Childhood friends Keren Woodward and Sara Dallin, who have performed as a duo since a third founding member left in 1988, believe performing as a group had given them “strength in numbers” in dealing with sexism in the industry Image Credit: Shutterstock

It’s difficult to overstate the impact Bananarama had when they first appeared on Top of the Pops in 1982. Shakin’ Stevens, Dexy’s Midnight Runners and Duran Duran dominated the charts, Madonna had yet to release a single and the Spice Girls were still in primary school. When Bananarama materialised in a flurry of bandanas and backcombed hair singing Shy Boy, the then-trio had never even met a stylist or a choreographer. They barely remembered to lift their microphones to their mouths during the mimed performance. “We’d just left college and then we were on Top of the Pops,” says Sara Dallin today with a shudder. “It was horrific. So scary. We didn’t know where to look or what to do.”

“Those early performances were awful,” agrees Keren Woodward. “You can see the camera pan over and I’m looking at Sara in a panic trying to find out what to do next. It wouldn’t be allowed to happen today – everyone seems quite focused and stage school-y. They have people telling them what to do, where to be and we – obviously – had none of that. We were quite shambolic.”

“But you can’t be what you can’t see,” Dallin points out. “Top of the Pops was not full of women then.”

Forty years on from that performance, everything is different yet somehow the same for Bananarama. Although third founding member Siobhan Fahey left the band acrimoniously in 1988 to form Shakespears Sister and was briefly replaced by Jacquie O’Sullivan, childhood friends Woodward and Dallin have existed as a duo ever since and released a new single, Masquerade, recently. A slice of keyboard-heavy electro-pop with watertight harmonies, it sounds like it comes straight out of the Eighties.

And it is obvious, speaking to them separately on Zoom, that they are still extremely close, despite Dallin living in London and Woodward in Cornwall. They finish each other’s sentences, and when I listen back to the conversation later, it’s sometimes difficult to determine where one starts and the other stops.

“I do hear about bands going on tour who don’t speak to each other, but I just couldn’t do that,” Dallin says. “It would be so horrible. Keren and I have such a huge laugh everywhere we go. If we weren’t speaking, I wouldn’t be in the band.” They have even reconciled with Fahey, briefly reuniting in 2017 for a sell-out UK tour.

“We had the best of times with her because we’d actually never all toured together in the early days,” Woodward says. “We’ll always be friends with Siobhan. I spoke to her a couple of weeks ago and she’s brilliant and we adore her. But it’s always much easier with Sara and I, I don’t know why.”

Together, their rise to fame was the stuff of pop fairytale. Having moved to London from Bristol, where they attended the same primary school, Woodward and Dallin were living at a YWCA hostel when they met Sex Pistols’ drummer Paul Cook on the punk scene. They soon moved into the rundown office above the Pistols’ former rehearsal studio on Denmark Street, sleeping on mattresses on the floor with no hot water and an outdoor toilet. Cook still rehearsed downstairs with his new band and suggested the girls – with college friend Fahey – join in with backing vocals. He went on to produce their first demo, which earned the fledgling Bananarama a record deal. Soon after, The Specials’ frontman Terry Hall spotted the trio in a magazine and asked them to record four tracks with his new band, Fun Boy Three.

Four months later, they were on Top of the Pops. Within five years, they were listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the most successful female group of all time and have now had 30 chart hits, selling 30 million records worldwide.

“It would have been ridiculous to think we’d still be doing this 40 years later,” Dallin says. “We never had any kind of game plan. We just wanted to be in control of everything as much as we could, so the fact it’s lasted this long is quite incredible.”

Of course, daring to have an opinion as female pop stars in the 1980s earned them the almost-inevitable reputation of being difficult. Stock Aitken and Waterman’s Pete Waterman – who produced some of their biggest hits including Venus, I Heard a Rumour and Love in the First Degree – later said they were a “nightmare” to work with.

“He liked us,” Woodward insists. “I think it was just a case of us throwing a spanner in the works every now and again and saying, ‘Actually, we don’t like that’. Just refusing to do things that weren’t for us. When you’ve got what they saw as a well-oiled machine, you don’t want someone sticking their oar in. But for us, it was our album and we wanted to do it our way.”

Though they say they never realised they were pigeonholed and patronised back then, the intervening decades have given them cause to reflect.

“We were viewed as three little girls jumping around dancing and singing,” Dallin says. “Our career wasn’t necessarily taken seriously. And when I look back, I think we had great pop songs and all of them were hits. Why were we not afforded the respect that we should have been? We never won anything at the Brits. There were so few females around, we were almost sidelined and disregarded.”

I wonder if the MeToo movement has also made them view their early experiences in the music industry any differently. “I think we had strength in numbers,” says Woodward, who had a son with model David Scott-Evans in 1986, at the height of Bananarama’s fame, and went on to date Wham! star Andrew Ridgeley for 25 years. “If any of us had been solo artists, it could have been very different. We would huddle together and stand up to people which I think, maybe, as a young solo artist, you wouldn’t have the strength to do.

“The whole industry suffered massive amounts of sexism in lots of different forms, whether it was a comment or a brush of a hand or whatever,” she continues. “It was just the way it was.

“In hindsight, we made a stand in our own way by just getting on with it, but almost to the point where you ignore it and don’t bring it to other people’s attention. It’s fantastic that it has been now, so other girls won’t stand for that sort of thing. It’s a shame it didn’t happen sooner but I’m glad it has.”

However, both women are still grateful they found fame before the invention of social media. “It must be awful, especially when you’re young,” says Dallin, who has a grown-up daughter with her former partner, Bassey Walker.

“When we first started, you’d read comments in press articles or hear comments on the radio and I’d find it really hurtful,” Woodward agrees. “To be bombarded with that every day on social media, I’m not sure how I would have coped. It’s very hard not to take it in and think that’s how people perceive you and you’re not good enough or pretty enough or slim enough.”

Yet four decades on, they still don’t really give a damn what other people think. Having both recently turned 60, they remain schoolgirl punks at heart. Rather than do as expected, sit back and churn out relentless greatest hits packages, Bananarama have instead continued to release new music, and will follow up this week’s single with their 12th studio album, also called Masquerade. Shamelessly club-friendly, it sounds like the missing link between Pet Shop Boys and Lady Gaga and is an evocative tribute to nights out, written in deepest lockdown when we were all dreaming of escape.

“We always loved dance music and this is properly back to our roots and that clubby stuff we did right from the beginning,” says Woodward.

The terror of those early television performances may now be long gone, but Bananarama still seem surprised at how things turned out. “When we first started doing this, we were just so excited to be able to do what we wanted to do, we didn’t think about how long it would last or what we’d do next,” explains Woodward. “We’ve never had any expectations.”

The Daily Telegraph

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