Sing when you’re winning: The Fizz interview
Nothing in the tumultuous saga of The Fizz – in any of its various incarnations – has ever been simple. Yet the story behind their latest studio album Smoke & Mirrors could be the most extraordinary of them all, as Paul Kirkley discovers…
As missionstatements go, The Fizz’s recent single Winning Ways is fairly unequivocal. “Tell me about your sad, sad story, tell me about your former glory,” sing the artists formerly known as Formerly of Bucks Fizz (stay with us, it’s complicated). “You’re living for yesterdays, get up and join the race. You’re better than that, get back to winning ways.
There’s an extent, of course, to which the 40-year history of Bucks Fizz is indeed a sad, sad story – not to mention, as Cheryl Baker puts it to Classic Pop, “a dangerous, scary, life-threatening” story. But it’s also one where, according to Cheryl’s bandmate Jay Aston, “the joy far outweighs the stress”. And a tale in which, after years of rows, recriminations and trading on those former glories, The Fizz are back firing on all cylinders (well, three cylinders anyway) with Smoke & Mirrors – an album of shiny new pop bangers, the latest fruit of a fertile collaboration with legendary hitmaker Mike Stock. Though, naturally, it didn’t happen without a couple of late twists in the tale that would prove dramatic, even by Fizz standards. More on those later.
“It feels like the early days,” says Mike Nolan – now holding up the male end of The Fizz on his own since the departure of the short-lived Bobby McVay in 2018. “This is what we used to do. We had albums out, went on tour, did TV promotions. And then it all stopped.
All of The Fizz are happy to credit Stock with the revival in their creative fortunes. “It’s amazing,” says Cheryl when Classic Pop sits down with the trio in a swish London hotel. “There were years – decades – when we didn’t make any records. There is an element of snobbery around Bucks Fizz…” She stops to correct herself. “… around The Fizz. Some people would say: ‘Don’t bother, they’re old hat.’ But Mike loves what we do, which is why he contacted me on Twitter and said, ‘Do you want to come into the studio and do an album?’”
This was 2017’s The F-Z Of Pop, which was hailed by Classic Pop as “brilliant, moody, pounding and melodious”, and saw The Fizz back in the Top 30 for the first time since the mid-80s. “He just gets us,” says Jay, still the baby of the group at 58. “The first album was him finding out what we were capable of – because he didn’t know if we were any good in the studio. And it was just like, this amazing fit.”
Classic Pop asks if Stock, with whom they also recorded 2018’s festive Christmas With The Fizz album, is their new Andy Hill – the songwriter-producer who crafted such early Bucks Fizz classics as Making Your Mind Up, The Land Of Make Believe and My Camera Never Lies. “Definitely,” says Cheryl. “Though they’re completely different, as producers,” adds Mike. “What I like about Mike is that he looks on us as a vocal group, whereas in the early days, it was more of a production thing.”
While Jay has contributed to Smoke & Mirrors, along with Cheryl’s daughter, Kyla Stroud, most of the songs are Stock compositions. The results are anything but off-the-shelf, though: on the contrary, Stock has woven biographical elements of the Bucks Fizz story – this torrid tale of ups and downs, of high drama and high farce – throughout the album’s 11 tracks. “He writes songs that are about us, and for us,” states Cheryl simply.
Songs like All We Can Ever Do (“We’re just staying true/ To those who need us to”) and the self-explanatory Boomerang, appear to celebrate The Fizz’s extraordinary resilience, while it’s hard not to read The World We Left Behind (“You can’t go back/ No second chances”) as the laying to rest of a few old ghosts.
What neither Stock nor the group knew when they went into the studio, though, was that the album’s biggest story was yet to be written.
“On the day we started the album, I said to Mike: ‘I need to tell you I’ve had a biopsy come back, and they think it’s probably cancerous’,” explains Jay, in measured tones. “And literally within a week, I got the call.”
The call confirmed her worst fears: that she had mouth cancer, and would need surgery to remove part of her tongue and lymph nodes. Aware that, even with a broadly positive outcome, she might never sing again, Jay was determined to lay down a guide vocal for the album’s big, heartfelt solo ballad, From Here To Eternity – its lyrics (“Now and forever, I’ll always be with you/ I never could leave with you, whatever the future may be”) now suffused with a whole new weight of meaning.
“You just switch into professional mode,” explains Jay, who underwent a gruelling seven-hour operation in which surgeons used a skin graft from her thigh to reconstruct a large section of her tongue. “It took my mind off it for a bit. And while I was in hospital, I kept playing the song over and over, thinking: I’m going to go back and finish that.”
“It was a very surreal time,” says Cheryl. “None of us knew, especially Jay, whether the op would be successful – whether she’d be able to speak again, let alone sing. Even if she was going to survive. We had private conversations, Mike and I, about: What do we do? What do we do if Jay doesn’t come out of this? Or she can’t work again? It was a very traumatic time.”
Mercifully, the operation was a success, and six months later Jay was back in the studio, recording the final version of From Here To Eternity. “It was very emotional for me to sing that,” she says, with no small understatement. “I mean, I’ve had to learn to sing slightly differently. In some respects, singing is easier than talking, because of the projection.” Not that you’d necessarily know this from listening to her speak, with only the faintest hint of a lisp to testify to everything she’s been through.
The other good news is that, post-surgery, The Fizz’s signature skirt-ripping routine – that cheeky move that made them instant superstars during their triumphant 1981 Eurovision Song Contest performance – is very much here to stay. “Normally they’d cut the leg from the knee to the hip, and take a really big strip out,” explains Jay. “But they said, ‘Well you’re not a cabbie, you’re not a builder, you show your legs’, so they actually did a bespoke operation for me…”
“You can see the indent,” says Cheryl, as we all examine Jay’s shiny leggings up close, and marvel at living in an age where doctors can not only save your life, but ensure the survival of iconic Eurovision dance routines into the bargain.
Making their line-up
By CP’s count, there have been at least 23 members of Bucks Fizz and its attendant spin-offs (of varying legitimacy).
After Jay Aston quit the group in 1985, Mike Nolan, Cheryl Baker and Bobby G went on to enjoy moderate success with new recruit Shelley Preston (including the Top 10 hit New Beginning). When Preston left at the end of the decade, the others continued as a three-piece until Baker’s departure in 1993, after which Nolan and G recruited Heidi Manton and Amanda Szwarc. In 1996, Nolan left and was replaced by David Van Day, of 80s chart contemporaries Dollar. When that rapidly went south, Van Day transferred his allegiance to Nolan and hired two new singers, Lianna Lea and Sally Jacks, to form his own rival version of the Fizz. Relations between Van Day and Nolan also quickly soured, after which Van Day continued touring as an entirely Bucks Fizz-free version of Bucks Fizz, featuring future Eurovision contender James Fox and West End performer Sarah J Price. Following legal action against Van Day, in 1997 the rights to the name Bucks Fizz were awarded to Heidi Manton – by now Mrs Bobby G – after which Van Day reverted to touring as David Van Day’s Bucks Fizz Show.
Fast forward to a new century, when G, Baker, Nolan and Preston briefly reformed for the 2004 Here & Now 80s tour, calling themselves The Original Bucks Fizz. After G chose to go back to his own, officially licensed lineup, Nolan, Baker and Preston continued until 2009, when Preston either quit or was pushed, and Aston, who had recently been reunited with her former colleagues on TV show Pop Goes The Band, returned to the fold after 24 years.
In 2011, a judge ruled that The Original Bucks Fizz was in breach of the trademark owned by Manton, prompting them to rebrand, firstly as OBF, then Cheryl, Mike And Jay – Formerly Of Bucks Fizz. Two fourth members – Stephen Fox, then Bobby McVay of 80s group Sweet Dreams – completed the lineup, before The Fizz, as they were now known, reverted to a trio in 2018.
Other members who have served in the official Bucks Fizz are Karen Logan, Louise Hart, Graham Crisp, Nikki Winter, Wayne Chinnery, Paul Fordham and Jenny Phillips. The current line-up consists of Bobby G, Heidi Manton, Tammy Choat and Paul Yates.
Everyone clear on that now? Good.
Out means out
With Jay back to health, it was all systems go, as The Fizz finally readied their delayed new LP for release. At which point, naturally, Jay declared that she was standing to be a Member of Parliament. To understand this latest dizzying handbrake turn in The Fizz story, we have to go back to Jay’s convalescence, post cancer-op, during which she spent many hours watching the latest Brexit wrangles unfolding. “I had time on my hands to sort of get wound up about it,” she explains of her – somewhat controversial – decision to stand as a candidate in Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party.
What, CP wonders, would have happened if she’d been elected? Is it possible to be an MP and a member of The Fizz? “No,” states Mike, with some conviction. “I was in a 71 per cent Remain constituency [Kensington], so I was told my chance of being elected was between one and two per cent,” says Jay.
“I was also booked to do a pantomime [playing the Wicked Queen in Snow White in Barnstaple], which I was committed to. And they said, ‘Don’t worry, Jay, there won’t be an election in December, there never is…’”
History had other ideas, of course, and her dedication to menacing Snow White may or may not have been a contributory factor in her less-than seismic electoral tally of 384 votes. “But I’d do it again,” she adds, defiantly. “Because it was about democracy.”
Dare CP ask if there is a Leave/Remain split in The Fizz? “I don’t talk about my politics,” says Cheryl. “I think religion and politics are the two things that cause wars in this world,” offers Mike.
“I think I’d say that’s a yes,” says Cheryl, with a smile.
Surely she appreciates the irony, though, of someone who owes their career to Eurovision standing for The Brexit Party?
“Have you seen how they’ve been voting for the last 20 years?” she shoots back.
The glory years
Perhaps it’s time we moved on. Except, when the conversation turns to another Smoke & Mirrors song, Reservation – with its talk of casting off “a ball and chain” and embracing “new horizons” – it’s Cheryl who points us towards its distinctly Farage-ist sympathies
So it’s The Fizz’s Brexit song, basically? “It’s not The Fizz Brexit song,” stresses Cheryl. “It’s the Mike Stock Brexit song.”
“I asked him about this,” adds Jay. “I said, ‘Are you sure about these words?’ And he said, ‘Oh Jay, people can read what they like into it. It’s about a holiday…’”
In the past, Cheryl has spoken candidly about her struggles during the early days of Bucks Fizz: about feeling like “a puppet” in the hands of Nichola Martin, the manager who put Mike, Cheryl, Jay and their now estranged former colleague Bobby G together for Eurovision, and being forced by their record company to take diet pills that left her feeling angry and depressed. But at 65, it doesn’t stop her looking back fondly on “the glory years”.
Jay, meanwhile, was so unhappy, she famously walked out on the group at the height of its success.
And Mike? Mike’s disposition is naturally set to sunshine. “Out of all of us, I’m the one who does the least worrying,” he says. “I gave up on worrying. It’s just not worth it.”
It hasn’t been all smiles, though, even for Mike. “I’d say the first part of the 80s was the highlight of my life,” he suggests. “The second part was different.”
Of course, he can pinpoint the exact moment when everything changed: 11 December 1984, the night Bucks Fizz were involved in an horrific coach crash returning from a concert in Newcastle. Mike, who was thrown through the front window of the bus with Cheryl, spent three days in a coma and was read the last rites after suffering a serious head injury. “It changed things completely,” he says. “Absolutely completely.”
These days, he says, he rarely thinks about the accident. “He talks about it every day,” smiles Cheryl. “He thinks he doesn’t, but he does.
“I went through the windscreen with him,” she reminds us. “We did everything together in those days. Still do.”
If the 80s had their highs and lows, the 90s were a vertiginous slide to the bottom for Bucks Fizz. Jay’s replacement, Shelley Preston, had been and gone, and Mike, Cheryl and Bobby G were now performing as a three-piece. “We were doing bingo halls, it was awful,” recalls Cheryl, whose successful career as a TV presenter was in sharp contrast to Bucks Fizz’s dwindling fortunes. “It was soul-destroying. The only reason I stayed was because of Mike.”
“She couldn’t bear to leave me,” offers up Nolan. “I couldn’t,” she agrees. “She loved him,” says Jay.
Though she was spared the indignity of the bingo hall circuit, those years were even more torrid for Jay. “After I left the band, [the management] sued me for breach of contract, and tried to ruin me,” she says. “In the early 90s, I was probably a hair away from being homeless a few times. I would have been sat on a house that’s worth £7 million now, and I was on the dole, living in bedsits. But then I got quite a good publishing deal with Chrysalis, and that turned my life around.”
When Cheryl quit the group in 1993, it fired the starting gun on a fully-fledged Bucks Fizz personnel merry-go-round, with members swapping in and out of various rival incarnations of the group with head-spinning frequency. Since Jay’s return to action in 2009, though, the current trio have restored some welcome continuity to Bucks Fizz – even if, for legal reasons, they’re not actually allowed to call themselves that.
CP takes it there has been no thawing in relations with their former bandmate’s rival Fizz camp? “No, we don’t have anything to do with Bobby G,” says Mike. “We don’t see him.”
“Bobby’s made his bed, and he’s left to lie in it,” Jay weighs in.
“There needs to be a book,” declares Cheryl, surveying The Fizz’s four-decade journey in all its storm and stress. “I mean, our history is amazing. It’s been very traumatic at times, you know? Exciting, dangerous, scary, life-threatening… But ever since we reunited with Jay, we’ve been a really tight unit. And to be here now, after 40 years, with a new record… We’re just really excited about it.”
“And no one’s going to stop us,” insists Mike. “Because we’re not doing any harm to anybody. We’re just doing what’s right for us. And with Mike Stock behind us… You really can’t ask for better.”
“As far as I’m concerned, we’re still just turning the whole thing around,” says Jay. “We’re nowhere near what we can achieve yet.”
The Fizz, back to winning ways? You better believe it.