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

Goodbye (Turn Your Radio Off)

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 a 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 air 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 Detroit’s somewhat less than friendly parting of ways, neither woman, reportedly, has seen or spoken to one another. Detroit 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.