives were both puzzled and infuriated: how the hell were they supposed to sell this? The then 10-track piece was sure very different from the ill-fated Y Kant Tori Read the artist released on the label in 1988, a ‘pop-metal’ record that sounded a lot like what Pat Benatar did at the time. Tori opened up to the piano again after that first album crashed to find her own true voice, but the piano was definitely a problem for the executives, who wanted to replace it by guitars in the first place. Finally, after having rejected a first version of Little Earthquakes in March 1990, the then director of the label, Doug Morris, fell in love with the record and came up with an idea to introduce Tori to the audience and the media : what about sending her to London, where the musical press is so big and much more open-minded?

Tori jumped on the occasion and packed her bags after Morris made a phone call to Max Hole, the managing director of East West Records, Atlantic’s sister company in the U.K. "I needed a change," Tori confessed to the Washington Post in March 1992."Even though I’d written the record, I was emotionally drained after living in Los Angeles for so long. I needed a new perspective on things, new sights, new sounds. And I needed to get that thing in your belly that says ’I want to play now.’” She “took to London like a duck taking to water” as she put it, and soon after her arrival, she played a private showcase by candlelight for the label’s heads of department and they were all breathtaken by her performance.

On that day, Tori also met Lee Ellen Newman, East West head of publicity. Lee Ellen took Tori to a Chinese restaurant in Kensington Church Street and the pair got along and soon became friends. It was up to her to find a way to promote Tori’s work and, after witnessing her amazing performance, she felt that the media had to see her play live first before eventually hearing a master tape of a few tracks. It was then decided that Tori would play a few short sets and the press would be invited. However, since Tori was a total stranger at the time, convincing the media to come was not an easy task. Finally, Tori had an idea: they would invite the journalists, one by one, to see her perform directly at her apartment in London around lunchtime. She was living at a place rented by East West in Notting Hill, just a few blocks away from their headquarter. The apartment was filled with the belongings of the landlord but it had a piano in the living-room and it made for a cosy place. The idea was much more welcomed by the press and nearly everyday, Tori would receive people from NME, Time Out, Sky or ELLE in her living-room and perform three or four songs in front of them, after what Lee Ellen would answer their questions over lunch.

After a while, Lee Ellen booked a few small venues in bars and restaurants (the Mean Fiddler, the Borderline, the Dominion, the Jazz Cafe, or the Troubadour) over lunchtime and invited the press, who was most of the time the only real audience. When Tori opened for other acts, the crew of the bands were the only ones to take a listen while people had dinner. “And then it started to grow.” [1] A master tape of four tracks (“Winter”, “Crucify”, “Silent All These Years” and “Leather”) was sent to the media in July and that same month, Tori opened for The Moody Blues at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. The audience didn’t know who she was but warmed up to her after a few songs and, at her great surprise, she was even called back for an encore.

The album took a new turn when Tori saw the Ridley Scott movie Thelma & Louise in theatres in August of that same year : the sex assault scene at the beginning urged the artist to write “Me and a Gun” about her own experience and early October, she performed it —with a string of other songs — at the Canal Brasserie of Notting Hill in front of a journalist of the influent Melody Maker. On October 12, the magazine published David Stubbs’ enthusiastic review: “Live, Tori’s music makes for absolutely compelling, but uncomfortable listening... I feel like I’ve cheated on my wife, although I haven’t. Honestly. ” [2]

After months of careful buzz, this was the last big push Atlantic waited for to release a first E.P. before planning a release date for the album. With its raw and unconventional subject, “Me and a Gun” was chosen as first single and promoted on alternative radios and was swiftly followed by “Silent All These Years”. Tori made a number of TV appearances in November and December and Little Earthquakes was released in January 1992. After the critical acclaim in the U.K. and the reputation Tori had acquired, Atlantic was at long last ready to launch her in America and we know what happened next.

Everybody — including Tori herself — agreed that sending her to London was the best thing to do at the time. “Because they don’t put things in a box,” like she said in the French TV show Taratata in 1993, but also because of the media coverage and musical culture there. “I had planned to start Tori in clubs in Los Angeles,” her then-manager Arthur Spivak told Upside Down in their first issue, “but it would not have had near the impact as it did in London. By moving Tori to London, we were able to get a hipness factor that we would never have achieved here. If you look historically at Chrissie Hynde or Jimi Hendrix, they went to London because of the live appeal there. I mean, in London you have Melody Maker and NME who will go to a small club to review an act and even if 5 people are there, the show will get a review in a national music publication. Rolling Stone won’t go to Terre Haute to review the ‘Tom & Arthur Show’. You do not have the immediacy that we had in the sixties. I believe that Tori, in a world void of feelings, is helping people feel again. London was the best way to get the message out...”

information sources

The Washington Post, March 22, 1992.
"Arthur the Baptist" (interview with Arthur Spivak) in Upside Down #1, Summer 1993.
London Independent, January 16, 1994.
Kalen Rogers, All These Years: The Authorized Biography, Omnibus Press, 1994/1996.
Rolling Stone, June 30, 1994.
"Recipe for success" in Take to the Sky #6, December 1994.

[1Rolling Stone, June 30, 1994.

[2All These Years, pp.49-51.