Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 13 / 29 March 2018
 

Bananarama's back

Nightlife

The vocal trio's lasting appeal


Bananarama at a recent concert in Glasgow.
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You say Bananarama. They say Banahnahrahma.

But no one's calling the whole thing off.

In fact, it's on, all over again, for the first time in nearly 30 years.

If you listened to pop radio or watched MTV during the 1980s, it was pretty much impossible to avoid the London-based trio, which plays the Warfield on February 21.

Between 1982 and 1988, Sara Dallin (now 55), Siobahn Fahey (58) and Karen Woodward (56) released an impressive string of pop hits. Well before Madonna hit the scene, Bananarama's music videos were among the first to featured scantily clad back-up boys dancing to songs with a taunting female-first attitude.

The group's 1986 signature song, a cover of "Venus," went to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, repeating the success of the song's original version by Shocking Blue, which topped the same chart in 1969. Other hits included "Cruel Summer," "Really Saying Something," "Love in the First Degree," and "I Heard A Rumour."

But, remarkably for a group with major sales, airplay, and recognition factor, the trio never toured until last year.

"I think it's partly because we're women that we never really got out onto the road in the early years," recalled Keren Woodward, in a recent conversation with the Bay Area Reporter.

"The record companies felt they could get us enough exposure by making videos and sending us on magazine photo shoots. They didn't see a need to invest in us as a live act."

While the music industry has since gone topsy-turvy, it was only a few decades ago that most artists generated the bulk of their revenue from record and CD sales; for relatively young acts, most concert tours served as promotional vehicles more than as cash cows.

But wait!, you protest! You're sure you saw Bananarama play San Francisco back in the spring of 1989, at the very same venue where they'll perform later this month.

Well, sort of.

After almost a decade of continual success, Bananarama's record label deemed them ready for a Greatest Hits album and a major four-month world tour that would take them far beyond the U.K. to solidify their international fan base in Asia, Australia and the U.S.

A recent glam shot of Bananarama.

But before the restrospective album's release came a Banana split: Siobahn Fahey left the group, married Dave Stewart (of Eurythmics) and moved to Los Angeles.

The 1989 first-and-only Bananarama world tour went on nonetheless, with a new third member, Jacquie O'Sullivan, subbing for Fahey. (A slippery bit of Bananarama history: Six years prior, O'Sullivan and all of the original Bananarama members had appeared in a Eurythmics video: "Who's That Girl?").

Fahey had first met childhood friends Dallin and Woodward when all three were studying at the Fashion College of London. Immersed in the early '80s music scene, they performed back up vocals for the likes of Iggy Pop and The Jam.

Their tastes at the time were reflected to a degree in Bananarama's spare early UK hits, including "Robert DeNiro's Waiting" and "It Ain't What You Do" (a collaboration with Fun Boy Three).

But rather than being an extension of punk, Bananarama's early sound reached back in music history to evoke American doo-wop and sassy 1960s girl groups.

"When we started, we were not very slick and we looked very tomboyish," recalls Woodward. "But even though we came out of the punk scene, I always thought of our music as pop."

By the time Fahey left the group, Bananarama was having its greatest worldwide chart success with songs recorded with Stock Aitken Waterman, the then-omnipresent dance-pop production team (Rick Astley, Dead or Alive, Kylie Minogue).

Bananarama in the 1980s.

In describing her departure from the group to The Guardian, Fahey recalled: "Musically, we'd gone absolutely full-on pop at a time when I was feeling lost and dark and depressed in my life. I was obsessed with the Smiths."

Fahey went on to form Shakespears Sister, a decidedly darker (but still quite poppy) electro-soul act that had one huge hit with 1993's Stay . Jacquie O'Sullivan left Bananarama after three years, one album and no hits to rival the original threesome's (Technically an employee, with no creative input, O'Sullivan resented being viewed as an inauthentic stand-in by the group's fans).

Dallin and Woodward continued to record and appear as a duo under the Bananarama name. And though the pair's later records never rivaled the popularity of the trio's earliest smashes, they never tired of performing live and loved the energy they got from their fans.

Over the years, the pair's friendship with Fahey proved more enduring than Bananarama's breakup. As time passed, the three ended up spending time together when schedules and geography allowed, and provided emotional support in times of need: Dallin divorced her husband, a former Bananarama back-up dancer; Fahey and Dave Stewart split after six years of marriage; Woodward ended a 25-year relationship with ex-Wham! man Andrew Ridgeley.

In the summer of 2015, during a casual girls' night of drinking and reminiscing, the three began singing and dancing around Fahey's kitchen.

"I said to Siobahn that I really wished she had experienced the joy of singing our songs together for our fans," says Woodward. "They were her records too, and she never got to feel that amazing energy from the audiences."

Thus began the hatching of a plan for a one-time UK victory lap to celebrate Bananarama's 35th anniversary in 2017 and to finally give Fahey a taste of Bananamania.

"It was phenomenal," recalls Woodward of the unexpectedly feverish response to their "Original Lineup Tour" announcement. Seven additional shows were added to a largely sold-out 15-concert sprint through England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales in November and December. Fans flew in to shows from across Europe and even the U.S.

"I actually feel a bit guilty," says Woodward. "We really did think we were only going to tour the U.K. when we announced it and loads of people came from abroad because they thought it would be a one-time opportunity."

But as popular demand would have it, the trio ended up booking this month's gigs in Los Angeles, Toronto, and New York along with some European festival shows this summer. No further touring or recording plans have been announced, but at this point, Woodward doesn't rule anything out.

"It's not like we need to do this for the money," she says. "But it's just been so much fun."

"When we first announced this," Woodward remembers. "I thought the shows could very well be a series of girls-and-gays nights out. But I've been astonished at the mix. I mean yes, at Hammersmith Odeon, and I expect San Francisco, the first 20 rows were all gay men; but we've got husbands and wives coming, and even bringing their kids."

"I should have known," Woodward continues. "I grew up in a household where my parents were always playing Frank Sinatra, and I came to love that music as much as my own music."

So what are the women of Bananarama listening to these days?

"Well," says Woodward. "We used to love going out dancing together, so we play some old funk and disco to get in the mood backstage before shows. 'Brick House' by the Commodores is a big one for us."

"But to be honest, for myself, in the car, I'm mostly into audiobooks. That makes me sound dreadfully old, but I don't care. I find it very soothing."

 

See Bananarama at The Warfield, February 21 at 8pm. $39.50-$55. 982 Market St. http://www.thewarfieldtheatre.com/






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