‘It was acceptable in the 80s’ is a common phrase coined to excuse the unconventional-ness of the decade. However, it also allowed for many spouts of artistic expression especially in the music industry. The flow of inspiration poured uncontrollably but every so often flooded into something genre defying. Enter Shakespears Sister, a pop-rock project of beautiful weirdness dressed in a gothic elegance.
Initially, I came across the band after watching an old re run of Top of the Pops that featured British 80s pop group, Bananarama, a girl group featuring Dublin born Siobhan Fahey. It was whilst watching their performance that my mother asked me if I had ever heard of Shakespears Sister and the look of almost betrayal that crossed her face when I told her I hadn’t is an image I wish I could share with all of you. Unfortunately, that is not the case however I can share with you my discovery into the music she introduced me to.
The name alone piqued my interest and set high expectations for unusual lyrics and dramatic flair, both things the band did not fail to deliver on. Shakespears sister was originally formed as a solo act by Fahey in 1988 when she left Bananarama after feeling her musical needs were not being fulfilled. Embarking on her own project allowed the punk turned pop artist to explore her roots once again, this time staying true to herself as a music artist. The name originated from The Smiths song of the same name, the apostrophe being left out after a misspelling that Fahey liked because she felt that it made it her own. Fahey worked alongside many other personalities in the music industry during the process of writing and recording including friend and college Marcy Levy. An accomplished multi-instrumentalist, Levy contributed both musically and artistically by providing vocals and instrumentals. After some time as a ‘hired hand’, Fahey convinced Levy to give herself a new professional name and Levy decided upon Marcella Detroit – the name she would become most known for during her work with Shakespears Sister and thereafter.
Just before the solo act became a duo, Shakespears Sister released the debut single ‘Break My Heart (You Really’), a song that unfortunately did not achieve the success Fahey sought. However it did achieve it’s goal in separating her from her persona in Bananarama and revealing her new darker look to the world. As well as this it made it apparent the chemistry Fahey and Detroit shared in the recording studio. Neither woman was thrilled about the idea initially, wanting to maintain their independence as artists but after agreeing on a 50/50 split, the two united as equal band members. The reluctance in the beginning of their musical relationship would manifest over the course of their time together until it inevitably lead to the band’s break up in 1993.
With Detroit now on board, Shakespears Sister released their second single (but debut as a duo) ‘You’re History’. The song proved to be the breakthrough both woman wanted, showcasing how Fahey and Detroit complemented each other in both artistic creativity and talented vocals. Whilst the music video is a compilation of quirky 80s nonsense, the song itself is a catchy tune introducing Fahey’s and Detroit’s blending of styles. ‘You’re History’ reached number 10 in the UK charts in 1989 and was followed by the band’s debut album, Sacred Heart, that proved just as successful.
Whilst Sacred Heart also featured the popular singles ‘Run Silent’ and ‘Dirty Mind’, it is the band’s second album, Hormonally Yours, that produced the song Shakespears Sister are most known for and the one that captured my heart. The album was introduced with the first single ‘Goodbye Cruel World’ but it was the second single ‘Stay’ that gave the band their first and only number one as well as the win of Best British Video at the BRIT Awards in 1993.
The narrative music video to ‘Stay’ is truly heart breaking as it depicts Detroit singing to a man presumably on his deathbed. Detroit’s distaught and desperate performance pours into her high vocals and violently tugs on every heart string you possess. The song begins as something soft and full of lost love before Fahey’s entrance a as a malevolent force representing death. Both women fight physically and vocally with their unique voices engaging in a battle for possession. ‘Stay’ is like a dark mixture of two songs, the concoction an appealing elixir of music styles.
Unfortunately, Shakespears Sister fell into the pit that is ‘musical differences’ and went their separate ways after many years together and a brief revival. Although some may find the music to be dated by it’s era and therefore an acquired taste, Shakespears Sister offer something to take you away from modern day and are worth the indulgence.
By Skye W. Winwood