Twisted Sisters, or, The Sisters of No Mercy
In the turbulent musical landscape of the early ‘90s, dominated by grunge rock, house music, gangsta rap and the very beginnings of Britpop, one unlikely act of anomalous economy emerged to take the world by storm, if only for a brief flurry of a moment. Siobhan Fahey and Marcella Detroit, the oddly paired duo who comprised Shakespears Sister, would surface like a glittering sea creature from the depths of pop music obscurity, brandishing, for better or worse, the one song that made them a name and continues to make them a name to this day: “Stay”.
Released as a follow-up single in January of 1992 when their leading one “Goodbye Cruel World” did dismally, “Stay” proved an incongruous entry into a market that didn’t seem to know what to do with a mismatched pair of drama queens. “Stay”, a weird sci-fi ballad of gothic-gospel electronica, reached number one on the UK Singles Chart, claiming that spot for a record-breaking eight weeks—the first and, to date, only for a female duo act.
The single was bolstered by a stunning music video directed by the renowned Sophie Muller, who would later lend her talents to artists like Björk, Coldplay, Béyonce and Annie Lennox. On the back of “Stay”, Shakespears Sister embarked on world tours, selling out shows everywhere and even opening up for such esteemed acts like Prince. A Brit Award and a number of award nominations followed, as did a few more successful charting singles. Until Shakespears Sister was abruptly, perhaps cruelly, disbanded.
The behind-the-scenes turmoil is the stuff of legends now, the band marked by a history of contention that, at the time, inversely—and rather ingeniously—informed much of their work. From their dynamic songwriting to their yin and yang duality of personas, they were an enticing unit.
Initially the brainchild of Irish-born, English-bred Siobhan Fahey, a one-time member of Bananarama, the ‘80s all-girl pop band that predated the girl-power dynamism of the Spice Girls, Shakespears Sister (misspelling, sans “e” and apostrophe, intentional) began as a one-woman show. Fahey, whom after leaving Bananarama at the tail-end of the ‘80s and having married the Eurhythmics’ Dave Stewart, was looking for some outlet to express the darker leanings of her musical preferences, which included glam-rock titans T. Rex, the glittered androgyny of David Bowie and the Cure’s sugar-dusted goth-pop.
In an attempt to sidestep the more contrived trappings of Bananarama’s squeaky-clean new wave pop (the result of a Stock Aiken Waterman interference, a production team responsible for many Kylie Minogue and Rick Astley hits in the ‘80s), Fahey referred to an anarchist’s musical handbook, which must have included a rule about redirecting pop market expectations with wry, cruel humour; her once funky, spiked blond locks were now grown out and styled to a jet-black coif, her face painted with a white death-mask upon which blood red lips gleamed. It at once confused her Bananarama fan base while attracting a flush of Cure fans who, perhaps, wished to get a taste of a woman’s brand of gothica (Siouxsie Sioux, notwithstanding).
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It would be a little erroneous to say Fahey acted entirely alone in this. Introduced, through her husband, to an American musician named Marcella Detroit (née Marcy Levy), a songwriter who had written for artists like Eric Clapton and Chaka Khan, Fahey would bring the young woman into the fold of Shakespears Sister, mainly, at first, as a background singer and a co-writer of songs. After a number of writing and recording sessions, Fahey finally had an album’s worth of material.
Sacred Heart was released in the summer of 1989, its single “You’re History” achieving the notice and success the band desired when the album’s parent single, “Break My Heart (You Really)”, flopped. The album was a set of synth-ensconced pop, with light trills of glam-rock rounding out the edges. Featured prominently throughout the album were Detroit’s high, soulful shrieks, perfectly contrasted with the low, smouldering growls of Fahey. The greater bulk of Sacred Heart presented Fahey front and centre as the primary face of the band with Detroit relegated to the background as a rather mysterious shadow, playing guitar and harmonizing with Fahey.
By the time the two women started recording a following album in 1991, Detroit was promoted to a principle member of the band, an equal half which, as many ensuing rumours would suggest, initiated an internal strife that would plague the band throughout its oncoming success.
Hormonally Yours, released in February of 1992, was an utterly unexpected reinvention of the band’s sound. Originally conceived as a concept album written as a sort of soundtrack to a schlocky ‘50s-era B-film by Arthur Hilton called Cat-Women of the Moon, many of the songs’ lyrical content were derived from the film’s storyline. The band initially sought to secure the rights to the film in order to expand on the album’s concept with planned music videos built directly on actual footage from the film. The idea was shot down by the record company. The influences from the film that do remain on the album have given it a fey, moonlit quality that suggests a host of love songs beamed in from the galaxies of sci-fi.
In true rock ‘n’roll fashion, Detroit and Fahey played their respective roles in the band up to the hilt, each woman embodying a dressed-up, glitzed-over soubrette of vociferous demeanour. Hormonally Yours presented Detroit as a sleek, coifed Art Nouveau mistress, awakened from her post-mortem sleep, and Fahey as an unruly (and still dead) gothic scapegrace, with coiled black tresses and pancaked white makeup, her eyes racooned with the black of Victorian death. Like their name suggested, it was high Shakespearean drama, a strange detour into a pop music hinterland that owed much to dramaturgy as it did punk-rock.
The album’s opening number (and debut single), the glam-shattered drum crasher “Goodbye Cruel World” was an astonishing reintroduction to the band that eviscerated the far more pop-pleasing ventures of Scared Heart. Like Marc Bolan doing pantomime in the sepia-toned world of silent film, “Goodbye Cruel World” was a send up of the glam rock kings of the ‘70s, a campy configuration of guitar-driven alternative pop.
Added to the album’s dimension of sound and image were some very deliberate gothic pretentions of fanned-out, decadent proportions. Implementing the tension of the two women’s sometimes acrimonious rivalry into their presentation, director Sophie Muller found a dazzling gimmick with which to sell the band’s image. Her treatment for “Goodbye Cruel World” re-envisions the gothic-glam rock palaver as a Hollywood drama, spoofing untouchable classics like Sunset Boulevard and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Detroit’s Joan Crawford and Fahey’s Bette Davis sweep and cavort around the black and white Victorian gloom; two Bolan incarnates stomping the scenery with Louise Brooks-affectations. It’s a breathtaking mini-film that should have sounded the tocsins, announcing the arrival of a band reinvented through sheer inspiration. Yet it did nothing for them, stalling at a paltry 59 on the UK Singles Chart.
In a bid to push a hit song, London Records, the band’s parent label, insisted on “Stay”, reportedly intended as the first single off the album but a suggestion adamantly shot down by Fahey, who felt strongly that the song wasn’t representative of the band as a whole. The label won out this time and “Stay” was released to a gobsmacking reception that led the single to the number one position on the UK Charts (and later a top five spot in the US and Canada).
Unlike the other tracks on Hormonally Yours, “Stay” featured Detroit, primarily the secondary vocalist of the band, on lead. Playing the angelic songbird to Fahey’s Faustian demon, Detroit’s whistle register sirens over the shimmering layers of gospel-tinged dirge-pop. Her vocal is dramatically circumvented by the Elizabethan horror of Fahey’s green-oceaned tremor: a lustful, throaty croon transmitting from another universe. It was precisely this clashing of extremes that appealed to an audience that wasn’t exactly sure what they were hearing.
In yet another dramatic rendering of conflicting personas, Muller presented “Stay” as another miniature film, in which the two ladies duke it out in some alternate lunar-eclipsed reality. Taking place in a space station on a faraway planet (another idea pulled from the Cat-Women of the Moon film), Detroit tries to nurse a dying man, hooked up to a resuscitator, back to health. Out of nowhere, a heaven-bound stairway appears from which Fahey, a gothically glammed-up angel of death, descends. A swirling and desperate tussle ensues in which the two women fight over the dying man’s soul. Detroit eventually wins and a vainglorious and dejected Fahey retreats up the stairway to heaven.
As a concept, Muller’s vision of Shakespears Sister was a brazen streak of genius because it encapsulated so well what much of pop music depends on: a sense of grand drama compacted into a few intimate moments. The Sturm und Drang of “Stay” continues to manifest in some form or another throughout Hormonally Yours. Many numbers suggest and play out the real-life interpersonal conflicts between Fahey and Detroit. “My 16th Apology”, an uncharacteristically sunny pop number amidst the blue-smoked gothic gloom of the album, flexes and bends luxuriously with the catchy flow of a honeyed melody; underneath the golden-bright pop are the at once begrudging and rueful admissions of their in-band disharmony: “Do I have to go down on my knees (“Yes, you do”), this is my 16th apology.”
Sometimes, direct focus on the actual conflicts is sidelined to simply explore the anxieties that drive them. “Emotional Thing”, a bluesy arrangement of some Leon Haywood funk and Bowie-esque glitter-pop, illustrates the restive desires which form the female pop archetype. The burgundy-flushed dub-pop of “The Trouble with Andre” tells the story of a closet alcoholic amidst the distant storms of a reverberating electric guitar.
Some songs are just love songs. “Are We in Love Yet”, a rather innocuous though delectable affair, is sumptuous, swampy Motown funk given the goth gloss-over. “Let Me Entertain You” (its title swiped years later by Brit-popper Robbie Williams) is dance-pop in the house of glam, an electrical groove echoing with the throb of sex and persuasion.
Other narratives (like the aforementioned “Stay”) are squarely lifted from the Cat-Women of the Moon storyline. The glitter-trash glam-rock of “Catwoman” swings a hard T. Rex groove onto the dance floors of ‘70s era CBGB, the bleating saxophones morphing and burbling beneath the oil-black textures. Here, the silver-on-black sentiments of a sadomasochistic and nefarious love are growled and hissed with demoniac intensity. The haunted lunar ballad of “Moonchild”, another reference to the Hilton B-film, doubles as a narrative about alienation, the eerie, sighing synthwaves expanding in the airs around a darkly baroque melody. On “Black Sky”, the murky blue-black funk merges lustrously with the goth and glam elements to produce an image of only the darkest, most mysterious Gentileschi painting ever created. In its camp-kitsch turnabout, the song also refers to the perpetually dark skies that reign over the Cat-Women’s planet.
The most affecting numbers, however, remain the ones which focus on the storms of conflict. Released as a third single, “I Don’t Care” (a UK Top 10) was another betrayal of the band’s contentious personal affairs, a back and forth of bickering and reasoning that resulted in an even stronger delineation between the two women’s personalities (“Mark the spot you hate with an ‘X’, then shoot your bow and arrow / Do your worst, get it all off your chest…”). Pitched somewhere between the jaunty pop-irony of The Cure and the sultry clamour of Throwing Muses, “I Don’t Care” is a pop marvel of seductive iridescence, a danceable gait flowing with lush harmonies beneath the diamond-encrusted textures of the goth-rock glamour. Shoe-horned into its middle section is Fahey’s deadpanned reading of Dame Edith Sitwell’s “Hornpipe”, a poem delivered, somewhat anomalously, like a sardonic aside in a Commedia dell’arte show. Such creative shifts like these on the album are employed diplomatically yet with stylish irreverence; precisely the kind of exploits which distinguished the band from their considerably anodyne contemporaries at the time.
Its video version, a mockumentary of the band’s arduous working relationship, epitomizes the struggles and anxieties between the two women. What especially calls to attention is the gorgeous, cinematic rendering of the baroque stagecraft on display. Muller, at the helm once again, melds backstage rock star hysterics with a decadently dark Victorian drama, embodied, mostly, in Fahey’s Frozen Charlotte pantomiming of vaudevillian theatre.
A re-recorded version of “I Don’t Care”, featured in the promotional video, plays down the effervescent pop overtones of the original in favour of a beefed-up rhythm section with heavier and more pronounced guitar-work; an added touch in this version also has swirls of brass flashing in the backdrop of the swinging ruckus.
By the time the band was gearing up for the release of their next single, tensions between the two women were running high. Detroit and Fahey reportedly communicated very little with one another, with Fahey, toward the end of their working relationship, not showing up for certain award ceremonies and publicity-related events.
“Hello (Turn Your Radio On)”, Shakespears Sister’s fourth single, was released in October of 1992. As the ballad which closed out Hormonally Yours, the song seemed to sum up a year’s worth of exhaustion and strife, its fantasia-lyric of rejected souls delivered with the world-weariness of a resigned torch-balladeer. The song’s original album version, a moodily stark chamber piece with piano, guitar and harpsichord, was given a makeover for its video release, featuring a backbeat of drums and a ramped up atmosphere of electronic ambience. Muller, still working from the band’s reserve of dark humour and irony, frames Fahey and Detroit inside a miniature glass showcase in which the two women partake in a surreal child’s play of cat’s cradle and pat-a-cake. The music video’s visuals strongly recall the works of the Brothers Quay—lives captured inside a shadow-infested gloom box.
“Hello (Turn Your Radio On)” was another Top 20 hit in the UK. But already the end was nigh. Just prior to a scheduled concert at the Royal Albert Hall (what would have been the band’s biggest gig), Fahey pulled out and the show was subsequently cancelled.
At the Ivor Novello Awards, a ceremony celebrating songwriters in the industry, Shakespears Sister was nominated for the “Best Contemporary Collection of Songs” award, which they would win. Detroit accepted the award that night; Fahey was absent. Accompanied by Fahey’s publisher (who attended in her place), Detroit would be blindsided when, upon receiving the award onstage, Fahey’s publisher read out a statement by Fahey in which she thanked the songwriters’ academy and announced the demise of Shakespears Sister, ending the note, quite fittingly, with a quote from Shakespeare: “All’s well that ends well.” Detroit had been handed her walking papers.
A fifth and final single from Hormonally Yours, “My 16th Apology”, was released shortly after the band’s dissolution. Due to the lack of promotion, it charted at a lowly 61 in the UK.
In the last 25 years since Fahey’s and Detriot’s somewhat less then friendly parting of ways, neither woman, reportedly, has seen or spoken to one another. Detriot went on to record solo, releasing Jewel in 1994, Feeler in 1996 and Dancing Madly Sideways in 2001. These albums featured a stronger leaning on blues and crunchy soul-pop, rather than Shakespears Sister’s gothic-glam rock. Though her profile remains considerably lower since her heydays vamping it out à la Musidora, Detroit remains one of pop music’s most underrated songwriters, with a particular skill of managing an expertly drawn balance between rock ‘n’ roll theatrics and classy blues elegance. As a vocalist, she remains impossibly paradisiacal. In her illustrious career, Detroit has worked with musical royalty like Elton John, Aretha Franklin and Al Jarreau and continues to record and perform to this day.
Fahey would, a few years following Hormonally Yours, record a third album as Shakespears Sister, this time going it alone as a one-woman band. #3 featured a sound that stripped away a lot of the baroque flourishes of Hormonally Yours for a harder, rockier vibe. Gone, too, were the Victorian-styled hairdos and the outlandishly goth-inspired makeup. Fahey presented herself as a woman’s woman, the kind you’d see at the local pub in the late evenings during happy hour. A single, “I Can Drive”, was released, reaching the Top 30 in the UK. The album, however, was shelved by the record company who were somewhat uncomfortable with the idea of a 37-year-old woman making the kind of music that they didn’t expect a 37-year-old woman should be making. Years would go by before she could obtain the rights to the album, which she eventually released in 2004.
In 2009, Fahey, recording again solo as Shakespears Sister, released the deliciously salacious Songs From the Red Room, a collection of new material full of Velvet Underground-inspired electronica, with lashings of Roxy Music and Blondie edging in sideways. She would follow the album up with Cosmic Dancer in 2011, a much folkier affair owing to the softly hazy psychedelia of Syd Barrett.
A brilliant pop music conceptualist, Fahey has created some of the most interesting and unique characters to embody her work, from Hormonally Yours’ life-sized gothic bisque doll to Songs From the Red Room’s strung-out, go-go dancing murderess. Her one constant among her many disparate characters is the indigo-shadings of her bruising vocals, which recall Siouxsie Sioux at her most disaffected (and Lisa Germano, caught in one of her tranced-out reveries). Fahey’s continued ventures as Shakespears Sister remain sensuously-charged; full of clever subversion and pop-trash delight.
Both women, whenever the topic has been broached, have expressed little interest in any possible reunion, sometimes receiving the queries with coldly aloof indifference. In a strange way, this seemingly definitive end to a singular concept, an incomparable relationship, has only lent itself to part of Hormonally Yours’ appeal. Since its release of a quarter of a century ago, the album has gained an aura of mystique. All the while, it continues to recede further into the shadows of years gone by, the collective memories of those who were once so startled by such an inventive concept of image and sound.
As a synergistic entity composed of duelling personalities, they were two women who were seemingly beamed in from a distant moon. They shared their time together vivaciously, tempestuously and all too briefly, until they were beamed back up to that pie in the sky where, in the alternate reality of wishful thinking, they continue to conspire together as fabulously glammed-up dolls, orchestrating a wildly camp and “divoon” Commedia dell’arte. Two cat-women of the moon, dancing madly sideways.
All’s well that mends well.