“I’m least fond of Making Your Mind Up, yet where would I be without it?” Cheryl Baker talks to Northern Soul
Bucks Fizz will forever be remembered as UK Eurovision winners. A plucky quartet, put together for the 1981 contest, bopping their way to victory with the chart-topping Making Your Mind Up.
But the story didn’t end there: the band went on to amass 13 top 40 hits and record sales of more than 15 million. Nevertheless, it wasn’t all plain sailing for the perky popstars. A horrific tour bus crash in 1984 almost cost singer Mike Nolan his life, and a long-running legal battle was fought over who owns the band’s name. This resulted in the group, featuring 75 per cent of the original line-up, rebranding themselves as The Fizz. “Everyone used to call us that anyway,” Fizz favourite, Cheryl Baker, tells me.
Baker, Nolan and Jay Aston have since been joined by Bobby McVay from 1983 Eurovision hopefuls Sweet Dreams (are you keeping up?) and a series of successful tours and renewed interest in the group has led to a new album, The F-Z Of Pop, produced by 80s pop svengali, Mike Stock.
I’m a long-time Fizz fan and, if the wind is in the right direction, can still do most of the dance routine If You Can’t Stand the Heat, much to Baker’s delight. “Ooh can you teach me then, cos I’ve forgotten it.”
Challenge accepted, but first we need to talk about the latest Fizz event – new tunes. Baker is thrilled with this development. “That’s the most exciting thing,” she enthuses. “We’ve toured every year since 2009 but to make a new album and be promoting it is really fantastic, especially as it’s with the legendary Mike Stock. He’s a genius and it was marvellous to work with him. It’s so, so wonderful to be recording again. The studio has always been my happy place and I love it, but I thought, in the words of one of our hits, Now Those Days Are Gone.
“You never think you’re going to get the opportunity to do it again, especially in your 60s, yet here we are. It’s interesting how the voices have matured. Unfortunately, so have the bodies, but it’s still amazing. Who would have thought we’d still be doing this 36 years on?”
With BBC4‘s Top of The Pops repeats covering the 80s, Fizz fans have been able to enjoy those early performances all over again. Many hold up better than the more ‘credible’ acts who were also around, but, as Baker recalls, back then fans couldn’t freely admit to being Fizz followers.
“Quite a few people have said we were their guilty pleasure back then and it’s nice that they can now finally come out of the Fizz closet. The fact that the records still sound good is all down to Andy Hill, our brilliant songwriter and producer. We were very lucky to have him. They were well-made pop records and I’m still very proud of them, especially Now Those Days Are Gone. It’s acapella and vocally shows us at our best. When we perform it live there’s no place to hide and you have to stick to your line.
“Another favourite is My Camera Never Lies. It’s a great song with fantastic production and vocal arrangements and even Melody Maker gave it a great review. Probably the hit I’m least fond of is Making Your Mind Up, yet where would I be without it?”
The band’s Eurovision classic is referenced every year when the contest rolls around. In 1981, Bucks Fizz were expected to vanish without trace as soon as the fuss of winning died down. Instead, the contest became a launchpad for something much bigger. Even Baker didn’t expect it.
“It surprised us all,” she admits. “After the Eurovision hit, our second single got to number 12, and our third reached number 20. We thought that was it. The downward spiral would mean the next single wouldn’t chart and our contract would finish. Thankfully, the next single was Land of Make Believe and it went to number one.”
But back to the new material. The album’s bold, bright yellow cover indicates a band that very much means business. Baker credits Mike Stock for the confident approach.
“He loved our early stuff and the vocal harmony, girl/boy set up. He wanted to reproduce that format and that’s what we’ve based the album on. Mike has fed a lot of vocal patterns from our old songs into the new stuff so we’re very much playing to our strengths. It’s very clever because it retains our familiar Fizz sound.”
Second time around there seems to be harmony both on and off stage. When the group first charted, the relationship between the girls was professional but distant. It seems that the passing years have allowed a genuine friendship to evolve.
“Jay joined the band when she was 19 and I was 27. At that time of your life, that age difference is massive. I’d been in the business for years and done Eurovision before as a member of Co-Co. I already felt long in the tooth, but Jay was fresh out of college so she and I were on different planets. As you get older, that age gap becomes immaterial and now it’s nothing. We’ve both gone through stuff in our lives such as the trauma of losing parents and the joy of having kids, and it means we have a lot in common. We reminisce a lot about the old days. Back then, we were never enemies, but equally, we were never friends. Now I have a real friend in Jay which I never had before.”
Baker continues: “Mike’s always been my mate. And I’ve always been very lucky that I had him, but Jay didn’t have that. There was a split in the camp which was Jay and Bobby, and me and Mike, but Jay and Bobby were never close friends either. They paired-up because there was no alternative. Now, with Bobby McVay making up the foursome, we work really well as a quartet rather than a two and two.”
When the hit run came to an end, Baker went on to enjoy a successful TV career presenting shows such as Eggs & Baker and Record Breakers. Music was very much part of her past.
“I did actually think that was my music career over. I even had my passport occupation changed from singer to TV presenter. I’d had my family by then so the TV work fitted in well, and as far as I was concerned, music was finished. Then in 2004, Mike and I got back with Shelley Preston (who replaced Jay in the mid-80s) for the first Here & Now tour, and it made me realise how much I missed my first love. It’s where my heart lies. I still present but my main job is singer again. Many of my friends are retiring but I can’t think of anything worse. I’m incredibly lucky to still be singing and performing and getting paid to do the job that I love and I have no intention of stopping. We’re busier now than we’ve ever been and with our track record you do become kind of ageless.”
Music is often described as an audio photo album. The soundtrack to our lives. And the history that comes with being in a much-loved pop group, and the fondness shown to the band since their return, is something Baker adores.
“It’s a blessing really. We do a meet-and-greet after our shows and fans bring photos of when they first came to see us in the 80s. Many were just children then and some have said that seeing us again made them cry. I love that the nostalgia of the group takes people back to happy times. That’s another thing about age being immaterial because we can recreate that time for people. It’s lovely to have such loyal fans and two of them even run our fan club now.”
I couldn’t interview a Eurovision legend without asking at least one question about the song contest – the thorny topic of the UK’s results over the past 20 years. We’re never going to win again, are we?
“’No, never,” Baker agrees. “But I think it’s great that we’re still a part of the biggest musical TV production in the world. It’s huge, even America and China watch it now. There’s nothing with more viewers and I love watching it. I know the voting is rubbish and I turn over then, but the programme itself with all the competitors and fantastic special effects is brilliant and better than it ever was. When we did it there was an invited audience full of old fuddy duddies who clapped politely. Now it’s full of proper Eurovision fans in a massive arena and it’s wonderful.”
Many people involved with the group have claimed responsibility for the Velcro skirt idea, so I offer Baker the opportunity, once and for all, to put the record straight. It was her who really came up with the idea, wasn’t it?
“It was a combination of us. Jay wanted to wear a short skirt and I wanted a long one. We had a meeting with the record label, the production company, management and our choreographer. I was fed up going around and round on the subject getting nowhere, so I jokingly said, ‘oh for goodness sake, let’s just have both’. Then the choreographer had that lightbulb moment. When we get to the line ‘if you want to see some more’, we could remove the longer skirt and have the little one on underneath.
“It all came about purely by chance but without that velcro we wouldn’t have won and I wouldn’t be talking to you. In fact, I don’t know where I’d be now. Probably retired like all of my friends.”
The Fizz will be performing at The Marine Hall in Fleetwood on October 21, 2017 and South Shields on October 28. For other Northern and national tour details, click here.
The F-Z OF Pop is released September 22, 2017.
Northen Soul Awards 2017
Congratulations to all the winners at the Northern Soul Awards 2017. It was a cracking night. For the full list, click here http://awards.northernsoul.me.uk/2017-winners