Thursday, March 5, 2009

Bucks Fizz Make Their Mind Up To Do An ABBA

If you’re going to choose an artist on which to base the template for the formative stages of a successful music group, then you could do worse than pick ABBA. Just five months after the Swedish supergroup scored their final British #1 in November 1980, with ‘Super Trouper’, Bucks Fizz notched up their first U.K. chart topper with a track that, like ABBA’s ‘Waterloo’ achieved in 1974, had earned them a Eurovision Song Contest title. Bucks Fizz also comprised the classic two girl, two boy line-up, which ABBA had made popular again, and for a several years the British vocal quartet were an almost unstoppable force on both British and European pop charts, but it’s probably fair to say that’s where the similarities end. ABBA had evolved in a largely organic fashion, and its members had all worked extensively as professional musicians for several years previous. ABBA also boasted the mercurial in house writing and production team of Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, who during the 70s, were virtually without peer in terms of their hit making powers. By contrast, Bucks Fizz were a fully conceptualised and pre-fabricated pop vocal quartet, whose members (as talented as they were) had largely gotten the gig based on their levels of charisma, more so than musical ability alone. Bucks Fizz also lacked that in house hit making machine, and instead relied very much on the song writing and production services of Andy Hill, the man who originally co-designed the blueprint for the group.

Andy Hill had co-written the up tempo bubblegum pop song ‘Making Your Mind Up’ with John Danter. With his regular writing/production partner Nichola Martin, Hill set about assembling a vocal quartet to perform the track for the ‘A Song For Europe’ competition, the winner of which would be the United Kingdom entry for the Eurovision Song Contest. The two male-two female formula was the model they decided on, and in January ‘81, hundreds of aspiring pop singers rocked up for an audition to pick the members for the group. Bobby Gee (born Robert Gubby) had been a builder by trade, but had dabbled in music on the side. After his building business folded he focussed fulltime on music, played the local club circuit, and became an understudy with the West End production of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’. Gee wasn’t successful on his first audition, but was eventually recruited in place of another singer called Stephen Fischer, who became unavailable. Cheryl Baker actually had previous Eurovision experience, having been a member of the group Co-Co. Co-Co had entered the Song For Europe contest in 1976 with a song titled ‘Wake Up’, but were beaten by Brotherhood of Man. It’s worth noting that Brotherhood of Man had been another hastily assembled two male-two female vocal quartet, and they eventually went on to win the 1976 Eurovision Song Contest with ‘Save All You Kisses For Me’, which in turn went on to become a British #1 (come to think of it, Bucks Fizz were much more closely aligned to the career path of Brotherhood of Man than ABBA). Co-Co gave it another shot in 1978, and second time lucky got to represent the U.K. in Eurovision, with the song ‘The Bad Old Days’ (but only managed 11th place). Irish born Mike Nolan had been a struggling singer and songwriter for most of the 70s, and was once a member of a boy band called Brooks (who needless to say sank without a trace), though they did boast another member called Chris Hamill, better known later as Limahl (see earlier Kajagoogoo post). Nolan had actually been hand picked by Nichola Martin to record a demo version of ‘Making Your Mind Up’, so he was first picked for the Bucks Fizz project. The final member of the quartet was Jay Aston, who hailed from a show business family. She was a trained singer, dancer and actress, but most of all had charisma and sex appeal to burn. Whether by chance or by design, the four singers chosen for Bucks Fizz were also all blond - I suppose it lent itself to a certain amount of visual symmetry.

On March 11th, 1981, Bucks Fizz won the U.K. selection show, ‘A Song For Europe’, with their rendition of ‘Making Your Mind Up. A month later they performed the song at the 26th Eurovision Song Contest, held in Mike Nolan’s home town of Dublin. Once again they performed ‘Making Your Mind Up’, and for the first time Cheryl Baker and Jay Aston performed their famous skirt-ripping dance routine (basically as the girls twirled, the guys grabbed the skirts which unravelled), which certainly didn’t harm their chances of winning. Bucks Fizz were declared the winners by four points, and in so doing became the fourth British entry, after Lulu, Sandie Shaw, and Brotherhood Of Man, to take out the Eurovision Song Contest. In many ways Bucks Fizz’s timing couldn’t have been better, in terms of launching an all assault for the teeny bopper pop market. ABBA’s star was waning, and of the other teen focussed pop artists on the British scene, only Shakin’ Stevens (see future post) and Dollar were still going strong.

Bucks Fizz had already recorded ‘Making Your Mind Up’ prior to Eurovision, and RCA had the single primed and ready to go for release. It entered the U.K. charts just two weeks after they performed it on the nationally televised ‘A Song For Europe’, and similarly hit the top of the British charts a fortnight after they took out the Eurovision Song Contest. In so doing, Bucks Fizz became the fourth British act to take a Eurovision song entry to #1 on the local charts, after Sandie Shaw’s ‘Puppet On A String’ (1967), Cliff Richard’s 1968 Eurovision runner up ‘Congratulations’, and the aforementioned 1976 winners Brotherhood of Man with ‘Save All Your Kisses For Me’ (you have to imagine that I cringe every time I type that particular song title). For the first time since 1968, a winning entry from the Eurovision Song Contest hit #1 on the British charts in consecutive years. Australian born Johnny Logan (see future entry) had hit #1 in May 1980 with ‘What’s Another Year’, the winning entry for Ireland in the 25th Eurovision edition. ‘Making Your Mind Up’ went on to top the pop charts in Austria, the Netherlands, Ireland and Luxembourg, and reached the top ten in West Germany and here in Australia (#6).

Andy Hill and Nichola Martin soon had Bucks Fizz back into the recording studio to record another Hill composition, ‘Piece Of The Action’. The song debuted on the British charts during June of ‘81, and went on to peak at #12 nationally (Irl#10/OZ#26). It was quickly followed up by ‘One Of Those Nights’ (produced by Andy Hill), a slower tempo song, which delivered Bucks Fizz their third consecutive British top twenty hit (#20). All three songs featured on the group’s eponymous debut album (UK#14/OZ#35), produced by Hill, and backed by a relentless schedule of promotional tours and live appearances across Britain, Europe, Asia and Australia (during which Bucks Fizz appeared on ‘Countdown’, co-hosting and performing their famous skirt-ripping routine to ‘Making Your Mind Up’). Later in 1981 Bucks Fizz also took out the ‘Best Song Award’ at the Yamaha Song Contest in Tokyo. The winning song ‘Another Night’ was featured on their second album, but was only released as a single in Japan.

Speaking of that second album, Andy Hill and his song writing partners Nichola Martin and Pete Sinfield (ex-King Crimson), had been working away furiously over the summer of ‘81 to pen another ten radio friendly pop songs that would comprise the album ‘Are You Ready’. Nolan, Baker, Gee and Aston did their best to look serious, or was it sultry (hard to tell really), for the cover of the album, for which they were dressed as sky divers (not really sure what the thinking was on that one). The lead out single was the brilliant ‘The Land Of Make Believe’, half pop song, half children’s lullaby/pantomime song (pantomimes were bigger than ever in Britain at the time). The lyrics were based on a child’s dream, full of imaginary characters, and the theme was reflected in the irresistibly charming promotional video. The song featured an infectious chorus hook, and a curious outro, which featured the spoken word vocals of eleven year old Abby Kimber, a member of the then popular Mini-Pops children’s group. ‘The Land Of Make Believe’ was released in November of ‘81, debuted on the British charts immediately, and by mid January ‘82, Bucks Fizz had notched up their second U.K. chart topper. In a nice coincidence, Bobby Gee’s wife had their first baby just a few days before ‘The Land Of Make Believe’ hit top spot. The song spent two weeks at the summit of the British charts (becoming the biggest selling single of their career there), and rocketed to #1 in Ireland and the Netherlands, as well as reaching the top 10 across a dozen other European countries. I recall becoming completely enamoured with the song when it was released in Australia in late ‘81 (#15), and it remains to this day one of my favourite tracks from that era - it really does carry you off to a nicer place. Not everyone felt such an affection for the music of Bucks Fizz, as illustrated by the British Labour Party’s use of the political slogan “The Tories have a worse record than Bucks Fizz”, an example of opportunistic sloganeering which left the group’s record label RCA, among many, less than impressed.

Though Bucks Fizz had just notched up their second #1 with a sweet hearted pop song, tailored to a degree for kids, by contrast the group were becoming increasingly sophisticated, even raunchy in their image - well more specifically Jay Aston and Cheryl Baker were, which kind of set up an interesting contrast. The next single ‘My Camera Never Lies’ was less about a child’s imaginary friends, and more about voyeurism (maybe with a hint of stalking). The promotional video was cleverly put together, and featured the members dressed as characters from famous movie scenes, but undoubtedly also being portrayed in a more overtly sensual way. With ‘My Camera Never Lies’, Bucks Fizz achieved their third British #1 within the space of a year, when the song hit top spot during April of ‘82 (OZ#63/Ger#31/Aut#11). Andy Hill wrote the melody for the song, and Nichola Martin the lyrics. Hill recorded Nolan and Gee’s vocals first, followed by Aston and Baker. He then recorded the complex vocal sequence that features in the middle of the song, with all four singers chanting “my cam-e-ra” at one another, something Hill (and music critics) later gave the quartet full points for mastering. The ‘Are You Ready’ album hit the charts shortly after ‘My Camera Never Lies’, and went on to peak at #10 in Britain and #30 in Australia. The album spawned a further top ten hit, the a cappella style ballad ‘Now Those Days Are Gone’ (UK#8), which marked a stark contrast to the group’s previous up tempo pop fare. The song wasn’t released as a single in Australia, but rather the title track ‘Are You Ready’ (OZ#93) was issued in its place.

By the end of 1982, Bucks Fizz had proven they were no fly by night, here today gone tomorrow, pop sensation, and though they may not have won over the harder edged side of the rock fraternity, no one could deny the remarkable run of commercial success they’d enjoyed over the previous two years was duly merited.

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