From number-one hits and that shock split to naked bodyguards, Sara Dallin and Keren Woodward tell Kathryn Flett what it was really like to be the ultimate 80s girl group.
It’s 10am on a midweek morning and Keren Woodward and Sara Dallin, the remaining two-thirds of Bananarama, and I are socially distancing with our coffees on the mezzanine of a noisy London photographic studio, and I can’t help wishing we were doing this in The Olden Days – maybe after dark in the corner of a discreet members’ club while tucked up on a cosy banquette with a cocktail or three.
If your memories of Bananarama extend as far as three ditsy girls in rah-rah skirts performing a handful of catchy 80s singalongs, it’s worth noting that they’re in the Guinness Book of Records for the world’s highest number of chart entries by an all-female group – and have had 32 top 40 singles in the UK charts. They look like fresh-faced 40-somethings to me, even with no make-up, but Sara self-deprecatingly describes them as, ‘knocking on the door of 60’ (she’s 58, Keren 59). Keren’s son, TV producer Tom, is in his mid-30s (she was pregnant at the peak of their fame, when ‘Venus’ was number one in the US in 1986) and Sara’s 28-year-old daughter Alice combines being a singer-songwriter with her role as Bananarama’s social media manager.
Still vivid in my memory is their 2017 appearance on The Graham Norton Show when Sara and Keren reunited briefly with their original bandmate, Siobhan Fahey. I practically punched the air watching them, sequined up to the eyeballs with dance moves as tight as their harmonies – because when do women of our age ever see ourselves on TV looking quite so hot, and definitely not hot-flushed?
Now the best friends since childhood are comfortably a duo again, celebrating the imminent publication of their memoir Really Saying Something and dismissing with shrugs the idea that they fell out with Siobhan, who left the line-up in 1988 to form Shakespears Sister.
‘I think [in the book] we talk about Siobhan quite honestly,’ says Keren. ‘It wasn’t great when we split but we’ve talked about it since and you think, “Why was that such a big deal?’’’
Was it ever a case of two’s company, three’s a crowd? ‘Because Sara and I were such good friends beforehand, Siobhan may have seen it like that, but we were very much a trio. We laughed about the same things. Even when we did the reunion, we laughed and laughed.’
‘But also when you work with people in an office, you’re not best friends with everyone,’ adds Sara. ‘Obviously, we had different sets of friends and she was a little bit older, living with a boyfriend. We’d just left school and it seemed like a big gap.’
‘And actually,’ Keren elaborates, ‘all the things that seemed a big deal were not, really. She needed a change just like I needed a change when I moved to Cornwall. So I don’t remember feeling particularly p***ed off when she left.’
In fact, Bananarama were together for quite a long time by pop group standards. ‘Yeah, six years,’ agrees Keren. ‘Wham! were only together for four.’
Which brings us neatly to Andrew Ridgeley, with whom Keren (and Tom) moved to Cornwall when they became a couple in the early 90s. Though they split a few years ago I’d also heard a rumour that they recently got back together. Keren rolls her eyes. ‘No! We split seven years ago.’
Maybe people were always so delighted by the idea of Keren and Andrew – the practically perfect post-pop-star pair – they were willing the rumour to be true. She’s having none of it, though: ‘That is absolutely ludicrous. Just because two people happen to have been in 80s pop groups?’ Are they mates now? ‘Kind of. We get on. But I haven’t seen him for a couple of months. He spends most of his time in London.’ While Keren is mostly in Cornwall. ‘Yeah, I absolutely love it.’
Sara, meanwhile, is happiest in London, where she has lived near Highgate ‘for years. I mostly did my writing over lockdown, which was perfect because I had never written before and always wanted to. And once I got going, I loved it. Sitting in my conservatory, no make-up, with all my flowers and a cup of tea. In lockdown you could really focus.’ It helped that Alice lives in London, too, of course – mum and daughter are very close and Sara’s pride in her daughter (who is with us in the studio) is evident.
Has Siobhan read the book? ‘No,’ says Sara. Will they send her a copy? ‘Yeah, I would imagine so,’ says Keren. ‘I think she’s in Crete at the moment, but you know…’ she nods at Sara ‘…the book is mostly about our friendship.’
Really Saying Something is an evocative and entertaining joint memoir, and reading about the girls growing up in Bristol in the 70s will hurtle anyone old enough back to their own schooldays. It’s strong on fashion, brands, hairstyles and, obviously, music, charting the journey from taking tubes of Spangles to the ABC for Saturday morning pictures to taping the Top 40 from the radio (and choosing to crush on David Essex instead of David Cassidy or Donny Osmond) via riding fairground waltzers to the sound of Billy Ocean’s ‘Red Light Spells Danger’ and snogging boys in the park. They have such good memories: ‘Yeah, I can still hear Tavares and remember my red cap-sleeved T-shirt with a zodiac sign on the front and my little flared jeans,’ says Keren nostalgically.
However, those of us who lived through it will also recall that the 70s weren’t just about innocent childish fun.
‘As girls, we weren’t brought up to feel that we were less intelligent or less capable, or that we wouldn’t have a career,’ says Keren, ‘but what we saw around us, and on television, made sexism and racism seem very normal. You accepted the odd slap on the backside or being wolf-whistled at as “normal” behaviour, maybe because they did it in On The Buses, or whatever.’
‘And if you’re very young that seeps into your DNA, somehow,’ adds Sara. ‘The 70s was actually the worst era for all those things – and that was our impressionable age.’
‘We were quite naive,’ adds Keren. ‘We wrote about a guy who used to molest all my brother’s mates when they were playing football – and we actually laughed about it back then. “Oh, he got so-and-so this week but he didn’t get me, I ran too fast.” Now you just think, “Why didn’t we tell our parents?”’
For our generation of young girls, meanwhile, being flashed at was also par for the course, right? They both roll their eyes: ‘Oh god, yeah!’
Sara: ‘But did you ever say anything?’
Keren: ‘No! We got flashed at walking home from school, didn’t we?’
Sara: ‘It was a “just deal with it, get on with it” mentality, which our generation has, and we got from our parents.’
‘We certainly weren’t cosseted and mollycoddled,’ adds Keren.
Sara: ‘And I think that’s what gave us the resilience to keep going for almost 40 years. It makes you grittier. But I do think we were always fighting for our rights, and to be able to do what we wanted to do, and not be sidelined. On the whole, I think we are very much in control of what we do.’
When the girls moved to London in 1980, as 18-year-olds and post A-levels, far from slipping on too many metaphorical banana skins the proto-pop stars started to find their feet. Keren worked in admin at the BBC (‘I had a proper job for about a year and a half – I can’t say I put my heart and soul into it’) while Sara enrolled on a fashion journalism course and both lived in a YWCA hostel before moving to share a damp and dingy space in Soho, above the Sex Pistols’ office/rehearsal rooms.
The three girls-about-town effectively fell into being pop stars after providing backing vocals on the Fun Boy Three’s ‘It Ain’t What You Do’. They couldn’t be any further from the ‘manufactured’ girl groups of the 90s or the noughties, who seem so polished by comparison.
Keren: ‘Yeah, you can tell from our early performances that it wasn’t ever the plan to go to stage school. But we became those things – shiny and polished and professional – as we learned what we were doing, growing up in the public eye.’
At the beginning, though, there was a sense of being the Fun Boy Three’s ‘novelty sidekicks’ rather than the main attraction; just pretty girls bopping around in rah-rah skirts… ‘Which we didn’t popularise at all,’ says Sara, firmly.
‘Oh, but you did, I say, ‘even if you didn’t intend to’.
Keren: ‘Urgh! Those grey sweatshirt rah-rah skirts… They weren’t flattering.’
Sara: ‘Especially with the moccasins and the football socks.’
By the mid-80s, a bunch of hits to their name, Bananarama’s place at the top of pop’s Christmas tree was assured. So much so that they were there at the biggest event of Christmas 1984 – the recording of the Band Aid single ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ Watch the video now, however, and it’s shocking to see that there are only four women in the room: Sara, Keren and Siobhan plus Jody Watley from Shalamar. Where are Chrissie Hynde, Alison Moyet, Sade?
Sara: ‘We shared an office with Bob [Geldof] so he called our manager…’
Keren: ‘Maybe we were there by accident?’
Sara shrugs: ‘We were relegated to the chorus…’
‘Why wasn’t Annie Lennox there singing a lead line?’ says Keren. ‘I mean, we can’t really complain – it was an amazing thing to be on – but we sang the harmony so loud we were asked to tone it down a bit, so we obviously felt we had to make our presence felt.’
When it came to Live Aid itself the following summer, however, ‘We were in LA,’ says Sara, ‘and we weren’t playing live at that point, so I don’t know whether we would have been considered for inclusion.’
Keren: ‘It was a period of our lives where we kept trying to get on the road and do a tour and something always happened – like pregnancy.’ Bananarama finally toured the US for the first time in the late 80s, when Jacquie O’Sullivan had taken Siobhan’s place. Says Sara: ‘I absolutely loved touring America, driving all night and all day on the bus with a gang of friends – like a school trip.’
While touring France, as Sara recalls in the book, ‘We stayed in an old château. As we lounged on my bed chatting, there was a knock on the door. When we answered, in stalked our two brooding security men, who promptly started taking their clothes off. We looked at each other in amazement as the men stripped down to their underpants and plonked themselves down on chairs at the end of the bed. There they sat, posing; waiting, one presumed, for us to suggest something. All they got was nervous laughter. A few moments later they got up, got dressed and left, totally embarrassed.’
Keren: ‘Oh god, that was disturbing.’
‘It’s actually horrifying. It was not like there was any sort of flirting! They literally drove the bus!’ adds Sara.
Then, predictably, they both start laughing. Sara shrugs: ‘It’s just so different now.’
In 2019, their self-recorded LP In Stereo made the Top 30 and they performed in Hyde Park and at Glastonbury. Far from growing out of it all in their 50s, they still love going on the road. With no live music or festivals this year, however, and none of the kind of fun – gigs and clubbing – that fuelled our own similar youthful experiences, it’s impossible not to feel sad for youngsters who have just lived through their own ‘Cruel Summer’.
‘Yes, I hugely missed doing the shows this year,’ says Keren.
‘Though you do sometimes stop and think, “What a peculiar way to live – what a strange existence,”’ adds Sara.
Her partner-in-crime of nearly 40 years nods, conceding that ‘it’s a strange way to make a living’. Which is true; however, what always impresses me most about the ’nanas ain’t so much what they’ve done (yes, all together now…) it’s the way that they’ve done it.