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3. Bananarama - “Only Your Love”

Perhaps the greatest gift I gave myself across my fraught mid-thirties was an abiding love for Bananarama. On the precipice of a crossroads, vexed by the awareness of a looming dark night of the soul I saw a Bananarama record in the store. And my goodness, but don’t those ladies look like they’re having a good time!

It’s easy music to love, in small doses. Like cake frosting, almost. You think because it’s sweet it doesn’t have weight, but listen enough and you’ll hear. You get sick if you gorge. There’s a totalizing energy, the greater sum of those three voices singing in perfect unison atop a just slightly more ahead of the curve aesthetic than you might think. If you hadn’t been specifically looking. Somehow these women have absolutely impeccable punk credentials. Paul Cook gave them a place to live when they were living at the WCA, and that place to live just happened to be above the Sex Pistol’s old rehearsal space. If you know anything at all about Bananarama, it might just be that factoid. They named themselves after a line in a Roxy Music song. What if the post-punkers started a girl group?


And then there’s this number, “Only Your Love.” Released 1990. Produced by the bassist of Killing Joke, I shit you not. 


This absolutely unorthodox group of people somehow came together in an intentional parody of the girl group form and made it stick. First album, 1983’s Deep Sea Skiving, has a different mood entirely. It’s closer to that engagement with post punk than you might remember. Their first ever single was in Swahili - “Aie a Mwana.” Cover of a disco song from Belgium by a pan-African combo - Black Blood. That was 1981. Think about that in the context of what was happening musically at the time, what was being played on the charts, at least on that side of the pond. I’d rather listen to Bananarama than Public Image, Ltd. any day of the week.


And you can certainly say they sanded some of those edges off to achieve international pop stardom. No one disputes that. But the interesting thing is, even if came to sound just a bit more in tune with pop radio than the college chart, the group never quite lost the understanding that they were originally pressed from a different ore. Their music was confident, not without a hint of sass. They traveled in a pack and knew how to talk shit. Their presence as a trio of equals on the front of the stage cast an impressive profile in an era and a space dominated by solo pop divas.


So, first thing that jumps out at you about the track - doesn’t just jump out, absolutely throttles you - is that sample. Yep, jumps right out - “Loaded,” by Primal Scream. And you might hear the Stone Roses, “Fools Gold,” too. (“Funky Drummer is in there, as well, but you’d probably have an easier time finding a song from 1990 that didn’t have “Funky Drummer.”) “Only Your Love” was recorded in March of 1990 - “Fools Gold” dropped in late Fall of 1989, “Loaded” in February of ‘90. Of course the guy from Killing Joke was paying attention to what was, improbably, at that moment both very popular and very good. The guy from Killing Joke was a producer, incidentally, working under the name Youth, known to the government as Martin Glover.


Unfortunately, the fact that this song sounded so absolutely contemporary to an interesting moment in the pop history of the UK meant that the group was as good as saying goodbye to the American pop charts. Indeed, this song wasn’t even released as a single in the United States. The group would continue to have success in their native lands, but less so. 


In hindsight the inflection point was probably the change in personnel. The group started as a trio, forming in September 1980. I’m precisely as old as Bananarama. Sara Dallin and Karen Woodward knew each other first, then met Siobhan Fahey after they loved to London from Bristol. That’s where they fell in with one another, met Paul Cook, and began their improbable rise. The original trio was together eight years, after which point Fahey left. She later resurfaced as Shakespeare’s Sister. Dallin and Woodward found a replacement, Jacquie O’Sullivan, who lasted three years, through the recording of the Pop Life album for which this was recorded. O’Sullivan left after that, and ceding to the inevitable Bananarama have been a duo ever since, and as well never again troubled the conscience of the American listener.  


So was Pop Life a departure? Definitely. They were saying goodbye to the production team of Stock Aitken Waterman that had produced many the hits from their mid-80s commercial zenith. Eurobeat, such as it was, didn’t conquer the States but had a respectable run on the charts, thanks to the likes of Bananarama, as well as Kylie Minogue’s first American eruption. The “SAW” team were responsible for Rick Astley’s career, or at least the recording of that song you’ve heard so many more times than you ever expected. But, even as Eurobeat was a minority proposition in the States, it was still a legible sound. Going back to your roots, so to speak, checking back in to contemporary British post-punk with a trip to Madchester, that was not something that stood a ghost of a chance of stirring a pulse in the United States. The Stone Roses were a college band over here, for their sins. Music like that wasn’t getting played on the radio in this country.


My goodness, though, but that was definitely our loss. I don’t know if “Only Your Love” is even the best song on the album. Don’t get me wrong, “Only Your Love” comes out of those speakers like a house on fire, but “Tripping on Your Love” is a masterpiece. The girl group goes acid house, pure pop confection. One of the best dance pop songs of its era - sadly a fizzle in the UK, where the album as a while generally seemed to underperform. That single was released in 1991, and for once actually did better in the States, at least on the dance charts. It’s a great dance song, for what it’s worth. 


As pop songs go, “Only Your Love” is a real kick in the chops. Because, yes, I was being coy earlier, but it really does lead with that sample, right up front, big as shit. That takes chutzpah. It wasn’t the first song to get by with some chutzpah, the window was just at that moment beginning to close on that interesting moment when people were somehow sampling whatever the hell they wanted - KLF blazing the pop charts with the Beatles’ “All You Need is Love” will do by way of example. That moment did not last very long, as most groups anywhere near as big as The Rolling Stones clamped down on the kind of casually transformative sampling that enabled Bananarama and the bassist from Killing Joke to sample “Sympathy for the Devil” for the pop charts, even down to those ragged “woo woos” we all know so well. They added a little piano, like a lot of dance songs are the time, just sort of going off in the background. There’s a breakdown towards the end where the group could easily have stuck some kind of guest rap, which was the move in 1990 on both sides of the Atlantic. Hell, they did it themselves on “Tripping on Your Love.” But no, they fill out the song with attitudinal taunts of “na na na na na na na,” a saucy call-and-response.


As a memory of a moment “Only Your Love” is a pop song that could only have ever existed at one place and in one time, the product of a band that may have been strained internally but still had an ear for a hook and the enormous swag to sell it. I believe the kids call it “rizz.” Go to your computers, right now, and watch the video for “Only Your Love.” That’s rizz, right there. 


Admittedly, three women in unison isn’t always the easiest sound to pull off. Familiarity with their catalog reveals a few instances where the approach struggled. But that’s no different than any band built around a certain kind of vocal style, just like like the Bee-Gees and their confounding male falsetto. Sometimes it doesn’t work, but when it works, well, damn. “Only Your Love” is the audio equivalent of getting hit by a train, if that train just happened to be conducted by three gorgeous women who probably weren’t taking the whole enterprise as seriously as you might think. That’s the only way the train ever left the station in the first place, after all. Tie me to the tracks.

1 comment :

buy skull & bones items said...

Wow, what a deep dive into Bananarama's 'Only Your Love'! I never realized the depth and complexity behind their music until reading this. Thanks for shedding light on the background and influences of such an iconic group. Can't wait to explore more of their catalog after this insightful analysis!