Bananarama - WOW!
MATT AITKEN: Making WOW! was a bit like the school masters V St Trinians; the girls sometimes made their trips to the studio feel like a trip to the dentist. But somehow it worked and we went on to make what I believe is one of SAW's top three finest albums. It didn't take too long. We were used to writing songs on our own - usually with Mike Stock and me in the studio together by ourselves for most of the time. When you added three extra people to the equation it became tricky, so we suggested the girls went away and came back with a big list of song title ideas. Thinking of an interesting song title is difficult - once you have that, then 50% of the song is kind of done! And that is what happened, they came back with a big list, on which the most exciting title was I HEARD A RUMOUR. It made us think of I HEARD IT THROUGH THE GRAPEVINE.
The first song written, I HEARD A RUMOUR, became the first single in late June, acheiving a respectable #14 position in the UK but notably going to #4 in the US, like VENUS before it, one of a select few SAW singles to perform better Stateside than on home ground. Ironically, it also happened to be one of the first SAW records to be characterised by a distinctly Euro sound for which SAW are probably now best known, rather than the lingering influence of Hi-NRG. The song was debuted at the Montreux Pop Festival but remixed again before it's release
The rest of the album certainly took it's lead from I HEARD A RUMOUR, but there was nevertheless plenty of variety, from the standout ballad ONCE IN A LIFETIME to the ironic Thatcherite materialism of STRIKE IT RICH.
'BAD FOR ME is my favourite,' reveals Matt Aitken. 'Both that and SOME GIRLS were influenced by a Miami sound that was pioneered by Arthur Baker.'
Certainly the mainstream US audience who loved VENUS and were now falling for I HEARD A RUMOUR were a major consideration.
Fairly unusually both for a Bananarama album or for that matter a SAW production, a song by out-of-house US-based writers was brought into the picture. COME BACK was contributed by veteran songwriters Nick Trevisick and Richard Feldman, a friend of Siobhan's in L.A. who would subsequently work on the first Shakespear's Sister album. Work also began on another non-SAW track, KEEP YOUR HANDS TO YOURSELF, written by Siobhan and Keren, with dave Stewart and Patrick Seymour in May 1987, but with London having commissioned SAW to produce the entire album, Bananarama's version of the song was never finished. Instead, it finally emerged in 1992 as a track on Joniece Jamison's DREAM IN COLOUR, the second solo album by the former Eurythmics backing vocalist.
As if to emphasise the point that they were now the biggest girl group in the world and also as a nod back to their own first headline chart success, REALLY SAYING SOMETHING, Bananarama would also cover a Supremes hit, NATHAN JONES. The choice of a lesser-known single from the trio's post-Diana Ross era was a rather canny one, allowing Bananarama not only to bring a great track to a new audience, but also to make the song their own. However, despite a succession of in-house mix sessions at PWL, none of the results were considered satisfactory. And it was not the only track to require additional work.
MATT AITKEN: We also had lot's of problems with I WANT YOU BACK. It was originally called REASON FOR LIVING but the girls decided they didn't want to sing that, so we re-wrote the chorus.
MIKE STOCK: I think, lyrically, the song works much better as REASON FOR LIVING, it flows better, but the girls hated it and they came up with I WANT YOU BACK which I think is a much weaker lyric.
At the beginning of August 1987, an album master reel was compiled at PWL with the notable exception of NATHAN JONES. Instead track nine was the far more leftfield MR SLEAZE, a catchy rare groove number conceived as a follow-up to SAW's own hit single ROADBLOCK. It was only once a new Freddy Bastone remix of NATHAN JONES was delivered that the decision was finally made to use this non-SAW mix of the Supremes cover and drop MR SLEAZE from the album lineup.
WOW! was released in early September, and although it never climbed past #26 in the UK, it became Bananarama's biggest selling studio album, spending 6 months on the charts and gaining gold certification. Internationally, it also performed well, peaking at #44 in the US and topping the charts in Australia. The choice of second single, LOVE IN THE FIRST DEGREE, was fundamental to this sustained success.
PETE WATERMAN: Mike, Matt and I had a brilliant but tense working relationship with Bananarama - there were three of us and three of them, plenty of ideas and no end of disagreements! But that produced amazing results. They'd originally come to us to produce VENUS and that had been Number One in America, but LOVE IN THE FIRST DEGREE was their biggest selling single in the UK. It was my choice of single - up to that point, I'd bowed down to them, but with this one I put my foot down. I was always a huge Motown fan and always wanted to emulate Motown. Berry Gordy was interviewed in America and said he had heard LOVE IN THE FIRST DEGREE and that was the closest anyone had come to acheiving that....That was good enough for me!
Boosted further by having MR SLEAZE as it's B-side, LOVE IN THE FIRST DEGREE matched the #3 peak of ROBERT DE NIRO'S WAITING, a feat amongst Bananarama singles only otherwise equalled by HELP! in 1989. And given that LOVE IN THE FIRST DEGREE was actually released three weeks after WOW!, it might very well have been a chart-topper had it preceeded the album. The singles greatest success was on home turf, but internationally it became a Top 20 hit across Europe and Australasia, and a #48 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 in the USA, where it served as the albums third single in 1988.
In the States, I CAN'T HELP IT had already been selected as the second single from WOW!, reaching #47 and now it became the third single in the rest of the world. A clear contemporary homage to the virtuoso dance floor dynamism of Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, I CAN'T HELP IT found Bananarama channelling Chic and Sister Sledge in a slicker, more accomplished sequel to MORE THAN PHYSICAL. A #20 hit in the UK in January 1988 with similar success in Europe and Australasia, it was not Bananarama's biggest hit but is particularly fondly remembered.
During 1987 and in the course of their collaboration with SAW, Bananarama had become a much more straightforwardly commercial act than ever before, and this had resulted in creative tensions within the group, perhaps exacerbated by a geographical divide - Siobhan was now living in LA after marrying Dave Stewart.
SIOBHAN FAHEY: There was a big split creatively within the band. By the time we made WOW!, SAW had become a real factory production line. They regarded us as being interchangeable their stable of acts and kind of excluded us from the production process. I didn't like that at all, but Keren and Sara were very happy with that. It was ultra-shiny pop and it suited them, it was where they wanted to be. It was very easy music to do and not demanding. I was feeling very jaded by the vacuousness of the pop world and I had lost my connection to music - and why I was doing it in the first place. I felt our band was turning into something I never wanted it to be, I looked at The Smiths and wanted to do something like that - hence why I had to leave and went on to form Shakespear's Sister.
Determined to go out with a bang, Siobhan made her final appearance alongside Sara and Keren at the BPI Awards in February 1988, with a show-stopping performance of the Best British Single nominated, LOVE IN THE FIRST DEGREE, backed up with a troupe pf amply oiled-up albeit underdressed male dancers. It was arguably the groups most commercial song to date but for Siobhan, she had simply travelled as far down that road as she wanted to go. Looking back, few pop stars ever get to quit the band in such style.
Jacquie O'Sullivan was drafted in as a replacement for Siobhan. She was an acquaintance of the other girls, but not, as was stated at the time, a particularly close friend, and was ultimately drafted in simply because it was felt that the public expected Bananarama to be a trio. Yet the heart of the group, personally at least, had always been the lifelong friendship between Keren and Sara - something impossible to emulate, let alone force. And for Jacquie, almost inevitably being consigned to the perennial role of 'new girl' or 'the other one' would eventually take it's toll.
There was clearly still life in WOW! and rather than immediately embarking on a new project, Bananarama released the particularly effervescent I WANT YOU BACK, newly reworked to feature Jacquie. Issued as the fourth single from the album, it returned the group to the Top 5 in the UK, as well as giving them a #3 hit in Australia and another success across Europe. The 12" B-side AMNESIA, a vocal version of the theme from a short-lived ITV pop show The Roxy, was the latest in a series of club orientated B-sides, following CLEAN CUT BOY for I HEARD A RUMOUR and ECSTACY for I CAN'T HELP IT.
Bananarama's first singles compilation, THE GREATEST HITS COLLECTION, was lined up for release in October 1988, replete with two new SAW productions - a brand new track, LOVE TRUTH & HONESTY, a #23 hit in September 1988, and a re-recorded version of NATHAN JONES, which became a #15 single in November. The compilation became Bananarama's best-selling release in the UK, reaching #3 and gaining triple platinum certification. 1989 then found the group undertaking it's long-awaited World Tour in support of THE GREATEST HITS COLLECTION, as well as collaborating with Lananeeneenoonoo on the #3 Comic Relief hit, HELP.
For many Bananarama devotee's, especially those who became fans in the wake of VENUS, WOW! is a particular favourite. It is a body of work that ultimately may have changed the group forever, but from the start it was always intended as a light-hearted, hedonistic album, and on those terms was not only a commercial success but a creative one too.
Featuring many of Bananarama's best loved singles and certainly the zenith of their work with Stock Aitken Waterman, it remains a guaranteed floor-filler and a sparkling pop classic of that era.
As all involved have commented, Bananarama's writing and recording sessions with SAW were punctuated with disagreements, especially regarding lyrics, but arguably it was this tension that helped generate some particularly satisfying material.
Indeed Motown would be a major point of reference for the entire project, having not only been a significant influence on Bananarama from the start but also a template for Pete Waterman not only musically, but also in establishing the in-house PWL "empire" - production company, studio complex and latterly record label.