Photo credit: Clare Muller

‘Hormonal Rush’: The Rise and Fall (and Rise Again) of Shakespears Sister

In 1992, Shakespears Sister released Hormonally Yours, a bizarre, moonlit excursion into gothic glam-pop, featuring a host of songs beamed in from the galaxies of sci-fi.

Shakespears Sister
Hormonally Yours
17 February 1992

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).

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 principal 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.