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Bananarama’s Sara Dallin: As older women there are more opportunities in the music business – we’re not pushed aside

© Jack AlexanderSara, left, and bandmate Keren Woodward met as children and broke into the pop music scene in the 1980s with Fun Boy Three.
Sara, left, and bandmate Keren Woodward met as children and broke into the pop music scene in the 1980s with Fun Boy Three.

Today’s question: What do pop stars do when they’re not being pop stars? When I call Bananarama’s Sara Dallin on a Monday morning late in January, I get a little glimpse.

“Is that Sara?” I ask. “It is,” the familiar voice on the other end of the line replies, before adding: “Let me just turn Candy Crush off. I don’t want that pinging away while we’re talking. Hiya.”

Now you know.

Sara Dallin – the tall one in the middle when the band were a trio, now the blonde one in Bananarama’s current incarnation as a duo – is at home in London, sitting in her roof garden watching the birds. “The sun’s just about coming out,” she tells me.

Has it ever gone down on Bananarama, you might ask? Stars since the early 1980s, Sara and best friend Keren Woodward have been doing this pop lark for more than 40 years now.

In the early 1980s, along with Siobhan Fahey, Sara and Keren backcombed their hair and wore dungarees as they travelled the world promoting hit after hit which would eventually see them overtake the Supremes as the world’s most successful girl group.

This was long before the Spice Girls had zig-ah-zig-ahed into the picture, of course, though the Nanas retain the Guinness World Record for the most internationally charted hits by an all-female group.

These days the Bananarama look is more chic than cheeky, but Sara and Keren remain in love with making music and playing live.

Still loving music

Next month sees the release of new compilation album Glorious: The Ultimate Collection, a gather-up of hits and tunes from their breakthrough hits with Fun Boy Three up to the present day.

In the wake of the album, the duo will be playing the London Palladium and later in the year the Kelvingrove Bandstand in Glasgow as part of this year’s Summer Nights line-up. “It sold out in five minutes and I’m just so thrilled,” Sara says of their night in Glasgow. “I can’t wait to go there. We always have the loveliest of welcomes.”

Before I spoke to Sara this morning I had been watching an old interview with the band on YouTube from 1986. In it, Siobhan Fahey told the presenter: “Obviously, we’re not going to be Bananarama when we’re 60.”

That turned out to be true for her, but Sara and Keren, who are both now 62, remain fully paid-up members of the band. It’s something of a surprise to them too, Sara admits.

“Music has changed massively over those four decades,” she points out. “I never dreamt as an 18-year-old that I would be doing it this long. I think pop was looked at as a very disposable medium. ‘It’s not going to last.’

“But I think pop is no longer that fluffy, throwaway stuff. Taylor Swift does pop and look at her. It’s changed so dramatically now that it is acceptable.

“We’ve worked really hard to get to this position. I also feel very fortunate. This is the only job I’ve ever done.”

‘You’re not pushed to the side’

Bananarama’s longevity reflects the fact that women in the music industry are no longer second-class citizens, Sara suggests.

“Even as older women there are more opportunities,” she says. “You are not pushed to the side. When I was 26 a journalist said ‘you’re all pushing 30, shouldn’t you stop now?’ And I was 26!”

If anything, she says, they are more in control of things now than they have ever been.

“The last two albums we put out on our own label and both charted. To have that success doing it completely ourselves has just been a phenomenal change. And it’s so satisfying.”

It is maybe hard now to recall just how fresh and thrilling Bananarama were when they first appeared on Top Of The Pops at the start of the 1980s. Three young women who dressed the way they wanted to and seemed intent on having the most fun possible.

Critics sneered at their voices (in his book Black Vinyl White Powder, music insider Simon Napier Bell waspishly described Bananarama as “three charming girls who weren’t the world’s best singers…”) but it wasn’t difficult to see why they were loved by Smash Hits readers.

Bananarama. © Jack Alexander

“We made our own clothes, wrote our own little songs and it just worked,” Sara says. “And I think maybe it worked because there were very few female bands out there that little girls could relate to. And it’s really important for girls to relate to women.”

Childhood friends Sara and Keren had moved to London from Bristol as teenagers. Out and about in the bars and clubs they met Paul Cook, former drummer with the Sex Pistols, who offered them somewhere to stay and helped produce a demo.

“We had boyfriends who were in bands – the Starjets and Stiff Little Fingers – and we made a little demo,” Sara recalls, “and it came to the attention of John Peel and Terry Hall and the rest is history.”

Terry Hall, formerly frontman with The Specials, had just formed a new band, Fun Boy Three, and invited Bananarama to sing with them on the single It Ain’t What You Do (It’s The Way That You Do It). The Fun Boy Three then returned the favour on the Bananarama single Really Saying Something. Both songs went top five. Bananarama had arrived.

“I loved meeting him for the first time because he was as shy as we were,” Sara says now of the Fun Boy Three singer, who sadly died in December 2022.

“We went to meet him in an office and the three of us were monosyllabic and he was as well. ‘Do you want to sing on this album?’ ‘Yeah.’ It was so funny.

“But he had the same sense of humour and, I think, the same outlook on life. He was an absolute joy to work with. And just a really lovely guy.”

Fun Boy Three’s endorsement opened the door to the pop world for Bananarama and they gleefully ran through it.

“We were being immersed into this world we knew nothing about. Like these little fairies floating around and having all these opportunities. Just taking it with that naivety and joy you do when you’re really young.”

Ruling the 80s

Bananarama ruled the 1980s. They were even invited to be part of Band Aid. The original line-up was relatively short-lived, but it lasted long enough to see them move from girl-next-door pop stars to embracing a more glam look and high-energy sound when they started working with Stock, Aitken and Waterman on hits like Venus and Love In The First Degree.

The collaboration was a huge success, though Pete Waterman would subsequently moan: “They had so many opinions.”

The nerve! “There were certain people who welcomed your opinions and there were some people who didn’t,” Sara says rather circumspectly.

She’s not here to diss anyone today. “I loved the Wow album with Stock, Aitken and Waterman. It’s got some of my favourite songs on it.”

By that point, however, Siobhan was frustrated with the band’s direction. She left in 1988 to form Shakespear’s Sister. “It was a painful divorce,” she told a newspaper a few years ago.

For a while she was replaced by Jacquie O’Sullivan before Sara and Keren became a duo which they’ve remained nearly ever since.

In 2017, however, they teamed up with Siobhan again for a one-off world tour; something the original members of the band hadn’t managed to do in the ‘80s.

“Someone suggested a one-off original line-up tour,” Sara explains. “I think all sides were not sure this was a good idea. But it turned out to be phenomenal. It was like time had never passed. It was being like 18 again.”

Siobhan is now off doing her own thing again, but Sara and Keren – when they are not being mums (Sara’s daughter Alice is herself a musician) – are still joyously, happily being Bananarama. Why have they stayed so close for so long?

“I think as kids we zoned in on each other because we liked the same music. We just seemed to click and have that bond. Her and I were just completely inseparable from the age of 11, 12. It’s such a bond and that’s never going to go away.”

In other words, being in Bananarama is a job for life. What do pop stars do when they’re not being pop stars? Some of them are quite good at being best friends.

Sex Pistol gave girls head start

Sex Pistols album God Save The Queen. © Elisa Leonelli/Shutterstock
Sex Pistols album God Save The Queen.

You might not associate the joyous pop of Bananarama with the punk fierceness of The Sex Pistols, but it was the Pistols’ drummer, Paul Cook, who was instrumental in starting their career.

“Keren and I met Paul in a club,” Sara recalls. “We were staying in the YWCA opposite the British Museum while I was at college and Keren was working at the BBC. He took us out for lunch.”

When the YWCA was closed, Cook told them they could stay in his rehearsal room.

“It was just an absolute hovel. It had no hot water, no bath. The toilet was miles away in a courtyard. But when you’re 18 it was ‘wow, this is so cool. We’re in the middle of Soho. We can walk to clubs.’

“Keren and I would come home and plug in the guitars.”

Later, all three members of Bananarama moved into a flat together. When Siobhan Fahey started going out with Robert Hodgens from The Bluebells she hid him away in her room to begin with.

“I think she tried to keep him away from us,” Sara says, laughing. “He used to come and watch us play netball against Sade’s team.”

So which member of Bananarama did the tidying up in this flat?

“Nobody did anything! Shane MacGowan would come round and we’d all be singing and playing recorders.”

Glorious: The Ultimate Collection is out on March 8. Bananarama play Summer Nights at the Bandstand in Glasgow on August 10