Bananarama

TrackAlbum
Aie A MwanaDeep Sea Skiving
Really Saying SomethingDeep Sea Skiving
Shy BoyDeep Sea Skiving
Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye)Deep Sea Skiving
Cruel SummerBananarama
Robert De Niro's Waiting...Bananarama
Rough JusticeBananarama
Through A Child's EyesBananarama
A Trick Of The NightTrue Confessions
Love In The First DegreeWow!

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Contributor: Duncan Harman

When did pop become a dirty word? When did focus blur, and the inert joy of being alive, of not giving a damn about tomorrow, seep away through the gaps in our cultural floorboards? Bananarama were dumb. Disposable. Fun. All the things that true pop should be. They were the girls next door, doused in 80s tinpot glamour, and any other way it wouldn’t have worked. Wouldn’t have lined up hit after hit after hit. Wouldn’t have outsold The Supremes (both with and without Diana Ross).

Yet were they starting out today, it’s difficult to envisage a circumstance in which even a fraction of that success would arrive, so homogenised and sexualised has pop become. Bananarama were never about money or image, at least in the way we understand those processes now. Woodward, Dallin and Fahey – they were about wearing too much make-up. Dungarees. Coy smiles, and a naïve quality sorely missing from contemporary pop. Even the Stock/Aitken/Waterman years – the place where, Kylie apart, careers went to die – didn’t distil the lustre too far. For however much a Pete Waterman production credit represents an aesthetical cul-de-sac (only two types of act ever wanted anything to do with him; those of little discernible talent, desperate for a hit, or yesterday’s news, desperate for another hit; see Donna Summer’s This Time I Know It’s For Real for an example of the latter), the tracks he produced for Bananarama retained the essence of what bought them to the public’s attention in the first place.

Bananarama photo

Bananarama (l to r): Keren Woodward, Sara Dallin, Siobhan Fahey

In other words, Bananarama were naff (see also: Kim Wilde; Dare-era Human League) – a very suburban skein of naff – and therein sits the attraction. They were never airbrushed or sold as overtly raunchy in order to appeal to the teenage boy market (even on videos such as Venus or Love In The First Degree, the attempts to sexualise the band had an amateur, parochial feel far removed from today’s “leave little to the imagination” marketing tactics). Bananarama had dodgy albums titles (Deep Sea Skiving). Released jarring cover versions (The Doobie Brothers’ Long Train Running). Rode the Euro-disco train for far longer than any discerning act would do. Oh, yes … they’re also guilty – as guilty as girls can be – for not only carrying on when Siobhan Fahey quit for the goth-pop of Shakespears Sister, but compounding that mistake by replacing her with Jacquie O’Sullivan, who with her constant pouting looked as if she was only present under severe duress.

Yet – in the early years especially – theirs was a story that belied the image of being but a single evolutionary step beyond miming to hit records in the bedroom with a hairbrush for a microphone. There may have been a post-punk scenester element to their origins – they hung about with all the right people, receiving early exposure in fashion and fizzog chronicle The Face as a result – but those names did include Malcolm McLaren and Terry Hall, the latter instrumental in ensuring their burgeoning career didn’t fizzle out amidst the swash of (vaguely) similar acts.

Also, alongside the cover versions, they wrote their own material. Or at least co-wrote their own material, on their first few albums alongside production team Steve Jolley and Tony Swain. This is important because it ensured that the trio’s personalities rode high in the narrative; they weren’t simply hired hands, minibused in to look and sound cute. Take Robert De Niro’s Waiting… for instance, a single taken from their eponymous second LP from 1984. As pop statements go, this has pretty much all you need; story, pace, balance (note how the minor key bridge feeds into the major key timbres of the chorus), and an exotica propagated by Hollywood glamour. It’s the type of song that demonstrates how pop needs to be appraised with different metrics than we’d use for anything on the rock/indie/electronica spectrum. And if we did attempt to gauge the value of a typical Bananarama track against (to pick a random example) the Godspeed You! Black Emperor album that’s on the turntable as I type, the only conclusion would be that the Dallin/Fahey/Woodward shtick is utterly disposable.

Thankfully, pop’s genetic make-up is totally different, and just as we wouldn’t critique an Ealing comedy using the terminology of European arthouse cinema, so the merits of a single such as Shy Boy have little to do with common assault chord structures or the joys of sonic dissonance. A Jolley/Swain composition, it nonetheless crackles with whatever it is that makes this type of music so alive. “He used to be a shy boy, until I made him my boy. I never missed a heartbeat, just sitting in the back seat – yeah.” Such is the simple lyric, but in those four lines it’s possible to isolate all those important matters of the youthful heart.

(Also, all those Shoop-shoops; they’re always going to trigger smiles).

I’ll save the diatribe on why the early 80s were a golden period for pop music for another time; suffice to say that one aspect that made this era so special was how social realism became genuine chart currency; from The Specials (Ghost Town) through to Depeche Mode (Blasphemous Rumours) and The Human League (Lebanon – Phil Oakey’s appraisal of Middle Eastern conflict – which contains some of the worst lyrics ever put to song, although his heart was in the right place), there’s also Rough Justice, which (to these ears) arrives as a critique of Thatcherism (“The young don’t grow up well not in this life. Big mouths and money win every time”), served in a brioche bun of minor-key pop/funk accoutrement. It’s hardly Das Kapital, but again, if you’re complaining you’re somewhat missing the point. Misunderstanding the oeuvre. Pop is pop; don’t appreciate its parameters, and there’s an Emerson, Lake and Palmer LP requiring your attention right this very second.

Of course (as you’ll no doubt have noticed) all tracks mentioned so far are singles. That’s because the ˈRama only did singles; their albums (particularly from 1987’s Wow! onwards) slotting into afterthought territory (which makes it rather incredible that they’ve released ten studio long players – only three less than the various greatest hits packages the bean counters have ushered into record stores over the years; I’d advise skipping The Greatest Remixes Collection and the amusingly titled The Twelve Inches Of Bananarama, for instance). And let’s be honest, here: the Stock/Aitken/Waterman material was particularly dire (which was one of the reasons Siobhan Fahey walked away). SAW productions were flavourless, of little nutritional value, and flew off the shelves in astonishing quantities – it’s McDonalds pop, Burger King pop, frozen, flash-fried, then free to clog up your arteries – and to that extent, the inclusion of Love In The First Degree in this run through best in show is questionable. Bananarama should have worked with Tennant and Lowe. With Stephen “Tintin” Duffy. With Jane Wiedlin. I’d even include Dave Stewart (who married Fahey a year before she left the trio), if only because it’s an excuse to mention Bananarama’s cameo in the video to Eurythmics’ Who’s That Girl.

As it is, it’s the first two albums, often (although not exclusively) working with Jolley and Swain, where the treasure dwells (and for the record: Steve Jolley later pleaded guilty in court to sexually assaulting a twelve year-old boy; I wouldn’t argue that this invalidates the material he co-wrote and produced, but it does provide Shy Boy in particular with an insidious undercurrent I wish wasn’t present). The cover of The Velvelettes minor 1964 hit Really Saying Something, with Fun Boy Three repaying the backing vox duties from the latter’s version of It Ain’t What You Do (It’s The Way That You Do It) carries a stripped-back, ‘lid missing from the top of the piano’ charm typical of Hall/Staples/Golding’s work of the time (FBT also picked up a co-production credit for this), whilst another well-chosen cover – Steam’s Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye) is all schoolyard chant after a Sherbet Dip Dab too many.

Album track Through A Child’s Eyes, has – if you squint – a dream-pop quality not a million miles removed from Slowdive or early Lush (yes, I did really just type that); A Trick Of The Night (from third LP True Confessions) trades its limp, awkward, verse for a chorus of full of subway-lit theatricality; and then there’s debut single Aie A Mwana. Not many bands have the gumption to have as their first release an obscure Belgian song from ten years before sung in Swahili, but Bananarama did (they re-recorded it for Deep Sea Skiving; the jangly Orange Juice guitar, whilst obviously derivative, provides glide and counterpoint in equal measure).

But no Bananarama retrospective is complete without mentioning Cruel Summer. For me, it symbolises everything great about pop music; its themes, its sun-drenched melancholia – it underscores what it means to be young. What it means to be alive. Yes; the group’s back catalogue contains more than its fair share of turkeys (they’re still going, as a duo, trading off past glories). And yes, Bananarama don’t venture near my turntable, at least beyond researching this article. But to ascertain what a wonderful track Cruel Summer is, go listen to the Aidan Moffat/Bill Wells cover which says more about the human condition than I ever could.

Bananarama official website

Bananarama biography (iTunes)

Record obsessive and occasional drunkard, Duncan Harman usually writes at Lazer Guided Melody.

TopperPost #469

3 Comments

  1. Keith Shackleton
    Aug 27, 2015

    [hat tip]

  2. David Lewis
    Aug 30, 2015

    Keith said it really. I’d add that those who claim to be rock fans who don’t like this sort of stuff may leave the building. Give me joyful fun any day.

  3. Simon Jones
    Oct 17, 2015

    Excellent. And what about a list of catchy sing-a-long songs that 20 years+ later I seem to know every word to. Too many people too snobby about “pop” music – great write up.

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