By Dave Thompson
Whatever happened to Bananarama?
For nine years -- that is, throughout the entire 1980s -- Bananarama were the most consistent singles act in the U.K., sixteen Top 20-or-thereabouts entries, eight more that faltered in the regions below that. And even when the monster smashes dried up, they kept going, a solid stream of new releases (and minor hits) that petered out in the mid-1990s, then revived again around 2010.
Since that time, however, they’ve been quiet, at least as far as release schedules are concerned. Live work kept them busy, though, and as the duo of original members Keren Woodward and Sara Dallin prepared for their U.K. last tour, in 2017, they hatched a scheme that would keep them even busier. Reunite with fellow founder-rama Siobhan Fahey, and take the original trio on the road, for the first time ever.
“We didn’t even know if anyone would care,” Woodward tells Goldmine. “We just wanted to do it. We’d never toured with Siobhan before, even though we were together for seven years before she left, and we thought it would be fun.”
It was. It also ignited a storm of ticket sales, sold out signs, media interviews, photo spreads, retrospectives, a triple vinyl live album, an in-concert DVD… there’s a lot of bands that could play a 90 minute concert made up wholly of hit singles. But there’s not many who could make sure they’re all good hit singles, and there’s only one Bananarama. Even on the small screen, this is one of the best live shows of recent years.
“It’s something we wanted to do,” says Woodward. “We’ve been playing the circuit for a long time, Sara and I, and we wanted to do something different. So we called Siobhan.
“She left because she was getting married, but there were also musical differences. It was never that we didn’t get on as friends, just that she wanted to do something else musically. So when we did reach out, it was just an idea and we weren’t sure whether it would work out. Was it a risk, what would people think? But it was beyond belief, and it just became a huge celebration of our time with Siobhan. We just had an amazing time. We laughed and laughed the whole time.”
That happiness is evident through the live show, particularly in those moments when one of the three, usually Fahey, looks across at the others, as if still not sure it’s really happening. Although it transpires that wasn’t exactly what was happening.
Laughing, Woodward explains,“Actually, I think she was looking to see if she was going wrong. To step into the breach after not doing it so long isn’t easy. I know I kept looking to see where she was, because she wasn’t always where she was meant to be.
“With the two of us, Sara and I, its very instinctive. We’re on the mike, we split off, we come back. It’s very together, but it’s loose at the same time. When there’s three of you, though, if one of you is off, it might look a bit like a mess.
“But there again, we’ve always been on the chaotic side. We’ve done routines and stuff like that, but we’ve always been anti that kind of thing. We need the freedom to be quite loose, because it’s so dull when you’re concentrating more on the dance routine than the performance. Whenever we do live stuff, there’s parts where Sara or I will say ‘I’m not dong that bit tonight,’ so we don’t… and then the crowd starts doing it!”
Fahey’s return was for the tour alone; thus, it’s the core duo of Woodward and Dallin who have just released In Stereo, the group’s eleventh album, and their first in a decade. And while Bananarama were never the manufactured pop stain that so many serious minds always accused them of being (could a manufactured trio have come even close to writing a song as glorious as their first album’s “Cheers Then”?), even hardcore fans have confessed to being surprised at just how confident, well-crafted all round fun the new set is.
“We were doing a lot of shows, and time just passed. Our producer Ian Masterson was off doing other things, but occasionally we’d go into the studio, writing songs and recording stuff just because we loved doing it. And then we realized that we’d got quite a few new songs and what’s the point of not releasing them?”
The group didn’t have a label, but that was of no concern. “Having always been very self-sufficient and in control, the idea of doing it ourselves really appealed. We’ve been doing this for so long, we know what we’re doing and we’re quite good at doing it. Plus we had the team around us, promotions people we’d worked with for a long time, so we knew who we wanted to use, and off we went.”
There was an element of risk. It’s a matter of self-belief. When you haven’t released anything for ages, you don’t know how people will react. It’s been a real eye opener how the music industry has changed over the last ten years, and it’s a lot of work as well.
“Sara and I, we’re either together working or we’re 300 miles apart, but we’ve probably had six or seven phone calls already today, to sort this out and that out, decide things. We’re completely running it, almost like a management company… although if we had a management company, and we have in the past, it’d end up the same number of phone calls regardless. So we cut out the middle man.”
The freedom shows. From the near-tribute to Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” that lurks just two songs in, (“Dance Music”) to the two (so-far) singles that have been taken from the album (“Stuff Like That” and “Looking for Someone”), In Stereostands there alongside the Specials’ universally-lauded Encore as the most unselfconsciously joyous return to action of the year, if not the decade, so far. And, with a height of July release in the U.S., you know exactly what that means. It wasn’t such a cruel summer after all.
In November, the group will be releasing a live album, Live In Stereo, of their launch shows 'An Evening With Bananarama.' The live album was recorded at Manchester’s Gorilla Club and it features tracks from In Stereo and exclusive live recordings from their previous albums.