Pinballing between spiky new wave, pure pop, R&B, hip-hop and indie, girlbands have given us some of the greatest singles of our favourite decade… By Jon O’Brien

The sheer volume of all-singing, all-dancing, all-female acts that emerged in the wake of Spice Mania would suggest that the late 1990s was the golden age of the girlband. Yet you could argue that the previous decade was where the concept truly flourished. From sassy MCs and slick vocal harmony outfits to post-disco party starters and punk-pop hellraisers, there was always more to the girlband scene of the 1980s than just Smash Hits pin-ups (although even these were ultimately much cooler). Here’s a look at 20 singles – with only one entry per act allowed – that proved girl power was around long before the days of zig-a-zig-ah. 

20 Toto Coelo: I Eat Cannibals

 The brainchild of 70s glam rocker-turned-prolific hitmaker Barry Blue, Toto Coelo provided perhaps the new wave scene’s most unashamedly ridiculous single with this infectious cod-tribal ode to cannibalism – although the brilliantly-titled follow-up Dracula’s Tango (Sucker For Your Love) ran it a close second. Pop’s answer to Hannibal Lecter, who featured Bob Holness’ daughter Ros in their lineup, were forced to change their name Stateside to avoid confusion with the yacht rockers who blessed the rains down in Africa. It’s unlikely that anyone could have mixed them up musically.

19 Seduction: Two To Make It Right

Seduction began as an early incarnation of C+C Music Factory before evolving from a studio project into a fully-fledged girlband boasting future RuPaul’s Drag Race judge Michelle Visage, almost unrecognisable as a Madonna-esque blonde. Sampling Art Of Noise and Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock, the slickly-produced freestyle of Two To Make It Right unfairly struggled to make it higher than No.79 in the UK. But in their American homeland, the fabulous trio were only kept off the top spot by Paula Abdul and her animated cat. 

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18 The Weather Girls: It’s Raining Men

Diana Ross, Cher and Donna Summer were reportedly just a few of the legendary divas who turned down this gay pride classic (the latter even described it as “blasphemous”) before it was offered to Martha Wash and Izora Armstead… who also said no. Yes, The Weather Girls initially believed the concept of raining men was just too absurd to record and only gave in after relentless pleading from its Oscar-winning writer Paul Jabara. Despite overplay and Geri Halliwell’s inferior chart-topping cover, its ultra-camp charms still remain intact nearly 30 years on. 

17  The Belle Stars: Sign Of The Times

An offshoot of another all-female outfit, 2 Tone Records signings The Bodysnatchers, The Belle Stars first found fame updating classic novelty anthems for the new wave age. But they achieved their biggest success when they completed their label boss Dave Robinson’s masterplan – three covers and then an original. Combining cut-glass spoken word and slinky guitar riffs, Sign Of The Times might have been a more grown-up affair, but with its chant-like chorus and easy-to-learn dance routine, it still had plenty of playground appeal. 

16 Exposé: Let Me Be The One

Miami-based Exposé went through so many personnel changes in their early years they made Sugababes appear the height of girlband stability. But after settling on the lineup of Ann Curless, Gioia Bruno and Jeanette Jurado, the trio scored an impressive run of seven consecutive Top 10 US hits, even reaching No.1 with the gloopy ballad Seasons Change. The powerhouse electro-funk of predecessor Let Me Be The One is their finest hour. Although as with all of their material, it was still met with a resounding shrug on this side of the Atlantic.

15 Sister Sledge: All American Girls

The twee Motown pastiche of 1985’s Frankie saw Sister Sledge become one of those rare acts to score their only UK chart topper with arguably their weakest single. But the Philadelphia-born family outfit began the decade in much stronger form. Indeed, produced by Narada Michael Walden, fourth LP All American Girls proved the sisters could still create disco magic without the aid of Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards. Admittedly, this title track, later sampled on Tom Jones’ Sex Bomb, is a Chic classic in all but name.

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14 Wee Papa Girl Rappers: Heat It Up

Formerly backing vocalists for Feargal Sharkey, twin sisters Sandra and Samantha Lawrence’s musical beginnings might not have been particularly cool but alongside Cookie Crew and She Rockers, Wee Papa Girl Rappers were part of a London scene which showed that the US didn’t have the monopoly on female hip-hop. Although Wee Rule was the bigger hit, this collaboration with 2 Men And A Drum Machine best showcased their sample-laden fusion of breakbeat, rap, acid house and cheeky lyrical flow.

13 Pepsi & Shirlie: HighTime 

The prolific Jellybean remixed everyone from Afrika Bambaataa to ZZ Top to Huey Lewis And The News during his 80s heyday. However, you might not know that he once applied his studio trickery to surely the most envied backing vocal duo of the decade. Yes, ex-Wham! cohorts Pepsi & Shirlie managed to secure the talents of the candy-monikered producer for the fifth single from their debut album, All Right Now. And while it sank without trace, its 808 beats and gleaming synths provided possibly the pair’s finest moment since I’m Your Man.

12 Wendy And Lisa: Waterfall

While fellow girlbands Apollonia 6 and Vanity 6 were put together by Prince himself, Wendy and Lisa only joined forces when the Purple One brought their time in The Revolution to an abrupt end in 1986. A year later, childhood friends Melvoin and Coleman showed they could make it without their one-time leader on a genre-hopping eponymous debut album. Lead single Waterfall failed to make the UK Top 40 on two occasions but with its sensual, bluesy adult-pop sound, Sharleen Spiteri and co. definitely appeared to be listening. 

11 Strawberry Switchblade: Since Yesterday

 Sporting an eye-catching blend of bright red lipstick, hair ribbons and polka dot outfits, Strawberry Switchblade, aka Rose McDowall and Jill Bryson, inevitably made quite the impression when they emerged from the Glasgow pub scene in the mid-1980s. Championed by John Peel, their eponymous debut album soon proved they had substance to their goth-meets-Geisha girl style, too. None more so than on lead single Since Yesterday, a glorious slice of bittersweet pop which sounds like a tale of dying love but is, in fact, about nuclear war. 

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1O Salt-N-Pepa: Push It

Salt-N-Pepa have since admitted they were originally unconvinced by the single that launched them to global fame and ultimately paved the way for everyone from TLC to Cardi B. In fact, Push It was initially relegated to B-side status before being re-released a year later where it spent three weeks at No.2 behind the less streetwise Glenn Madeiros. Yet more than three decades on, the trio’s deliciously dirty synths, in-yer-face delivery and inspired whispering sample of a funk-rock obscurity remains a guaranteed party-starter. 

O9 The Go-Go’s: Vacation

Although massive in the States, The Go-Go’s are often considered only a minor footnote in frontwoman Belinda Carlisle’s career in the UK. In fact, their solitary Top 40 hit over here emerged, bizarrely, from their mid-90s reunion rather than their early-80s heyday. Perhaps their sun-drenched, brightly coloured take on post-punk was just a little too Californian for us Brits at the time. Accompanied by a water-skiing promo, Vacation is one of several short, sharp and sweet classics which suggests we were missing out. 

O8 Mai Tai: History

 Formed by the Dutch pop scene’s most prolific hitmaking duo, Fluitsma and van Tijn, three-piece girl group Mai Tai were their only protégés to make any waves in the UK. Having previously plied their trade as backing singers, Jetty Weels, Carolien de Windt and Mildred Douglas rose to the occasion with two Top 10 hits in the mid-1980s, Body And Soul and History. The latter, a sassy kiss-off to a wayward ex, was a glorious post-disco banger which could have easily been plucked from The Pointer Sisters’ golden streak.

 

O7 Mary Jane Girls: All Night Long

 All Night Long doesn’t exactly sound like the by-product of a girlband mentored by hellraiser Rick James, named after a slang term for marijuana and boasting a whip-cracking dominatrix in its lineup. Indeed, the Mary Jane Girls, essentially a vehicle for lead vocalist JoJo McDuffie, delivered one of the classiest soul cuts of the 80s with their only UK hit. Underpinned by a deliciously seductive bassline, the slinky slow jam has since been interpolated by everyone from J-Lo to Jay Z. But it was best utilised by another Mary Jane, the one and only Ms Blige.

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O6 The Pointer Sisters: Dare Me

 Chameleonic girlband The Pointer Sisters became the queens of the dancefloor in the mid-80s with a string of hits that paired the trio’s soaring close-knit harmonies with innovative electro-pop production. The most addictive, if not necessarily the most well-known, club classic from their commercial peak appeared courtesy of Dare Me. Later transformed into a 21st century anthem by Junior Jack, the lead single from 1985’s Contact boasts the kind of energetic chorus which practically implores you to bust a move.

O5 Fuzzbox: Self!

The brilliantly-named We’ve Got A Fuzzbox And We’re Gonna Use It!! inevitably faced sellout accusations when they re-emerged with second album Big Bang!. Gone was the ramshackle post-punk that had graced NME’s legendary C86 tape and in its place was a string of Smash Hits-friendly anthems co-written by the man behind Walk Like An Egyptian. The quartet are unlikely to have given a damn about such stuffy critics, anyway, and completing a trifecta of underrated girlband classics, the vibrant power pop of Self! fully justified their reinvention. 

O4 Bananarama: A Trick Of The Night

 You could fill this entire list with the defining girl group of the decade. Cruel Summer, Robert De Niro’s Waiting and Love In The First Degree, in particular, would all be worthy of a similar placing here. However, Bananarama’s greatest 80s moment was a wistful tale of a friend who’d joined the world’s oldest profession that barely scraped the Top 40. Keren, Sara and Siobhan’s harmonies have never sounded better than on this rare mid-tempo track which the trio begged, unsuccessfully, to be released as True Confessions’ first single.

O3 Mel & Kim: Respectable

The only 80s girlband to score four consecutive UK Top 10 singles, Mel & Kim brought out the best in the Stock Aitken Waterman hit factory. Doubling up as a riposte to all those who dismissed the production team as lowest common denominator, Respectable is a tour-de-force of Hi-NRG pop, complete with a brain-lodging ‘tay-tay-tay-tay’ hook and Italo house breakdown not too dissimilar to Jack Your Body. But the joyously carefree vocals of the street-smart sisters were just as instrumental to its chart-topping success. 

O2 Shakespears Sister: You’re History

Having left Bananarama due to their increasing reliance on SAW, Siobhan Fahey soon gravitated towards the leftfield with her solo project-turned-reluctant duo Shakespears Sister. Combining her new-found femme fatale-like delivery with Marcella Detroit’s glass-shattering operatic tones, breakthrough single You’re History certainly couldn’t be mistaken for a Hit Factory production, that’s for sure. The epic Stay may be their signature hit, but it’s here where the pair’s push-pull chemistry produces something truly spellbinding.

O1 The Bangles: Eternal Flame

Co-written with the songwriting team behind similarly dramatic ballads by Cyndi Lauper (True Colors) and Heart (Alone), Eternal Flame was a marked departure from the new wave uptempo material that launched The Bangles to fame. There’s hardly any drums for one thing, much to the frustration of manager Miles Copeland who believed the public weren’t quite ready for a beatless Bangles. Yet the track, partly inspired by a private tour of Graceland, became the quartet’s biggest hit, topping the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. Susanna Hoffs can take much of the credit thanks to a measured vocal performance which perfectly captures the song’s yearning sentiment. You only have to listen to Atomic Kitten’s tepid cover to realise how flawlessly she pulls off those epic final notes, too. But the group’s gorgeous multi-part harmonies, Vicki Peterson’s lilting guitar solo and the soaring strings that perfectly align with the video’s crashing waves all helped to heighten the emotions even further. Sadly, Eternal Flame proved to be more of a triumphant swansong than the start of a new imperial phase. The quartet split shortly after its release but reconvened nine years later for the first of a series of on-off reunions. 

 

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