Down The Dumper – The 80s Part 10.

This is a group that I have already done two pieces about, but as they qualify for this series, I thought that I would take a closer look at the story behind this single. The Belle Stars started out in 1979 as The Bodysnatchers, they had some minor success before changing their name and line-up in 1981, and after a few releases, they hit the big time in 1983 with “Sign Of The Times”.

Their following singles didn’t do as well, but it was thought that there would still be a lot of people eager to discover what their next move would be. In June 1984 “80s Romance” was released, which was to planned to be the first idea of what they would have to come on their second album. Barely a year on from their Top Ten hit though, it all went rather wrong for the stylish septet.

The video for this one is rather curious. The first two minutes or so consist of a look behind the scenes, showing how everything was put together. There’s also a reference to Canary Wharf which I thought was rather odd as that hadn’t yet been built in 1984. But then I remembered that’s what the actual area of London is (which was still barely developed at the time), the building is actually called 1 Canada Square, unless they could see five years into the future.

The video continues with the behind the scenes look, and there are lots of clapperboards and cameras in shot and the like, along with a dance routine that they couldn’t do properly, with one letter each of “romance” painted on their T-shirts, along with some terrific lyrics like “this is 80s romance/textbooks in our pockets/mud on our faces!” (well I think that’s right).

The combination of all this didn’t go down very well though. Smash Hits were rather harsh about this one by their standards, saying “a weak melody and some godawful lyrics”, while Record Mirror went even further, simply saying “horrible record”. Oh dear. “80s Romance” reached a very disappointing no. 71, work stopped on the new album, and The Belle Stars split very shortly after.

But that wasn’t the end just yet, as The Belle Stars returned in 1986, but now as a trio, with something of a different look and sound, and they had lost so many members that the saxophonist was reassigned as the drummer. Unfortunately despite their new single “World Domination” being rather good, nobody was bothered by this point, and what was left of The Belle Stars split for good.

After going their separate ways, most of them also left the music business altogether, and apart from a best-of, the only work under The Belle Stars name since was a brief tour of the nostalgia circuit in the early-2000s, that seemed to consist of three random women, and there is currently no active version of the group, not even performing “Sign Of The Times” down the pub or anything.

The YouTube Files – The Belle Stars Story (Part 2).

Let’s continue the story of The Belle Stars as we go into 1983… b1

In January 1983 “Sign Of The Times” was released which reached No. 3. It would become their most successful single by some distance, and it is definitely the one that they remain best known for to this day. It also reached No. 75 in America. In January and February 1983 they performed this twice on Top Of The PopsIn January 1983 they appeared on the cover of Melody Maker and performed four songs on The Tubevlcsnap-00030

In February 1983 their first and only album “The Belle Stars” was released which reached No. 15, and they performed “The Clapping Song” at The British Rock And Pop Awards. In March 1983 Sarah-Jane (who was considered by many to be the most glamorous member of the group) appeared on the cover of Record Mirror. They were finally a big deal, could they maintain this success? b6

In April 1983 “Sweet Memory” was released which reached No. 22. They really pushed this one with lots of TV appearances but it would turn out to be their final Top 40 hit single. In May 1983 it would lead to their sixth Top Of The Pops appearance, and they also performed this on plenty of other shows including Cheggers Plays PopGet Set, The Oxford Road ShowRazzmatazz, and Saturday SuperStorevlcsnap-00050

In August 1983 “Indian Summer” was released which reached No. 52. This was another good one, but it missed the Top 50. The video featured a guest appearance from Humphrey Bogart (not the Humphrey Bogart?!). They also appeared on The Main Attraction and the Saturday Morning excitement of No. 73 (which I imagine was an ambition of many pop groups around at the time). vlcsnap-00025

In October 1983 “The Entertainer” was released which reached a rather disappointing No. 95. Feargal Sharkey made a guest appearance in the video. They performed this on No. 73Razzmatazz, Russell Harty’s show, and Hold Tight, on the scary-looking stage that went up and down. In December 1983 they made their seventh and final appearance on Top Of The Pops to perform “Sign Of The Times” for a third time as part of the Christmas special. vlcsnap-00042

In June 1984 “80s Romance” was released which reached No. 71. Their sound had evolved a lot by this point and this was a much more soulful single. Along with the regular video there was also an extended version that included a look behind the scenes. However, the trends were so fast-moving in this era of pop music that this turned out to be their final hit single. Barely a year on from their biggest success, they were now, as the phrase goes, “down the dumper”. Because there wasn’t much interest, work on the second album was abandoned, and The Belle Stars went their separate ways. But wait, because the story doesn’t end there… vlcsnap-00018

The Belle Stars just about carried on into the mid-80s, but they were now a trio, consisting of Lesley, Miranda and Sarah-Jane (I think Miranda and Sarah-Jane were the only ones who lasted the whole course from 1979-1986). In April 1986 “World Domination” was released. Once again, their look and sound was rather different from a few years earlier, there were definitely no saxophones on this one (maybe they just wanted to be more like Bananarama, ha-ha). vlcsnap-00061

I did like this one, and it is rather odd to think that this is (just about) the same people that made “Let’s Do Rock Steady”. I am also rather fond of the video (and the 12″ version), but music fans had long since moved on, this wasn’t a hit, and even a Paul Hardcastle remix couldn’t give it a boost (it’s also curiously absent from the various best-ofs). Work on the third album was abandoned, and by this point, it really was all over. I’m not even sure if they remained in the music industry after this or stayed in touch with each other. But that’s still not the end. vlcsnap-00056

In March 1989, long after it was originally released (and long after their split), a new version of “Iko Iko” became their biggest hit in America after it was featured in the soundtrack to the film Rain Man, and it reached No. 14. In June 1989 this version reached No. 98 in the UK. Beyond a few best-ofs (and a concert at London’s Marquee Club from 1984 being released on DVD), there hasn’t been much activity from the group since this.

But in December 2002 my mum and sister went to a Here And Now concert at the London Arena, where pop acts from the 80s performed some of their biggest hits, and The Belle Stars were on the lineup. Their peak was almost two decades ago even then. Again, they consisted of a trio, but I’m not sure if any original members were even involved, they could’ve been anyone by this point.

They performed only three songs, and of course “Sign Of The Times” was one of them, they didn’t really have much choice. It’s a shame that a lot of people think that they were mismanaged, but I presume that they are are all still out there somewhere, and Jennie does still occasionally perform her songs from The Belle Stars years in concert. As usual when looking back at this era, it’s a surprise to realise they must all be getting on for 60 years old by now (and it seems that Sarah-Jane this year actually turned 65!). How is it even possible.

The YouTube Files – The Belle Stars Story (Part 1).

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. b1

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. b3

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. b7

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. b8

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. b2

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. b5

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 Jackievlcsnap-00005

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. vlcsnap-00009

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!