You can barely leave your house without tripping over a statistic boasting girlband member but for Bananarama's Sara Dallin and Keren Woodward the achievements speak for themselves: more hits than the Spice girls, more album sales than Girls Aloud, two Band Aid appearances, an entry in the Guinness Book of Records as the biggest girl group surpassing the Supremes with more charting singles, all of which were international hits, four hitting the Billboard Top 10. It ain't always what one does - sometimes it's the way that one does it, and Bananarama are here today with a rather great new album for the same reason they formed 27 years ago: a singular talent for directing their own fate. It's a career that's seen them write for themselves, style themselves and even occasionally manage themselves, all adding up to a whopping 40 million record sales.
With 2009's Top 3-or-bust mentality ruling pop it's sometimes hard to remember life beyond the Top 40, but in 1981 a debut single storming to Number 92 was the beginning of something rather exciting. From their debut single storming the Top 100, through the multi-platinum studio albums and a million-selling Greatest Hits compilation, Bananarama's story has always been fresh. You might look at what came before and think, briefly, that Bananarama rewrote the pop rulebook; in truth they never read it in the first place and for over twenty five years have been calling their own shots, making theirs a name synonymous with bright, sophisticated and authentically brilliant pop music.
The band's story starts a new chapter this summer with the release of 'Viva Bananarama' an exciting, modern new album with both feet planted on the dancefloor. 2009's new self-penned material is, once again, the result of Sara and Keren identifying the right collaborators for the right point in their career. It's become something of a habit: in the early 1980s they approached producers Jolley & Swain on the strength of their work on Imagination's 'Bodytalk', resulting in hit singles like 'Shy Boy', 'Cruel Summer' and 'Roberts De Niro's Waiting.' A few years later they heard Dead Or Alive's 'You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)' and decided to work with Stock Aitken & Waterman on 'Venus', 'Love In The First Degree', 'I Heard A Rumour' and 'I Want You Back', which led to an entirely new phase for the band with 1987's 'Wow!' album. As recently as 2005 they were picking out Swedish hitmaking team Murlyn and in 2009 they've found a perfect foil in Ian Masterson, a producer whose credits range from Pet Shop Boys to Girls Aloud and whose instinctive grasp of the Bananarama spirit has resulted in some extraordinarily good music on this new album.
"Even though every artist says this every time they release an album for me everything has gone completely right this time," Sara says. "Working with Ian has been a revelation - we did a couple of tracks with him on the last album and he's really in tune with what we're into and with what's happening in the outside world. Some producers hit a formula and just churn out the same old stuff; with Ian it's been so enjoyable that when it came to handing it over it was exactly how we wanted it to be."
That 'handing it over' - Keren and Sara decided to record the music before shopping it round to labels - saw the album being handed in the direction of Fascination (Universal Records), meaning that Bananarama are now labelmates of Girls Aloud and The Saturdays on an imprint which has become the unofficial home of the UK girlgroup. It's a great fit, but while Bananarama's style filters through the pop generations Sara's right to feel a sense of distance from what she helped inspire. "I never looked at us as a 'girl band'," Sara remembers. "We were just a band in the same way as The Cure were a band or Wham were a band." To this end they'd appear in NME as frequently as Smash Hits - a double-pronged attack on the public's sense which led to multi-platinum success all about the globe. "It was pop," Keren announces today, "on a grand scale."
It began on a slightly smaller scale. Whilst Sara was studying journalism at the London University of Arts, and Keren was working at the BBC the childhood friends bumped into ex Sex Pistol Paul Cook in the club Taboo. About to be thrown out of the YWCA for "keeping late hours" he invited them to stay in the office above the Sex Pistols rehearsal room. He ended up producing their first single. One early play from John Peel was all it took for Bananarama - Sara, Keren and original third member Siobhan Fahey - to catch the attention of The Specials' Terry Hall, who tracked the girls down and asked them to perform on Fun Boy 3's 'It Ain't What You Do It's The Way That You Do It'. They went on to support everyone from Iggy Pop to Paul Weller (Weller went on to pen a track for the band's first album), appearing on Saturday morning telly while still being so skint that they were using the baths and the local swimming pool for 50p a throw. "We didn't think it would get past one single," Keren laughs, "and we didn't really care." Sara Keren Siobhan
For the next ten years the girls were everywhere, and so were their hits, from 'Rough Justice' tackling the political tensions in Northern Ireland to 'Love In The First Degree' pioneering the relationship-as-courtroom-drama extended metaphor. Bananarama became internationally hot property, with 'Venus' scoring a US Number One and 'Robert DeNiro's Waiting' paving the way for the now legendary meeting between the girls and that Hollywood superstar.
In 2009 popstars fetishise prescribed notions of credibility and fall over themselves to prove their songwriting talents - back then Bananarama didn't ever really shout about their own songwriting, firstly because they actually did write massive hits so there was no need for the ladies to protest too much about it, secondly because, well, why wouldn't they have written their own songs? Old habits die hard: this new album had started life as a sort of concept album in which Sara and Keren would cover some of their favourite songs, but the duo found that studios were associated so strongly with songwriting that it wasn't long before they were both writing new material. So much new material, in fact, that now only three covers remain: 'The Runner' (originally by The Three Degrees ), 'S-S-S-Single Bed' (originally a hit for Fox) and 'Rapture', a more recent hit by Iio from 2001. And then there are the new tunes: 'Seventeen' is an undulating, low-slung electro number which pleads "kiss me like you do in my dreams, make me feel like I was seventeen", then there's seductive, ice-cold 'Extraordinary' and the single 'Love Comes' - a dancefloor belter with no strings attached.
No matter. In a notoriously flighty corner of a relentlessly transient industry Bananarama continue to stand tall as a pop group who actually mean something. "I do think we stand for the same thing now as we always did," Sara says. "We worked so hard to get recognition - it's never been something just handed to us on the plate or manufactured. It's a feeling we both have that there's still a drive to find the next door to open, the next song to write, the person to work with, the next concert to play." All of which would be pleasant but ultimately pointless hot air if 'Viva! Bananarama' was anything other than great because in pop, more than any other genre, it all comes down to whether your tunes are any good. It seems to still come so easily for Bananarama, masters of their own destiny and the reigning queens of UK pop.
July 2009 - Fascination Records - www.bananarama.co.uk