Classic Song #40: Shakespears Sister – Hello

I was prompted to write this one after listening to a London duo called Alpine, whose vocalist has definite shades of Marcella Detroit when the latter reaches a High F (F6 for the technically minded) on Shakespears Sisters’ song Stay without the aid of autotune, which didn’t exist commercially then. But more of that when Alpine’s forthcoming shows are previewed, shortly.

So, Stay was my original choice for this week’s Classic Song until I had a change of heart and opted for Hello, which is even better. But for anyone who feels short changed I’ve attached the video of what is claimed to be the final live performance of Stay at the end, as a bonus, and in which she astonishingly gets that note, live.

There have been lots of songs titled Hello including Lionel Richie’s and one released a couple of years ago by a North London hopeful called Adele Adkins which you might have heard. As good as they are I reckon this song, from the often maligned 1990s, tops both of them.

Firstly some background on Shakespears Sister.

Siobhan Fahey established her credentials as a songwriter during her nine years with Bananarama, during which she co-wrote many of its hits, such as Robert de Niro’s Waiting, I Heard a Rumour, Love in the First Degree and Cruel Summer.

Marcella Detroit is less well known here in the UK. Originally Marcella Levy, but actually of Detroit, she was performing as a solo singer/guitarist and providing backing vocals for many Top 20 US hits, and had released a solo album before she met Siobhan Fahey, who had quit Bananarama over a difference of opinion on its future direction (and a row over a pizza) and set up Shakespears Sister on her own as a solo project.

The name came as an adaptation of a Smiths song, Shakespeare’s Sister which was accidentally misspelt but Fahey chose to keep the misspelling as a statement of her own identity.

It would appear that Fahey sought both greater musical and lyrical sophistication than she could achieve with Bananarama, and  a darker, almost goth-like persona; the one she presents in the official video for Stay, when she vampishly sings the bridge (appearing as the Angel of Death) while Detroit falsettos her way through the verses. That in itself was unusual as Fahey usually took the vocal lead. Stay was #1 in the UK charts for eight weeks, possibly the longest period of time ever achieved by a female duo.

Shakespears Sister was nominated for a number of awards but was short-lived, managing just two albums – Sacred Heart and Hormonally Yours, both of which got into the UK Top 10 – and nine singles before a serious difference of opinions and a falling out (some of it reputedly prompted by Fahey’s angst at Detroit’s prominent position in the Stay video) led to Marcella quitting the band in 1993, distressed by the way it had ended. Stay reached #1 in the UK, Ireland and Sweden and managed #4 in the US but Hello could only manage #14 in the UK and #43 in the US. Its highest chart position – #9 – was in Switzerland. Both singles were taken from Hormonally Yours.

Fahey continued Shakespears Sister again as a solo project until closing it in 1996, while releasing other work in her own name throughout the late 1990s and 2000s but with limited success.

Detroit went in the same direction, i.e. back to being a solo performer, with perhaps a little more success, before forming her own blues band, the Marcy Levy Band, while also writing for other artists (who through her career have ranged from Eric Clapton to Charlotte Church) and almost winning the ITV reality TV show Popstar to Operastar. Her most recent albums were released in 2013.

The history of Classic Song for the Day is one of band reunions but regrettably that hasn’t been the case here. Shakespears Sister actually continued issuing compilation albums and re-releases of live albums right up to 2013 and one of them, a 20th anniversary edition of Hormonally Yours, contained liner notes from both Fahey and Detroit. But that’s as far as it goes, folks.

Could they still get back together?  Never say never, but the Shakespears Sister website doesn’t even work properly, which doesn’t augur well, and Siobhan is 58 now; Marcella 64. But 20 years is a long time for two adults not to speak to each other, when their creative output was so highly regarded and when ‘dark’ and ‘ethereal’ is now so much in demand.

And so to the Classic Song itself. Firstly, let us give it its correct title, which is Hello (Turn Your Radio On). As good as Stay is I can’t get my head around why Hello didn’t achieve the same chart rankings. The hook isn’t quite as memorable as Stay’s but it eats into your soul and it has one of the simplest, sweetest and most apt guitar solos (from Marcella Detroit) that you’ll ever hear.

As I mentioned earlier Siobhan Fahey had established her bona fides as a lyricist in Bananarama and the words she uses in Hello are extremely prescient.

La, la, la, life is a strange thing.
Just when you think you learned how to use it,
It’s gone.

And as I stumbled through last night’s drunken debris
The paperboy screamed out the headlines in the street.
Another war, and now the pound is looking weak.

Hello, hello, turn your radio on
Is there anybody out there?
Tell me what went wrong.

A brave new world has dawned upon the human race,
Where words are meaning less,* and everything’s surreal.

(*A brilliant double meaning).

The trouble is that they could easily be hijacked for political purposes. Trump, Brexit, fake news… they are all there for the taking. I can only hope that never happens. The song is simply too good to be sullied in that fashion.

Incidentally the acting in this clever little flatlining video is very good, from both of them. Still undecided about the pig though.

©D J Bentley, 2017

Final performance of Stay as promised:

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