'80s - The Belle Stars (2010)
'Still a Beautiful Star'
Forged back in 1980 from the remnants of Two Tone's Bodysnatchers, The Belle Stars - Jennie Matthias, Sarah-Jane Owen, Lesley Shone, Miranda Joyce, Stella Barker, Clare Hirst and Judy Parsons - were an all female, all singing, all dancing tour de force.
Fusing limitless energy with incredible passion, they enjoyed no fewer than seven UK chart entries between 1982 and 1984 and toured with The Clash, Madness, The Police and Elvis Costello.
Their hit singles included fantastic, super-charged renditions of 'Iko Iko' and 'The Clapping Song', plus their self-penned smash 'Sign Of The Times'.
Their brand new, 2-disc Hits comilation, '80s Romance' comprises all of their recordings for the legendary Stiff Records - including their debut album in its entirety. This comprehensive, enhanced collection also contains three of their best videos.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Clare Hirst about life back then, life today, Hazel O'Connor, the brand new Belle Stars Hits CD, and, of course, ... Penguins!
Taking it from the top, am I correct in thinking that you were not actually part of the original 'Belle Stars' - the girls that formed in 1980, had their first performance on Christmas Day (before a band name was even chosen), and got signed to Stiff Records? "Yes, youíre right. I joined the band to replace their keyboard player and they wanted someone who could play the sax as well. Luckily I played tenor and Miranda played alto so we got along fine. Also the only question they asked me at the audition was my starsign - which is Leo. Turns out the rest of them are all Leos or Virgos so that was settled!"
Having replaced keyboard player Penny Leyton in late 1981 (thru an advert in the Melody Maker), was it an easy transition for you into the group - or were there moments early on where you thought it might not work out for you? "Actually things moved so fast after I joined that I didnít even have time to think about it. We went straight into the studio and recorded 'Iko Iko' which was released the same week and went on to chart. So we never stopped working after that - TV shows and gigs - and I thought it was so exciting I just loved it."
Now as a fully-fledged member of the Belle Stars, when the third single 'Another Latin Love Song' again failed to break into the UK charts, the band turned to cover songs instead. Who's suggestion was it to take that route? "Aha you are behind me now! I joined after the first three singles which didnít chart, so you could say I was the good luck charm!! I think Dave Robbinson, boss of Stiff records was the man behind the covers."
Well, with that in mind, and with The Dixie Cup's cover of 'Iko Iko' becoming the Belle Stars first UK Singles Chart debut, what was the successful (finally) feeling like within the Belle Stars camp? "We all loved doing gigs and so to be busy doing what you love is a great thing. TV and photo sessions (lots of them) were fun too. Everyone was excited and happy to be working so hard. And we also got to travel abroad. A lot which was fun."
You followed it up with more covers - 'The Clapping Song,' 'Mockingbird,' and 'Harlem Shuffle' - but was there ever a worry within the band that you were fast turning into nothing short of a covers band? "We were around at the same time as post punk bands Madness, the Specials, The Beat, The Clash, etc. who all had original songs. We always wrote our own songs and yes, there was a bit of conflict with the record company about the covers. But eventually we got to release our own songs."
In 1983 you released what would be your signature single, 'Sign Of The Times,' which allowed you to create a music video that showed you all in tuxedos! Who came up with that image for the video - and did you have a hand in writing that inconic song? "Actually we wrote as a collective. Yes, I know it sounds strange now, but we split all the publishing seven ways and that worked really well for us as we did write as a team. Famous teams being Holland/Dozier/Holland, Stock/Aitken/Waterman and I think U2. So everyone got a chance to put their own bit in - be it a horn line a bass line or just a couple of words. Somehow it all came together. Acually I think I wrote the horn line for this."
"The video was shot in the Stiff records company warehouse in Camden town. Dave Robinson wanted us to wear tuxedos as he had had a hit with Madness in tuxedoís and he thought they were lucky for him and for us. As it turned out they were! Lazers were pretty new at the time (as were videos) so just using them was quite innovative."
With 'Sign Of The Times' proving to be the peak of the band's success, with each follow-up single less successful than its predecessor, after a tour throughout Europe people started leaving the band - including you! Why did you yourself leave at that time, and were you the first out the door? "No, as ever it was a collective decision. Dave Robinson was no longer backing us and for some reason it never occurred to us to seek out a new record company. We all felt we had had a lot of success but still were not getting any real money to speak of. It just seemed like a logical step to move on."
Indeed, that seems to have been that re: your Belle Stars career - in reflection, did it all end too soon or was it something that lasted longer than it should have done? "It was a fantastic experience and I loved it. However, musically I had quite different ambitions which were in a more jazzy direction. And so, after five years I was happy to move on."
Since then you have played on albums by Amazulu, The Communards, Shriekback, Julia Fordham, and these days, Hazel O'Connor. On actual record, what has been one of your proudest moments, one perhaps you have at home and listen to occasionally also? "Well I have a solo CD, 'Tough and Tender' which has all my own compositions and maybe thatís the one I really like best. But I also am very proud of the Bluja Project CD."
Indeed, so please tell us more about your work with Hazel O'Connor as part of the Bluja Project "This is just Hazel, me and piano player Sara Fisher. We all sing and are bridging that gap between soul/jazz and folk music with a bit of rock thrown in. Itís a demanding trio as we are all from a rock/pop background and we are quite ballsy if Iím allowed to say that. It's hard work but very satisfying. We have done festival slots in front of large crowds which have gone down really well. But there is no place to hide in an acoustic trio like that!! We will be out on the road in the UK spring next year which Iím very much looking forward to."
And you are currently on tour with Hazel on her Breaking Glass Live Shows - how are those going? What are the crowds like, after all these years? "The shows are going down really well. We are sold out most of the time and the audiences really love her stuff. People often come up to me and say I have made them cry with my sax playing in 'Will You.' I hope thatís because they like it!"
Do you have a favorite Belle Stars track, perhaps? One that you can listen to over and over - and if so, for what reason? "Well, I mostly donít listen to anything Iíve recorded after the final mix! I know it so well by then, but there are lots of the songs I really like - apart from the hits e.g. 'Indian Summer,' 'Slick Trick' and 'Having a Good Time'."
Fun Four (Lyrically)!:
OK, here are some Belle Stars song lyrics - because, regardless of the fact that you didn't actually write most all of them, you (and the rest of the Belle Stars) chose to sing them. Thoughts?!
"My grandma and your grandma
Were sittin' by the fire,
My grandma told your grandma
I'm gonna set your FACE on fire"
I mean, why would she want to do that?!?! Setting someone's face on fire seems extreme!!!! "I think the actual words are Iím gonna set your flag on fire! It's some old Southern song from New Orleans and no-one really knows what the words are about. I think it might be a nonsense song but if you are really interested there is an explanation on Wikipedia!"
'Sign Of The Times'
"You're strong in bed
You're weak in love,
You give me nothing
More than a shove"
Out of bed? That's gotta leave a bruise! Isn't that ruled as domestic violence? "The song was written about a well known pop star of the 80ís and I think a shove out of bed was the best thing that could happen to him at the time! It was another of our love gone wrong songs."
"I, I, I, love that he knows
That I care,
And I, I, I, love that he knows
He's no sweat"
Sweat? What? So, anyone slightly sweaty wouldn't be in the running to offer her his Mockingbird, then?! "To be honest I wasnít that much into mockingbirds at the time but these days, well, who knows?"
'The Clapping Song'
"Three-six-nine the goose drank wine
The monkey chewed tobacco on the street car line,
The line broke, the monkey got choked
And they all went to heaven in a little row boat"
Whaaaaaaaaaaat? Where do I start? What's a goose doing drinking wine in the first place, let alone a monkey riding a street car, chewing tobacco!!! And then a horrible accident occurs and they all die! A row boat then magically appears in the middle of the street and they all ascend to Heaven! All in the first paragraph of the song! "Russell, Calm down! How on earth should I know?"
And, for the record, and for once and for all, where did the name the Belle Stars originate? Were there other names being considered that you were aware of? "As that was before I even joined the band itís a bit tricky to answer. Bellestar was apparently an old, ugly Cowgirl. It was suggested as a name by Gaz Mayall (yes, Johnís son). So, thanks Gaz, let me know when youíre looking for a new name for your band!"
If asked to record one for charity, what '80s (and possibly cheesy!)
pop/rock song would you love to cover today...and why? "Well, we were kept off the top spot of the charts by a cheesy puppet bird called Orville, but I certainly wouldnít cover his song! Maybe 'Tainted Love' by Soft Cell. I always loved that ... or 'Love Cats' by The Cure."
And talking of charity, please tell us more about the Hazel O'Connor Hospice Charity Single that is about to come out "We did a launch for it in Coventry last week which was great fun. It's got people like Toyah, Carol Decker, Ranking Roger (from the Beat), and Neville Staple (Selector) on it. Itís a charity single for the Myton Hospice who look after Hazelís mum. Its available for download from the 6th December and its called 'Re-Joyce'."
Could the original Belle Stars line-up ever record together and your again, perhaps? I know the girls are spread around the world, but bringing them together couldn't be that hard, could it? "The stock answer to that at the moment is Who knows? If we were offered a gig at the Royal Wedding we would probably do it! Short of that I really donít know."
Lastly, and throwing you a journalistic curve ball, Exclusive Magazine
loves Penguins...do you? "I really do. I have a beautiful penguin picture painted by my daughter when she was 6. It lives in our front room!"
Interviewed by: Russell A. Trunk
The Belle Stars - '80s Romance: The Hits' CD Purchase Link