Telstar Books 1987
by Dave Thompson
“We just wanted a silly name that expressed enjoyment and light heartedness,” Sarah Dallin once reflected. “Our first single was sung in Swahili, so we thought of something tropical – bananas – and added “rama’ because it sounded silly.” And between 1981-85, through the first half of a decade so po-faced that most of its greatest pop heroes were otherwise vanishing up their own bottoms, Bananarama maintained such a relentless barrage of teenaged kicks that they singlehandedly reinvented the concept of the “girl group,” reviving memories of the Shangri-Las et al for anyone old enough to remember them; and launching a new musical dynasty among people who didn’t.
They went horribly off the rails after that, of course – indeed, by the time most Americans caught up with the group, via their chart-topping version of “Venus,” it was already too late. Before that, though, through the string of European hits which incorporated “Robert De Niro’s Waiting,” “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye,” “Rough Justice,” “Boy Trouble,” “Shy Boy” and “Give Us Back Our Cheap Fares” – Bananarama offered up some of the finest pure pop music of the age.
In Britain, Bananarama would score 27 hits in eleven years, spending 202 weeks on the chart in the process, the most successful all-girl group in UK chart history until the advent of the Spice Girls – who were themselves merely a downmarket carbon copy of the real thing; in the US, 108 weeks on the chart included that one #1, “Venus,” a #4 and a #9. History recalls Bananarama as a cute squawking sideshow to the story of the 1980s. In fact, they scored more hits during their chart lifetime than Duran Duran, the Fixx, INXS, Spandau Ballet, Culture Club, Huang Chung, Depeche Mode and virtually every other 80s star you could mention.
Journalism students Sarah Dallin and Siobhan Fahey met BBC accountant Keren Woodward at the London College of Fashion in 1980. They originally first formed the band for fun, turning up at pubs and clubs and providing unscheduled entertainment during intermissions between the scheduled acts. “We just liked the same things,” Dallin said. “We were bored with the groups around at the time, all doomy and depressing. None of us were really interested in trendy, posey clubs, we used to go to unhip clubs where the dancefloor would be empty and the records a bit naff. Siobhan and I were on the dole having finished the [journalism] course, Keren was in a depressing job. The only way to forget the horrors of life was by dancing.”
Staging guerilla raids on club and pub stages, leaping up to mime to whichever records were being played by the DJ and leading the audience into increasingly daft dance routines, word of the trio’s effervescence swiftly began to spread. “[We] realized that everybody else was as bored as us,” Dallin continued. “In the age of post punk pretention, when every new band seemed intent on having even less fun than Joy Division, “everything was dreary, and just the sight of people like us up there enjoying ourselves dancing around was enough.”
Soon bands were actively seeking the trio out to brighten up their own shows – the first, in November, 1980, was Monochrome Set. Shortly after, Department S vocalist Vaughan Toulouse cited the still-unnamed group as his Tip For The Top in a New Musical Express feature and, by early 1981, the trio made a few club appearances singing and dancing along to a three song demo tape which former Sex Pistols drummer Paul Cook produced with them. Shocking Blue’s “Venus,” the Contours’ “First I Look In The
Purse” and “Aie A Mwana,” a mid-70s disco stomper originally recorded by Black Blood, quickly took off around the clubs and in August, 1981, Demon Records released the latter as the first single by the newly named Bananarama.
“When we started out, it was funny because we knew we were going to be successful,” Woodward said. “We’d such a complete lack of ability then and we sort of filled that gap up so soon that we just knew things were going to happen. Nobody was ever prepared for us, and that kind of got past people’s critical facilities; [then] when the single started getting a lot of press and everyone was seeming interested, we realized… we could really do something, as opposed to just messing around.”
While London Records moved to sign the group, the stars of the day flocked to the Bananarama banner. Elvis Costello was loudly singing their praises; Paul Weller had them open four Christmas shows for the Jam and contributed a song, “Dr Love,” to their debut album; while the Fun Boy Three – fresh from the break-up of the Specials – invited Bananarama to sing back-up on their forthcoming debut album. The two groups wound up recording six songs together, beginning with the duet “It Ain’t What You Do (It’s The way That You Do It),” which became the Fun Boys’ next single, and “Really Saying Something,” which became Bananarama’s – and climbed to #5 in the UK.
Despite promises to the contrary, however, the two groups would not work together again. “We decided that we had to break away because people were thinking of us as backing singers,” Woodward admitted. “Which [wasn’t] the case as far as the Fun Boy Three were concerned, or we’re concerned. But obviously because they’re more well known than us… they sort of shot us to fame, so people think we have to prove ourselves. [But] we seem to have gained quite a following. The big move is that we’ve now brought out a single without the Fun Boy Three.”
That was “Shy Boy,” a fairly insubstantial number written by Bananarama’s newly acquired producers, Tony Swain and Steve Jolley, and one which Bananarama themselves were never happy with. The production team was “really good,” Woodward mused later, “but they didn’t quite get an understanding of what we were. After we did three tracks with them, for the fourth we insisted on doing the backing track [ourselves]. They were a bit dubious at first, they couldn’t understand what difference it would make and they thought it would be a long, painful experience and probably a waste of time. But they let us have a go and we’re delighted with the results.”
“Don’t Call Us (Boy Trouble)” was promptly placed on the b-side of “Shy Boy,” and it was a sign of just how well Bananarama understood their own appeal that many DJs flipped the record over the first chance they got. The ensuing de facto double a-side soared to #4 in Britain and London Records rewarded them by letting them record another of their own compositions for the next a-side.
“Cheers Then,” Fahey said, was meant to be a “Spector-ish Christmassy song… but everyone thought it sounded somber.” It flopped, and she continued, “I realized then that the public have got to be brainwashed to buy records. They can’t just listen to it once, they’ve got to hear it four or five times a day, so effectively the DJs choose what are going to be hits, and what aren’t. I never thought that was true before, I just thought that we made good records and so they get into the charts. The truth is, a good record doesn’t get into the chart unless people get it pounded into their heads. That’s so depressing.”
Indeed it was. “Cheers Then” truly indicated a musical depth and ability which utterly contradicted the trio’s burgeoning public image as fun-loving banana girls – a depth which would be reinforced by their debut album, Deep Sea Skiving. Aside from the Weller track, the album featured six band compositions, including “Young At Heart” – later a UK #1 for the Bluebelles; “Cruel Summer” – which became their US Top 10 debut, and returned to those heights in 1998 when it was covered by Scandinavian superstars; and the yearning “Wish You Were Here.” There was also a bubbling cover of Steam’s “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye,” which restored Bananarama to the UK Top 10, while their music began turning up in films as far afield as The Karate Kid (“Cruel Summer”) and The Wild Life (the title track).
Yet Bananarama’s happy-go-lucky image and music was beginning to rub some people the wrong way. “Apart from us, all the other girl groups or girls in groups have very well-thought-out and calculated images,” Fahey mused, “which is the strange thing because that’s what everybody liked about us when we started off – we weren’t calculated. But because we haven’t thought up this big philosophy that incorporates fashion, hairstyle and make-up, the whole look which is supposed to make some kind of statement, people have turned on us.”
The problem – or at least, part of it – lay in the band’s marketing. Their UK label seemed genuinely unsure how three such vordinary looking girls should be pushed to the public, an uncertainty which was only exacerbated after another group composition, “Tell Tale Signs,” exploded from the b-side of “Na Na Hey Hey” and gave them another surprise hit. “It’s a feeling of delight for us when a record gets flipped or the public tells us they prefer our own stuff,” Dallin reflected. “I think that’s what keeps us going on, as it shows we’re both pleasing ourselves and our public….”
Again London responded by giving the band a crack at writing an a-side and this time, they chose correctly. “Robert De Niro’s Waiting,” drawn from Bananarama’s forthcoming second album, reached #3 in Britain (#95 in America), and evinced a new, serious streak in the band’s writing. The song, Fahey explained, was written about “a girl who was abused by her boyfriend, she was raped. As a result she was scared of real life contact and ordinary relationships, so she slipped into a fantasy world where Robert De Niro was her man.” The group also admitted that they came close to rhyming the line “talking Italian” with “‘dirty great stallion’ …but only as a joke. It had to go.”
If “Robert De Niro’s Waiting” marked a departure from the “typical” Bananarama approach, the album – Bananarama – was even more radical. Released that spring of 1984 to immediate success (#30 US, #16 UK), it saw the trio address some genuinely weighty issues: “Rough Justice” was a hardnosed look at domestic violence; “King Of The Jungle” was a lament for a band friend, Thomas Reilly (brother of Stiff Little Fingers drummer Jim), shot and killed by a British soldier in Belfast the previous August.
Unfortunately, the band’s sudden serious streak did not translate into record sales. Following a #23 placing for “Rough Justice,” three successive singles missed the Top 30, and though Bananarama would reach #1 as part of Bob Geldof’s Band Aid aggregation in December, 1984, it would be May, 1986, before they resurfaced, the sexy glamour-drenched jewel in superstar producers Stock Aitken & Waterman’s hitmaking crown. They were promptly rewarded when “Venus,” their comeback single, shot to #1 in the US, #8 in Britain. Unfortunately, it was a peak from which they would not recover. For the single most important British girl group of the 1980s, forebears of everything from the Spice Girls to whatever is up there this week, one couldn’t help but feel cheated. Bananarama were worth so much more than that.