Amazulu: The Exciters

At last AMAZULU have a hit. But can they hang on to their sanity? Caroline Sullivan talks to Claire and Nardo

THERE ARE two questions, says Claire Kenny, that Amazulu are sick unto death of hearing? “What’s it like being women in the music business?” And, to drummer Nardo: “What’s it like being the only man in an otherwise-all-girl band?”

Surely by now the novelty value of women understanding which end of a guitar is up as topic for dissemination has lapsed, what with the distaff side of the business having made the odd chart appearance over the past few decades. It was, in fact, during the Sixties that the revolting appellation “chick singer” entered the lexicon, its existence — however patronising — acknowledging the fact that some girls, rather than being content to scream at Mick an’ Keef, wanted to be them.

Twenty-odd years on, “what’s it like being a woman in music?” seems as provocative a poser as determining whether bassie Claire prefers Lilt to a coffee during our conversation. As for the second question, it’s partially answered by the following exchange.

Nardo, on joining the band: “I think they just liked the way I played.”

Claire: “We thought, ‘Cor, we fancy him, let’s have him in the band!”

Nardo, wounded: “You didn’t tell me that.”

Claire’s joking, of course, but it’s an example of the extraordinary rapport among band members. They know each other “inside and out”, says Claire, and won’t be succumbing to the star trips that could be expected to accompany their abrupt rise to starletdom.

Certainly, they never expected to find themselves at number 13 in the charts. And their substantial following, loyal though it is, can probably be excused if they hadn’t reckoned on seeing the day the band did Top Of The Pops. When the only reggae acts to have seen the light of the Top 40 have been Deity Bob, Third World and one-hitters like Althia and Donna and The Maytals — and, then, only in their most diluted incarnations, what chance had Amazulu, whose gender set them up for dismissal as a novelty act? And could they expect support from the wildly sexist reggae community, which continues to produce manifestos of ideological unsoundness like Frankie Paul’s ‘Baby Come Home’, which decrees “my lovely house is where you belong”?

After their first single — 1983’s ‘Cairo’, a classic of unswerving vehemence that found ardent fans in the late Rhythm Pals team of Peel and Jensen — peaked (rather inauspiciously) at Number 72, then-label Towerbell followed the mini-success with ‘Smilee Stylee’, released against the band’s wishes.

“Towerbell didn’t know what to do with us,” Claire recalls, remarkably equaniminous after relating a depressingly-commonplace tale of acrimony, rip-offs and the severance of ties between the band, the label and their manager. A deal with — appropriately enough — Island Records followed in fairly short order, and Falcon Stuart, ex-manager of (ulp) Classix Nouveaux, was recruited to do the business, which then consisted mainly of sifting through invitations to appear at CND and anti-racism benefits.

In an MM interview conducted around the time of the release of ‘Cairo’, Ian Pye opined that the concept of a volubly anti-sexist, anti-racist, sexually- and racially-integrated reggae unit conjured up images of “burly lesbians playing dour benefits”. Nothing, as Ian was quick to point out, could have been further from the truth, but the image was perpetuated by incidents like their 12-day incarceration two years ago, following a contretemps with a Finnish ferry crew. Towerbell’s press release:

“They’re a feminist band,” a misleading reinforcement of extant prejudices and, probably, basis of some new ones.

The band’s third single — the first on Island — ‘Moonlight Romance’, a non-messagey bit of Carib-fun, followed its predecessors up the Great White Way of obscurity. Jerry Dammers was at the controls on that one, and there was talk of doing an album with him.

“He’s very good on his own material, but…” Claire hesitates. Diplomatically (aw, shucks) she cops out with “we felt he wasn’t quite right for us”.

Gummers was cast by the wayside, and the album was never recorded. Why the band didn’t proceed with another producer remains unclear. For single number four, as we reach the present in this recounting, Amazulu hired Chris Neil, the man who oversaw Sheena Easton and lived to produce another day. The song: ‘Excitable’. A hit.

It’s probably the least-distinguished of their releases. “If any of the four could have been a hit, we’d have picked ‘Cairo’,” Nardo says. Claire agrees. I agree.

“We needed a bit of commercial success to be able to carry on,” Claire explains. “We’ve released four singles now, and, in the end, you have to get into the charts. It costs a lot of money to release a single. What gets released, in the end, is the one most acceptable to everybody, with the catchiest chorus. If you think that’s diluting our sound…

“It’s wrong to have a negative attitude, like, ‘Oh, we have to dilute our songs for commercial acceptability.’ What we have to do is write better songs.” (‘Excitable’, like ‘Cairo’, is a cover version.) “I don’t know exactly how! We haven’t quite realised what makes a song a success. We thought ‘Cairo’ was amazingly catchy, but a lot of people obviously didn’t.” Nardo, flicking back an extravagantly-long lock (seriously, you should see this hair, which stops just perilously short of his belt): “You never know what’s gonna catch on. Chrissie Hynde and UB40’s tune — that’s dead rootsy, to me, and it’s number 3 in the charts this week.”

Claire continues, with disarming self-effacement: “We’re a bit worried about our ability to write songs as successful as ‘Excitable’. All we can do is carry on writing, and try to find out what makes a commercial song.”

They’re pleased, at any rate, with the results of their collaboration with Chris Neil. “He’s the most experienced producer we’ve ever worked with. He doesn’t get the lead singer to do the vocal at seven in the morning, the way a lot of people would. That’s very bad producership.”

It seems a trifle pointless to ask just how far these committed feminists — perhaps “humanists” is more appropriate — will allow themselves to be manipulated to maintain their new-found success. Still, with Bananarama exhibiting rather extraordinary duality of philosophy — slagging Sammy Fox one week, judging a beauty contest the next…

“We wouldn’t do just anything,” Claire says firmly. “Say, for example, if they tried to make us wear skimpy clothes, or leather, or high heels, or something like that… we just wear whatever we like, and don’t go to great lengths to find make-up, or something.”

“But if I became a pop pin-up, I wouldn’t mind.” Nardo, naturally.

“But when you become a pinup,” Claire remonstrates scornfully, “it’s not in your hands any more. It could quite conceivably happen to Annie (Ruddock, lead vox), although she doesn’t encourage it by the way she dresses, but she’s the front singer. I wouldn’t mind posters of me as long as I was fully-dressed, and wearing what I usually wear (today, she’s in Factory Records-black skirt and sweatshirt). An image of blatant sexuality…”

…Isn’t Amazulu, she implies. All quite credible and correct. I hope their tenets sustain them through their career; that when temptation arises at too dear a price, they’ll have the fortitude to muster a resounding “Shove it!” If they do, they’ll be the first. The example of Bronski Beat, for whom success became divisive, is cited.

“How can we tell if we’ll succumb to the same sort of pressures that split them? I’ve never seen the amount of money you’re talking about.”

Nardo: “How easy is it to forget having only 50p in your pocket?” he asked rhetorically. “Being on Top Of The Pops last week made me think, ‘Jesus, just done Top Of The Pops and I’ve only got 50p in my pocket.”

“We were shaking like leaves,” Claire asides. “Look, we haven’t experienced any of the glamorous aspects of fame at all. Actually, we went to Switzerland a few weeks ago for a one-off, and a limo was sent to the hotel to pick us up. It was the first time ever! It wasn’t big enough for all of us, and people were sitting on people’s knees, ‘cos nobody wanted to miss it. That was our first taste of glamour.”

A far cry, undoubtedly, from the Island interview room, where I’ve been cautioned against putting the tape recorder on the coffee table because the weight would likely cause the table to collapse.

“I like to think that our basic principles won’t be compromised.”

Yes… heard it before, of course, and seen dozens of good intentions go west when ligs become more alluring than benefits. Maybe… just maybe… Amazulu mean it.

© Caroline SullivanMelody Maker, 24 August 1985

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