No, you didn’t hear a rumor: After nearly 30 years, the original Bananarama lineup is back, and they’re going on tour for the first time ever. “We’ve had such an extraordinary experience of life together, in our formative years, but we never got to celebrate it,” founding member Siobhan Fahey, who left the British girl group in 1988, tells Yahoo Music. “We created something that was great — which really I think is only just getting its recognition now.”
Fahey is correct. Sure, casual fans will no doubt cheer for slick dance smashes like “Love in the First Degree” and the Hi-NRG Shocking Blue remake “Venus” on Bananarama’s upcoming reunion tour (which kicks off Nov. 12 in Glasgow and reaches North America in February 2018). But the diehards know that Bananarama (who are actually in The Guinness Book of World Records as the all-female group with the most worldwide chart hits) formed “out of the ashes of the punk and New Romantic scenes” — and that the trio contributed an important chapter to the history of post-punk.
“Yeah, it’s frustrating,” sighs Fahey about misconceptions that Bananarama were a manufactured record label creation à la the Spice Girls, rather than an organic group like any of their ’80s new wave peers. (Fahey’s bandmates, Sara Dallin and Keren Woodward, were childhood friends; Dallin and Fahey met as students at the London College of Fashion.) “I mean, for our first few rehearsals, I was on guitar, Sara was on bass, and Keren was on drums. … I think the fact that because we were a vocal group and we were female, and back then women were just not taken seriously at all, it was assumed that we were somebody’s puppets. Which is completely ridiculous. Nobody ever told us what to do. No one really believed in us! We kept coming up with good ideas, good new tunes and records that the public liked, but I think the media kind of dismissed us at the time.”
Bananarama’s punk-rock past dates back to their connection with the Sex Pistols, whose drummer Paul Cook helped record their debut single, the lo-fi disco/ska romp “Aie a Mwana.” (Cook also had a co-production credit on their debut album, Deep Sea Skiving.) Fahey recalls squatting in Cook and Pistols guitarist Steve Jones’s squalid rehearsal space in those “Dickensian” early days: “Sara and Keren were made homeless, and [Cook] let them live in the studio until they found somewhere to live. And then I was made homeless, so I moved in with them. There was an outside toilet, one cold water tap, some mattresses on the attic floor, and carrier bags to catch the rain. We were there until we got rehoused by the council. That’s where we formed the band.
“But those were happy days, you know,” Fahey says fondly. “Somebody sent me some [old] photos [recently], which was such a joy for me to see. We used to have netball matches with friends in other bands, or we’d go out dancing every night in the underground club scene where everybody was forming bands, many of whom went on to be in that big first wave of pop on MTV: Wham!, Sade, Spandau Ballet, us. We all used to hang out at the same places. It was brilliant, and it was really inspiring.”
“Aie a Mwana,” issued in 1981 on indie label Demon Records, wasn’t a hit, but it earned a spin by legendary tastemaker DJ John Peel and coverage in the zeitgeist-capturing glossy The Face — which in turn caught the attention of former Specials member Terry Hall. The next thing they knew, Bananarama were singing backup on “It Ain’t What You Do, It’s the Way That You Do It,” a single by Hall’s new group, Fun Boy Three, that made the top five on the U.K. charts. Fun Boy Three later repaid the favor by appearing on Bananarama’s own hit single, a cover of Motown girl group the Velvelettes’ “Really Saying Something,” which also went top five.
“It all happened really, really quickly,” says Fahey. “Fame came very quickly to us, before we even had a chance to think. We didn’t have any goals; we just loved music, loved dancing, loved making music, and just wanted to be in a band. We hadn’t thought beyond that. I mean, we only had two rehearsals before we had the opportunity to make a demo in [Paul Cook’s] 24-track studio. … Within six months of forming, not really knowing what we were doing and just trying to figure it out, all of a sudden we’re on Top of the Pops with the Fun Boy Three. And we’re still signing on and getting [unemployment] benefits!
“We had three top five singles in our first year, but we were on the dole throughout. … [That’s why] there’s a slew of self-pity on the first album. Like the song ‘What a Shambles,’ for example, where we’re so confused because everybody thinks we must be living like millionaires, but we were living like everybody else. We had no money at all and were just on the bus and doing our laundry, but yeah, people think we must be riding around in limos.”
Bananarama’s fame, and presumably fortune, increased stateside in 1984 with “Cruel Summer” — their first American top 10 hit, thanks to a placement in The Karate Kid — but it was 1986’s “Venus” that propelled them to No. 1 in five countries (including the U.S.) and transformed them into pop divas. Gone were the thrift-store finds, handmade fashion-student glad rags, and ratty hair of their tomboyish “post-punk urchin” look, along with the rougher sound of their first two LPs. This marked the beginning of Bananarama’s partnership with future superproducers Stock Aitken Waterman, who’d go on to massive success with Rick Astley, Kylie Minogue, and Samantha Fox. But it was SAW’s 1985 breakthrough production for another pioneering British post-punk group, Dead or Alive, that caught Bananarama’s attention.
“‘You Spin Me Round (Like a Record),’ when that came out, it kind of blew our minds,” Fahey remembers. “We were like, ‘Who produced that? Let’s get the producers who did that record and make a version of [“Venus”] that sounds like that!’ This was before they became the hit factory that they went on to become.”
It may seem like an almost inconceivable sonic leap to go from “Aie a Mwana” (a Swahili-language, Paul Cook-produced cover of a song by African-Belgian band Black Blood) to something as polished and produced as “Venus,” but Fahey insists it was a natural evolution. “If you don’t follow the trajectory, then yes, the two [eras] are very different, but there was a whole growth period. ‘Cruel Summer’ sounds nothing like ‘Really Saying Something.’ And then there was ‘Trick of the Night’ and ‘Rough Justice.’ There were lots of different phases before we hit on ‘Venus.’”
The Stock Aitken Waterman-produced albums True Confessions and WOW!, in 1986 and ’87, yielded several radio-ready hits, but Fahey, who had just married Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart, quit the group a year later — leaving Dallin and Woodward to carry on first with replacement singer Jacquie O’Sullivan, then as a duo. “I was sort of pulled in a different direction, being called in a different direction creatively,” explains Fahey, who went on to form the Goth-pop duo Shakespears Sister, a forerunner of sorts to spooky electro-chanteuses like Grimes, Banks, Zola Jesus, and Chelsea Wolfe. “The band went into unashamed ultra-pop, and at the same time I was going through a bit of a darker phase in my life, and I wanted to write some stuff that was more personal — that wouldn’t have belonged in Bananarama.”
Fahey jokes, “I walked away from Bananarama when it was absolutely at its peak, but that seems to be a habit of mine, because I did the same in Shakespears Sister!” While Shakespears Sister never became a household name in the States, they scored two top 10 albums and won Brit Awards and Ivor Novello Awards in the U.K., and one of their singles, the ethereal ballad “Stay,” topped the British charts for eight weeks. However, by 1993 Fahey had fired her bandmate, Marcella Detroit, and Shakespears Sister went on hiatus the following year.
Fahey busied herself with raising her two sons by Stewart (whom she divorced in 1996), releasing occasional records by Shakespears Sister (which she revived as a solo project in 2009), penning music for other artists, and working on “a script I’ve been wanting to write for the past 15 years” in her adopted home city of Los Angeles. There were two brief reunions with Bananarama — in 1998 to record a cover of ABBA’s “Waterloo” for a Eurovision TV special called A Song for Eurotrash, and in 2002 for a 20th anniversary concert at London’s G-A-Y nightclub, which they claimed would be their “last ever” appearance. After that, among rumors that Fahey’s split from the group had been acrimonious, it seemed like the chances of a full-fledged Bananarama comeback were about as good as the likelihood of Morrissey and Johnny Marr ever putting the Smiths back together.
“Then, out of the blue, in early December , Keren FaceTimed me,” recalls Fahey. “She said, ‘I want to ask you something, and I don’t want you to give me your answer immediately. Just think about it.’ She said, ‘We tour all the time without you, and you have no idea how much we’re loved and how much our music means to people. We miss you, and it’s not the same without you, and we want you to tour with us.’”
Fahey admits she had reservations at first. Though she insists there is no bad blood between her and her Bananarama co-founders, she concedes, “We were best friends who formed a band, so it was a really intense relationship. We lived in each other’s pockets 24/7 [in the 1980s]. We lived in the same flat when we started off, then we bought three houses next door to each other. Our inner circle was the same. It was a very close and intense relationship, and I guess it just started to crack. Maybe I was getting on their nerves or whatever. Somebody’s got to be a whipping boy! Our friendship was under strain at that point anyway. We were just growing in different directions. This was like a marriage, and there’s no divorce without a lot of emotional pain.”
Now, however, Fahey is thrilled to take care of “unfinished business” and revisit Bananarama’s legacy. “I think there’s been a whole new repositioning of women in society [since the ’80s], and finally women [in music] are being given a lot more credit,” she says. “The assumption that female pop stars are puppets is no longer made. But you know, it never even occurred to us that we weren’t as good as any guy, and that we couldn’t and shouldn’t have respect. We didn’t think of ourselves as a ‘girl band’ — we happened to be three girls who formed a band. … Now we want to do a magnificent show that is a celebration of everything that we achieved.”