Monday, February 22, 2021

Fun girl two

At primary school, Sara Dallin and Keren Woodward hatched a plot to break each other's ankles because plaster casts and crutches were a sure-fire way of causing a fuss and attracting attention in the playground. "When this proved unsuccessful we realised we'd just have to find other ways of getting noticed." Forming a peerless, record-breaking pop group (together with Siobhan Fahey) turned out to be a much sounder bet - as their joint memoir Really Saying Something underscores.

Like so many bands, Bananarama began in the bedroom, with two kids taping songs straight off the radio and singing along on a mic. By the time they were teenagers, Dallin and Woodward were "immersed in an unashamed mixture of disco, funk, glam, arty rock and punk”, eagerly lapping up everything from Roxy Music, T-Rex and David Bowie to the Sex Pistols, Parliament and Donna Summer. Dallin describes discovering Blondie as a life-changing experience; Debbie Harry, Poly Styrene, Siouxie Sioux and Viv Albertine (the latter "anarchic, rebelling against every female stereotype") were exactly the "positive female role models" that she (or any girl) needed: "Seeing other women achieve great things is inspiring and helps you to envision that potential in yourself."

At the age of 18, in 1980, the pair left home for the bright lights of London - and set out on a journey that effectively traced the contours of the 1980s musical landscape. Before long, they were partying with the peacocking Blitz Kids, bouncing between house parties and club nights, and hanging out with their punk heroes Paul Cook, Steve Jones, Joe Strummer and Paul Simenon. For a while, they even lived rent-free above the Sex Pistols' old rehearsal space on Denmark Street, still owned by Cook and Jones - a damp hovel that came complete with graffiti by John Lydon, a pair of Sid Vicious' bondage trousers, a cupboard stuffed with branded Sex Pistols stationery and, according to Dallin, "a giant Bambi, from the video for the song 'Who Killed Bambi?', which I ended up using as my headboard".

At the time, Soho was very much the capital's vibrant, edgy heart, and evidently an incredibly exciting place to call home in your late teens and early twenties. Really Saying Something captures the buzz and bustle of the area, but towards the end of the book Woodward sounds a brief wistful note, reflecting on the depressingly inexorable and all-consuming force of gentrification: "I can't imagine teenagers these days being able to have a similar experience to the one Sara and I had. I know development and modernisation are inevitable, but it would be a shame to lose the last vestiges of character that Soho has managed to cling onto."

This tacit admission of good fortune is telling. While Dallin and Woodward undoubtedly worked hard, luck also played a major part in their success. There was also no grand plan, at least as Really Saying Something tells it - they were just two party animals with a lust for life who found themselves swept along for the ride and became pop stars by accident. Time and again, at opportune moments, they came into contact with people who helped to propel them to greater prominence.

First, of course, there was Fahey, whom Dallin met at the London College of Fashion, the duo instantly bonding over a shared love of Patti Smith, Joy Division, Soft Cell and Talking Heads. For the trio's first performances as Bananarama, at Club Left, they had Vic Godard and Subway Sect as their backing band. Debut single 'Aie A Mwana' was co-produced by Cook, who also played drums, and found a fan in the form of John Peel, who gave it crucial radio play. Terry Hall, who had seen Bananarama in the pages of The Face and bought 'Aie A Mwana', invited them to contribute to Fun Boy Three's 1982 single 'It Ain't What You Do It's The Way That You Do It' - cue a first appearance on Top Of The Pops, "looking shifty and awkward ... performing on what had been the most influential TV show of our young lives". Hall and fellow Fun Boys Neville Staple and Lynval Golding duly returned the favour by appearing on Bananarama's cover of The Velvelettes 'He Was Really Saying Something', and suddenly the big time beckoned.

'Cruel Summer' was the single that broke them in the US, resulting in a surreal moment when Mike Tyson, sat on the bonnet of his limousine outside the Sunset Marquis in LA, serenaded them with their own song. They also had the distinction of being the only women (with the exception of Shalamar's Jody Watley) to appear on the 1984 Band Aid single 'Do They Know It's Christmas?' At the recording session, they gravitated towards Paul Weller, as an equally "low-key" star, and found Status Quo "great fun" - but looking back Woodward is more struck by the fact that "[o]f all of the pop artists there were in Britain, there were no female lead lines on the record".

Bananarama had been working with production team Jolley & Swain since their debut album Deep Sea Skiving, but their third, True Confessions, featured two collaborations with a rival hit factory. Stock, Aitken & Waterman were still upstart newcomers at the time (so much so that Dallin often referred to them as "Waterman, Stock & Aitken" in interviews), with Dead Or Alive's 'You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)' their only big hit to date. But Bananarama's version of 'Venus' by Shocking Blue - an old favourite from the very early days of the band - changed all that, topping charts around the world. Not that it should be taken as evidence of SAW's Midas touch, though - as Dallin and Woodward point out, the producers were scarcely less resistant to the idea than Jolley & Swain had been, and the cover's existence was solely due to the band's persistence.

That success spawned a follow-up album of pure, unadulterated, hi-NRG pop, Wow, that effectively established the SAW sound. Each single was accompanied by increasingly sophisticated choreography devised by future Strictly judge Bruno Tonioli, whose services to aviator shades, impossibly tight shorts and baby oil can be appreciated in the TOTP performance of 'I Heard A Rumour'.

Remarkably, Bananarama had never properly toured - as Dallin explains, "With the advent of MTV, the record company didn't really think touring was necessary, realising it was easier to send pop artists off on promo tours armed with their latest videos rather than the costly alternative of putting them on the road" - but the decade ended with a globetrotting jaunt that wound up back in London at Wembley Arena. It's incredible to think how it started for Dallin and Woodward - as two wide-eyed, penniless teenagers living in a mouldy shithole, being taught how to play the bassline to The Velvet Underground's 'White Light/White Heat' by their landlord Steve Jones, and dreaming of releasing a single sung in Swahili.

By the time that first tour finally took place, Fahey had already departed, her commitment to the band strained to breaking point by her relationship with Eurythmics' Dave Stewart and consequent move to LA. Her replacement Jacquie O'Sullivan lasted three years and one album (1991's Pop Life, recorded with another of Dallin and Woodward's early-80s acquaintances, Youth of Killing Joke) before she too left, sick of still being seen as the new girl.

That might have been the end for Bananarama, were it not for the fact that the band were founded first and foremost on the friendship between Dallin and Woodward. It's an alliance that has seen them through some turbulent times, has survived their geographical separation (Woodward having fled the madness of London for the quiet of Cornwall in 1994) and very much endures today - as Really Saying Something attests. Perpetual press references to Bananarama's "80s heyday" must be hurtful given that they've continued to record and perform as a duo over the last three decades (though a guest appearance in ITV's Benidorm in 2011 suggested that they're also able to laugh about it).

2019 turned out to be a momentous year: a new album, a triumphant first appearance at Glastonbury and some intimate "An Audience With..."-type gigs that offered fans the opportunity to ask questions. The record, In Stereo, saw the Smooth Radio staples returning to their punk/DIY roots, in the sense that it was self-released: "Essentially, Keren and I were our own record company and management. For us, though, it turned out to be the perfect way to operate, leaving us in complete control of the product and its exploitation and retaining full ownership of our music.” 

Those fan Q&A sessions got them reminiscing and the idea of a joint memoir was born. The publishing contracts were signed immediately before coronavirus shut everything down, so the book was written in lockdown. For someone digesting it in similar circumstances, the giddy whirl of wild nights out, far-flung adventures and unexpected encounters offers vicarious thrills, especially in the early chapters. There is, however, a limit as to how much the cooped-up-at-home reader can take, and the mention of the time that Dallin and Woodward were among the 20 mates that George Michael flew to Richard Branson's Necker Island on a private jet for a fortnight's holiday is likely to result in some eyeball rolling. That said, they retain sufficient self-awareness to see that Really Saying Something makes it seem as though their lives have been lived in the perpetual pursuit of pleasure, Woodward explaining: "It certainly wasn't every night of the week, but it would be challenging to fill a book with 'stayed in, cooked a meal, ate the meal, watched TV and went to bed'."

Serious subjects aren't entirely swerved - there are chapters dedicated to the dearly departed George Michael and Keith Flint, for instance. But, given Dallin's acknowledgement of "the sheer embrace and love from the LGBTQ community throughout our career" and their immersion in the scene, it's surprising to find that references to the devastating impact of AIDS on that community during the decade with which Bananarama are most often identified are conspicuous by their complete absence. (Maybe this is just my own post-It's A Sin hypersensitivity, though.)

Similarly, for a sharp, smart and sustained critique of the sexism and misogyny ingrained in the music business, you'd be much better off reading Kim Gordon's Girl In A Band or Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys by Dallin's hero Viv Albertine. That said, Really Saying Something does contain some interesting reflections on their struggle to be seen as credible artists, on ageing within the industry and especially on motherhood. For Dallin, having a child "was heaven, a return to innocence" - a pleasure just to be able "to focus on something other than Bananarama." For Woodward, however, motherhood came unexpectedly a few years earlier, in 1986, and was perceived as an irritating inconvenience by some of those in the band's orbit. Becoming a parent didn't curtail her partying and relentless working schedule - she says she was "afraid to entirely give in to motherhood as if it were some kind of weakness" - but she implies that, with the benefit of hindsight, perhaps it should have. She also notes that her bandmate wasn't exactly understanding: "As sympathetic and supportive as she'd been when I found out I was pregnant, her mantra now was 'You're only pregnant, for God's sake, you're not ill!' ... Her attitude certainly shifted when she was pregnant a few years later, when she refused to travel after six months - no early mornings, late nights and traipsing around America during a heatwave for her."

Such hints of tension between the pair are both fleeting and extremely rare, however. Dallin and Woodward pass the narratorial baton back and forth simply because Really Saying Something is a collaborative memoir. They're singing from the same hymnsheet - unlike, say, Motley Crue in The Dirt, in which the same structural device is used to give each band member the opportunity to present his own biased, half-remembered recollection of the same events, with the truth lying somewhere in between.

Perspective is critical to the diplomatically worded passages about the split with Fahey. At the time, it was evidently acrimonious, but time has largely healed the wounds and, when the trio reunited for a tour in 2017, "it felt like a long-lost sister had returned to the fold". Inevitably, the circumstances of the original line-up's demise came up in conversation. For Woodward, "[t]he thing that struck me was that Siobhan's perception of what had happened was in stark contrast to mine. She has her version of history, which is different from the one Sara and I remember. I don't think that will ever change, and I don't think it matters any more." Dallin also writes about perspective, though in a different sense: "There's a big difference in what I felt at the time and what I feel in retrospect. It's obvious that people grow and change and want to move in different directions, but at the time we had been living in each other's pockets for so long that it felt monumental."

By their own admission, Dallin and Woodward have also grown and changed. Briefly mentioning her depression in the early 90s, Woodward observes that "we hadn't really taken time out to discuss how either of us was coping mentally". It's surprising to learn that, despite being lifelong friends, it's only in recent years that "we talk about how we're feeling personally and emotionally".

For the most part, though, Really Saying Something refuses to dwell on the deep stuff. It's less candid soul baring and more breathless, gossipy recollection - the lively tale of two women lucky enough to find themselves living out all of their teenage fantasies in the company of a colourful cast of characters. No opportunity to cram in a namecheck is missed - the book features everyone from Boy George, Shane MacGowan, Sting, Noel Gallagher, Keith Richards and Lemmy to Delia Smith, Andy Warhol, Michael Caine, Peter Cook, the Queen of Thailand and (yes) Robert De Niro. (He kept them waiting, in case you're wondering.)

In the final chapter, Dallin comments: "This is the only job I've ever had and I realise how fortunate I've been." And with good reason. After all, it's not everyone who - together with her best friend - not only gets personally invited to Prince's club in Minneapolis but also stands in the VIP area next to the great man while watching the dancefloor fill to one of their own records.

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