Valentine to a Beehive

With the loss of George Michael and Pete Burns of Dead or Alive (not to mention countless others), the world was sorely in need of joy. And lo, it came to pass that Indie Daze Festival announced a coup: the reanimation of the original five-piece line-up of jangly indie rockers supreme: Voice of the Beehive.

To the uninitiated, Voice of the Beehive consisted of Californian sisters Tracey Bryn and Melissa Brooke Belland (I still don’t know why they had different surnames), and Brits Mike Jones, Martin Brett and Woody from Madness, who had a cluster of sparkling indiepop hits between 1987 and 1992 before the wheels fell off. Their pop confections centred primarily on the sardonic, witty banter of gifted lyricist Tracey, additional melodies by Mike, soaraway harmonies with Missy, and the frenetic, punchy pace delivered by the boys in the backroom.

Colourful, hippy-dippy videos, a fierce stage presence, the girls’ bizarre bazaar ensembles, and ace album titles (Let It Bee, 1988, and Honey Lingers, 1991) completed the package. And yes, Honey Lingers referenced exactly what it sounds like: a word play on the Beehive’s staying power and ability to linger in pop consciousness, but also their willingness to be saucy with references to all kinds of honey and sexual practices.

Beautifully vibrant and visually cohesive photography (by Mike Owen for Let It Bee), the design of single and album covers issued by ffrr/London Records (design of Let It Bee by Vivid I.D.), and the distinctive wavy Beehive lettering gave the band a strong brand identity. To this day, whenever I’m asked to sign an office co-worker’s leaving card, I do it in the wavy Beehive signature style.

The band’s first video for I Say Nothing introduced the world at large to the Beehives’ striking madcap visuals. It was directed by visionary Gregg Masuak, who did reams of videos for Kim Wilde, Kylie, Take That and the Spice Girls, and went on to become a good friend of the Beehive clan. Gregg cites the Beehives as one of his favourite bands ever, and confirms “they were by far the most fun, brightly sparky delights I ever worked with!” (his exclamation mark). It’s hard to imagine how more colour and energy could be packed into three and a half minutes. In a candy-coloured Wonderland, Tracey and Melissa skipped about in suitably outlandish Alice threads, while the stubbly, eminently boneable boys on guitars, and the manically grinning Woody brought up the rear.

They were immediately the ultimate college indie band, reminiscent of a time when girls were Bohemian, blokes could let their hair down, and everyone wanted to have a wild ole time. Glazing their pop cake with the polka-dot motif so beloved of pop-punk pioneers Strawberry Switchblade only a few years earlier (manager David Balfe had a finger in both the Switchblade and Beehive pies), the girls expanded the look with thigh-high boots, gussied up in acres of flounces, ribbons and bows, and more costume jewellery than you could carry.

Like Madonna’s thrift-store bag of tricks, it was a look any girl could copy – well, any girl with bags of style and a disregard for convention. In the hands of Melissa and Tracey, the look evolved into an awkward but endearing mish-mash of cowgirl and car-boot sale. The country leaning of the frilly frocks even suited the Nashville twang of some of the songs. The psychedelic maelstrom of acid brights extended right down to calves wrapped in knee-highs.

Though I Say Nothing didn’t light up the charts on its first whirl (despite London Records’ promotion), it was the fourth single, Don’t Call Me Baby, and its accompanying 50s drive-in-movie video (also directed by Masuak), that gave the Bee squad their first hit. Spot the ubiquitous late-80s acid house smiley on Tracey’s badge-festooned jacket in the video. I still have one, plus the VOTB badges from the single’s deluxe 7-inch EP release. When I finally got to see the video, some 20 years later, my heart skipped a beat every time Woody made an adorably cute face. (I grew up in South Africa, where Beehive videos were seldom seen and the only lifeline to the band was articles in Smash Hits and No 1 magazines, which took three months to travel from the UK to SA.) Don’t Call Me Baby – the song and video – showcased Tracey and Melissa’s keen awareness of girl-group know-how, from hoop earrings and sidelong glances to the longing (nay, yearning) so essential to girl-group charm. But what gave the girls bite was that they were just as adept at getting rough and dirty with the boys as being playful girlie charmers; note their raunchy lyrics (cleaned up for the single of I Say Nothing) and aggressive, rambunctious stance of songs like There’s a Barbarian in the Back of my Car (“I’ll fuck you later now just get me to the bar”). No quivering wallflowers these.

It was a feminist stance both coy and commanding in the same breath – a most welcome alternative to plug the gap between Madonna’s hypersexualised iconography and Kylie’s gormless poppet charm (dearly as I love both aforementioned pop tarts). “You don’t have to play on sex, or schoolgirl eyelash-batting,” the girls seemed to trumpet, “here’s a totally new way to hang with the boys as equals – without being submissive or dominant.”

The I Walk the Earth video was directed by Tim Pope, renowned for his work with The Cure and also Strawberry Switchblade. Pope put The Cure in a wardrobe for the Close to Me video; while the Beehives were confined to a suitcase. I Walk the Earth featured the band radiating thousand-watt ebullience and joy – eyes lit up like Catherine wheels – in PVC dresses and paper flowers amid a chaotic studio set straight out of a John Waters movie, complete with pink flamingo. In fact, the Honey Lingers sleeve liner notes thank both John Waters and his muse Divine, among other luminaries including Lucille Ball, Dolly Parton and Vivienne Westwood.

Critics bemoaned the, some said, overproduced gloss of sophomore opus Honey Lingers which, they said, seemed to dampen somewhat the quintet’s spiky irreverence, but lead single Monsters and Angels was a majestically melodious affair. That said, the 50s diner of the accompanying video, the boys in Dick Tracy noir suits and fedoras, seemed to bolster the argument that smooth was being favoured above the group’s former devil-may-care attitude.

Thankfully Melissa’s Tess Trueheart bonnet and Tracey’s disembodied babydoll-heads dress still nodded to the kooky heart beating inside the Beehive. And second single I Think I Love You restored the va-va-voom factor with amorous shenanigans in a dayglo and aluminium-foil 90s club sporting light-up 70s disco dancefloor, filled with hedonistic partygoers. Costumes ranged from PVC catsuits, hot-pink-rose-festooned blouses, silver space boots, feather tutus and runny mascara – and that was just Tracey and Missy. Most shocking of all though, was Woody having traded in his crew cut for a flowing post-Madchester mane.

A sonic highlight of the album was a sample from Dangerous Liaisons (1988), where elderly Madame De Rosemonde cautions a distraught Michelle Pfeiffer: “Those who are most worthy of love are never made happy by it.” (on the song, Little Gods). A woeful sentiment on the dangers of fancying boys just a little too much, I would imagine this echoed deeply with the band’s (presumably large) gay fan base.

Me in teen Beehive throes

It was around this time that I, a painfully shy, introverted student in South Africa, so enamoured of VOTB, wrote a letter to Tracey, presumably c/o their record company, expressing my teenage enthusiasm for the band, certainly never expecting a reply, but unable to contain the excitement they engendered in me. It was unfuckingbelievable when I received an Orgy Under the Underworld postcard (promo-ing their summer 1991 Honey Lingers London gigs) and hand-written reply from Tracey (eagerly compared to the handwritten Honey Lingers sleeve lyrics to make sure they were penned by the same fair hand). It’s hard to articulate quite how exciting this was for someone from South Africa – nowhere near London (or California for that matter). I have fortunately since made the move to London, where I will be delighted to revel in Beehive madness (see what I did there, Woody?) come October.

It is a deep regret that Tracey’s postcard to me was carelessly thrown out during one of my many 20-something moves, but I remember, heavily under the spell of Edward Scissorhands at the time, having articulated to Tracey my enthusiasm for Johnny Depp, and her reciprocating a similar sentiment. She also clarified a burning question in my mind at the time: “What is that thing on Melissa’s head in the I Think I Love You video?” Tracey: “I can only imagine it’s her hair.” (And I fortunately still have the two glossy prints, signed by Missy and Tracey, also included with the postcard.)

The sheen of final Honey Lingers single, Perfect Place (Masuak again on directing duty) marked a closing chapter of the band’s commercial success. Their third album, Sex & Misery (1995) contemplated grief and loss (a friend’s death, the end of their long-term relationships and the loss of their band), and though still featuring characteristic Beehive belters like Scary Kisses and New Day, could not capitalise on their earlier success and did not win them a larger audience. The bloom was off the rose. The onset of dance music filtered into the Beehive sound and a lazy 90s Soul II Soul dance backbeat bolted onto single, So Hard, was an odd fit given that the Beehive had previously been essentially rock ’n roll. Pop lovers can be a fickle bunch too, perhaps more loath than most to see rabble rousers growing up and maturing, let alone allowing personal grief to turn previously upbeat musings into something altogether more sombre. Still, for those who actually heard the album, it was hard to resist the sunny vocal delivery and strong songwriting that permeated much of the collection.

Let’s hope when the Beehive ricochet on to the Indie Daze stage, serenading blokes in the audience who might feel like they’ve become the “old man who feels so alone as everyone rushes by him now, baby” of Perfect Place, that they’ve reclaimed their trashy tiaras and can give us all a good kick up the arse. Martin, Mike, Woody, Tracey, Melissa – London has missed you. We welcome you back with arms (and legs) spread-eagled.

* Voice of the Beehive are scheduled to perform at Indie Daze Festival, The O2 Forum, Kentish Town, London NW5 1JY on Saturday, 7 October 2017
Twitter @indiedazeTM
Twitter @VOTB_Official

* Check out onoitisnathan4’s VOTB YouTube channel for a crash course in all things Beehive

4 comments on “Valentine to a Beehive
  1. Devin Tait says:

    What a great story! I would never have guessed from our very brief meeting at the Fonda Theatre for a Belinda Carlisle show just how much we would have in common with regards to our musical tastes! My story is similar to yours – I grew up loving the Beehive from a distance: the middle of western Kansas (which felt like absolutely nowhere). I too received correspondence from Tracey, although it wasn’t until later and in e-mail form, but I believe I still have it printed out somewhere. I am so excited that one of my favorite bands is getting back together, but I’m worried that I may not be able to make it across the Atlantic for this one. Cross your fingers for me!

  2. Wow! Fantastic to hear that VOB are once again playing out. Can’t make it as I’m in The States, but I’ll always have that first tour with TPE. My friend Tom and I [with a handful of other fans who also skipped That Petrol Emotion] had a fun chat in their tourbus as we all weighed in on the burning pop music issues of the day like the fans we all were. The energence of Shakespear’s Sister was a hot topic, as I recall.

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