Sunday, May 14, 2017

Wow: It was 30 years ago today…

It was 1987, I was in college, still listening to Madonna, Whitney Houston and George Michael; Kylie was still a year away from releasing her first album, but my favorite girl group crush would release their ultimate pop masterpiece simply titled “Wow”.

Let’s go back a bit, Bananarama first appeared on my radar in 1984 with “Cruel Summer”, their first top ten in North America, it was a cute little song with 3 confident girls having fun, but by 1986 the game would change. Their 3rd studio outing “True Confessions” featured one of the ultimate 80’s cover songs “Venus”, originally recorded by Shocking Blue in the 60’s, the girls along with superstar producers and Hit Factory makers Stock, Aiken & Waterman made the perfect pop combination. The girls loved Stock Aiken & Waterman’s previous work with the Dead Or Alive song “You Spin Me Round” and wanted that same hard edge euro dance sound for “Venus”, that coupled along with the super sexy and sultry video made them superstars and the song went straight to the number one spot of the Billboard Hot 100. My best friend Chris and I had taken Jazz Dance as one of our gym electives in college, we were hilariously the only two guys in the class and our final dance routine was to none other than “Venus”. Bananarama had other hits along the way like my favorite of the time “Trick Of The Night”, and “Robert De Niro’s Waiting”, but none would have an impact in North America.

“True Confessions” only had two songs produced by Stock, Aiken & Waterman but when it was announced that they would write, produce and arrange their entire next album I was beyond excited. The album “Wow” was co-written by the girls, who fought with Stock, Aiken & Waterman along the way, the producers were not used to writing songs with their artists. Unlike most pop groups today Bananarama were not a prefabricated band, they formed in 1979, Sara met Siobhan in fashion journalism in London, and along with Sara’s childhood mate Keren they rented a flat together and as they say the rest is history. They managed themselves for the most of the time, they insisted to write or co-write their songs, designed they look, nobody told them what to wear, they were sexy, but strong and confident women, without just being arm candy for men.


 “I Heard A Rumour” the first single that preceded the album “Wow” was not a disappointment, the song became their 3rd and final top ten in North America going to #4, the album was a juggernaut, it had a unity unlike their previous efforts. “Love In The First Degree” my favorite song, became their biggest hit in the UK, Berry Gordy the founder of Motown said it was the closest anybody had to come to the Motown sound. Unfortunately after putting out 4 studio albums, 20 singles and living together for 9 years a split began to happen. Siobhan decided she wanted to pursue a different sound and went on to form Shakespeare’s Sister, their performance of “Love In The First Degree” at the Brits Awards in 1988 would be their last together.


Like their predecessors and group that inspired them The Supremes, they would continue with a new 3rd member, Jacquie O’Sullivan. I have to admit this was an exciting time for Bananarama fans. They were inducted in the the Guinness Book Of World Records as the all-female group with the most chart entries in the world. The album “Wow” still had some hit singles left in it, so Jacqui’s voice was added to the super fab “I Want You Back” making it a number 5 smash in the UK. It was at this point I started realising the differences between the UK and American charts, none of their singles would chart in Canada or on the Billboard Hot 100. I started shopping at import record stores picking up all the UK 12” Bananarama singles I could find, I sadly couldn’t hear these hits on the radio but I could play them all I wanted. 


In 1989 the girls recorded a cover of The Beatles “Help” for UK’s Comic Relief charity, alongside comedians French & Saunders who parodied them as “Lananeeneenoonoo”, the song along with the hilarious spoof video became another top 3 hit in the UK. That year they released their Greatest Hits Collection with a fab new song “Love Truth & Honesty” and re-released another track from the “Wow” album, a cover of The Supremes song “Nathan Jones”, which was originally recorded by the 70’s version of the group when Jean Terrell replaced Diana Ross. It was this song that led me to discover the “70’s Supremes” and those forgotten but fabulous albums that were made after Diana left the group, it made me a superfan of that era.

Keren, Sara & Jacquie toured North America in 1989 and luckily Montreal was part of the schedule, the only Canadian date. Along with my best friends Chris & Ernie was saw the show at the Metropolis Club on March 22nd. A year later Banarama would continue on with one of their best albums “Pop Life” but the imperial phase of them having hits would be over as the grunge 90’s were ushered in. In 1991 Chris and I saw Siobhan and Marcella Detroit as Shakespear’s Sister at a small club at the corner of St, Laurent and St Catherine called the Dome. I remember being so close to the stage that every time Marcella would swing her guitar around while playing I had to duck being afraid of getting hit.

My ticket from the 1989 show
My ticket from the 1989 show


After 3 years Jacqui would quit Bananarama and best friends Sara & Keren continued on as a duo. They reunited in 1992 with Stock & Waterman (minus Aiken) for the Abba-esque “Please Yourself” album. In 1995 the small Canadian record label “Lime” released “Ultra Violet” and they appeared alongside a dozen artists at the Montreal Forum to promote the album. They only sang 2 songs, the new single “Every Shade Of Blue” and “Venus”, but there I was with my best friend Chris, we were probably the only two real fans there to see Bananarama as the other artists and audience members were much younger. I remember holding up the program booklet from the 1989 concert which I brought along with me, Keren caught my eye then pointed to me saying “I’m sure you’ll know this song” as they went into “Venus”. They released a few more albums from 2006’s comeback “Drama” to the recent “Viva” in 2009.

I was floored when I found out this month that Siobhan was reuniting with them and going on tour. I can’t wait to see them live for the first time as a group. Thank you Sara, Keren & Siobhan, for all the music, the videos’ the dance routines and the fabulous times I’ve had in my living room singing and dancing along.   

Note: If not for Bananarama I might have never discovered Kylie Minogue. I remember my best friend Chris going into that same import record shop buying her 12” single “I Should Be So Lucky” based solely on the fact it was produced by Stock, Aiken & Waterman, that started a whole new obsession and passion.

  

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Madonna, Dance Music, Dancers and Kevin Stea

Salim, Oliver, Carlton, Kevin
Luis, Jose, and (Gabriel in spirit)
Thursday night I attended the showing of the documentary “Strike A Pose” at the Victoria Film Festival. In 1990 Madonna hired seven male dancers for her Blond Ambition Tour, they taught her to Vogue, were featured in that iconic video, but more importantly they were the subject of her film, the behind the scenes documentary “Truth Or Dare” which came out a year later. The film was one of the biggest documentaries at the time and those seven dancers were thrown into stardom. “Strike A Pose” takes a look 25 years later into the lives of those dancers. I had no idea till I was seated at the cinema that one of those dancers Kevin Stea would be present for a Q&A session. I was so excited and all I could think about throughout the film was what I could say to him. “Truth or Dare” was the first representation of gay men I had ever seen, this was a time when Ellen, Will & Grace etc.… didn’t exist, but there on the big screen was gay men openly living their lives, going to gay pride parades and just being themselves,  some of us saw our first male on male kiss. I still remember seeing the film in 1991 with a close friend and I remember our reactions and talking about the dancers afterwards, I remember having a crush on dancer Salim "Slam" Gauwloos although I had no idea I was gay. Two years later I came out as a gay man and a few years after so did my friend. I always wondered through the years what happened to those dancers and now we get to see. The film is joyous and heartbreaking at the same time, as we discover that some of them were HIV positive and were struggling with this dark secret, while touring in a show that was all about “Expressing Yourself”. Some were not completely out or comfortable, Gabriel Trupin had asked Madonna to cut that famous kissing scene with Salim, but she refused, he tried suing her, sadly in 1996 he lost his battle with AIDS. Others sued her for a breach of contract, money they were owed, a sad but not uncommon tale for many in the showbiz industry, while others just lost their way with drugs and life. Seeing the six remaining dancers get together at the end was pure joy, it’s was nice to see that they were all OK all these years later and that they were still “family”. Oliver Crumes’ stood out for me in the original documentary as he was the one straight guy of the crew, as gay men we have our own prejudices, as I always wondered if he was really a closeted gay man and came out years later, but there he was still straight, his reactions to finding out that some of his friends were HIV positive was very moving, I could feel his pain.

Kevin Stea and me
When the film ended I made a straight line to the front row hoping to meet Kevin. Kevin was the  associate choreographer for Madonna’s Blond Ambition Tour and became the dance captain, when he left the  tour he was broke but then went onto work with some of the biggest iconic stars including Michael Jackson his sister Janet, Lady GaGa, Celine Dion, Prince and David Bowie to name a few, he has starred in numerous commercials and films. I was so nervous when I approached him, I told him what it meant to me, seeing him and the other dancers on screen back in 1991, I was wearing my George Michael T-shirt and asked him about George, and I quickly got a pic with him. There was an event at the Copper Owl club afterward, a dance party to benefit AIDS Vancouver Island, I wasn’t sure I was going to go but when I heard Kevin was attending and that there would be a “Vogueing” session I quickly changed my mind. I was there alone, many others were in cliques, so I sat at the bar for about a half hour staring at my phone, Madonna's music was playing but nobody was dancing. Kevin was sitting at a table talking to a few people but afterwards I noticed like me he was sitting alone.  I turned around and said “How come no one is dancing”? We chatted for a good 20 minutes if not more,  I didn’t want to seem like a stalker so I told him I didn’t want to take up too much of his time, he told me never to apologize for that and we kept on talking, he was a real gentlemen and a class act. When the Vogue lesson started we moved towards the dance floor, I didn’t end up Vogueing but afterward I danced nonstop for over an hour, it was one Madonna song after another, they even played one of my favorite album tracks from True Blue which was never a single “Love Makes The World Go Round”. At one point I was hoping they would play a bad Madonna song so I could take a break. Kevin was mostly chatting with others during this time but then they starting playing other artists, he finally came on to the dancefloor when Prince’s Let’s Go Crazy was played. Talking with him about music, dancing and life was a dream come true but I really wanted to dance with him. The dancefloor was really small, there were only a few people between him and me, then Michael Jackson’s “Black Or White” came on, I was thinking, do I dare dance up to him? It took me to halfway through the song to get the courage, at that time we were in a circle of people, I pushed my way through and busted my best Michael Jackson moves, including a few spins, I thought I was going to fall flat on my face or hit someone but I got through it, he started dancing to my moves, and I heard a few cheers, when the song ended I thanked him and he hi-fived me. It wasn’t till the next day that I found out going through his website that Kevin worked and danced on the video for “Black Or White”, my reaction was “OMG what was I thinking!”. If this wasn’t on my bucket list it, it is now, mission accomplished. I wanted to stay longer but I had work the next day, I went to get my coat, I saw Kevin sitting at the bar so I went up to say goodbye but again we ended up chatting for a while, then I stayed to watch the dance competition which he judged, a final goodbye and I was on my way. This was truly a night to remember. Thanks to Jose, Luis, Carlton, Salim, Oliver and Gabriel for being an inspiration all those years ago and to Kevin who was so gracious and has inspired me then and now.


Saturday, January 7, 2017

Listen Without Prejudice Volume 4

Wham! George Michael
and Andrew Ridgeley
Photo by Tony McGee
To say I’m a huge fan is an understatement but I never really realised how big of an impact his lyrics, music and life had on me. My all-time favorite group and artists are The BeeGees, when Maurice and Robin Gibb died I was devastated, but I didn’t feel the same as when George died, maybe because they were older than me, not part of my formative high school years, but I felt that the BeeGees had come full circle with their last album “This Is Where I Came In” in 2001. I was also devastated after Michael Jackson died but his life was plagued with so many issues and I was so far removed from his reality. George‘s career, in my opinion was cut way too short, he was only 53, his last studio album of new material dates back to 2004’s album “Patience”, I’m still waiting for a follow up. When I got the news about George on Christmas Day I just crawled up in bed and cried. I was already emotional because Christmas reminds me of my mom who I lost around the festive time, so my emotions were running high, I had just posted some pictures of her on Facebook, I was feeling a bit down, then 15 minutes later the news about George popped up on my newsfeed, it was all I could bare.

Me circa 1987-1988
1985 was my graduating year from high school and outside of Madonna Wham! was all the rage. My best friend Chris Dardzinski and I were Wham! I first met Chris in grade 4, like George Michael I was the new student arriving mid-term, and in the same way Andrew Ridgeley was assigned to be George’s guide in class, Chris was assigned to me, we became inseparable closer then brothers. I remember walking into the local record store, Madonna’s “Like A Virgin” and Wham! “Make It Big” albums were on display, Chris bought “Make It Big” and I bought the Madonna album, we would then make cassette tapes for each other so we could have both. Chris and I couldn’t sing or play any instruments but by High School, we dreamed of being pop stars, we photographed ourselves like photoshoots for record covers; we even wrote songs or rather poetry and compiled them into imaginary albums. You couldn’t go anywhere without hearing “Wake Me Up Before You GoGo”, “Everything She Wants”, or the mega song “Careless Whispers”, all went to #1, but my favorite at the time was the #3 hit “Freedom”, not the George Michael song from 1990 but the song that accompanied the music video from their historic concert in China. Despite many writing them off as bubble gum pop stars, George knew how to write a hit and channel the magic of Motown. Looking back today those songs are still classics, and not as simple as some would believe.

Chris circa 1987-1988
As we started college everybody was growing up, but as Chris and I remained friends I was shocked at the news of Wham! splitting up. Their final album “Music From The Edge Of Heaven” is still my favorite. I remember walking into the record store and buying it, I loved how side one of the vinyl with the 4 up-tempo tracks was called “The Hot Side” while the other side with the ballads was called “The Cool Side”. More importantly was the music, only eight songs long but eight amazing songs. "I’m Your Man" is probably my favorite upbeat Wham! song, when I saw George in the music video with the brown hair, cropped beard, tambourine and gloves I wanted that look, it wasn’t long before I grew a beard although not a neat as George’s. “A Different Corner” from the same album, credited to George as a solo artist is one of his best tracks, a beautifully haunting ballad with heart wrenching lyrics “Take me back in time maybe I can forget, turn a different corner and we never would have met, would you care?” Another favorite of mine is an album track called “Blue (Live In China)” I had no idea at the time that this song was originally the B-Side to their early single “Club Tropicana”  then called “Blue (Armed With Love)”, but from the first few notes I fell in love with it. Chris and I kept writing more song lyrics throughout college and like Wham! we decided to fake-spilt up and write our own albums. The song “Blue (Armed With Love)” was on my first solo imaginary record along with my other originals.

The "Faith" album
We were both waiting for George’s next musically chapter to arrive but in the meantime 1987 brought us my all-time favorite duet, the chart topper “I Knew You Were Waiting For Me” by George and Aretha Franklin. I still can’t help singing George’s part whenever I hear it. Then Faith happened and everything just exploded, at this time Chris and I had both graduated from College. I have to admit I wasn’t an immediate fan of his new sound it was a bit too R&B for me. I was not enamoured with the lead single “I Want You Sex”, which was plagued with radio and MTV bans including Aretha Franklin who vowing to never sing with George again. It took some time but I got to love songs like “Father Figure” “One More Try,” “Monkey”, and the title track,  four #1 singles from one album was quite a feat in those days. Two of my favorite songs from the album were the only two non singles, “Look At Your Hands”, and “Hand To Mouth”. Both Chris and I saw Michael’s legendary Faith tour at The Olympic Stadium, unfortunately it’s one of the worse places for a concert sound wise but we were thrilled to see him. The album went on to win Album Of The Year at the Grammy’s, there was no stopping George.

Chris and I circa 1992-1993
1990 was a huge year of musical change, the 80’s was gone, the sound of pure pop was giving way to Grunge and R&B. I remember walking into my local HMV and seeing no more vinyl records just lots of cassettes and CD’s, my musically tastes were changing and so was George Michael’s. That’s why George’s new album “Listen Without Prejudice Volume One” just blew me away. To this day it ranks at #2 for my all-time favorite album, just under The BeeGees 1975 record “Main Course”. “Listen Without Prejudice” was exactly the music I wanted to hear, incredibly produced with beautiful melodies and either personal or social conscious lyrics. George never gets credit as a record producer but he was one of the best, on his albums he did it all, the writing, the arrangements, the production and in some cases most of the instrumentations with just a few session players he trusted. “Praying For Time” is probably one of the greatest songs ever written, a commentary on social injustices “The rich declare themselves poor, And most of us are not sure, If we have too much, But we'll take our chances, Because god's stopped keeping score, I guess somewhere along the way, He must have let us alt out to play, Turned his back and all god's children, Crept out the back door…” it went to #1 but with no video and George’s dispute with Sony nobody remembers it. The track most people remember from the album is the incredible “Freedom 90”, George’s plea to rid himself of all those pre-fabricated images, listening to the lyrics now we can’t help but wonder if his oppressed sexual orientation wasn’t hinted in the song. The album contains so many of my favorite songs, “Something To Save”, “Heal The Pain” whom he wrote for Paul McCartney, they even recorded a duet of the song for his compilation Hits CD “Twenty Five”, the haunting rendition of Stevie Wonder’s They Won’t Go When I Go, the war torn "Mothers Pride, “Cowboys and Angels and “Waiting For That Day” the final single that should have been a huge hit but never was. I loved how the album ended with the Reprise song “Waiting” I hadn’t seen anybody do that sine the BeeGees.


George "Fastlove" Cover 1996
The 90’s were a huge adjustment for both me and George, in 1993 I came out as a gay man while George had also come to this realisation, he kept it hidden for quite some time. His 1996 album “Older” gained him a bit of a comeback in the UK where it outdid the Faith album, in the US the haunting single “Jesus To A Child” and fabulous dance track “Fastlove” kept him in the top ten of the Billboard charts, to some of us this album confirmed he was gay with the non-too subtle lyrics and drastic change in looks. Perhaps for George this was fine, since he could have a career but didn’t have to deal with craziness of mega stardom. We both lost our mothers to cancer whom we loved dearly, unlike George I never got to talk to my mom about my sexual orientation; I came out a year after she passed. My mother's death was a huge black hole for me, George seemed to suffer a similar fate especially when combined with the loss his first lover Anselmo to AIDS. George finally “came out” publicly in 1998 in that much too talked about bathroom incident, which in my opinion has overshadowed his musical output and place in music history. Both Chris and I wondered about George’s sexuality over the years but now we had confirmation and an out in your face song and hilarious video called “Outside” which mocked his arrest and made no doubt of the fact that George was like me, a proud gay man. At this time Andrew Ridgeley had long traded his superstadom life for a quiet retreat with his wife Keren from Bananarama. Like art imitating life Chris stopped writing songs and compiling album, I kept it going throughout the 90’s and the early 2000’s turning my lyrics to the struggles of me losing my mom and becoming a gay man. Chris got married in 1998 and just 2 years later would be the last time we were friends. In 2008 I was lucky to see George’s absolutely incredible concert “Live 25” at the Bell Center in Montreal; it was the concert I waited 25 years to see, I couldn’t help but think of Chris at the show, I wonder if he was there. To this day I still don’t completely understand what happened; Chris decided to give up an entire part of his life and most of his friends including me. It’s been over 16 years since we’ve spoken, every so often, a song, an artist or a place reminds me of him. I’ll never understand how such a close friendship could just be erased. George Michael’s death has reminded me all over again, I mourn George Michael, I mourn my best friend, I mourn my grad years and college, and all the wonderful music we’ll never hear from George. So again I ask: Take me back in time maybe I can forget, turn a different corner and we never would have met, would you care?