Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Rules Of The Game Change - Bucks Fizz See The Writing On The Wall

By late 1982 the pop vocal quartet Bucks Fizz had firmly established themselves as one of the pre-eminent acts on the popular music scene in Britain. They’d won over record buyers, and even a good portion of serious popular music critics, who usually reserved buckets of scorn, even contempt, for such manufactured pop entities. But there was no denying that Mike Nolan, Jay Aston, Cheryl Baker and Bobby Gee were gifted entertainers, and in writer/producer Andy Hill, Bucks Fizz had an invaluable creative ally.

In November 1982 the single ‘If You Can’t Stand The Heat’ received a warm reception from the British public, and by early ‘83 the reggae tinged song had become the fifth consecutive top ten hit for Bucks Fizz at home (OZ#93). It was also the first single released by the quartet to feature lead vocals from Cheryl Baker and Jay Aston, whose attire appeared to be getting skimpier with every release. The follow up single ‘Run For Your Life’ (UK#14) coincided with the release of album number three for Bucks Fizz, during March ‘83. ‘Hand Cut’ was produced by Andy Hill and Bobby Gubby (AKA Bobby Gee), and was the first album to feature a track written by a member of the group (Bobby Gee’s ‘Surrender Your Heart’). Despite positive reviews for a solid mix of melodic pop songs, full of catchy hooks and intricate vocal arrangements, ‘Hand Cut’ only managed to reach #17 on the British charts, and failed to spawn any further hit singles, due no doubt to the fact that only two singles were issued. Some time after Bucks Fizz had fallen out of fashion, RCA issued the album track ‘You Love Love’ as a single, but it was one for collectors only to get excited about. ‘Hand Cut’ did happen to feature a very impressive cover (it’s a pity the rest of the cover art associated with Bucks Fizz wasn’t so grand).

Though the shelf life of ‘Hand Cut’ had been relatively short, Bucks Fizz fans didn’t have to wait long for a taste of some new material. The single ‘When We Were Young’ notched up the group’s ninth consecutive British top 20 hit (#10/Fr#4/Ire#6) soon after its release in June of ‘83. It was quite a departure from some of their earlier light ‘n fluffy pop fare, and both musically and lyrically, stood up as a more serious piece of pop-rock. I recall seeing Bucks Fizz perform the song on the special ‘Hoges In England’ (Paul Hogan was suitably impressed - though not necessarily by the song). In October ‘83 the single ‘London Town’ (not the Wings song) became the first Bucks Fizz single to miss the British top 20 (#34), the first sign that the group was beginning to lose some of their bubble. In December 1983 Bucks Fizz released their first ‘Greatest Hits’ album, featuring most of their major hits to date, in addition to the recent single releases, which included ‘Rules Of The Game’ (UK#57), a song which featured Cheryl Baker on lead vocals for the first time. Despite being timed for the Christmas sales frenzy, and backed by an intensive marketing push, the ‘Greatest Hits’ album sold relatively poorly (UK#25), further adding to thoughts that Bucks Fizz had lost some of their pop allure. A sell out nationwide tour in early ‘84 contradicted that notion somewhat, but the group’s sales outside of Britain were waning, and had made no inroads into the lucrative U.S. market.

What does any savvy pop artist do when their fortunes are flagging? Why record a cover version of a sure fire pop hit of course. U.S. power pop quartet the Romantics (see earlier post) had recently had a U.S.#3 hit with ‘Talking In Your Sleep’ (OZ#14). Though the Romantics’ version had bombed in the U.K., the Andy Hill makeover version peaked at #15, and gave Bucks Fizz their biggest hit of 1984. The follow up single ‘Golden Days’ had more than a touch of irony hidden within its subject matter. The lyrics told of a fading movie star, desperate to rise to the top again, and was backed by yet another very clever concept video. ‘Golden Days’ (UK#42) had been co-written and produced by Terry Britten (the first time Andy Hill hadn’t been at the controls) and had been recently recorded by Cliff Richard, but it failed to restore any lustre to the Bucks Fizz brand. Both 1984 singles were featured on the groups fourth album ‘I Hear Talk’, which made itself heard in November of ‘84, but only on the outer fringes of the album charts (UK#66). Around the same time Bucks Fizz duly hit the road for a national tour to promote the album and thank fans for their ongoing support. Shortly before Christmas of ‘84 tragedy struck Bucks Fizz when their tour bus collided with some road works before careering off the road. Several on board sustained injuries, but singer Mike Nolan was the most serious of the casualties. His received serious head injuries, that put him into a coma, and reportedly close to death. Nolan’s recovery to health took several months, and in many respects the group would never reach their former heights. The release of the title track single ‘I Hear Talk’ (UK#34) just a week after their accident, now seemed of little relevance, but no doubt both album and single sales suffered in the wake of the group’s now limited capacity to fulfil promotional commitments.

By mid ‘85 Nolan had recovered sufficiently to resume active service with Bucks Fizz, but his return would soon be offset by the departure of another. Jay Aston had wanted to leave the group for some time, but contractual obligations had prevented her from doing so. It had been evident for a while that her increasingly sexually overt image, which attracted much attention independent of the music and other group members, played at odds with the group’s original teeny bopper image, and no doubt contributed to rising tensions within the group. By June ‘85 she had reached breaking point and in a much publicised and intensely acrimonious split, Aston parted ways with Bucks Fizz. Tales of infidelity and breaches of contract filled the tabloids for some time after, and Aston was eventually sued by the band’s management company for breach of contract. She later went on to establish her own dance school, and maintained some involvement with the music industry through a number of low key projects.

There was a media frenzy surrounding the subsequent auditions to find a replacement for Aston. Eventually struggling night club singer named Shelley Preston got the nod, and made her first appearance with Bucks Fizz via a television spot, promoting their new single ‘You And Your Heart So Blue’ (UK#43), which no doubt got lost among the prevailing chaos surrounding the group at the time. After a turbulent period mid year, Bucks Fizz released the single ‘Magical’ (UK#57) in September of ‘85, and though Shelley Preston hadn’t featured on the recording side of things, it marked her first full involvement during the promotional phase. The song, co-written by Meat Loaf and John Parr, was a clear attempt by Bucks Fizz to be seen as a serious rock group, but they just couldn’t pull that one off. It was also their last release via the RCA label, as by early ‘86 they had shifted stable labels to Polydor.

Having endured and survived such a traumatic eighteen months, by mid ‘86 Bucks Fizz were due for a new beginning. Appropriately enough their next single ‘New Beginning (Mamba Seyra)’ provided the group with a welcome return to the British top ten (#8), and was a promising beginning to their tenure with Polydor. Two months later they followed it up with a cover of the Stephen Stills’ song ‘Love The One You’re With’ (UK#47), also a big hit for Australian group the Chantoozies (see future post). With the arrival of their next single ‘Keep Each Other Warm’ (UK#45) during November of ‘86, it was evident that the high hopes offered up on ‘New Beginning’ were not going to be realised. The group’s previous five singles, including their last two for RCA, were all included on their fifth and final studio album ‘The Writing On The Wall’ (UK#89), released in December of ‘86’. Production duties were shared around, but Andy Hill was still on hand to oversee things, but sales for the album were sufficiently disappointing that a planned single release for the track ‘Love In A World Gone Mad’ was shelved. If they hadn’t read it already, the writing was now most definitely on the wall for Bucks Fizz.

By 1988 Bucks Fizz had parted ways with Polydor, and returned to RCA to record the new single ‘Heart Of Stone’ (UK#50), for inclusion on a new ‘best of’ package titled ‘The Story So Far’. Appropriately enough the group’s greatest ally, writer/producer Andy Hill, played a central role in what would be the final foray by Bucks Fizz into the singles charts. In somewhat of a backhanded compliment, Cher took her version of ‘Heart Of Stone’ into worldwide charts a couple of years later. Though their days as an active studio group were seemingly behind them, Bucks Fizz continued to tour regularly to packed houses (albeit at smaller venues). After more than three years with the group, Shelley Preston left the group at the end of 1989, and went on to pursue various career interests including as a backing vocalist and model. For the next three years Nolan, Baker and Gee continued as a trio, prior to Cheryl Baker’s departure in 1993. Baker focussed her energies on family duties and a successful career as a television presenter. Gee and Nolan decided to recruit two new female vocalists, Heidi Manton and Amanda Swarzc. By 1996 Bobby Gee was the sole remaining original member, following Nolan’s departure. A year later Nolan hooked up with former Dollar singer David Van Day, and the pair formed a rival version of Bucks Fizz, but following objections from Gee and a whole series of law suits, by 2001 Nolan bailed out. Bobby Gee and is now wife Heidi Manton continued touring with the ‘official’ Bucks Fizz line-up, most recently also featuring new recruits Tammy Choat and Paul Fordham. Though all four original members have never reunited, in 2004 Cheryl Baker, Bobby Gee, Mike Nolan and Shelley Preston performed together as part of the ‘Here And Now’ nostalgia tour. Bobby Gee then returned to his Bucks Fizz project, whilst Baker, Nolan and Preston continued to perform on occasion under the banner ‘The Original Bucks Fizz’ (sounds like a soft drink). Further compilation albums ‘The Ultimate Anthology’ and ‘Lost Rarities’ have served to keep the Bucks Fizz legacy sparkling.

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