We ended Part 1 of our chronological celebration of female vocal duos in British pop with a terrible disco version of a hard-rock classic. So we might as well continue in the same vein, in the sure and certain hope that things can only get better.
Pepsi and Shirlie, ‘All Right Now’ (1987)
When Wham! split, following their Wembley gig in June 1986, three fragments remained. Of the boys, George Michael went on bigger (if not better) things, while Andrew Ridgeley managed just one album: the less than acclaimed Son of Albert (1990), on which he seemed to believe he was the new Billy Idol – he wasn’t. Our interest, however, is in the band’s backing singers, Helen DeMacque and Shirlie Holliman, better known as Pepsi and Shirlie.
Even as the echoes of the Wembley screams were dying out, the girls had already struck out on their own, surrounded by sufficient publicity to be noticed by Margaret Thatcher, who was played the debut single, ‘Heartache’ during an appearance on Saturday Superstore in January 1987 (it was an election year). Although the prime minister had previously expressed her fondness for ‘Telstar’ and ‘Two Little Boys’, she was not otherwise noted for her expertise in the field of pop music, but despite that, she put her finger on the problem immediately. ‘There was no melody,’ she explained, in the patient tones of a 1950s Sunday School teacher, ‘and no heartache.’
Even so, ‘Heartache’ reached #2, and the follow-up, ‘Goodbye Stranger’, also made the top 10. That, however, was as good as it was to get. ‘Can’t Give Me Love’ stopped at #58, and their fourth and final hit, ‘All Right Now’ – the title track of their debut album – did little better at #50.
It’s not good. Mind you, I never thought the Free original was up to much, either, despite its critical standing: way too butch for the likes of me. The Pepsi and Shirley version could have been, but wasn’t, an improvement. It felt like they wanted to be sleazy and punky, something akin to Transvision Vamp maybe, but didn’t want to risk losing their pop constituency. And you can’t do pop properly if you look hesitant.
They seemed at least to recognise the problem. ‘We have a lot to say,’ insisted Pepsi, shortly before this was released. ‘But the impression is given that we’re dumb, silly, and don’t know what to do with our success.’ Unfortunately, they didn’t.
Mel and Kim, ‘FLM’ (1987)
The 1980s Hit Factory of Stock Aitken Waterman started so well. In 1984 it gave us Divine’s ‘You Think You’re a Man’ and Dead or Alive’s ‘You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)’, both of which are magnificent creations, the ripest pieces of cheesy dance-pop released that year. Then came the reinvention of Bananarama, ditching the retro ’60s cool of their early years for a toned-down HiNRG pop. And that was okay as well, because the band still looked as though they still weren’t taking any of it too seriously.
Mel and Kim, on the other hand, SAW’s bright young hopes of 1986, clearly did take it seriously. And, they seemed to imply, we were supposed to think they were serious as well.
A pair of sisters from London, Mel and Kim Appleby looked like they were models. Not supermodels, you understand, but still stylish enough, with their matching bolero outfits, softened hair and high-gloss make-up. Where Bananarama went for pose, they opted for poise. Even if the music was much the same.
They’re probably the most successful duo of all those we’re looking at and could have been so much bigger still. Their first single – ‘Showing Out (Get Fresh for the Weekend)’ – got to #3 and the follow-up (‘Respectable’) went to #1; both also reached the top of the US dance charts.
This is their third single, the title track of their only album. It’s the best song from their output (‘I love money – boyfriends are boring’ is a classic Thatcherite lyric), but mostly I went for this one for non-musical reasons. We now know that by the time this was released, Mel had been diagnosed with cancer, which is why the video looks a little unfinished – she was unable to complete the filming. She died in 1990 at the age of twenty-three.
The Reynolds Girls, ‘I’d Rather Jack’ (1989)
In the absence of Mel and Kim, Stock Aitken Waterman went into a steep decline, artistically if not commercially. They might have scored seven #1 hits in 1989, but musically it had all gone horribly wrong, with a succession of pap nonsense by Kylie Minogue, Jason Donovan and Rick Astley. There’s simply not enough irony in the world to reclaim these records.
The one bright spot, the single suggestion that Pete Waterman hadn’t quite lost his touch, came with Linda and Aisling Reynolds, a pair of sisters from Liverpool, whose debut single eclipsed everything else in the SAW catalogue. An irresistible piece of teen pop, it was also a tongue-in-cheek celebration of dance music:
Golden oldies, Rolling Stones, we don’t want you back,
I’d rather jack than Fleetwood Mac.
No heavy metal rock and roll music from the past,
I’d rather jack than Fleetwood Mac.
Now there, surely, is a manifesto we can all get behind. It’s like a Junior Choice version of Denim’s mighty ‘Middle of the Road’. Not as good, obviously, because nothing’s as good as Denim, but still, it’s more fun than anything Fleetwood Mac ever did.
‘I’d Rather Jack’ got to #8, and that was effectively the beginning and the end of the Reynolds Girls’ career. They never recorded again for Stock Aitken Waterman, and their only other single (‘Get Real’) was neither good nor a hit.
Wee Papa Girl Rappers, ‘Wee Rule’ (1988)
Now that we’re on to the good stuff, we can end on a high. Twins Sandra and Samantha Lawrence used the stage names Total S and TY Tim and – as the group name suggested – they were rappers. Not necessarily the kind of rappers that got much critical acclaim, admittedly, but I liked them.
There were minor hits either side of this single, all of which were entertaining, but this is their masterpiece and their biggest success (getting to #6). A kind of pop take on dancehall (rather than on dance, as with the other records), it has a storming great chorus that Milli Vanilli would have been proud to mime to. And the last verse has one of my favourite lyrics of the decade:
I saw you sleeping on a station on a dredgy wooden bench,
I saw you turned away embarrassed, started swearing in French.
‘Fou le Camp,’ you started saying but you just didn’t know
That I passed exams in French about one year ago.
Hard to resist either the flaunting of youthful academic prowess or that detail of ‘about one year ago’ (it’s the ‘about’ that I love). And anyway, what kind of French lessons do you take to learn language like that?
We’ve now looked at nine acts (from a projected list of fifteen) in this slightly pointless ramble through the byways of British pop history. Have any patterns emerged? What have we learnt? Possibly not much more than the truth that we all hold to be self-evident: that the best pop music is defined by attitude as much as by talent. And the most convincing attitude for the female vocal duo seems to be cool and cheeky.
It’s noticeable, though, that half of the acts featured thus far (including the last three) have been pairs of sisters. Which looks more than a coincidence. Perhaps the pop industry had concluded that a sister-act was comfortably sexless. Because it’s also noticeable that the 1980s acts are much more obviously aimed at an audience of teenage girls than, say, Blonde on Blonde had been. And the image is consequently one of girls going out on the town.
Just to restate the original criteria: these are commercially successful acts comprising just a female vocal duo, with no other performers credited, recording in Britain. On that basis, I’m including everyone I can think of. And the balance is very strongly in favour of disposable pop, veering towards bubblegum. Maybe that’ll change in the final part.