Retro Modern “Retro” Pick: Bananarama’s Pop Life (album)
Introduction: Pop Life, the fifth long player from British girl group Bananarama, was their first full-length project with Jacquie O’Sullivan. O’Sullivan had been brought in after founding member Siobhan Fahey’s departure in 1988.
Plotted after their first world tour, Pop Life sought to reclaim the artistic spark characterized on their first two albums ― but without sacrificing the chart acumen they’d acquired in the second half of the 1980s.
Pop Life would be the only LP O’Sullivan recorded as a member of the group before her departure, leaving Sara Dallin and Keren Woodward to carry on the Bananarama mantle as a duo, permanently.
Synopsis: By 1991, Bananarama had come a long way from the plucky punk-pop trio that entered the public consciousness with their idiosyncratic cover of Black Blood’s “Aie a Mwana.” In the decade after that single, Bananarama had released four studio albums whose hits fueled a major world tour in 1989 and a partnering singles compilation released a year beforehand. With a blend of forward-thinking pop and their unison singing approach, Bananarama became the most successful female group of the 1980s.
But, the journey for Dallin, Woodward, and Fahey hadn’t been without difficulties.
By the time Bananarama released their blockbuster fourth LP Wow! (1987, London), Fahey had grown tired of the assimilationist dance-pop that had overtaken the experimental style indicative of their first two LPs, Deep Sea Skiving (1983, London) and Bananarama (1984, London). By partnering with SAW (Stock-Aitken-Waterman) ― a U.K.-based three-man production clique ― on their cover of Shocking Blue’s “Venus,” a single from their junior LP True Confessions (1986, London), Bananarama had come across an exciting, commercial sound.
SAW’s mainstreaming of Hi-NRG and Italo-disco positioned them as one of the hottest producers of the period. As a consequence, Bananarama agreed to let SAW helm their stated fourth album, a decision that sanded their edges, much to Fahey’s chagrin. Amid creative differences, Fahey left Bananarama in 1988 and was replaced with O’Sullivan, a former member of the Shillelagh Sisters.
O’Sullivan went on to record several singles as a Banana between 1988 to 1989; noteworthy fan favorites included covers of “Help!” (The Beatles) and “Nathan Jones” (The Supremes). However, O’Sullivan hadn’t cut a full record with her fellow group mates, yet. All three women were united when they started the tentative work for their fifth album in 1989, their goal to expand their sound at the forefront of the project.
Bananarama, initially, attempted to maintain their liaison with SAW. However, only two cuts appeared on Pop Life (London) from their SAW sessions, “Ain’t No Cure” and “Heartless.” Both cuts were fair but didn’t platform the album’s overall progressive thrust. Bananarama also tapped David Rivkin, a Minneapolis native who had been a part of that city’s collective music intelligentsia and had worked on records for Lipps Inc., Jody Watley, and Fine Young Cannibals. From the Rivkin sessions came “Some Boys.” It didn’t make the final cut. This number and another S.A.W. track (“I Don’t Care”) joined Pop Life as “bonus tracks” on its deluxe reissue in 2013.
It was Youth, an alias for the producer / instrumentalist Martin Glover, who Bananarama handpicked to co-pilot the mass of the album with them. Glover’s varied musical background, especially as a former member of Killing Joke and Brilliant, meant he understood what the ladies were looking to accomplish with Pop Life. Steve Jolley (of Swain and Jolley) was a major player on Bananarama’s pre-Wow! output; he graciously lent some of his songwriting to the LP as well.
Sonically, Pop Life was a melting pot. There were strains of house and general dance music, lovers rock, a bit of rock bluster and a polite touch of the American sub-genre of R&B known as New Jack Swing.
All of these sounds merged into an organic, multifaceted whole to create an album that was danceable, reflective, ambitious, and quirky. At the heart of Pop Life was a pronounced vocal prowess. Bananarama alternated between their sensuous stoicism on the light funk of “What Colour R the Skies Where You Live,” but utilized a newfound confidence (and joy) as heard on “Only Your Love.” Often, both of these moods functioned in one song, and their cover of “Long Train Running” (by The Doobie Brothers) showcased this. Reshaping the song into a flamenco-flecked floorfiller, complete with Spanish guitar and vocal ad-libs from the Gipsy Kings, Bananarama’s take of the rock classic was something of a triumph.
Pop Life debuted on May 13, 1991 in the United Kingdom but had already been preceded by two singles a year beforehand. The set produced four singles, in total, between June 1990 and August 1991: “Only Your Love” (U.K. #27), “Preacher Man” (U.K. #20), “Long Train Running” (U.K. #30), and “Tripping on Your Love” (U.K. #76). Overall, the long player saw its impact confined to Bananarama’s native shores of England (U.K. 200 #42), its commercial reach modest in comparison to Wow! and the subsequent hits package from a few years earlier.
The cold reception that greeted Pop Life had nothing to do with the album itself, but that tastes were rapidly changing. The environment which catapulted Bananarama to dizzying heights at the latter half of the 1980s had become indifferent to the group at the outset of the 1990s. As Pop Life concluded its chart run, O’Sullivan bowed out of Bananarama to become one half of the dance music duo Slippery Feet until their disbandment in 1996. Later, she embarked on a different career path: alternative medicine. Dallin and Woodward continued on as a duo, carrying the torch of the Bananarama legacy through four more albums, their last effort appropriately titled Viva (2009, Fascination). They’re currently at work on their 11th album.
Now, with time on its side, fans (and critics) have come to embrace the charm of Pop Life, making it one of the group’s essential albums. The LP’s cheek and ability are recurring elements central to the enduring appeal of the Bananarama legend.