Over the past couple of years since the whole Bananarama excitement, I have wanted to discover more about 80s pop music. Having another think recently, I decided that another group that had a interesting career and are worth featuring here are The Belle Stars, who were just about the only other British all-female group who had some success in the early-80s along with the Bananas. Again I am doing this about 35, indeed nearly 40 years after it all happened, so it might not be 100% comprehensive, but as usual it’ll consist of a look back at some of their hit singles, magazine covers, and TV appearances that I have tracked down on YouTube.
Many people think that the early-80s were an exciting time for pop music, and trends changed so often, that bands came into fashion just as quickly as they went out. They would go on to have only one Top Ten hit single in the UK, but they released 15 singles over almost a decade. The story of The Belle Stars actually begins in 1979, when an all-female Ska group called The Bodysnatchers formed (following an advert that said “Rude Girls Wanted”), who were fronted by the beehive-hairstyled Rhoda Dakar. In February 1980 their first single “Let’s Do Rock Steady” was released on the 2-Tone label which reached No. 22 and caused something of a buzz that led to them making two Top Of The Pops appearances in March and April 1980, along with the cover of Record Mirror in March 1980.
In July 1980 their second and final single “Easy Life” was released which reached a less successful No. 50, and after touring alongside other acts including The Specials and The Go-Go’s, by October 1980 The Bodysnatchers had come to an end, but some members decided to stay together and form a new group called The Belle Stars. Again, this was a septet, and after the departure of Rhoda, a new frontwoman was required.
They were a group of rather mismatched women who played a variety of instruments (why have one saxophonist when you can have two? But you should know by now how fond I am of female saxophonists from the 80s… especially ones from Hull), who were frontwoman Jennie McKeown alongside Stella Barker, Miranda Joyce, Penny Leyton (replaced by Clare Hirst), Sarah-Jane Owen, Judy Parsons, and Lesley Shone. It would take them a while, but they would eventually have some success.
There was a hint of some of the future interest they would attract when they appeared on the cover of Sounds in March 1981 whilst still virtual unknowns, and Smash Hits tipped them to be big, describing them as “hot socks!“. The first single under The Belle Stars name “Hiawatha” was released on Stiff Records in May 1981 but it didn’t chart. This was also a Ska-influenced song. A septet making Ska music on the Stiff label? Now where have I heard that before? The following two singles, “Slick Trick”, released in July 1981, and “Another Latin Love Song”, released in October 1981, didn’t chart either. It seems that they were beginning to struggle, maybe it was time to try something a little different.
In March 1982 Jennie appeared on the cover of Melody Maker alongside Paul Weller after providing some vocals for The Jam. In June 1982 “Iko Iko” was released which reached No. 35, and The Belle Stars finally achieved their first Top 40 hit. This was a cover, it brought them their biggest success so far, and the TV appearances were starting to increase. However, there was frustration that another version of “Iko Iko” entered the chart at exactly the same time and did make the Top Ten. Also in June 1982 Jennie appeared on the cover of Smash Hits which is nice.
One month on in July 1982, “The Clapping Song” was released, which reached No. 11. This was another cover that became their biggest hit yet, and it featured a dance routine that you were encouraged to do. There was also a video made for this one. In July and August 1982 they made their first two appearances on Top Of The Pops. In August 1982 they were on Summertime Special. In September 1982 they appeared on the cover of Jackie.
In October 1982 “Mockingbird” was released, but this reached only No. 51. It was yet another cover. In December 1982 The Belle Stars featured in an Afternoon Plus documentary that looked behind the scenes at the making of their music, plus some information such as how they got together, and also how they were being promoted by their record label. Contributors included future NME editor Steve Sutherland.
In December 1982 they performed “The Clapping Song” on Top Of The Pops for a third time as part of the Christmas special, but they were almost beginning to get a reputation as a novelty covers band. It was decided that at the start of 1983 their next single to be released would be an original song called “Sign Of The Times”. This was a make or break moment for them, and this one really did need to be a success, or it could spell the end for The Belle Stars. What will happen next? Find out in part two coming soon!