We Need to Talk About Keren
By Keeley Moss
Part 1 of Power, Corruption and B-Sides probed the outer reaches of 1970s pop behemoths ABBA. Part 2 changed tack to focus on an album by 1960s art-rock renegades The Velvet Underground. Part 3 saw another 360 degree turn to investigate a 1990s album by electronic duo Boards of Canada. So what more appropriately-inappropriate a place to go this time than to a trio who will forever be associated with the 1980s and who would end that decade in The Guinness Book of Records for achieving the world’s highest number of chart entries by an all-female group. Stand aside The Supremes and move over Spice Girls for the real queens of pop.
We Need to Talk About Keren. And in a broader sense, about why Bananarama matter.
Long before the Spice Girls cynically floated (or magnificently-manipulated depending on your point of view) the notion of “Girl Power”, Bananarama embodied the concept properly. Being, in Keren Woodward’s words “old punks”, and what’s more ones who were friends of Sex Pistols drummer Paul Cook and collaborators with ex-Specials frontman Terry Hall in his post-Specials outfit Fun Boy Three, it was clear that if anyone was going to get bossed around in a record company meeting, it was not going to be Keren, Sara or Siobhan. They would be the ones calling the shots – the suits would be the ones picking up the tab.
“The wildest girls in the world” as Pete Waterman would call them. Whose career was pockmarked with a series of bold creative decisions – from insisting on writing their own songs (1982’s ‘Cheers Then’ was their first self-composed song, and their first ballad) to writing on increasingly-edgy topics as their career progressed (Rough Justice is a song about the disappearance of children, Robert de Niro’s Waiting meanwhile is, according to Siobhan Fahey, about date rape). How many groups have taken a song about date rape to #3 in the hit parade?
And that is precisely where Bananarama’s true genius lay. In the fact that they took a subject matter that was anathema to the slick, clean airwaves of 1980s mainstream radio and TV, and married it to a melody and chord sequence that practically defied listeners not to fall madly in love with it. And so it sold, in it’s millions, while a nation blissfully ignorant of what the song was really about, sang along with every line. Never mind true confessions, that is true subversion. On a level arguably beyond even the baddest of them all, the Sex Pistols, Bananarama’s kindred spirits in agit-p(r)op agitation, who for all their epochal infamy were ultimately too threatening for the mums and dads of middle England to do anything other than run screaming or kicking the TV set over when they popped up on the cosy tea-time Today show where in 1976 they left a fuming Bill Grundy flabbergasted and an enraged nation not far behind. No, these girls were smarter – spoon feeding the record-buying public with sugared pills of lyrical cyanide. All while looking cool-as-f**k and living it up in every sense of the words. Pete Waterman didn’t call them “The wildest girls in the world” for nothing. And heaven knows he’s witnessed some wildness in his time.
That wildness and the eye-twinkling sense of mischief that went hand-in-glove with it would make it’s merry way into the music. Bananarama’s recorded body of work is pulsing with urgency, it’s a veritable soundtrack to the risky business of being alive.
And with 21 hit singles spanning the period of 1981-1989, three charismatic personalities with a unique vocal and personal chemistry, fabulous dance choreography (choreographed by none other than Bruno ‘Strictly Come Dancing‘ Tonioli), the might of a major (Polygram Records) behind them during a time when the music biz was awash with oodles of moolah, and from 1986 onwards bolstered by the most powerfully-pulsatant Hi-NRG production team of the 80s – the controversial commercial juggernaut that was Stock, Aitken and Waterman – how could they fail?
Pre-SAW, Robert de Niro’s Waiting, released on February 20th 1984 (but recorded in December 1983) was an early indication that this was a group with a singular pop vision. Commencing with a day-glo cascade of gloriously sugary synths, it is a true pop pearl. It’s fizzy intro gives way to a riveting verse but before you know it you’ve tumbled into a beautifully biting bridge and then no sooner have you come to terms with that, an exultant chorus practically leaps from the speakers, it’s widescreen production sheen displaying enough pop smarts to storm any charts. And storm them Robert de Niro’s Waiting did, with it’s eventual peak of #3 the joint-highest chart position the group would ever reach.
Listen, and hear it glisten.
Copyright: Keeley Moss ℗&©2020. All rights reserved.
Robert de Niro’s Waiting written by Fahey/Dallin/Woodward/Jolley/Swain.
Published by Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Warner Chappell Music, Inc, BMG Rights Management, A Side Music LLC D/B/A Modern Works Music Publishing ©1984
Published under Fair Use policy