Say the word ‘Bananarama’ to me and what do I think of? Two visions spring to mind (once I’ve realised that you said ‘Bananarama’ and not ‘Dramarama’ or ‘Bananaman’…); firstly there’s the video for Comic Relief where the group do their stuff whilst French & Saunders & Kathy Burke mug it up around them, and secondly is the sheer amount of oiled, muscly, male flesh that was on show in the majority of their videos. The second vision is the one I dwell on more of course.
As their main UK heyday was in the fashion calamity period of the 1980s, Bananarama’s over-riding image is one of crop tops and a lot of hair products (their barnets defied gravity on many occasions…) but their pop career started life with an altogether punkier sound.
The original and most recognised line-up of the girl group was Siobhan Fahey, Karen Woodward and Sarah Dallin (who, comedy fans, is the second cousin of Stephen Merchant). Woodward and Dallin had been friends since they were four, and the trio got together when Fahey met Dallin on a London fashion journalism course. With both sporting a more extreme style of dress, they were automatically drawn to each other, and the three girls shared a love of punk, and post-punk music. Bananarama were created in 1979, and during that time and into the early ‘80s they would spontaneously sing together for an assembled audience, or perform backing vocals for gigging bands, such as The Jam, Iggy Pop and the interestingly named The Nipple Erectors.
In 1981, former Sex Pistols Paul Cook and Steve Jones were rehearsing below the girls’ living quarters. The ‘Anarchy in the UK’ punk rockers helped the new group create their demo record ‘Aie a Mwana’, which was a cover of African group Black Blood’s song, sung mostly in Swahili. Demon Records heard the recording and offered Bananarama a deal. Aie a Mwana became fairly big on the underground scene, and big label Decca then signed them, supporting them until 1993.
The girls could have taken their image in an entirely different direction entirely; notorious manager Malcolm McLaren (Sex Pistols, Adam and the Ants) came forward with an offer of leadership and some slightly – shall we say risqué – suggestions for material. The girls at the time were sporting a particularly tomboy look, and decided that McLaren wasn’t the man to take them forward.
Their step into more mainstream pop came after Terry Hall, an ex-member of band The Specials, saw Bananarama in UK fashion magazine The Face. He had recently formed a new group called Fun Boy Three and he invited the ladies to join them on 1982 UK number five hit ‘It Ain’t What You Do (It’s The Way That You Do It)’ – giving them their first real taste of fame. Later in the year Bananarama returned the favour, pulling in Fun Boy Three to guest on their new single ‘Really Saying Something’.
The next seven years saw Bananarama’s most recognised singles being released; debut album ‘Deep Sea Skiving’ included the second Fun Boy Three collaboration plus ‘Shy Boy’ (which reached number four in the UK) and number five cover version of ‘Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye’ (originally released in 1969 by a then-fictitious US band called Steam). During the early 80s the group started to become a cult favourite in the US, after being played on MTV and college radio and completing a few promotional tours and television appearances, but they couldn’t call themselves successful until ‘Cruel Summer’ bounced into the top ten there in 1984.
Heading in a slightly heavier direction with their next, and eponymously-titled, album in 1984 the songs centred on the deeper topics of drugs (‘Hot Line to Heaven’) and social apathy (‘Rough Justice’) amongst others. ‘Cruel Summer’ was on there too, along with a well-known one that the nine-year-old me sang constantly during that year, despite having no idea who Robert De Niro was, or why he was waiting.
Bananarama appeared on the Band Aid single ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’, and were indeed the only artists to appear on both that one, and Band Aid II's cover version in 1989, although the second time round was without Fahey, who had left them by then.
Their third album, ‘True Confessions’ in 1986 saw the scales of their success tip in the US’s direction; reaching only 46 in the UK but 15 across the pond. Their sound was influenced this time round on some songs by the production values of recycled-pop-machine Stock, Aitken and Waterman (SAW) and resulted in a worldwide hit for their cover of Shocking Blue’s 1969 hit ‘Venus’. In a move that presumably left Malcolm McLaren scratching his head and saying ‘But I told you to do that, and you said no!’, the video featured the girls with a new, sexy image; dressing up as both goddesses and a temptress, a she-devil and a female vampire.
Full production and co-writing duties befell SAW on fourth album ‘Wow!’, which was evident in the overall cheesy Europop dance sound. ‘I Heard a Rumour’ had a video that symbolised the cheap, blurry camera effects prevalent in the late 80s, and came complete with afore-mentioned oily muscle men dancing around in tight shorts (I’m not complaining, just mentioning it). ‘Love in The First Degree’ was a supremely sing-able pop number, complete with video including oily muscle men in very small stripey vests and pants, acrobatting around the girls in a manner so camp even Louis Spence would have declined to join in for fear of damaging his reputation.
In early 1988, Siobhan Fahey left the band. She cited that she had become disillusioned with where Bananarama was going, but also said that she was feeling left out by the close relationship between Dallin and Woodward (which smacks a little bit of ‘my friends don’t want to play with me, waaaaah’). She went on to form the platinum album selling Shakespears Sister with Marcella Detroit.
Taking Fahey’s place came Jacquie O’Sullivan, from appalling-dressed-even-for-the-80s rockabilly punk group Shillelagh Sisters, and she quickly helped the group rerecord the singles ‘I Want You Back’ (originally on ‘Wow!’) and the Supremes cover ‘Nathan Jones’ in 1988. The video for ‘I Want You Back’ was reassuringly familiar, with lots of shots of pant-clad men dancing about covered in glow-in-the-dark body paint. Well, why not?
Their ‘Greatest Hits Collection’ was released that year, which must have been slightly weird for O’Sullivan when they came to promote it. ‘Yes, it’s our greatest hits. Well, I say ‘our’…I’m not actually on most of them.’ This coincided with their installation in the Guinness Book of Records as the all-female group with the most chart entries in history.
Comic Relief in 1989 saw the girls take on a cover of ‘Help’, with the ‘help’ of Jennifer, Dawn and Kathy who were performing under the slightly mickey-taking name of Lananeeneenoonoo. It reached number three and, more importantly, was included in that year’s Only Fools and Horses Christmas special, The Jolly Boys’ Outing. This was also the year that the band undertook their first worldwide tour.
The 1991 album ‘Pop Life’ was this line-up’s last. After an eclectic mix of new producers and musical styles (reggae, acid house and flamenco anyone?), O’Sullivan decided that her short time with the group was enough, and scarpered. She started up a band with the hugely uninspiring name of Slippery Feet. Anybody heard of them? Thought not; they didn’t last long.
So that was the end of the Bananarama as we most fondly remember them. Dallin and Woodward started afresh as a duo in 1993, and released a further six albums. By 2002 they’d sold 40 million (yes, 40 MILLION) records across the globe, and they continue to tour on the myriad of retro tours that circle the UK on a continual basis.