It happened one night in 1984 when I was 14 and playing pool with the boy I fancied from down the road. Sandwiched somewhere in-between the Thompson Twins’ Doctor Doctor and Italo disco classic Happy Station by Fun Fun, a deadpan but melodic trio of harmonies came shimmering out of the radio. It was Bananarama’s early 1984 UK No 3 hit Robert De Niro’s Waiting.
My life was never the same again. I’m sure it didn’t happen there and then, but within a few weeks (probably), Bananarama was my favourite group. I was clipping pictures of them out of magazines, using Pritt stick to secure them in my new Bananarama scrapbook, and wondering what the next single would be.
Sure, I must have heard the previous summer’s monster hit Cruel Summer, but there was something about Robert De Niro’s pretty melody, its melancholic pull, the girls’ nonchalant vocal, and the way it builds to the chorus, that really drew me in.
Living in South Africa during my teens, not having the magnitude of exposure to British bands that people living in the UK did, I probably came to pop music quite late in life. Olivia Newton John did it for me in Grease (1978) and Xanadu (1980). Debbie Harry and Blondie spoke to me around the same time. But it was only around 1984 that I suddenly discovered proper the joyous, unashamed delights of Wham!, Duran Duran and Bananarama.
This meant I had all of 1984 to trawl back through 1983 and 1982 to discover the Rams’ (as Smash Hits magazine dubbed them) back catalogue. While not having paid proper attention to Cruel Summer, I had entirely missed the first album, Deep Sea Skiving (1983) and the clutch of makeshift hits that preceded it throughout 1982.
With the Bananarama 1984 look becoming much more stylised and precise (can you say lipliner?), I was faintly scornful of their earlier dragged-through-a-hedge-backwards (and then forwards again) image. Ironically, it’s this magpie pick ’n’ mix styling and backcombed hair that really endeared them to the British public. In true post-punk fashion, here were three girls who couldn’t sing much (technically), whose choreography consisted of roughly synchronised steps, devil-may-care arm-flailing and a bit of hopscotch, who made music anyway, and whose public came to love them for it.
Ask any Bananarama fan whether they think Bananarama had great voices, and they’d probably say you’re totally missing the point. The Rams and their hit producers – first Jolley and Swain’s shiny, glossy, finger-poppin’ feel; then Stock, Aitken & Waterman’s production-line effervescence – were about fun, being accessible, not compromising, and capturing a sound that was truly unique. I am enchanted by that sound – the particular sound of their combined singing voices. Give me that above a technically proficient Mariah, Celine or Whitney any day.
Don’t call that justice
Back to 1984. When I heard the follow-up to Robert De Niro, the more sombre Rough Justice (a snapshot of the world’s ills), I was a confirmed fan in the true sense of the word “fanatic”. So much so, I couldn’t for the life of me work out why Rough Justice wasn’t a proper hit (it stalled at 23), like Cruel Summer and De Niro had been. To me, it was just as good, and the darker themes of the songwriting the girls were exploring on their second and third albums (drug abuse, Ireland’s troubles, suicide, isolation, sexual assault), just pulled me in even further.
Perhaps that’s going a little far with regards my 14-year-old persona. I wasn’t processing the lyrics at that level at the time – it was really all about the sound, the unison singing, the look and the attitude. Like all the best ’80s bands. I couldn’t have given a toss about technical proficiency and classical skills when I had three goddesses on a mountaintop who encouraged me to dream, dance, sing and let loose my creativity.
The lower chart placings for Rough Justice and its successor Hotline to Heaven, in retrospect proved a good thing: it made the girls up their game, shop around for a new sound and the SAW-assisted Venus was gifted unto the world. A huge hit pretty much everywhere (including the US), but oddly reaching “only” No 8 in the UK like Cruel Summer did, it became their calling card to this day.
Unfortunately it also ushered in a new era of songs about fun, love and sexiness that ultimately introduced a schism in the ranks: Sara and Keren in the pop love camp, Siobhan in the darker-themes camp. Ultimately Shuv left in early 1988, sent on her way with a final outrageous performance at the Brit awards, surrounded by a herd of oiled men in faux leather knickers (can’t imagine why the Rams have such a huge following of gay men….)
As she pursued darker hair colour and more stark horizons with her new band, Shakespear’s Sister (‘e’ missing on purpose), Sara and Keren joined forces with clubbing mate Jacquie O’Sullivan, a move championed by the record company, but never proving a perfect fit. Jacquie spoke at the time of always feeling like the new girl, even four years later when she departed, and having to deal with animosity from the Siobhan lovers. This notwithstanding, Jacquie’s contribution to the style and attitude of Bananarama were valued by those who continued to buy the records and love the band. She has a special place among fans.
From 1992, Sara and Keren soldiered on as a duo and though enjoying less chart success, customary for any artist who has been in the business beyond a decade, still came up with the same rousing and bittersweet goods they always had: from 1992’s Last Thing On My Mind, to 1995’s Every Shade of Blue, to 2005’s Move In My Direction, to 2009’s Love Comes, to 2012’s Now Or Never. All classics in their own right. The most cruelly overlooked of all: 2010’s seasonal stormer, Baby It’s Christmas, which, if there was any justice, would be on high rotation everywhere every year.
Fast forward to, like, last week, and the world rejoiced at Siobhan’s return to the fold for a series of UK tour dates in November and December, some studio time that will hopefully result in new material, and who knows what next if it all goes well.
Listen to the trio’s voices in conversation on radio spots since the announcement, and it’s like the intervening 29 years never happened. The dirty chuckles, the deliberate, almost comedy-act precision of their delivery, and their obvious chemistry confirms what they are saying in interviews: the old magic has been rekindled and the love never died.
No one likes to think of old friendships lost. And since Siobhan’s return, the air of celebration has been thick in the air like champagne spray. It’s like something has been fixed that was long broken. It’s a great feeling. For them, I’m sure, but also for us.
* Tickets for Bananarama’s UK dates are now on sale. Visit www.bananarama.co.uk for details
* Pictures by Paul Brollo and Richard Weir