Deep Sea Skiving / Bananarama / True Confessions / Wow! / Pop Life
ou can look it up: Bananarama are listed as the 189th most successful chart act of all time in the UK by the Guinness Book of British Hit Singles and Albums. A misleading statistic, considering they are still one of the best-selling British girl groups ever (only bested by the Spice Girls)—but also a comforting one. Listening to the recent reissues of the group’s first six albums sometimes makes you wonder what people saw in them at all. I’m not one of them, of course, but rarely has a group worked with a string of producers whose work sounds so dated, so quickly (Jolley / Swain; Stock, Aitken & Waterman).
It’s hard to imagine these three kinda dorky girls thinking much about that, though, when former Sex Pistol drummer Paul Cook urged them to cover Black Blood’s “A.I.E. Mwana” (a cover itself). It peaked at a white-hot #92 in the UK, but it caught the attention of Fun Boy Terry Hall who subsequently asked the gals to guest on one of the Three’s singles (“T'ain't What You Do (It's the Way That You Do It)”). It went top five, signaling the beginning of the end for Fun Boy Three’s chart success and the end of the beginning of Bananarama’s.
Before FBT started their (admittedly slow) chart descent, Banarama returned the favor by asking the trio to guest on a hit of their own, a cover of the Velvelettes’ “Really Saying Something.” It served as the first single to the girl’s debut album, Deep Sea Skiving. A wild romp of a record, Skiving features some of the greatest pop hits of the early ‘80s. The aforementioned “Aie a Mwana” is included, as well as the girl group throwback “Shy Boy (Don't It Make You Feel Good).” Also of note? The funked up cover of the Paul Weller-penned “Doctor Love,” the deeply sarcastic “Hey Young London,” and a version of "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye" you’ll likely never hear at a sporting event.
A great and frivolous record, then. The problem? The British press, public, and Bananarama agreed. As such, the trio reacted by crafting a “meaningful” second album. While the tension of the bouncy pop arrangements that the Swain & Jolley production juggernaut crafted rubs up nicely against the darker lyrics, the public didn’t buy it. Both “Cruel Summer” (“the sound of high school,” Stylus scribe Alfred Soto rightfully claims) and “Robert DeNiro’s Waiting” (probably the most upbeat song about rape ever made) were hits, but Bananarama only reached #16 in the UK.
By this point, the girls were already tiring of Swain & Jolley who imposed their vision upon the group unilaterally. The line “speaking Italian,” for example, was never part of “Robert De Niro’s Waiting” until Jolley insisted upon its inclusion to give the song more of a pop feel. This, coupled with the fact that the duo rarely allowed the girls to do much of anything outside of their famed unison singing approach, led Sarah Dallin to lash out in a 1987 interview, claiming that the partnership “got to the point where it was just suffocating, because we'd all have to sing everything completely in time with each other, and in a certain way so nothing stood out.”
Their chance for a break came on the next album, True Confessions when they worked successfully with Stock Aitken Waterman on the mega-hit “Venus.” (The stutter-funktastic single version of “More Than Physical” is phenomenal, too.) It was a turning point in more ways than one—compare the tomboys of “Cruel Summer” one year earlier to the sweating, writhing trio from “More Than Physical.” By leaving behind the naïve amateurism of Swain & Jolley for the pop machine of SAW, Bananarama unwittingly lost what endeared them to the public in the first place. In a weird way, fans loved the girls for their awkwardness—the fact that they weren’t polished pop stars. In that same 1987 interview, Keren Woodward concurs:
Yeah, I think our charm was that we weren't too professional. I mean, we couldn't be because we didn't know what we were doing. So I think the fact that we tried to do dance routines which always went wrong on Top Of The Pops, I think that was really amusing. And we always laughed about it on stage, we didn't think, "Oh my God, we've gone wrong, that's really bad," we just didn't mind failing in public.Which isn’t to say that the trio’s next album, Wow!, wasn’t fantastic. It’s probably the group’s most underrated record. Lead single “I Heard a Rumour” still holds up as a shining example of hi-NRG pop, while the cover of the 1971 Supremes song “Nathan Jones” is an exceptional update, both soulful and surreal. Even the ballad “Come Back” shines.
It was only after this album—and Siobhan Fahey left the band—that things began to crumble. Fahey’s replacement, Jacquie O'Sullivan, left soon after the release of the group’s next album, Pop Life—a record so dismal that even the Gypsy Kings were embarrassed of their work on it, taking on a pseudonym (Alma de Noche) for their contribution to a flamenco-flecked cover of the Doobie Brothers’ “Long Train Running.” Sonically, Pop Life may have been a return to an expansive palette (Youth, a founding member of Killing Joke, produced much of the album), but aside from the glorious “Tripping on Your Love” it contains few successful experiments.
The very fact that Britain’s biggest girl group of the time was flirting with flamenco, reggae, acid house, and (shock!) rock on Pop Life, however, should tell you almost everything you need to know about Bananarama. Always ready to try anything once—especially the newest fad—their long reign over the pop landscape was an extraordinary one. It’s to London Records’ credit that their reissue campaign of Bananarama is as entertaining, surprising, and delightful as the group itself.
Reviewed by: Charles Merwin
Reviewed on: 2007-04-19