The human condition explained in three-minute bursts
As the 70s got going, the female soul threesomes and foursomes fell by the wayside, although the male of the species flourished.
Then, enter the Three Degrees. Same format, similar look and plenty of success. For those hoping the world was growing up and that applied to women in pop music, Year of Decision laid a false trail with its vague incitement to stand up for some cause or other. Normal service was resumed with When Will I See You Again and My Simple Heart. It was like an Indian summer, the old girlie feeling back on 45rpm.
Other than them, though, the cupboard was bare and change was inevitable. There was Odyssey, who produced some great stuff such as Native New Yorker and If You’re Looking For a Way Out, but they were two girls and one guy (even though apparently he replaced his own mother in the group).
A while later there was a flurry of activity in the UK, led by Bananarama, and although the hits flowed with such offerings as Cruel Summer and Robert De Niro’s Waiting, the music didn’t have the substance of what we were used to from the Motown and Philadelphia crews. The 70s bandwagon was jumped by the momentary likes of Toto Coelo (I Eat Cannibals), but the real action was elsewhere.
The most important female group of the 80s was not a cute trio in fancy frocks but a bona fide rock band. The Runaways had prepared the ground and eventually gave us the briefly-wonderful Joan Jett, and The Go-Gos would spawn Belinda Carlisle and Jane Weidlin, but they didn’t set the world on fire. The Bangles, though, were the real thing: a proper band who wrote their own songs (although they did the odd one of other people’s), played on their own records, made their own decisions and were in it for the long haul.
From the Prince-sponsored Manic Monday, The Bangles blossomed into a smart, productive source of great pop/rock songs such as Walk Like An Egyptian and Eternal Flame. They triumphed not because of the influence of the record industry but in spite of it. While executives saw doll-like singer and rhythm guitarist Susannah Hoffs as a potential solo star, there was talent aplenty in the majestic yet awkward and shy drummer-singer Debbie Peterson and her lead guitarist sister Vicki, while the bass player, the world’s only famous female Michael (Steele) completed a line-up that was three-quarters serious.
Perhaps the executives can’t be totally blamed for their Susannah fixation when she played up her sexy little minx persona with compositions such as In Your Room (“In the warm glow of the candlelight, oh I wonder what you’re going to do to me”) and If She Knew What She Wants (he’d be giving it to her). Meanwhile, Peterson (D) powered the band through Going Down to Liverpool and brought understated emotion to Be With You.
While the band was doomed to implode, there were stirrings back on the more traditional girl-group front in the late 80s and early 90s with TLC (No Scrubs, Waterfalls, Unpretty) and the two-thirds female Deee Lite (Groove is in the Heart).
En Vogue gave us My Loving (No you’re never gonna get it)and SWV came up with Right Here.
And then, of course, there are The Spice Girls, a phenomenon rather than a musical unit, who galvanized young girls and sold millions of records without actually being much good as singers.
They were followed in the UK by All Saints with hits including Never Ever, and we had Destiny’s Child, who gave birth to Beyonce when she had a surname (Knowles) and Pussycat Dolls, plus the curious case of Sugababes. Curious because although the line-up changed over time, and none of the members showed much sign of being a great singer, the quality remained. Check out Overload, Freak Like Me, and their whole guileless appeal laid bare on Real Thing. It may be largely down to a producer, but then so was much of Motown and The Ronettes.
Eternal produced Stay and Oh Baby I and there was Girls Aloud with Sexy No No, Something Kinda Ooooh, Can’t Speak French and Biology.
Girl groups: all it means is a group of girls performing together, but somehow there is – or can be – a magic in there that is different from male or mixed line-ups.
It is easy to dismiss the more recent ones as just so much “product” churned out by managers and record companies, and a victory of style over substance, but that pretty much sums up most of pop music. If you hear a song on the radio and you like it, someone is doing their job.
The studio version is better, but here they are, doing it for real:
And my favourite Sugababes track.