In Part One and Part Two of this history of female vocal duos in British pop, we got up to the end of the 1980s. Except that I was cheating a little: 1989 saw the debut hit (‘You’re History’) by the best of all these acts, but I didn’t mention it, because I was saving them up for this final part. And now here they are.
Shakespears Sister, ‘Hello (Turn Your Radio On)’ (1992)
As Bananarama laboured at the Stock Aitken Waterman Hit Factory, founder member Siobhan Fahey became increasingly dissatisfied with their new direction, and in 1988 she abandoned them to their fate. They were never the same again (and never enjoyed the same success), but Fahey turned up with something special.
Shakespears Sister was initially intended as a solo act, but with the addition of American vocalist/guitarist Marcella Detroit, emerged as the most original of the duos we’re looking at. The key was the distinct singing styles of the two women. Most single-sex duos go for blending voices in close harmony; the Sister (as we knew them) just celebrated difference, and used the contrast for dramatic effect.
A sense of theatre ran through their work, which was far from being an obvious development: there had been little sign of arty ambition in Bananarama, and although Detroit (under her real name Marcy Levy) had duetted with Alice Cooper on the track ‘Millie and Billie’ (1978), that had been one of Alice’s duller efforts. Now though, in this new incarnation, it was the space operatics – and the suitably stagy video – that took ‘Stay’ to the top of the charts in 1992 and kept it there for eight weeks. That was the second single from their album Hormonally Yours, and this was the fourth, which was maybe pushing it a little – certainly it didn’t do as well, only getting to #14.
Nonetheless, it was my favourite of their records at the time, and it remains so: a splendidly over-wrought epic that sounded like a female Mott the Hoople at their most elegiac – which was very elegiac indeed – and gave an early hint that there might be a bit of a glam revival in the offing for British pop. (Suede, the Auteurs and Denim were to turn up in a few months’ time.) Plus it had the word ‘radio’ in the chorus, and you can’t go too far wrong if you do that: it’s one of the great rock ’n’ roll words.
This was also, however, pretty much the end of the group. The pair split up in 1993 and, although Fahey continued to release material under the group name, there were no more recordings with them together. And they’ve never reunited.
Shampoo, ‘Trouble’ (1994)
If Shakespears Sister represent the pinnacle of the arty side of the female double-act, then Shampoo do the same for the trash-pop element. This is a magnificent record, pretty much as good as pop music gets.
Jacqui Blake and Carrie Askew came from Plumstead, South-East London and released their first singles under the patronage of Saint Etienne. They were fine thrashy bits of punk nouveau (hard to resist song titles like ‘Bouffant Headbutt’ and ‘I Love Little Pussy’), but barely started to hint at this bratty monster. With a simple guitar riff, semi-rapped verses and juggernaut chorus, ‘Trouble’ was the snotty spirit of the early Beastie Boys reincarnated as a pair of glue-sniffing girls from the London suburbs. (Not that I’m saying they actually sniffed glue, of course.)
This wasn’t as big a hit as it should have been. It only got to #11, though it had a brief resurgence the following year when it turned up on the soundtrack of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie*. And the album it came from (We Are Shampoo) did well, allegedly selling a million copies, many of them in Japan, where the plastic pop went down very well. Even so, it was a little disappointing that ‘Trouble’ was as big as they got. The second album Girl Power (1995) provided a minor hit with the title track, which may have given the Spice Girls a slogan, but which had a very different agenda to the Thatcherite work ethic of Geri Halliwell:
I don’t wanna go to college, don’t wanna get a job,
Wanna sit around the house and act like a slob.
They split up after their third album, Absolute Shampoo (2000).
* My thanks to Dan Atkinson of this parish for directing me to the cover version by the cast of St Trinian’s (2008).
Alisha’s Attic, ‘Barbarella’ (2000)
The absence of Shakespears Sister clearly left a gap for a left-field pop-rock female duo, but whether Alisha’s Attic were the ones to fill it was a moot point. Shelly and Karen Poole were the daughters of Essex music legend Brian Poole, of Tremeloes fame. Under the name Keren and Chelle, they’d released records like ‘Sugar Daddy’ so insistently inane that it’s a minor miracle they weren’t hits.
But they weren’t and, reinventing themselves as alternative artistic types, the sisters did alright: seven top-30 hits in a six-year period from 1996 and a couple of top-20 albums was a respectable if not spectacular career. And then Karen – who’d always been the writing talent – went to be one of those guns-for-hire who turns up with credits on songs by a random selection of artists: Janet Jackson, S Club 7, Lily Allen.
In the early days of the Attic themselves (as we knew them), they showed signs of the then-fashionable Alanis Morissette: colloquially phrased faux-confessionals with melody lines that went on for a couple of notes too many, but still resolved into catchy choruses when needed. They were essentially a lightweight pop act, but projected just about enough credibility to clamber onto the bottom of the bill of the first Lilith Fair tour in 1997 and to get invited on The White Room.
Those who remember them probably do so for the first hits, ‘I Am, I Feel’ and ‘Alisha Rules the World’, which just missed the top 10 but got played a lot on radio and earned them a Brit nomination for Best Newcomer. Or it’s for the grown-up stuff at the end: ‘Pretender Got My Heart’ (2001) was on the soundtrack album of Bridget Jones’s Diary.
All of those were nice enough, but this is their best moment. The third single from their 1998 album, Illumina, it’s a celebration of old-fashioned Hollywood style in a digital world: ‘It’s more like Barbarella, Barbarella, it’s not like the old Fifties glamour.’ In other hands it could have been agreeably sleazy; here it’s a bit clean, but still fun. It got to #34 but no further.
The Cheeky Girls, ‘Cheeky Song (Touch My Bum)’ (2002)
The twins Gabriela and Monica Irimia came from Transylvania, but they get included here because they moved to Britain in 2002 and appeared that year on Popstars: The Rivals. So they’re our fault.
Pete Waterman was said to have described them as the worst act he’d ever seen, but he was wrong. The records were so ludicrous, the songwriting so primitive, that I have a quiet admiration for the whole project. It’s not as easy as it looks to make bubblegum this relentlessly mindless and get it to work.
Anyway, I always like the idea of a band who celebrate themselves in their songs. Admittedly the Cheeky Girls were no Wombles or Adam and the Ants, let alone Bo Diddley, but even so, what a fine run of singles titles: ‘Cheeky Song’ ‘(Hooray, Hooray!) It’s a Cheeky Holiday’, ‘Have a Cheeky Christmas’, ‘Cheeky Flamenco’. Only their second single, ‘Take Your Shoes Off’, ruined it. Impressively, these were all hits. (Less impressively, of course, Gabriela was briefly engaged to the then-Liberal Democrat MP Lembit Opik.)
Of course, it couldn’t last. And indeed it didn’t; it all ended in financial squabbles over unpaid royalties.
Mini Viva, ‘Left My Heart in Tokyo’ (2009)
I didn’t want to finish with the Cheeks (as we knew them), so here are Frankee Connolly and Britt Love with their only top ten hit in a career that lasted for just two years. Harmless dance-pop, it may be, but there’s a decent song in there – quarter-of-a-century earlier it could been a New Romantic hit.
So what do we conclude of the female vocal duo? Probably nothing much. The same as the record industry, which has never seemed to be very supportive of many of these acts, apparently unsure how to market them. Because none of the duos we’ve looked at had sustainable careers. But maybe that’s because it’s not a very stable format: a lot of these acts fell apart very rapidly after the first flush of success. How many of them split because one of the pair was lured away from the partnership with the promise of a solo career, I wouldn’t know.
The problem, I think, is sex. As it so often is. After all, sex has been at the heart of rock ‘n’ roll from the outset. And the business doesn’t really know how to present two women. Who are they supposed to be singing to? Well, there is one obvious answer to that, of course, one possible approach to marketing. The Russian duo t.A.T.u. broke out internationally with the overtly lesbian lyrics and video to their single ‘All the Things She Said‘ (2002), which reached #1 in Britain and elsewhere.
It’s also noticeable that, with the exception of Shakespears Sister, none of these duos have never really worked as album acts. Again, this might be an industry issue: they’re seen purely in terms of singles.
That’s pretty much still the case. Female duos are mostly to be found in the world of dance-pop, whether cheesy – see Ekkah, ‘Last Chance to Dance’ (2014) – or cool: Eli and Fur, ‘You’re So High’ (2013). Which is fine, but a bit of a shame, since there seems so much else that it could be doing. I’m thinking, for example, of the Sussex duo Smoke Fairies, whose dreamy folk-blues works entirely because of the two-part harmonies. ‘Devil in My Mind’ and ‘Strange Moon Rising’ come from Through Low Light and Trees (2010), an album which amg.com says ‘is clearly the product of the green fields and misty mountains of their homeland’. Well, I know the South Downs can give you a decent walk, but ‘mountains’ is pushing it a little…
One last track. I realised that I missed an obvious act who should have been included. The Scottish pair of Jill Bryson and Rose McDowall had a hit as Strawberry Switchblade in 1985 with ‘Since Yesterday’. And it follows the pattern: a really neat piece of post-punk pop that wasn’t followed up with other success. A couple of minor hits-in-Japan later, the group split up with just one album to their name. Here and elsewhere, you can’t help feeling there’ve been a lot of missed opportunities.