Here Come the Girls: Bananarama are set to light up the stage at Newmarket Nights
Most women my age, teens in the mid-1980s, will probably feel very much the way I did about Bananarama. From the first time they appeared on our Top of the Pops screens, all shaggy hair, gorgeous insouciance, slightly shambolic dance routines and radiant cool, they were instantly the fun-but-slightly-edgy big sisters that I wanted to hang out with.
Their songs were catchy and throwaway: instant earworms, their Doc Marten boots and dungaree combos didn’t seem to have even come close to a stylist (and looked all the more amazing because of it), and they just seemed to be navigating the sharkpit of the 1980s music industry freely, effortlessly and joyfully, giggling as they danced in sort-of formation. A trio of real, vibrant, take-us-as-we-are young women that were a brilliant contrast to the shoulder-pads-and-lip-gloss idealised picture of womanhood to be found elsewhere at the time.
So, of course, speaking now to Keren Woodward – one of the original three band members (along with the other remaining ‘nana Sara Dallin and Siobhan Fahey, later of Shakespeare’s Sister before briefly reuniting with the band for some live dates in 2017/18) – was always going to be a thrill. Chatting down the phone from beautiful Cornwall (“It’s just lovely… but your part of the world’s not so bad either”), she’s every bit the warm and engaging interviewee teenage-me would have hoped.
We start by talking about how being in Bananarama in the 21st century differs to the band’s 80s heyday. Sounding genuinely enthused about their current schedule, Keren explains: “We were just stupidly busy in the 80s – all around the world, and there was a lot more pressure. Sara and I have such a great time doing it now – we do all the stuff we like doing.”
And by that, she means performing live, something which – surprisingly – the original incarnation of the band “didn’t really get to do until the end of the 80s, because we were so busy doing other stuff.”
She continues: “I think I ruined one of the planned tours by getting pregnant – nature of being a woman!” Keren laughs, clearly delighted to be now making up for the lack of live performance back in the day.
Indeed, the band now seem to have reached that ideal place where “we mostly do the stuff that we love doing - which is writing and recording songs and doing all the live work – but we don’t really feel that we have the pressure on us that we did back then.”
And it’s easy to forget quite what a big deal Bananarama were, “back then”. Their string of brilliant singles (Shy Boy, Cruel Summer, Robert De Niro’s Waiting and Keren’s favourite Love in the First Degree) hit the Top 10 in both the UK and the US, and saw them listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the all-female group with the highest number of chart entries… in the world!
So of course, as one of the biggest bands of the day, they featured on the original 1984 Band Aid Do They Know It’s Christmas? single, which Keren admits they found “quite overwhelming”. “We agreed to do it – Bob Geldof had asked us to do it – but had no idea of the scale of it. There were just too many famous people there. You know, you’ve got Bono behind you, singing in the loudest voice imaginable!”
As one of the original (pre-Spice Girls) proponents of a kind of “girl power”, I find it hard to believe that the band were particularly daunted by the prospect. But how, I wonder, did they negotiate being an all-woman band: does Keren object, for example to Bananarama being referred to as a “girl band”?
“I don’t mind. We’ve always been called ‘the girls’ and people still say it. It would be ridiculous for me to find it insulting. For me, being a girl or being a boy has never really been any different. I never grew up as a girl thinking I was any less than any boy around me.
“We’ve come up against the usual sort of sexism and stuff, because that’s just the nature of being a girl, but I’m proud of being a girl and we always stood our own ground, always,” she continues, emphatically.
“We’ve always fought our corner well, and I think that’s part of the gang mentality – all girls together: it’s us against everyone else.”
By “us”, Keren is mainly referring, these days, to Sara Dallin. Not only bandmates, the two have been friends for more or less their whole lives, having met at the age of 4 and becoming “best friends at the age of 11”. As Keren puts it, sweetly, “life’s just been something we’ve always done together”.
“I feel very privileged to have had the career I’ve had and made a living doing something I love with someone that I’ve grown up with. The relationship just works. It’s longer than most marriages, isn’t it!” she laughs.
And the pair certainly seem to be having fun. The conversation turns again to their love of performance. “We do laugh a lot on stage as well. You’ll sometimes come off and think: ‘God, that was a bit too French and Saunders’ because it’s so amusing.”
They clearly both relish “the reaction of a crowd. There’s a huge satisfaction when people come up to you at the end [of a show] and say: ‘Oh my god, I’d forgotten how many of your songs I knew’. It’s just an absolutely joyous experience for both of us and for the crowd.”
So what can we expect at the Newmarket show? “All the hits! We’ve got an amazing band, and that’s what makes it fun for us in so many ways. We’ve got quite a party set.”
And with so many brilliant hits to call upon, it’s unsurprising Bananarama’s live sets are a riot of “crowd participation – everyone sings all the words and dances around”. What better way to end a day at the races on August 9. I can’t wait and neither, it seems, can the band itself.
Bananarama play Newmarket Nights on August 9. Tickets, which include afternoon racing, start at £27 at https://live.thejockeyclub.co.uk or by calling 0344 579 3019.