The Belle Stars

The Belle Stars were an English new wave septet on Stiff Records that released eleven singles between 1981 and 1984, including the hits “Iko Iko,” “The Clapping Song,” “Sign of the Times,” and “Sweet Memory.” In 1986, a three-woman lineup scored the club hit “World Domination.” They featured five ex-members of The Bodysnatchers, another all-female seven-piece that cut the 1980 2 Tone ska singles “Let’s Do Rock Steady” and “Easy Life.”

Members: Jennie McKeown (vocals), Sarah Jane Owen (lead guitar), Stella Barker (rhythm guitar), Penny Leyton (keyboards, 1981-82), Clare Hirst (keyboards, tenor saxophone, 1982-84), Miranda Joyce (alto saxophone), Lesley Shone (bass), Judy Parsons (drums)


The Bodysnatchers

The Bodysnatchers formed in the summer of 1979 when aspiring bassist Nicky Summers placed musicians ads in the New Musical Express and Sounds.

As a tween, Summers got into music through Marc Bolan, Lou Reed, Roxy Music, and David Bowie, who she witnessed live at the Hammersmith Odeon on the closing night of the Ziggy tour. By the mid-1970s, she wore vintage 1930s dresses and listened to a mix of ’50s rockabilly and ’60s Stax, Motown, bluebeat, and girl groups. Her outside style made her an automatic fit for the punk scene. She attended concerts by numerous punk acts (The Clash, The Damned, The Jam, Penetration, X-Ray Spex) and took inspiration from the all-female composition of The Slits.

By 1979, Nicky’s interests shifted to dub reggae and the emerging ska revival. She worked across from Cheapo Cheapo Records on Soho’s Rupert St, where owner Phil Cording loaned her records by Augustus Pablo, Don Drummond, U Roy, and Joe Gibbs’ Majestic Dub and African Dub.

At the Highbury & Islington tube station, she met Portsmouth native Jane Summers (no relation), a young drummer whose style captivated Nicky (“She was wearing a fake leopard skin coat and bright red lips and looked like a young Shirley Maclaine,”>). Through Sounds and NME, they found guitarists Stella Barker (rhythm) and Sarah-Jane Owen (lead). With ads on the notice board at Central St. Martins, they found keyboardist Penny Leyton and alto saxophonist Miranda Joyce. Nicky met singer Rhoda Dakar at a gig in Fulham, where they were introduced by their mutual friend, Shane MacGowan.

The Bodysnatchers rehearsed for seven weeks in advance of their first show. Their name derived from the 1956 sci-fi horror film Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

The Bodysnatchers made their live debut on November 24 at the Windsor Castle pub in West London as support for The Nips, MacGowan’s pre-Pogues punk band. They ended their set with “Time Is Tight,” the 1969 Booker T & The M.G.’s instrumental recently covered by The Clash. Attendees included Selecter frontwoman Pauline Black, Specials keyboardist Jerry Dammers, and Virgin Records co-founder Richard Branson (who purportedly offered them a chance to cut an album at Stax Studios in Memphis).

The Bodysnatchers signed with 2 Tone, the nascent ska label that Dammers established through Chrysalis. On their third gig, The Bodysnatchers played the birthday bash of Debbie Harry, the frontwoman of Chrysalis stars Blondie.


“Let’s Do Rock Steady”

In February 1980, The Bodysnatchers released “Let’s Do Rock Steady,” a modified ’60s bluebeat number backed with the group original “Ruder Than You.”

A. “Let’s Do Rock Steady” (2:54) is the Bodysnatchers’ adaptation of “People Get Ready,” a 1969 a-side by London-based Jamaican rocksteady merchant Daddy Livingston.
B. “Ruder Than You” (2:50) was co-written by The Bodysnatchers and John Mayall‘s son, Gaz Mayall, who owned the nightclub Gaz’ Rockin’ Blues, a hangout spot of band members.

The Bodysnatchers cut both sides with Selecter soundman Roger Lomas, who also produced The Mo-dettes and 1980 ska releases by Bad Manners and the Reluctant Stereotypes. Lomas demanded 26 takes of “Let’s Do Rock Steady,” each with increased speed.

“Let’s Do Rock Steady” appeared as the eighth proper 2 Tone single (cat# CHS TT 9) between the second and third Selecter singles, “Three Minute Hero” and “Missing Words.” Japanese and Portuguese copies came in picture sleeves, both with the same Bodysnatchers group photo with the band in their trademark red–white–black wardrobes and Rhoda with her bow-wrapped beehive hairdo.

Before selecting the Livingston cover, The Bodysnatchers prepared “The Boiler,” a group-written original favored by Dammers, but Chrysalis objected due to the song’s subject matter (rape).

“Let’s Do Rock Steady” reached No. 22 on the UK Singles Chart. The Bodysnatchers mimed it on the March 20 broadcast of the BBC music program Top of the Pops, which also featured in-studio appearances by Barbara Dickson (“January February”), The Lambrettas (“Poison Ivy”), Sad Cafe (“My Oh My”), Squeeze (“Another Nail In My Heart”), UB40 (“Food for Thought”), and videos by The Jam (“Going Underground”) and Martha + the Muffins (“Echo Beach”).

In the Bodysnatchers’ TotP segment, they hop around a dark stage under curved bar fixtures (illuminated with red and blue lighting) with Rhoda in a black vinyl mini-dress. They returned for the April 10 TotP broadcast, this time under blue–green lights and finn overhangs with Rhoda in a polka dot mini-dress.

The Bodysnatchers also performed an unreleased song, “What’s This,” on an episode of the ITV rock series Alright Now. They embarked on a spring tour as Selecter’s opening act.

On April 4, The Bodysnatchers recorded their first of two sessions for BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel, whose 4/14 broadcast aired “What’s This?” and “The Boiler,” plus two additional unissued songs: “Happy Time Tune” and  “The Ghosts of the Vox Continental.”


“Easy Life”

In July 1980, The Bodysnatchers released their second single: “Easy Life,” a group-credited original backed with “Too Experienced,” a Bob Andy cover.

A. “Easy Life” (3:12)
B. “Too Experienced” (2:33) originated as a 1968 Supreme Records a-side by Kingston reggae singer Bob Andy.

Dammers produced both sides, which appeared as 2 Tone’s eleventh proper 7″ release (cat# CHS TT 12), between singles by The Specials (“Rat Race”) and the Swinging Cats (“Mantovani”).

The Bodysnatchers supported The Specials on their summer 1980 tour along with a third-billed act, The Go-Go’s, a Los Angeles all-female pop-rock quintet. The Bodysnatchers also played 1980 opening slots for Madness, Lene Lovich, and Toots and the Maytals.

On August 27, The Bodysnatchers cut their second Peel session, comprised of four unreleased songs: “Hiawatha,” “Mixed Feelings,” “Private Eye,” and “The Loser” (aired 9/8/80).

Tensions arose when select Bodysnatchers took issue with Jane Summers’ drumming. After multiple auditions, they hired drummer Judy Parsons, recently of South London pop-punks The Mistakes.


Bodysnatchers Split

Jane’s dismissal alienated Nicky Summers, who first bonded with her namesake before the others entered the picture. Amid growing musical differences, a conflict erupted backstage after an October gig in Manchester. The Bodysnatchers agreed to split after a November show at the Camden Music Machine, performed one year after their live debut.

Footage from their 1980 shows appeared posthumously in the 1981 film Dance Craze, an 85-minute documentary of the 2 Tone movement with live clips by The Specials, The Selecter, The Beat, Madness, and Bad Manners. It features three Bodysnatchers numbers: the two a-sides (“Let’s Do the Rock Steady,” “Easy Life”) and their unrecorded Desmond Dekker cover “007 (Shanty Town),” a 1967 Aces single later covered by Musical Youth. “Easy Life” also appears on the Dance Craze soundtrack album.

Rhoda Dakar joined The Specials, which reconfigured after the departures of Roddy Radiation and the Fun Boy Three faction. As Special AKA, they recorded “The Boiler,” released in January 1982 as a non-album 2 Tone a-side (b/w “Theme from The Boiler”). Nicky Summers, in her final recorded credit, plays bass on the single.

Dakar remained a Special through their 1983–84 singles “Racist Friend” and “Nelson Mandela,” both included on the band’s 1984 third album In the Studio. Nicky Summers abandoned music for painting, photography, and travel. In 1986, she joined the Nichiren Buddhist group SGI-UK.


The Belle Stars

The five remaining Bodysnatchers — guitarists Stella Barker and Sarah-Jane Owen, saxist Miranda Joyce, keyboardist Penny Leyton, and their recently hired drummer Judy Parsons — reconfigured with two new members: bassist Lesley Shone and singer Jennie Matthias. They made their live debut on Christmas 1980 before settling on the name Belle Stars. In early 1981, they signed with Stiff Records.


1981 Singles

In May 1981, The Belle Stars debuted with “Hiawatha,” a late-period Bodysnatchers song backed with “Big Blonde,” a new group-credited original.

A. “Hiawatha” (2:49) is group-credited to the Parsons-era Bodysnatchers lineup.
B. “Big Blonde” (3:45)

The Belle Stars cut both sides with Clanger–Winstanley, the production team of ex-Deaf School guitarist (and recent Boxes frontman) Clive Langer and veteran UA soundman Alan Winstanley (999, Buzzcocks, Generation X, The Stranglers). The team’s main client, Stiff label-mates Madness, scored multiple hits from their 1979–81 albums One Step Beyond…, Absolutely, and 7.

The Belle Stars promoted “Hiawatha” on support slots with Madness and The Beat. In May, they opened for The Clash in Brussels, Lille, and Paris.

On July 24, 1981, The Belle Stars released their second single: “Slick Trick” backed with “Take Another Look,” both group-credited originals.

A. “Slick Trick” (3:40)
B. “Take Another Look” (3:07)

Clanger–Winstanley produced both sides in sequence with 1981 titles by the Original Mirrors, Teardrop Explodes, and Bette Bright & The Illuminations. An extended “Slick Trick” (4:48) appears on a Stiff America 12″ with “Hiawatha” and the subsequent “Miss World.”

On October 30, 1981, The Belle Stars released an extended-play 7″ with four originals, headed by “Another Latin Love Song,” which also appeared as a promo single (b/w “Having a Good Time (Bark by Ralph)”).

A1. “Another Latin Love Song” (2:42)
A2. “Miss World” (3:34)
B1. “Stop Now” (3:14)
B2. “Having a Good Time (Bark by Ralph)” (1:56) During the session, Lesley Shone’s dog (Ralph) wandered into the studio, hence the subtitle. They co-wrote the song with Gaz Mayall.

The Belle Stars recorded the EP with soundman Pete Wingfield, a onetime musician (Jellybread, Olympic Runners) who recently produced titles by the original Dexys Midnight Runners and their spinoff, The Bureau. The engineer, Simon Sullivan, also handled recent recordings by Freeez, Random Hold, and Gerald Masters.

Penny Leyton cleared out for Cumbria-born keyboardist and saxist Clare Hirst, who cut prior singles in The Demons and Boys Will Be Boys.


1982 Singles

On May 21, 1982, The Belle Stars released “Iko Iko,” a Dixie Cups cover backed with “The Reason,” an original from their earlier Wingfield sessions.

A. “Iko Iko” (2:49) is a New Orleans trad number originated in 1953 by James “Sugar Boy” Crawford & His Cane Cutters; popularized in 1965 by girl-group the Dixie Cups.
B. “The Reason” (3:50)

The Belle Stars recorded “Iko Iko” with Bow Wow Wow soundman Brian Tench. It reached No. 35 on the UK Singles Chart. However, their version coincided with a cover by Natasha England, whose May 1982 version with Mike Oldfield soundman Tom Newman reached No 10.

On July 9, 1982, The Belle Stars released “The Clapping Song,” a Shirley Ellis cover backed with “Blame,” an original composed before Leyton’s departure.

A. “The Clapping Song” (3:12) originated as “The Clapping Song (Clap Pat Clap Slap),” a 1965 Congress a-side by Bronx soul singer Shirley Ellis; written by Lincoln Chase. In 1984, Carmel released a jump-blues adaptation titled “The Drum Is Everything.”
B. “Blame” (2:20)

“The Clapping Song” reached No. 2 in South Africa, No. 4 in Australia, and No. 11 on the UK Singles Chart. The Belle Stars mimed it on the 7/22 and 8/5 broadcasts of TotP. They returned for the New Year’s Eve edition, where they mimed “The Clapping Song” amid in-studio enactments of 1982’s biggest hits, including numbers by ABC (“The Look of Love”), Imagination (“Just an Illusion”), The Stranglers (“Golden Brown”), and Fun Boy Three’s first collaboration with Bananarama, “It Ain’t What You Do It’s the Way That You Do It.”

On October 1, 1982, The Belle Stars released “Mockingbird,” an Inez Foxx cover backed with the new group original “Turn Back the Clock.”

A. “Mockingbird” (3:25) originated as a June 1963 Symbol–Sue a-side by Inez and Charlie Foxx; based on the lullaby “Hush, Little Baby” (first recorded in 1950 by The Weavers) and covered by Martha & The Vandellas, Dusty Springfield, Aretha Franklin, Peaches & Herb, Foster Sylvers, and Martha Velez. In 1974, Carly Simon charted with a duet version with her then-husband James Taylor (who sang it as a teenager with his sister Kate).
B. “Turn Back the Clock” (2:50)

“Mockingbird” started the Belle Stars’ association with producer Peter Collins, a onetime Decca recording artist who produced records by Matchbox, The Piranhas, and Natasha England’s short-lived girl group The Flirts (not the US Bobby Orlando-produced trio). Stiff re-tinted the monochrome sleeve pic by territory: UK (green), Germany (purple), Belgium (blue), Sweden (yellow), and Netherlands (turquoise).


“Sign of the Times”

On December 17, 1982, The Belle Stars released “Sign of the Times,” a Collins-produced original backed with “Madness,” a Tench-produced original.

A. “Sign of the Times” (2:50)
B. “Madness” (3:15) is an upbeat, percussive dance-pop original (not the Prince Buster classic that the band Madness used as their theme).

“Sign of the Times” went Top 10 in Benelux and Scandinavia. On the week of February 19, 1983, it reached No. 3 on the UK Singles Chart, where it nested under chart-toppers by Kajagoogoo (“Too Shy”) and Men at Work (“Down Under”) and held off competition by Tears for Fears (“Change”) and Michael Jackson (“Billie Jean”).>

The Belle Stars mimed “Sign of the Times” on the 1/13 and 2/10 TotP broadcasts, which featured in-studios by Sharon Redd (“In The Name of Love”), Depeche Mode (“Get the Balance Right”), Thompson Twins (“Love On Your Side”), Level 42 (“Chinese Way”), Central Line (“Nature Boy”), and China Crisis (“Christian”).

In Canada, where the Belle Stars didn’t chart, a near-identical version of “Sign of the Times” by the female dance-pop trio Men’s Room reached No. 9 on the nation’s RPM chart.


The Belle Stars

The Belle Stars released their self-titled album in January 1983 on Stiff. It features their just-released “Sign of the Times” and the two preceding a-sides (“Mockingbird,” “The Clapping Song”) and both sides of their May 1982 single “Iko Iko” / “The Reason.”

The Belle Stars includes four new band originals: “Ci Ya Ya,” “Burning,” “Baby I’m Yours,” and the subsequent a-side “Indian Summer.” They also cover The Velvelettes obscurity “Needle in a Haystack,” the Bob & Earl evergreen “Harlem Shuffle,” and Al Wilson’s Northern Soul classic “The Snake.”

A1. “Sign of the Times” (2:52)
A2. “Ci Ya Ya” (2:40)
A3. “The Clapping Song (Clap Pat Clap Slap)” (3:11)
A4. “Indian Summer” (3:43) comes from the spring 1982 Tench sessions with Penny Leyton.
A5. “Harlem Shuffle” (3:17) originated as a 1963 Marc Records a-side by the LA R&B vocal duo Bob & Earl; covered since by The Nite Liters, The Maze, The Action, The Foundations, The Righteous Brothers, and Rinder & Lewis. In 1986, The Rolling Stones charted with the song.
A6. “The Reason” (3:57)

B7. “Iko Iko” (3:00)
B8. “Baby I’m Yours” (3:36)
B9. “Mockingbird” (3:22)
B10. “The Snake” (3:16) originated as a 1963 Columbia deep cut by Chicago singer and playwright Oscar Brown Jr. Al Wilson’s 1968 cover became a US Billboard hit and later achieved Northern Soul cult status with its 1975 UK reissue.
B11. “Burning” (3:21)
B12. “Needle in a Haystack” (2:38) originated as a September 1964 VIP (Motown) a-side by The Velvelettes; written by label staff-writers William “Mickey” Stevenson and Norman Whitfield. In Australia, Adelaide beatsters The Twilights popularized the song with their 1966 version. (The Velvelettes also originated the 1982 Bananarama–FB3 hit “Really Saying Something.”)

The Belle Stars reached No. 15 on the UK Albums Chart.


1983 Singles

In April 1983, The Belle Stars released their eighth single: “Sweet Memory” backed with “April Fool,” both non-album originals produced by Peter Collins.

A. “Sweet Memory” (3:23)
B. “April Fool” (2:42)

Sweet Memory” reached No. 22 on the UK Singles Chart. They mimed it on the May 12 broadcast of TotP.

In July 1983, The Belle Stars lifted the Tench-produced album track “Indian Summer” as their ninth a-side; backed with the Collins-produced exclusive “Sun Sun Sun.”

B. “Sun Sun Sun” (3:04)

In September 1983, The Bell Stars released their tenth single: “The Entertainer” and “The Spider,” both recent group originals produced by Art of Noise co-founder Anne Dudley.

A. “The Entertainer” (3:36)
B. “The Spider” (2:43)


Later Singles

In June 1984, The Belle Stars released their eleventh and final single as a septet: the Collins-produced “80’s Romance” backed with the Dudley-produced “It’s Me,” both recent group originals.

A. “80’s Romance” (3:23) extended version (6:53).
B. “It’s Me” (3:43)

In late 1984, Jennie Matthias left the band, which soon lost Stella Barker, Clare Hirst, and Judy Parkins. By 1985, The Belle Stars slimmed to the trio of Lesley Shone, Miranda Joyce, and Sarah-Jane Owen, who became their de facto frontwoman.

Meanwhile, Stiff Records’ losses forced label head Dave Robinson to accept a 50% buyout by Island Records. However, Island soon annulled the deal due to similar money problems. In July 1985, Stiff was purchased by ZTT, a label co-founded by musician–soundman Trevor Horn (Buggles, Art of Noise) on the back-to-back success of Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Propaganda.

Horn sent the Belle Stars trio to New York to cut an album with the 4th & Broadway production team. However, one single was the total fruit of this liaison.

In April 1986, The Belle Stars released the only single of their three-woman configuration: “World Domination,” an ecological dance track backed with “Just a Minute,” both co-credited to the trio and producer Dominic Bugatti. “19” producer Paul Hardcastle remixed the “World Domination” 12″, which contains a third track, “Rock Me To the Top.”

A. “World Domination” (3:20)
B1. “Just a Minute” (3:43)
B2. “Rock Me To the Top” (3:28)

“World Domination” reached No. 2 on the US Dance Chart.

“Iko Iko” reappeared in Rain Man, a 1988 American road dramedy that stars Dustin Hoffman as Ray, a middle-age autist in the care of his renegade younger brother Charlie, played by Tom Cruise. Hoffman lobbied for the song’s inclusion in the film, which grossed $354.8 million at the box office. This newfound exposure prompted Capitol to reissue “Iko Iko” in the US, where it reached No. 14 on the Billboard Hot 100 in March 1989. Matthias promoted the song under the Belle Stars name.

Sarah Jane Owen reteamed with Penny Leyton in The Deltones, a distaff ska eleven-piece that released the 1989 album Nana Choc Choc In Paris on Unicorn Records.


Discography:

  • Another Latin Love Song (EP, 1981)
  • The Belle Stars (1983)

Sources:

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