This is the 21st post in a biweekly series. Read about the series — and just what we mean by “freestyle music” — here. Freestyle Fridays post on the first and third Fridays of each month.
Stacey Lynn Swain was born in Fullerton, California, in 1958. At 5 years old, she started taking dance lessons, went on to become the youngest member of the Dance Theater of Orange County, and to perform at Disneyland’s Christmas Fantasy on Parade events. After graduating from high school in 1976, Swain joined the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, where she performed as a showgirl and elephant rider.
In 1981, Stacey met Jon St. James, the proprietor of Fullerton’s Casbah Recording Studio, which recorded such bands as Berlin and Social Distortion. St. James, a big fan of synth bands like Kraftwerk and M, needed a vocalist for his new synth-pop group, Q, named after the James Bond character. Stacey thought of herself as more of a dancer than a singer, but she joined Jon St. James, Dan Van Patten and John Van Tongeren. The group members renamed themselves as part of the project, taking “Q” as their last names: thus, Jon Q, Dan Q, and Stacey Q.
The Q album found minor success on college radio, leading to them work on more songs and add some band members. As they became more well-known, they ran into trouble with their band name; “Q” had been claimed by Quincy Jones, so St. James renamed the band “SSQ,” a reference to a fishing trip in a small boat they dubbed the S.S.Q. SSQ released their debut album “Playback” in 1983 under Enigma Records, which featured the single “Synthicide.”
But the music industry wasn’t quite done messing with the members of SSQ. Jon St. James found some success by recording Berlin’s first album, “Pleasure Victim.” From there, Enigma Records joined with EMI America, which in turn signed St. James to a six-record solo deal. The first single off St. James’s solo album “Trans-Atlantic” was to be “The Girl Who Seduced The World,” which David Bowie wanted for his album “Let’s Dance.” But EMI America closed its doors almost immediately after the release of the SSQ and Jon St. James albums.
Jon St. James’s remarkable solo song, “Oogity Boogity”
In 1984, Stacey Swain and Jon St. James teamed up again, this time as Stacey Q. The next year, Stacey Q signed a recording contract with independent label On the Spot Records, and soon released a single (“Shy Girl”) and a cassette-only album that contained an early version of “Two of Hearts.” After the two singles sold several thousand copies, she signed with Atlantic Records with St. James as manager, and the other members of SSQ as backup musicians.
A new album, “Better Than Heaven,” was recorded in three weeks. In 1986, the album’s lead single, “Two of Hearts,” reached number 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and the album reached number 59 on the US album chart. In perhaps the pinnacle of Stacey Q’s success, “Weird Al” Yankovic asked permission to parody “Two of Hearts,” but the songwriters (Sue Gatlin, who originally intended to record the song herself, along with John Mitchell and Tim Greene) declined!
The success of “Two of Hearts” led Swain to television appearances on “The Gong Show” and “The New Hollywood Squares,” but she famously appeared as the character Cinnamon on NBC’s “The Facts of Life,” where she performed “Two of Hearts.” In a follow-up episode, Cinnamon returned, performed “We Connect,” and ran off with cast regular George Clooney’s character, George, who decided to join Cinnamon as a roadie.
A conundrum: is “Two of Hearts” more freestyle, or more Hi-NRG?
Hi-NRG is typically defined as uptempo disco or electronic dance music (EDM) that is not funky at all. Originating in the US and UK during the late 1970s and early 1980s, Hi-NRG reached a peak in the mid-1980s, with producers Stock Aitken Waterman leading the charge. To get Hi-NRG in your head and know what we’re talking about, think about Dead or Alive’s “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record),” Bananarama’s “Venus,” Jimmy Somerville’s cover of Sylvester’s “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real),” or most anything by The Communards.
The Hi-NRG sound influenced Italo-disco, techno and house music. And, significantly, Eurobeat, dance-pop, and freestyle artists like Shannon and Taylor Dayne were labeled as “Hi-NRG” when sold in the United States.
So, that brings me back to Stacey Q. I hear a little bit of freestyle and a whole lot of Hi-NRG in “Two of Hearts.” It’s definitely more up-tempo than most of the freestyle songs we’ve explored thus far. Does it live somewhere between the two genres? Or maybe it’s both genres at once? What do you think?
Sign up for the weekly newsletter here.