Dive through the sea of sounds that emerged from of the 1980s and you’ll find the material that pulls on your senses the strongest. Maybe it’s metal or new wave or R&B. Perhaps you even quietly, unironically dig Huey Lewis And The News. But if there’s one act with the ability to unite all consumers of ’80s pop, it’s Bananarama, with their charming blend of naughty and nice.
Thirty-something years on, Bananarama’s three founding members are rehearsing ahead of nearly two-dozen November and December UK tour dates. They’ll follow that with four just-announced stops in North America in February.
“We only really started yesterday in the dance studio, and then we’re with the band next,” Keren Woodward says over the phone from London, before adding, “Yes – I’ve already had to strap my knees up!”
Joking aside, it wasn’t always around-the-clock laughter in the Bananarama camp.
Childhood friends Woodward and Sara Dallin founded the now-iconic act in 1981 with Dallin’s college friend Siobhan Fahey, in punk-soaked London. Debut LP Deep Sea Skiving stood out as a synth-pop and 1960s girl group hybrid. The trio’s self-titled follow-up contained one of the finest musical moments of the ’80s, “Cruel Summer,” along with another Bananarama staple, “Robert De Niro’s Waiting.”
Dallin, Fahey and Woodward next partnered up with fledgling dance producers Mike Stock, Matt Aitken, and Pete Waterman — known as the production trio Stock Aitken Waterman — for a cover of Shocking Blue’s “Venus,” which topped the Billboard Hot 100 in 1986. Bananarama and Stock Aitken Waterman subsequently worked together further on the fourth (and arguably the most iconic) Bananarama album, Wow.
For Fahey, however, the glossy sound Bananarama perfected with Stock Aitken Waterman was a breaking point. Following her marriage to Dave Stewart of Eurythmics and a move to Los Angeles, she left the group in 1988 and formed the duo Shakespears Sister, who went on to dominate the airwaves in 1992 with electro-rock ballad “Stay.”
Despite Dallin and Woodward carrying on without Fahey, they never completely lost contact with their former bandmate. And for fans of those Bananarama albums featuring the original lineup, Hell did indeed freeze over in 2017 with the announcement that the three friends were reuniting for their first ever tour together.
Below, Keren Woodward gives Stereogum some insight to the current state of the ever-lasting Bananarama, and what’s to come from them.
STEREOGUM: Thank you for calling. What are you doing right now?
KEREN WOODWARD: We’re just in dance rehearsals. It’s brilliant and exciting, but complicated. We’re doing songs that we’ve not done ever on stage before, some of them, and we’re trying to work out what [routines] we might do to them. I don’t think I’m retaining any of the information at the moment. Too much to take in. We have a new catchphrase: If in doubt, drop it out!
STEREOGUM: If your recent Graham Norton Show performance of “Cruel Summer” is anything to go by, everything’s looking good so far. The new arrangement of the song is dynamite.
WOODWARD: Oh, great! It’s slightly different with the tour version [of the song]. The tour version will be longer. But it’s got a great vibe to it. Not an overly complicated routine, I think you’ll agree! Simple but effective.
STEREOGUM: Honestly, you three could probably sit on a couch and sing those classic songs and the audience would go berserk.
WOODWARD: I know. It’s never really going to be about slick routines with us. But we like to throw a few in. Some of the classic, iconic routines have stayed, obviously. They’re easy, like clockwork — well, not so much like clockwork for Siobhan. She’s got a load to learn. She’s doing brilliantly considering we’re only on day two. We’re having such a laugh. Maybe if we didn’t laugh so much we’d get more done?
STEREOGUM: That actually seems like the key to the success of Bananarama: three friends having the utmost fun while making music together.
WOODWARD: To be honest, I wouldn’t be doing it otherwise. None of us would. I don’t really get that, when groups tour together or even do anything together when they hate each other. And I know there are a few of those around! No naming names. But if you have to have a separate car and separate dressing rooms, why even bother?
STEREOGUM: Even though Siobhan departed the group in 1988, the three of you remained friends while you and Sara continued on. And now she’s back. That says a lot about that bond.
WOODWARD: We certainly are tenacious, aren’t we? We wouldn’t ever sit down and pretend that our friendship didn’t fall apart back in the late ‘80s. It wasn’t like there was a massive bust-up. We just drifted apart. Siobhan went off and got married. We spent less and less time [together]. There was a natural sort of split. We didn’t really stay in touch a huge amount initially. But in recent years, every time we got together, whether it was in LA where Siobhan lives or she’s been over here [in London], it’s like we’ve never been apart. It’s an incredibly special relationship. We did so much together. Even though, in the grand scheme of things, it was a short amount of time, it was an incredible time.
STEREOGUM: This reunion and the UK dates were announced in the spring. What was going through your head the night before? Did you expect the response that followed?
WOODWARD: Certainly not. It initially stemmed from a phone conversation we had with Siobhan before Christmas. But it was kind of on hold, because until we got in a room together and talked about it, we weren’t really sure it was going to happen. It had to be right for all of us. Siobhan didn’t come over until March. We had this meeting and this huge excitement, and then it was announced the next day. It was just this overwhelming feeling of, “Oh my god — I can’t believe we’re actually doing it.” I think maybe I thought [Siobhan would] find it too daunting. But like you said, because of the friendship together… We’re all different, but we’re all similar. That’s what friendships are, isn’t it? You don’t all have to be the same, as long as you’ve all got the same sense of humor and same attitudes on life.
STEREOGUM: The three of you always have always come across as anti-pop stars. For instance, on your debut album, Deep Sea Skiving, “What A Shambles” very clearly lays out the downside of the music business.
WOODWARD: Sara wrote the lyrics to that one about the drudgery of everyday life. It was the period where we’d been on Top Of The Pops and had a couple of hits, and yet we were still sharing this flat and going to the laundry and going on the bus. Then suddenly people are seeing you on Top Of The Pops and you’ve had a top five hit and everyone assumes you’re loaded. It obviously doesn’t work like that. We were signed with no advance and we had no money. Royalties weren’t coming through straight away and we weren’t getting paid anything. The fact is, everyone thinks you’re living this glamorous lifestyle. I have to say, throughout the years, it’s had its perks. Being paid to travel the world with your best mates, you really can’t complain. Having said that, when you’re backstage at a festival and sharing a Portaloo with the crew, I think we need to be a bit more diva-ish. I can’t imagine Mariah Carey using a Portaloo!
STEREOGUM: You’ve always had a hand in writing your material. Was that a priority for you three from the beginning?
WOODWARD: Not when we started. We had no idea what to do. The first song we wrote was kind of an instrumental. It just sort of developed, starting with some B-sides and then album tracks. The albums always had a cover, but the lion’s share of the stuff was co-written by us. I don’t really understand anyone who wouldn’t want to be involved in the writing of the songs. They were all personal at the time and they’re all of the moment.
STEREOGUM: That’s likely why Bananarama stands apart from a lot of your pop peers, both then and now.
WOODWARD: We never saw ourselves as a girl group. We were just a group, and we had a very punk attitude. We were a group the same as any male group out there. People make up their own minds, really. I was reading some old interviews recently, and, god, did we moan about not being taken seriously! I was constantly refusing to smile and bleating on about not being taken seriously. You almost try and take the fun out of it so people don’t think you’re three idiots. The whole point in doing it was we took the music very seriously, but we also wanted to have fun with it. It’s a tricky one, looking back.
STEREOGUM: Your fourth album, Wow, just turned 30 in September. It’s possibly the most timeless Bananarama album. It was also a big turning point for you all.
WOODWARD: For us all, including [producers] Stock Aitken Waterman. I think people forget that when we went to them to do “Venus,” which was the first track we did with them, they hadn’t had a huge success. With the Wow album, the sound developed as it went along. I think the Wow album is amazing. For me personally, I felt like, finally, I found where I belong. I think for Siobhan, maybe she felt it was a bit too poppy. Part of that was the fact that Stock Aitken Waterman went on to have so much success, particularly here [in the UK] in the pop charts, and the music became interchangeable — which we hated! We left them, because it came to the point where you’d hear a song and think, “Oh, they’re playing our record!” Actually, it’s someone else’s. It put us all off working with them.
STEREOGUM: In June there was an Instagram post showing you three in a recording booth. Will there be new music coming out of this reunion with Siobhan?
WOODWARD: We tried at that point doing a song. It’s not what we wanted. The pressure to actually write and record one song and the chance for that to be what everyone wants to come out as a single were very slim to begin with. We just haven’t had time again. What we need to do is just sit down together and have a few goes at something.
STEREOGUM: You’ve got the UK tour in November and December, and then four North American dates in February. Can we expect more US dates to be added on eventually?
WOODWARD: I would like to think so. We’re going out to do them because we’re desperate to come out and play there. The idea would be to see how it goes, and if they do well, I would love to come back and do more. We’re just dipping our toe in the water.
STEREOGUM: What does your son think about the three of you getting back together?
WOODWARD: My son, Tom, has never not known me in Bananarama. I found out I was pregnant actually while I was doing the video for “Venus,” only because I noticed that I had this big harness with a headdress on and it seemed a bit tight. I thought, “Ooh, I’m putting on weight.” I went through several singles being pregnant, and then just when I got past it, Siobhan did the same — which is one of the reasons we never toured together. Tom has never not known it. Yes, he’s excited because it’s the three of us, but he’s been to so many other shows. He thinks it’s the most normal thing in the world, but sometimes his mates think, “That’s a bit weird. That’s your mom up there.”
STEREOGUM: Have you, Sara, and Siobhan’s kids grown up knowing each other?
WOODWARD: [Sara’s daughter] Alice and Tom have. He’s been sort of like a big brother to her. But Siobhan’s two kids were brought up in the States. It was only a few years ago when Sara and I went out with our two for a month-long holiday in the States — which was amazing — that we all got together. While we were in LA, we spent a few evenings with Siobhan and did stuff with the kids. We had a photo taken of me, Sara, Siobhan, and all our kids for the first time ever. We also had such a great night out disco dancing. You realize you haven’t really changed!
STEREOGUM: Looking back, you are three women who write your own material, have outlasted so many of your contemporaries and survived the often-tricky music business. What has been the best part of it all for you, personally?
WOODWARD: The ‘80s were amazing. But I had to step back at some point in the ‘90s. It was a time to re-evaluate. Gradually I worked my way back in and started doing the live shows. And then suddenly, you just think, “Yeah – not bad, eh?” Siobhan’s really only just doing that, and it’s really exciting because she gets so over-excited about how great the body of work is, and what we actually did together. It’s the first time she’s really thinking, “I’m really proud of that.” That’s exactly what I said to Siobhan when I spoke to her [last December]: “You need to understand what it’s like. And you need to come back and do it to appreciate it.”
Bananarama will head to North America in February. Purchase tickets here.