Shakespears Sister bring B-movie melodrama with 'Stay' [February 2, 1992]
Plus: The Pasadenas, Primal Scream, Ce Ce Peniston, Manic Street Preachers and Lush
Hi, welcome to This Week in the 90s. Each week, we talk about music 30 years ago. Stick your email in here ↓ to get a new issue every Wednesday.
Welcome to the week of February 2, 1992, where the Top 5 looks like this:
‘Goodnight Girl ’ — Wet Wet Wet (=)
‘Twilight Zone’ — 2 Unlimited (↑)
‘Give Me Just a Little More Time’ — Kylie Minogue (↓)
‘I’m Doing Fine Now’ — The Pasadenas (↑)
‘I Wonder Why’ — Curtis Stigers (↑)
We’ll be exploring some of the Top 40 and listening to our Album of the Week, but first, let’s listen to…
This week’s Number 6: ‘Stay’ — Shakespears Sister
The very mention of Shakespears Sister tends to raise some questions, such as, “which one of them was in Bananarama?” and “wait, is that how you spell Shakespeare?”
First things first, then. The one from Bananarama is Siobhan Fahey, who is on the right in the picture above. She sings the “you better hope and pray…” bit in ‘Stay’. In the video, she is portrayed as The Angel of Death.
(Fahey is also the one who decided to spell Shakespeare that way, much to the eternal chagrin of all subeditors.)
Fahey started Shakespears Sister in the aftermath of Bananarama. It was originally a solo project until she found herself forming a close relationship with a singer-songwriter called Marcy Levy. Levy had enjoyed a hell of a career behind the scenes, most notably as co-author of Eric Clapton’s hit. However, her attempts at solo pop stardom had failed to take off.
Fahey invited Levy to join her in Shakespears Sister. She also urged Levy to adopt a new stage name: Marcella Detroit. Fahey’s husband (ex-Eurythmics Dave Stewart) supported the project and wrote a song specifically to show off Marcella Detroit’s astonishing vocal range.
That song was ‘Stay’.
Now, we can talk about some of the other questions that come up when you mention Shakespears Sister. Questions like:
What is ‘Stay’ about?
Why is Marcella so upset?
Why is the video set on the moon?
Just what, in general, is going on?
To answer all of those questions, we get in our time machine and travel back another 40 years. Back to 1953, when cinemas were showing a B-movie called Cat-Women of the Moon.
Cat-Women of the Moon is a zero-budget sci-fi adventure about a rocket that lands on the dark side of the moon. The ship’s crew consists entirely of manly men, except for one woman: their plucky female navigator. She has a suspiciously intuitive grasp of lunar topography… almost as if she’s been there before.
The navigator leads the men to a cave, where they are attacked by giant spiders.
They survive this trap and travel deeper inside this cave, where they find a kind of futuristic temple. This temple is the home of the Cat-Women, a tribe of hot lesbians in leotards.
Turns out, the Cat-Woman can control Earth-Women telepathically. They have been mentally manipulating the navigator all along, using her to lead the men to their temple. Their plan is to seduce the men, steal the rocket, and then use their telepathic powers to create an army of feminazi zombies, with which they will take over the Earth.
Just one problem. When the Cat-Women meet this group of sweaty astronauts—none of whom have washed their balls since leaving Earth—they are instantly overcome with lust. One of the Cat-Women, Lambda, falls madly in love with an astronaut called Doug. She ends up betraying her entire species for a man who no doubt smells of ass.
It’s a problematic movie by modern standards. The whole subtext is about how women will go crazy unless they’re getting regular dick.
But here’s the weird thing about art: everything is somebody’s favourite thing.
Fast forward to 1992. Cat-Women of the Moon is Siobhan’s favourite thing. She shows it to Marcella, who also loves it. They watch it over and over again. They’re not bothered by the extremely dodgy subtext. They see… something in it.
The pair formed an audacious plan. They decided to buy the rights to the movie, write a soundtrack, shoot some new scenes, and release the whole thing as a multimedia extravaganza.
Sadly, the label wouldn't fund the experiment. They just wanted a regular album.
And so, the album Hormonally Yours is effectively the soundtrack for a movie that never got made. ‘Stay’ is the big third act showstopper, where Lambda begs Doug not to return to earth without her.
Which is why the iconic video is set on the moon.
There are two parts to ‘Stay’. The first part has a quite stripped-back musical foundation, often just a single organ that seems to float in zero gravity. It’s a chance for Marcella to show off her pipes, and she seizes the opportunity with both hands. This is her moment to shine.
And then, Siobhan crashes the party, with electric guitars and Bauhaus-esque yowling, dressed as The Angel of Death.
There is something of a musical battle between the two. Eventually, Marcella scares Siobhan away through the sheer force of her whistle register.
Again, that question: what does ‘Stay’ actually mean?
In the end, it doesn’t really mean anything other than “B-movies are fun”. But that doesn’t mean ‘Stay’ is meaningless.
People had their first kiss to this song. People had their first dance at their wedding to this song. People held lovers tight while listening to this song, and later lay on their beds broken-hearted while playing this song over and over.
Once an artist releases something into the wild, it acquires a meaning of its own. That’s true of all art. Meaning is not something given to us by authors; it’s something that art unlocks inside ourselves.
It’s like Cat-Women on the Moon. That dumb, cheap B-movie flick only existed to make a small profit, and yet it seems to have a real personal significance for both Detriot and Fahey — Detroit, in particular, seems to really identify with the character of Lambda.
I’ve watched the film (and you can too). I have no idea what Marcella sees in it. Lambda is a non-character with around three lines of dialogue, and they are “I love you”, “I will help you escape”, and “oh no, I’m dead.”
But when Marcella Detroit watched this movie, she felt something. And she put that something into ‘Stay’.
And then millions of people heard this song about a woman battling the Angel of Death for her lover’s soul in a moon-hospital, and all of those people thought, “yeah, this speaks to something in me.”
This song was Number One for eight weeks.
Intensely emotional pop culture is often dismissed as melodrama. That word has a sneering tone. Melodrama pushes your buttons to get an emotion, but that emotion is cheap.
(Slight hint of misogyny there as well: the melodrama label is often applied to things aimed at a majority female audience.)
And I’m not going to debate the validity of melodrama. But I’ll say this: I’m in my 40s now and, in the 30 years since ‘Stay’, I’ve learned that life offers lots of opportunities to feel numb, and few chances to feel something.
If a film about murderous Moon Women gives you emotions, that’s fine. If you’re moved by a song about a film about murderous Moon Women, that’s cool.
Feel your feelings. They don’t have to make sense.
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Elsewhere in the charts
Number 4 (↑ from 12): ‘I’m Doing Fine Now’ — The Pasadenas
The Pasadenas always felt like could-have-beens. They were a fine soul band that perfectly mimicked the mid-70s sound for a late 80s audience, which brought them one medium-sized hit in the shape of ‘Tribute (Right On)’.
But they really broke through in 1992 with an album of covers. The highlight was this perky version of ‘I’m Doing Fine Now’, which brought a little summer to early February. It’s a very enjoyable single.
But an album of covers can’t have been too fulfilling for such a talented band. They struggled to get original material out during the rest of the 90s, and eventually resigned themselves to the nostalgia circuit. What might have been.
Number 12 (New Entry): ‘Dixie-Narco EP’ — Primal Scream
Dixie-Narco contains the song ‘Screamdelica’, which is not on the Screamadelica album. It’s really annoying when bands do this and the government should really put an end to it.
The EP also contained ‘Movin On Up’. While that track was on Screamadelica, it sounds more like the songs from their follow-up Give Out But Don’t Give Up, in which the ‘Scream suddenly became a blues-rock band.
Number 15 (↓ from 11): ‘We Got A Love Thang’ — Ce Ce Peniston
How do you follow up a song as perfectly balanced as ‘Finally’?
You don’t, is the answer. And why should you? There’s no shame in being a one-hit-wonder, especially if you’ve got a catalogue of quite decent other songs, like the perfectly fine ‘We Got A Love Thang’.
It’s better than being a no-hit-wonder, which we’ll discuss in a minute.
Number 16 (↑ from 27): ‘You Love Us’ — Manic Street Preachers
We’ll explore the Manic’s debut album, Generation Terrorists, in a couple of weeks, but for now please enjoy this clip of an extremely bored Top of the Pops crowd shuffling around listlessly while shirtless James screams at them.
(MSP deep cut: I prefer this to the Heavenly version of ‘You Love Us’, which sounds a bit tinny But they’re so tiny and adorable in the Heavenly video!)
Number 2 (↑ from 35): ‘Love Is Everywhere’ — Cicero
How did David Cicero end up as a no-hit-wonder?
He was quite fancied for success at the time, and all of the omens were in his favour. The Pet Shop Boys themselves were behind him, and his electro-pop sprechgesang style was weirdly engaging.
And yet, it never happened for Cicero. Perhaps the keyboard sound was a little too retro for 1992. This fascinating single is his only Top 30 track.
Album of the Week
Spooky — Lush
The term “shoegaze” was always meant as an insult. It referred to a breed of musicians who spent so much time staring at their effects pedals that they never made eye contact with the audience.
This came across as a kind of anti-rock star posturing, which enraged many people at the time. Richey Edwards of Manic Street Preachers once summed up the antipathy towards shoegaze bands by saying: “I hate Slowdive more than Hitler”. A Melody Maker writer once said that they would rather “drown choking in a bath full of porridge” than listen to shoegaze.
Lush sit in a weird place in this genre, because they produced some quintessential shoegaze records while also managing to be proper rock stars. A lot of that came down to frontwoman Miki Birenyi, a whip-smart, cool-as-hell guitarist and singer with ketchup-coloured hair. Magazines loved putting Lush on the cover because they looked like proper rock stars.
Their debut album, Spooky, was produced by Robin Guthrie of the Cocteau Twins, one of the key spiritual leaders of the shoegaze movement. And you can hear his influence from the beginning, with the spikier sound of Lush’s earlier EPs replaced by something more shimmering and dreamy.
And, just like a Cocteau Twins record, the vocals are often swallowed up in the mix, rendering the lyrics incomprehensible.
In NME’s original review of the record, Betty Page took real issue with this, and with Lush’s beliefe that lyrics don’t even matter that much. “So why not just recite your shopping lists?” she asked, going on to add:
There are few enough women in rock bands writing about their experiences, so let it be heard. These are valid, sensitive, simple, resonant words about women’s experience of men, sex and relationships, without resorting to pornography. Neil Tennant wouldn’t hide his words, and these are just as relevant and direct.
It’s not an unreasonable thing to say. There are gems hiding on the lyric sheet, like on the standout track ‘For Love’: “She’ll pretend that this was really love/She’ll make their fall seem beautiful”.
I can see how people might have been disappointed in 1992 to hear Miki mumbling at her shoes, rather than defiantly staring the world in the face.
But it’s 2022 now, and I think we accept that it’s unfair to burden any one woman with the task of dismantling the patriarchy (especially a woman of colour). We can listen to Spooky as just a record.
And it’s a good one! There’s some actually fun indie rock here, like on the single “Superblast!”:
And some superbly crafted dreampop like ‘Fantasy’:
History has been kind to shoegaze. Even Slowdive have found belated critical acclaim. And, in an era in which nobody ever shuts the fuck up about anything, ever, there is something quite soothing about the mystery of Spooky’s inaudible lyrics. You catch the odd phrase before it disappears under another shimmering guitar riff. You stare at your shoes and think your thoughts.
Ride and Jesus and Mary Chain are both in the top 10. Might have to do our first-ever double A-side. More shoegaze! It was all the rage in 1992!