From number-one hits and that shock split to naked bodyguards, Sara Dallin and Keren Woodward tell Kathryn Flett what it was really like to be the ultimate 80s girl group
Then: 1984 and Now: 2020 (Keren (left) wears jacket, Topshop. Sara wears shirt, Ksubi. Earrings throughout, The Hoop Station)
It’s 10am on a midweek morning and Keren Woodward and Sara Dallin, the remaining two-thirds of Bananarama, and I are socially distancing with our coffees on the mezzanine of a noisy London photographic studio, and I can’t help wishing we were doing this in The Olden Days – maybe after dark in the corner of a discreet members’ club while tucked up on a cosy banquette with a cocktail or three.
If your memories of Bananarama extend as far as three ditsy girls in rah-rah skirts performing a handful of catchy 80s singalongs, it’s worth noting that they’re in the Guinness Book of Records for the world’s highest number of chart entries by an all-female group – and have had 32 top 40 singles in the UK charts. They look like fresh-faced 40-somethings to me, even with no make-up, but Sara self-deprecatingly describes them as, ‘knocking on the door of 60’ (she’s 58, Keren 59). Keren’s son, TV producer Tom, is in his mid-30s (she was pregnant at the peak of their fame, when ‘Venus’ was number one in the US in 1986) and Sara’s 28-year-old daughter Alice combines being a singer-songwriter with her role as Bananarama’s social media manager.
The original bunch with their big 80s hair – Sara and Keren, centre and right, with Siobhan Fahey
Looking more low-key, 1985
Still vivid in my memory is their 2017 appearance on The Graham Norton Show when Sara and Keren reunited briefly with their original bandmate, Siobhan Fahey. I practically punched the air watching them, sequined up to the eyeballs with dance moves as tight as their harmonies – because when do women of our age ever see ourselves on TV looking quite so hot, and definitely not hot-flushed?
Now the best friends since childhood are comfortably a duo again, celebrating the imminent publication of their memoir Really Saying Something and dismissing with shrugs the idea that they fell out with Siobhan, who left the line-up in 1988 to form Shakespears Sister.
‘I think [in the book] we talk about Siobhan quite honestly,’ says Keren. ‘It wasn’t great when we split but we’ve talked about it since and you think, “Why was that such a big deal?’’’
Keren in 1991 with then boyfriend Andrew Ridgeley
Was it ever a case of two’s company, three’s a crowd? ‘Because Sara and I were such good friends beforehand, Siobhan may have seen it like that, but we were very much a trio. We laughed about the same things. Even when we did the reunion, we laughed and laughed.’
‘But also when you work with people in an office, you’re not best friends with everyone,’ adds Sara. ‘Obviously, we had different sets of friends and she was a little bit older, living with a boyfriend. We’d just left school and it seemed like a big gap.’
‘And actually,’ Keren elaborates, ‘all the things that seemed a big deal were not, really. She needed a change just like I needed a change when I moved to Cornwall. So I don’t remember feeling particularly p***ed off when she left.’
In fact, Bananarama were together for quite a long time by pop group standards. ‘Yeah, six years,’ agrees Keren. ‘Wham! were only together for four.’
Hanging out in LA in 1986, the year ‘Venus’ got to number one in the US; The besties enjoying a night out in Ibiza, 2000
Which brings us neatly to Andrew Ridgeley, with whom Keren (and Tom) moved to Cornwall when they became a couple in the early 90s. Though they split a few years ago I’d also heard a rumour that they recently got back together. Keren rolls her eyes. ‘No! We split seven years ago.’
Maybe people were always so delighted by the idea of Keren and Andrew – the practically perfect post-pop-star pair – they were willing the rumour to be true. She’s having none of it, though: ‘That is absolutely ludicrous. Just because two people happen to have been in 80s pop groups?’ Are they mates now? ‘Kind of. We get on. But I haven’t seen him for a couple of months. He spends most of his time in London.’ While Keren is mostly in Cornwall. ‘Yeah, I absolutely love it.’
Partying with pal George Michael, 1995
Sara, meanwhile, is happiest in London, where she has lived near Highgate ‘for years. I mostly did my writing over lockdown, which was perfect because I had never written before and always wanted to. And once I got going, I loved it. Sitting in my conservatory, no make-up, with all my flowers and a cup of tea. In lockdown you could really focus.’ It helped that Alice lives in London, too, of course – mum and daughter are very close and Sara’s pride in her daughter (who is with us in the studio) is evident.
Has Siobhan read the book? ‘No,’ says Sara. Will they send her a copy? ‘Yeah, I would imagine so,’ says Keren. ‘I think she’s in Crete at the moment, but you know…’ she nods at Sara ‘…the book is mostly about our friendship.’
Really Saying Something is an evocative and entertaining joint memoir, and reading about the girls growing up in Bristol in the 70s will hurtle anyone old enough back to their own schooldays. It’s strong on fashion, brands, hairstyles and, obviously, music, charting the journey from taking tubes of Spangles to the ABC for Saturday morning pictures to taping the Top 40 from the radio (and choosing to crush on David Essex instead of David Cassidy or Donny Osmond) via riding fairground waltzers to the sound of Billy Ocean’s ‘Red Light Spells Danger’ and snogging boys in the park. They have such good memories: ‘Yeah, I can still hear Tavares and remember my red cap-sleeved T-shirt with a zodiac sign on the front and my little flared jeans,’ says Keren nostalgically.
However, those of us who lived through it will also recall that the 70s weren’t just about innocent childish fun.
The girls reunite to perform on The Graham Norton Show, 2017;
‘As girls, we weren’t brought up to feel that we were less intelligent or less capable, or that we wouldn’t have a career,’ says Keren, ‘but what we saw around us, and on television, made sexism and racism seem very normal. You accepted the odd slap on the backside or being wolf-whistled at as “normal” behaviour, maybe because they did it in On The Buses, or whatever.’
‘And if you’re very young that seeps into your DNA, somehow,’ adds Sara. ‘The 70s was actually the worst era for all those things – and that was our impressionable age.’
‘We were quite naive,’ adds Keren. ‘We wrote about a guy who used to molest all my brother’s mates when they were playing football – and we actually laughed about it back then. “Oh, he got so-and-so this week but he didn’t get me, I ran too fast.” Now you just think, “Why didn’t we tell our parents?”’
For our generation of young girls, meanwhile, being flashed at was also par for the course, right? They both roll their eyes: ‘Oh god, yeah!’
Glamming it up in 2019 for the cover of their album In Stereo
Sara: ‘But did you ever say anything?’
Keren: ‘No! We got flashed at walking home from school, didn’t we?’
Sara: ‘It was a “just deal with it, get on with it” mentality, which our generation has, and we got from our parents.’
‘We certainly weren’t cosseted and mollycoddled,’ adds Keren.
Sara: ‘And I think that’s what gave us the resilience to keep going for almost 40 years. It makes you grittier. But I do think we were always fighting for our rights, and to be able to do what we wanted to do, and not be sidelined. On the whole, I think we are very much in control of what we do.’
When the girls moved to London in 1980, as 18-year-olds and post A-levels, far from slipping on too many metaphorical banana skins the proto-pop stars started to find their feet. Keren worked in admin at the BBC (‘I had a proper job for about a year and a half – I can’t say I put my heart and soul into it’) while Sara enrolled on a fashion journalism course and both lived in a YWCA hostel before moving to share a damp and dingy space in Soho, above the Sex Pistols’ office/rehearsal rooms.
Keren wears shirt, Massimo Dutti. Trousers, Iro. Belt, Black & Brown
The three girls-about-town effectively fell into being pop stars after providing backing vocals on the Fun Boy Three’s ‘It Ain’t What You Do’. They couldn’t be any further from the ‘manufactured’ girl groups of the 90s or the noughties, who seem so polished by comparison.
Keren: ‘Yeah, you can tell from our early performances that it wasn’t ever the plan to go to stage school. But we became those things – shiny and polished and professional – as we learned what we were doing, growing up in the public eye.’
At the beginning, though, there was a sense of being the Fun Boy Three’s ‘novelty sidekicks’ rather than the main attraction; just pretty girls bopping around in rah-rah skirts… ‘Which we didn’t popularise at all,’ says Sara, firmly.
Oh, but you did, I say, ‘even if you didn’t intend to’.
Keren: ‘Urgh! Those grey sweatshirt rah-rah skirts… They weren’t flattering.’
Sara: ‘Especially with the moccasins and the football socks.’
Sarah wears blazer, Isabel Marant. Jeans, Mint Velvet
By the mid-80s, a bunch of hits to their name, Bananarama’s place at the top of pop’s Christmas tree was assured. So much so that they were there at the biggest event of Christmas 1984 – the recording of the Band Aid single ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ Watch the video now, however, and it’s shocking to see that there are only four women in the room: Sara, Keren and Siobhan plus Jody Watley from Shalamar. Where are Chrissie Hynde, Alison Moyet, Sade?
Sara: ‘We shared an office with Bob [Geldof] so he called our manager…’
Keren: ‘Maybe we were there by accident?’
Sara shrugs: ‘We were relegated to the chorus…’
‘Why wasn’t Annie Lennox there singing a lead line?’ says Keren. ‘I mean, we can’t really complain – it was an amazing thing to be on – but we sang the harmony so loud we were asked to tone it down a bit, so we obviously felt we had to make our presence felt.’
Bananadrama: backstage on their Australian tour last year
When it came to Live Aid itself the following summer, however, ‘We were in LA,’ says Sara, ‘and we weren’t playing live at that point, so I don’t know whether we would have been considered for inclusion.’
Keren: ‘It was a period of our lives where we kept trying to get on the road and do a tour and something always happened – like pregnancy.’ Bananarama finally toured the US for the first time in the late 80s, when Jacquie O’Sullivan had taken Siobhan’s place. Says Sara: ‘I absolutely loved touring America, driving all night and all day on the bus with a gang of friends – like a school trip.’
While touring France, as Sara recalls in the book, ‘We stayed in an old château. As we lounged on my bed chatting, there was a knock on the door. When we answered, in stalked our two brooding security men, who promptly started taking their clothes off. We looked at each other in amazement as the men stripped down to their underpants and plonked themselves down on chairs at the end of the bed. There they sat, posing; waiting, one presumed, for us to suggest something. All they got was nervous laughter. A few moments later they got up, got dressed and left, totally embarrassed.’
Keren: ‘Oh god, that was disturbing.’
‘It’s actually horrifying. It was not like there was any sort of flirting! They literally drove the bus!’ adds Sara.
Then, predictably, they both start laughing. Sara shrugs: ‘It’s just so different now.’
Keren wears shirt, Massimo Dutti. Trousers, Iro. Belt, Black & Brown. Sara wears jumpsuit, Tibi, theoutnet.com
In 2019, their self-recorded LP In Stereo made the Top 30 and they performed in Hyde Park and at Glastonbury. Far from growing out of it all in their 50s, they still love going on the road. With no live music or festivals this year, however, and none of the kind of fun – gigs and clubbing – that fuelled our own similar youthful experiences, it’s impossible not to feel sad for youngsters who have just lived through their own ‘Cruel Summer’.
‘Yes, I hugely missed doing the shows this year,’ says Keren.
‘Though you do sometimes stop and think, “What a peculiar way to live – what a strange existence,”’ adds Sara.
Her partner-in-crime of nearly 40 years nods, conceding that ‘it’s a strange way to make a living’. Which is true; however, what always impresses me most about the ’nanas ain’t so much what they’ve done (yes, all together now…) it’s the way that they’ve done it.
A date with De Niro and partying with prince
Sara: The 80s were a great time to be a pop star.
Keren: On an early trip to New York, the three of us were taken to the Russian Tea Rooms by the PR from our record company. We were happily chatting when a man ambled towards us. ‘Hi, I’m Michael,’ he said. ‘My daughter is a big fan, and I wonder if you could sign something for her.’ It was Michael b****y Caine! While trying to remain calm, I was trying to get my head around the fact that he was even aware of our existence. I’d never been massively star-struck, but Michael Caine was an exception. Not that any of us let it show – we all kept it ridiculously cool.
About ten years later, during the 90s, Sara and I were at a Versace party in Bond Street, trapped with a particularly obnoxious DJ who was showing off while trying to procure Sara’s phone number. Just as we were about to wander off in search of someone more interesting, a man walked over to join us. ‘I don’t know if you remember me, but we met in New York,’ he said. I wanted to scream, ‘Of course we b****y remember you, you’re Michael Caine!’
ON THE TOWN WITH A MOVIE LEGEND
Sara: Embarking on our second album, Bananarama, we were growing in confidence and really got into the swing of songwriting. The second single was ‘Robert De Niro’s Waiting’. We wanted to write about the difficulties of communicating within relationships and the negative experiences; how some girls retreat into a fantasy world where the pop stars and movie stars they had pinned on their bedroom walls were their boyfriends. Keren and I were big fans of De Niro.
We were all at home one evening, watching Brookside, when the payphone in the hall rang and my boyfriend Terry answered it. He came rushing into the living room, yelling excitedly, ‘Bob De Niro’s on the phone and wants to speak to one of you.’
None of us believed him at first, but eventually he sounded convincing enough to send all three of us scuttling to the phone and huddling around the receiver. We decided Siobhan should speak, but it was pretty monosyllabic from both ends.
Bob: ‘Do you want to meet for a drink later?’
Siobhan: ‘Yeah, all right.’
We all rushed to the pub to spread the exciting news that we were going to meet Robert De Niro in Soho that night! This turned out to be a huge mistake, as all our boyfriends wanted to come, as well as some of our friends. In the end, we hatched a plan that they could sit in the bar, but they couldn’t sit at the same table or let on that they knew us.
We met Bob in Kettner’s in Soho. As we sat by the window, sipping our vodka tonics, with various friends dotted casually around the bar, an unassuming chap in a bobble hat and glasses started tapping at the window, trying to attract our attention. Unfortunately, we didn’t recognise Bob in this unexpected get-up and assumed he was some nuisance or an overzealous fan. When Kettner’s closed we moved to Zanzibar, a private members’ bar in Covent Garden. All in all, it was a strange evening, sitting there with a Hollywood legend and his producer. Still, the cocktails flowed and we had a great time, though the only specific thing I can remember now is Bob enquiring about my trainers and pronouncing Adidas peculiarly. They were in fact Nike, which I was wearing with a raincoat from Oxfam, obviously going all out to impress.
HOW WE GATECRASHED BAND AID
Sara: One night in the autumn of 1984, we received a fateful phone call. Bob Geldof rang to say, ‘Get the girls down to the studio. I’m putting a charity record together.’
The recording took place on a Sunday morning and after a Saturday night out we turned up bleary-eyed, only to see Sting walking towards us. Once inside the studio, we spotted the Duran Duran boys, happily mingling with their pop rivals Spandau Ballet. Clearly, this was something big.
Before long, Sarm Studios was full of the great and good of the British pop scene: Paul Young, Phil Collins, The Boomtown Rats, Heaven 17, Culture Club and U2. The atmosphere was, of course, loud and boisterous, so Siobhan, Keren and I made our way over to Paul Weller. Paul, like us, was a bit more low-key than some of the other stars, so the perfect person for us to hang out with. My main memories of the recording were Status Quo being great fun, and hearing George Michael sing live for the first time. He was standing directly behind me in the line-up, in his black and white checked shirt, and I couldn’t believe how incredible his voice was.
VENUS ON THE DANCEFLOOR
Keren: In 1986 ‘Venus’ shot to number one all over the world, including the US.
Sara: It was almost beyond our wildest dreams that we were about to embark on a tour of America to promote a number one record on the US Billboard charts.
We were invited to Prince’s nightclub, First Avenue. At one point during the evening, we were standing with Prince, watching the action from the VIP area above the dancefloor, when the DJ played ‘Venus’. It was such a trip watching everyone rush forward, swamping the dancefloor. It was at times like all these I realised how lucky I was.
A DUST-UP WITH DELIA
Sara: Mariella Frostrup was our PR for seven years. Keren and I enjoyed several rather ‘highbrow’ parties with her, making the acquaintance of the journalist and political broadcaster Andrew Neil. He invited us to a summer party at his house in London, where guests included political journalist Robin Day and future Prime Minister Tony Blair. Mariella and I were having a perfectly lovely time, enjoying drinks on the terrace, when we heard a commotion from inside the house. It turned out to be Keren, berating chef Delia Smith for trying to jump the queue for the bathroom.
SCRABBLE NIGHTS WITH WHAM!
Keren: I first met George Michael on a blind date. It was a feature for No 1 magazine, the glossy weekly pop mag that rivalled Smash Hits throughout the 80s. George was very late for the date, which was something we later came to expect, probably because he was blow-drying his hair.
Sara: George loved a party, and back in the day, he threw the best ones. They were often lavishly catered, and our love of caviar meant we made a beeline for the kitchen where the buffet was beautifully laid out. Sometimes, we’d chance upon the likes of Sir Ian McKellen or Richard and Judy relaxing by the pool in George’s gorgeous garden.
Keren: Guests at George’s parties were generally people he felt comfortable with, so he always seemed relaxed and was able to be himself. Mind you, it wasn’t always this way. We went on a fair few overseas trips with him, and occasionally, in public, he became George Michael, the star! Once, heading out of Heathrow, he strode over to check-in, with Sara and me in tow.
‘Leave this to me,’ he said, approaching the woman at the British Airways desk.
‘Hello, I’ve been told to make myself known to a member of the BA staff,’ he said.
‘Why?’ the woman said. ‘Who are you?’ Of course, we fell about laughing, and George was fuming.
‘God, that had to happen in front of you two, didn’t it?’ he said.
Sara: The fun times Keren and I had with George are almost too many to mention, from walking our labradors in the Cotswolds to being flown to Brazil for Rock in Rio. Another time, George chartered a private plane to take 20 of his friends on a two-week holiday to Richard Branson’s Necker Island. Each room had a stunning view of the crystalline blue water and golden sand. George had booked the island exclusively so we had the playground to ourselves and it felt like an incredibly decadent school trip. We lazed around sunbathing all day, drinking cocktails, having barbecues on the beach and disco dancing all night.
The last time I saw George was, as it turned out, ten months before he died. Andrew Ridgeley was cooking dinner at George’s house in Highgate, and they invited me over. The three of us reminisced and laughed, and George was adamant that we all play Scrabble before we leave.
Writing this reminds me of what an amazing, kind, generous, funny and talented friend he was and how much fun we packed into our lives. He is missed and will always be in my heart.
- This is an edited extract from Bananarama: Really Saying Something by Sara Dallin and Keren Woodward, to be published by Hutchinson on 29 October, price £20. Order a copy for £13 until 8 November at whsmith.co.uk by entering code YOUREALLY at checkout. Book number: 9781786332660. terms & conditions: Whsmith.co.uk/terms.
- Picture director: Ester Malloy. Stylist: Sasha Barrie at a&r creative. Assisted by Meg Edmond. Hair: Sven Bayerbach at Carol Hayes using Kiehl’s since 1851. MAKE-UP: Charlie Duffy at Carol Hayes Using Anastasia