The ostensibly endless capacity for ’80s nostalgia seems to conveniently forget what a cultural goose egg the last half of that overamped decade mostly was. There were exceptions, naturally. Yet until rave culture, a thrilling new wave of independent film, and the provocational antics of the Young British Artists finally got things stirring again, the good had been worryingly outnumbered by the bad for far too long.
Into those uncertain times was born Shakespears Sister, the decidedly unexpected duo of Bananarama defector Siobhan Fahey and singer Marcella Detroit, who had previously worked with the likes of Eric Clapton and Leon Russell. Fahey had parted ways with the UK’s biggest ever female pop act in 1988 to attempt to summon again the iconoclastic spirit which had originally birthed them; Detroit was just looking for a musical challenge.
Their 1989 debut Sacred Heart quickly went UK Top Ten – but even now they admit to the production being a little too aligned with the prevailing pop zeitgeist: very slickly realized, and overtly overly-synthesized. Though the record holds up surprisingly well to this day.
By the release of 1992’s classic Hormonally Yours, however, it was clear the pair were setting off down a much more irreverential path. It worked, and the record went to #3, spawning the massive worldwide hit “Stay” (top ten in nine different countries). But in one of music’s all time horrible breakup stories, Siobhan’s publicist indifferently read a statement releasing Marcella from the band, as the latter stood up on a stage collecting a 1993 Ivor Novello award for the both of them.
More than 20 years passed before Fahey would find herself part of a wildly successful 2017 Bananarama reunion tour. It was a “bury-the-hatchet” experience that resonated powerfully enough within her to extend to a reconciliation with Detroit – who had herself kept quite musically busy in the years since the split.
Much to the thrill of their long-suffering fanbase, the pair are back and claiming it’s for good this time. Signed to London Records once again, the just-released, 32-track Singles Party (1988 – 2019) gathers together remastered versions of their shining moments, along with previously unreleased tracks, remixes, even an acoustic “Stay.”
But two truly excellent new songs – “All the Queen’s Horses” and “C U Next Tuesday” decisively confirm that this is merely the next chapter of what looks to be the continuing story of Shakespears Sister. Further substantiation will come by way of a new 5-song EP, due in October…as well as a 14-date UK tour this autumn.
We sat the busy pair down long enough for an enlightening chat about their past, present, and surely electrifying future.
Let’s start from the beginning – how did you first come together?
Marcella Detroit: A songwriter friend of mine, Richard Feldman, lived right across the street from where Siobhan and her husband Dave Stewart had moved in. He went over and introduced himself, and they started working together. He told Siobhan that she should meet me, and when they invited me down, it turned out she and I had this great chemistry.
Siobhan Fahey: Richard had this amazing writing studio in his garage, we started experimenting there musically. He said that he knew this person whose voice would work very well with mine, and he was right.
You were a bit of an odd pop duo in the context of the late ‘80s. What was the general musical zeitgeist like at that time?
SF: I do remember wanting to do something that wasn’t to do with the pop zeitgeist. My influences were English punk, funk, and early art rock like Bowie and Roxy Music.
MD: There was some pretty cheesy, over-produced, electronic orchestra sort of stuff going on at that time.
SF: Yes, the ‘80s did suffer from a surfeit of machines.
Both good and bad…
MD: Yes, our friend Roger Linn was the one who created the drum machine [LM-1] that everyone wound up using throughout the ‘80s. It changed pop music.
Then it eventually made everything sound the same.
MD: But everything sounds the same now, so…
SF: I hate Auto-Tune.
Yeah, couldn’t have guessed that.
SF: Our first album actually sounds very ‘80s now. But when it came to making Hormonally Yours, it was very much a move away from machines, and towards more organic sounds – real drums and guitars. That particular album still sounds timeless, I think – more quirky and experimental in its influences and structures.
Well, it really does need to be said: Bananarama were always a far more iconoclastic act than you were really given credit for.
SF: Yes, thank you! We were.
But it was often treated like, “Oh, just three pretty girls doing pop music.”
So, it’s been 26 years that Shakespears Sister has existed seemingly just as sort of an alter-ego for Siobhan Fahey, right?
SF: Well, it’s certainly a magnified aspect of myself.
What made this the right time for it to be about the two of you again?
SF: It was not a clever master plan or anything; it just happened now because it was meant to happen now. We were ready to meet up and have that conversation I’d been shying away from for a long time. That put the past to rest, and paved the way for the really great side of our relationship – which is that we create very well together.
The acrimony must have been quite significant at the end.
MD: Uh…yeah! That’s an understatement. Over the years I had reached out to Siobhan a few times, but like she said, it just wasn’t really meant to happen then. After Siobhan did the Bananarama tour, I got a message from her management asking if I would like to get together for a chat. And I said “Sure, should I bring my boxing gloves?”
Guessing it didn’t come to that?
MD: I just wanted to resolve things between us personally; I had no idea that we would be creating together again.
Siobhan, you didn’t really want to do the Bananarama reunion at first?
SF: No, it wasn’t that at all. It just never really occurred to me. When I left in 1988, I signed away the name, and they carried on. They held all the cards, and never really reached out – except to ask me to get up on stage with them and do an encore at the G-A-Y in London [in 2002] for our 20th anniversary…which I did. We had become friends again, but they didn’t ask me back in the band.
Why did you leave back then?
SF: I left because I was the oddball element, and I wanted to go back to doing something a lot more quirky. But I must admit, it was really great fun doing that Bananarama tour, it was a great celebration of what we had been to each other and to the world.
So that got you thinking…
SF: It made me feel really inspired, and I wanted to be creative and make new music again. Bananarama wasn’t really the right environment for that, though – they are very different artists to the way I’ve developed. So, though I knew I was going to make another record again, I did not necessarily know that it was going to be with Marcy.
More than a few people were very pleasantly surprised.
SF: Well, once we were able to communicate, in a way that we’d never been able to communicate in all those years previously, it resolved everything. And six months later, it seemed like an obvious thing to see if we could make new music again.
MD: So we set out to see if we still had that creative connection between us.
Did you feel the chemistry was very natural?
SF: Extremely natural, we were very open to each other’s ideas, and to being experimental. We come from opposing musical backgrounds, but we bring those backgrounds together in Shakespears Sister. That’s why this is so unique.
In remastering the singles, were there any of those songs that resonated with you again in a particular way?
SF: Yeah, absolutely. I hadn’t listened to our old material for years. And I was kind of blown away by Hormonally Yours – I had forgotten how odd it was…and how good it is. I’m amazed that it sounds so timeless and unique.
MD: It was a concept album based on this 1950s 3-D B-movie called Cat-Women of the Moon. We were going to try to buy the rights to the film and superimpose ourselves into it. The label didn’t really get it. But we were still very inspired by the film, and wrote several songs based on different scenes. So we definitely weren’t thinking about what else was going on in the pop world at the time.
You’re back on the same label – how have things changed?
SF: It’s a very different experience now being signed back to London Records – there’s a woman in charge, and she loves the material.
MD: Back in those days it was a total boys club.
You both came up through a time when music was changing the world, on a cultural, as well as a socio-political level. Do you have the sense that it’s more like wallpaper now?
SF: Yeah, it’s just like a backdrop to people’s lives, instead of being a centerpiece that defines you, and galvanizes you…
MD: It’s very much taken for granted now.
If you’re 17 now, you might care more about your brand of phone than the music you listen to on it.
SF: I know, that’s insane. The whole experience of music has changed, the emotional experience. Where back then you became best friends with all the scratches and pops on the record, poured over the sleeve notes, and learned all the lyrics.
You’re doing a series of live dates – what can we expect from the shows?
SF: We’re really looking forward to celebrating our music with our fans – we have a very devoted fanbase. But we really didn’t want it to be a retro exercise; so we’ve got a five track EP coming out in October, which I think is the strongest work I’ve ever done. It sounds classic, it sounds organic. We had a brilliant producer in Nick Launay, who’s done the last five Nick Cave records, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
What was the inspiration?
SF: We set out to make a record that sounded like the records we fell in love with when we were young. We put it together with love.
Did you manage to achieve that feeling personally with the new songs?
MD: Yeah, because what’s the point if you don’t? If you don’t like it, what’s the point of unleashing it on the world?
Well, there is a lot of that going on. Like, here’s yet more banal music for you to settle for…
MD: I know! Because that’s what’s kind of expected of certain genres. But just because you can create a song on your phone, doesn’t mean you should.
Democracy has turned out to be a bad idea when it comes to culture. But what do you like most about the new songs?
SF: Two of the new songs are just in your face, punk attitude, with rock-and-roll swagger. And two of them make me cry. One is this strange, beautiful Scott Walker kind of duet.
Could you say right here that this is not just a quick stop, but that it is the next long chapter of your creative lives?
SF: I’m hoping for that, for sure.
MD: Yes, I love to learn and keep my mind open. When I started working with Siobhan, before that I had been more of a purist – and what we wound up doing opened my mind up to lots of new things. What we’re doing now is very adventurous, going against all this electronic pop just being churned out. And I’m really proud of it. I’m so glad we’ve been able to resolve our differences and find that connection creatively again.