The second coming of Betty Boo
By Steve O'Brien | January 6, 2023
In late 2022, 30 years after her last LP, Betty Boo returned with an album of bangers as gloriously floor-filling as anything in her hip-hop heyday, She talked to Classic Pop about her star-laden latest record, Boomerang…
Thirty years is a long time in pop culture. In 1992, Liz Truss was an anti-monarchist teenager, Donald Trump was just a businessman with a crazy haircut and Harry Styles hadn’t even been born.
Few of us had heard of the internet, while Napster, Spotify and iTunes had yet to be invented. It was, in every sense, a different world when Alison Clarkson, aka Betty Boo, released her last record, GRRR! It’s Betty Boo.
The last time we spoke to Bet… – oh, let’s just call her Alison – was back in the summer of 2019 when, in answer to our question about new material, she told us: “I feel like it’s the right time, because even people that were before me, like Bananarama, they keep making records and I’m thinking, I’ve gotta do it! What’s stopping me?
“I was approaching the big Five-O and was like, ‘I don’t know where that time has gone!’” Alison tells us three years on from her home in Wiltshire. “I knew one day I’d make a record, I just didn’t know when it was going to be.”
What spurred this comeback was actually a feature in the magazine you’re currently reading. Alison’s last hook-up with Classic Pop was in Issue 54 and there, on page 68, was an interview with producer Andy Wright (Simply Red, Simple Minds).
“I was reading about his creative process and how he works with artists and just thought he’d be perfect!” she beams. “So it was all down to Classic Pop!”
For Clarkson, doin’ the do again after all this time is little bit dizzying. Though she was still performing occasional live shows, for much of the last three decades she’s been living the quietest of lives in the quaint market town of Malmesbury (with a population just over 5,000).
“I’m used to being in my tennis clothes every day,” she smiles. “I look like a PE teacher most of the time, so having to get my Boo on, putting a bit of slap on and doing my hair, it’s nice. It’s been really good to have the excuse to get glamorous.”
Not that she’s in her gym threads today. Looking every inch the glammed-up pop star, she’s talking to us against a background of pink and silver glitter curtains and a mirrorball to her right.
She may live in the kind of Wiltshire town where crinkle cut crisps are considered outré but there’s a little bit of Studio 54 tucked away there at chez Clarkson. “It’s my little corner of the bedroom,” she teases.
So, let’s rewind to 2020, just as Covid-19 was first raising its ugly head. Having touched base with Wright, he and Alison had started working on songs together.
“We just hit it off,” she says excitedly, “But then the pandemic happened and it was like, ‘We’ve got to finish this, we’ve got to do the album.’”
Alison and Andy had only managed to work on one track in the studio before lockdown kicked off.
After Boris’ directive to “stay at home”, that meant the rest of Boomerang (the album was meant to have been titled Storm Betty, only “there have been a lot of storms recently”) was penned 100 miles from London, sometimes at the house that Clarkson shares with her documentary-producer husband Paul Toogood, but also in, ahem, various supermarket car parks.
“Many of the vocal parts were written in Sainsbury’s and the Waitrose in Malmesbury car parks on my iPhone,” she laughs.
Not that you’d ever guess it. There’s no track on Boomerang extolling the virtues of Sainsbury’s Taste The Difference range or Waitrose’s own-brand sesame oil. Instead, it’s a faultless collection of feelgood party bangers which seems to pick up exactly where GRRR! left off 30 years ago.
“I love pop music,” Clarkson enthuses, “and I listen to a lot of modern pop. What I’m really proud of is that, because we’ve been putting a few tracks out there as teasers, the song Boomerang ended up on the official Spotify playlist for new acts! So I’m in the middle of all these 18-year-olds.
“They probably had no idea that I’m 52. But I was really flattered by that, because I wanted to make a modern-sounding record that still had that 90s flavour.”
The first taste that any of us had of Boomerang the album was back in January when Clarkson dropped Get Me To The Weekend, her first single since 1993’s Catch Me (if you ignore her 2006 venture with Blur’s Alex James as WigWam, and her 2007 buddy-up with Digital Dog, Take Off).
An effervescent ode to the joys of unwinding, Get Me To The Weekend’s only concession to middle age is that it wasn’t about getting smashed on tequila at your nearest nitery, but “Forget[ting] about work and bills/ Take a drive up to the hills.”
“We were just coming out of lockdown and weren’t able to enjoy the weekend,” she says of the track’s origin. “I mean, weekends never felt like weekends.” Together, they finished the demo, but felt it needed something extra, some little sonic push. Enter The Human League.
“Andy and I just thought Love Action would sound awesome on it,” she says. “So we went back into the studio, put the bassline on, tweaked it a bit and it just set it on fire.”
Clarkson has previous with sampling, of course. Her first success after that I Can’t Dance To That Music You’re Playin’ one-shot with Beatmasters was Doin’ The Do, which pick’n’mixed from Reparata And The Delrons’ 1968 hit Captain Of Your Ship, while follow-up Where Are You Baby? was inspired by The Velvelettes’ He Was Really Sayin’ Somethin’.
“I’m obsessed with sampling,” Clarkson confirms. “I used to sample a lot in the past, not so much this time round, but it gives the music a little more texture. It goes back to my hip-hop influences, so it felt really comfortable to do it with Get Me To The Weekend, especially because I love The Human League. That song came late in the day, but it was such an earworm, we thought we had to go with it as the single.”
Though Get Me To The Weekend ended up being Boomerang’s lead-off single, the truth is that pick could have been any of this LP’s 12 songs, so strong is its tracklisting.
In fact, sophomore release Shining Star pops up on the album twice, first as the single that came out in May and second as a bonus track with guest vocals courtesy of Sophie Ellis-Bextor.
“I’ve known Sophie for a long time,” Alison says. “We’d bump into each other and we talk on Instagram. When
I wrote Shining Star I thought she’d be great as the queen of disco to sing a chorus on there.
“She’s in Chiswick and the studio was only in Park Royal, so I said, ‘I’ll pick you up, you can sing it and you’ll be back home in time for the boys coming home from school. And that’s what we did.’”
Ellis-Bextor isn’t the only marquee name on board for Boomerang. Public Enemy mainman Chuck D lends his larynx to third track Miracle, while Babylon hitmaker David Gray cameos on the rapturous Right By Your Side.
“It was one of the first songs that Andy and I wrote and it kinda solidified our working relationship,” Alison says.
“I did a rap and Andy thought it’d be good to have someone sing on it. So I sent David an email and the next thing I know he’s sent the stems so we plonked it in the mix. I think his voice sounds great on it, he doesn’t sound like anyone else.”
Of course, one of the positives of releasing a new album after so many decades away is finally having fresh tunes to play live. As cherished as Doin’ The Do and Let Me Take You There et al are to Alison, it must be a thrilling feeling to pep the set up with new material.
“The last couple of festivals that I played at I put in three new tracks and people were singing along to them!” she says, slightly incredulously.
“At festivals they’re not there necessarily to see you, so you’re never sure whether they’re gonna walk away. But the new tracks have gone down so well. And they sound good back to back, the old stuff and the new.”
Clarkson seems to be enjoying this renaissance more than she ever thought she would. She’s been amazed, she says, by the outpouring of love, from old fans and new. She was surprised to learn, for instance, how Doin’ The Do had become a ‘coming out’ song, as she puts it.
A lot of gay men and especially women love it,” she says proudly. “Because they were girls at the time thinking, here’s a woman who doesn’t look like anyone else and she’s doin’ her do. It’s been lovely to hear these stories, about how it got them through being different. I had no idea at the time.”
Having rediscovered her Boo, Alison insists there’s not going to be another 30-year wait until album number four. In fact, the follow-up to Boomerang is already being worked on.
“We started writing it at the beginning of the year,” she reveals. “I’ve got all my books and lots of ideas. Doing this record, it’s given me faith and confidence to come back and do new stuff.
“I don’t want the world and can’t compete with new, young artists who are signed to massive labels and spend millions on their videos. I’m making this record for me and my fans and I’m having a lot of fun doing it.”
Part of the reason for this flurry of quinquagenarian activity was inspired by an interview with Sananda Maitreya, where The Artist Formerly Known As Terence Trent D’Arby admitted that his main motivation to make an album was because so many of his friends from that era – Prince, Michael Jackson, George Michael – simply weren’t able to.
Like many who find themselves in their sixth decade, mortality is on Clarkson’s mind these days. Her dad died aged just 44, while her mum passed away at 49.
“Now I’m in my fifties, I think you’ve really got to take life and enjoy it as you never know what’s round the corner.”
Amen to that. And with Boomerang, Classic Pop reader Alison Clarkson has made a record to be proud of, one that sounds as fresh and spry as anything by any artist half her age. It’s 2022 and Betty Boo is back, and yes, she’s still doin’ the do.
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Steve O'BrienSteve O’Brien is a writer who specialises in music, film and TV. He has written for magazines and websites such as SFX, The Guardian, Radio Times, Esquire, The New Statesman, Digital Spy, Empire, Yours Retro, The New Statesman and MusicRadar. He’s written books about Doctor Who and Buffy The Vampire Slayer and has even featured on a BBC4 documentary about Bergerac. Apart from his work on Classic Pop, he also edits CP’s sister magazine, Vintage Rock Presents.