Bardot – the Pop Investigation Unit Special – Part One – The Saddest Song – the Genesis of Bardot
(Warning – Contains proper joined up music writing)
Now it's the saddest song I ever heard,
My heart is breaking baby, now with every word.
Used to be the sweetest song, but now you're gone,
And I can't, no I can't understand (understand).
Oh why, tell me why, tell me why,
Why did our song turn so sad?
Things, they say, were simpler in 1987. Pop was anything that wasn’t the other strand of Australian music, pub rock, and everyone was contented with that state of affairs. As far that is when it came to simple classifications. It seemed to anyone growing up that Australian “pop” would always be represented by the stone pillars of “Farnsey” and “Barnsey” – John Farnham, 1960s “king of pop” turned inescapable MOR 80s perma mulleted belter via hit single “The Voice” (which saved him from bankruptcy), and Jimmy Barnes, foghorned belter from pub rockers Cold Chisel, turned solo foghorned belter via hit singles such as “Working Class Man” – neither man was born in Australia, Farnham in London, Barnes in Glasgow – and so, as the 80s passed to a close, a definable, Australian born sound wasn’t out there.
Then, in 1987, it changed, quite literally overnight. Paula Duncan, MC for the evening, encouraged Neighbours actors and actresses visiting the Fitzroy football club for a fundraising night to sing on stage – on that particular night, a certain Kylie Minogue began the journey, stepping forward to sing Locomotion to an appreciative audience, backed by her cast mates. And so, the divide was formed: on that night, Pop became anything written in a studio, sung by people who had no part in the music, and anything else backed right away from being called Pop. Kylie Minogue’s subsequent success in the UK however was the ultimate fillip for scores of money making producers to invest in this new crazy “pop” idea. Soon, other Neighbours cast members were popping up with hit records – clean cut Jason Donovan, Craig McLachlan with Check 1-2, even the unlikely figure of Stefan Dennis – combined with the never ending Stock Aitken and Waterman “hit factory”, there was gold in cheaply made, quickly written pop. And within the UK, anything “Aussie” was cool – it just had to be pumped out quickly.
On August 15th 1987, Kylie’s version of Locomotion would hit the top of the Australian music charts – kicking off a golden period for Australian pop. Between 1987 and the crash of 1993, Australian pop music was a haphazard, but thriving industry. Acts came and went with a certain amount of speed based on whether or not they could make it in the UK – on the back of Neighbours, acts such as Collette (a New Zealand born singer tipped to “blow Kylie away with her funky fashions!” by Smash Hits) and Indecent Obsession, an awful boy band formed on the back of David Dixon’s vocals, would come an go, with the ultimate aim of emulating Kylie and Jasons success in the UK. In the case of Indecent Obsession, their entire UK experience was one appearance on GMTV, one performance of “Say Goodbye, before…well, they did say Goodbye. In Collette’s case, those “funky fashions” and her much mocked hit cover of “Ring My Bell” seemed to date her very quickly, and condemn her to a life as a figure of fun. Sadly, her 2nd album, “Attitude”, would contain some amazing pop songs, but by then no one was listening. If an Australian act didn’t catch on in the UK, they were quickly discarded. Some of the launches were amazingly flawed, such as that of Sydney “star” Marcus Montana, who debuted via a series of “teaser” ads, and who became such a joke his gigs became attended by ironic slam dancing uni students.
Premiering on 19th of May 1989, e-street was originally planned to be a more socially aware version of A Country Practice, but by 1991, with a mix of crazy storylines and edgy (for the time) content, it had hit on a demographic goldmine – the most watched show in Australia for viewers aged between 14-35 – which made it inevitable it’s cast would attempt to strike it rich in the charts. Melissa Tkautz, playing the schoolgirl character “Nikki”, went into a day dream on the 29th of May 1991 episode, in which she imagined she was a pop star, in a video for a song entitlted “Read My Lips. Created largely as a throwaway piece of promotion for the character, Read My Lips (arguably Australia’s finest “pop” single ever) became a sensation, hitting #1 in the charts within weeks, and interestingly launching the career of future Guardian and LA Confidential actor Simon Baker Denny playing a topless boxer in the background of the clip. By paying big bucks, creator of e-street Forrest Redlich was able to use the pick of the available songs in episodes and tie ins, and later would create “Westside Records”, a label which featured the much missed Aussie pop band euphoria who scored their own pair of #1 singles, and several less successful acts such as Boys In Black, The Honeymen, and Radio Freedom. There was no question in anyones mind that e-street would bridge the gap into the UK seamlessly, and become the permanent replacement for Neighbours, home and away.
By 1992, almost by accident, Australia had two fully fledged, high profile pop girl bands, the Teen Queens and Girlfriend. The exact process by which Girlfriend came together was likely to have been similar to Bardot’s ultimate recruitment, but there was a believable bond between the girls as they appeared together holding hands and hugging in a series of promotional shots. The truth in Girlfriend’s appeal was simple for anyone of a certain age: we’re a cool girl gang, and you can be too – the music was excellent too, with “Take It From Me” a certified smash hit, lobbing at #1 for two weeks in 1992, and Bad Attitude perhaps a peak for Australian Pop (the line “Your primitive humour is a far cry from romance” being particularly memorable). The Teen Queens debuted at the wedding of Max and CJ on e-street, and had less memorable songs, relying on cover versions that were “remixed” (such as the “Mixing In The Forest” version of Be My Baby) and were seemingly aimed at younger audience. Still, by mid 1992, the girl groups were involved in a strange Smash Hits battle as to who was hotter. It was truly a golden moment in Australian pop, with the promise of more to come. The Neighbours bandwagon was grinding to a slow halt, with Kylie Minogue tiring of her SAW commitments, and Jason Donovan beginning his slow slide to drug addiction. It was widely thought that with e-street, two warring girl bands, and Kylie’s crown slipping, there would be a place in the UK music hit factory up for grabs throughout the next few years.
1993 changed everything though. TV rumours suggest the cancellation of a proposedTeen Queens sitcom lead to the demise of e-street (another story suggests that e-street was going to be deployed as a replacement for Neighbours, but the production costs didn't suit, and Forrest Redlich canned the show in a huff) and subsequently the demise of Westide records. That meant no record deal for Euphoria, no record deal for the Teen Queens, nothing for euphoria, and groups scattered to the wind. Melissa was already reeling from horrendous mis-management and stuck with piles of unpaid bills (Melissa would later state her surprise that the limo that picked her up every day was actually being paid for out of her royalties”), and attempting to disavow her old songs on an episode of Roy and HG’s “Club Buggery”. Girlfriend desperately soldiered on in spite of diminishing returns at home and a total failure to break in the UK, amazingly releasing a song called “I love This World” as the real bete noir of pop, grunge, buzzed all around. The Australian music industry, on seeing Nirvana, began channelling their money into finding guitar bands. Girlfriend sank deeper into the mire, a re-invention as GF4 coming and going, and the ultimate nail in the coffin was the interview with Siobhann from Girlfriend, in her new career, working in a Sydney shoe shop… *
The pop nuclear winters piled one of top of each other. By the mid 1990s, the top selling Australian artist in their own borders was Silverchair, then a hoary, Nirvana aping collective mired in grungey waters. As record companies within Australia began tightening their belts, so pop floundered, unable to compete with a more “real” sound. Without interest, Australian pop entered a long, long drought, without a girl band, boy band or identifiable “pop” star to call it’s own. Kylie had a spell as a marginalized indie figure, Merril Bainbridge, hopelessly unsuited to fame, had a US #1 with Mouth, and Savage Garden and their MOR stylings made it big, but actual, proper, glistening pop? Dead, dead in the water. People were listening to bands like Korn wailing about how their daddy hated them, or mourning the darkness and emptiness of the world that Kurt Cobain couldn’t live in. It was no surprise that the biggest girl band of the time were TLC, who were edgy and urban and had a crazy member who burned her boyfriends house down. What hope did a chirpy, Aussie pop act have? A band singing “I Love This World”?” Fashion had changed, the world had changed. Between 1993 and 1996, there was nothing but silence, disappointment, the odd launch, the odd appearance on Hey Hey, but nothing of substance – no major pop revelations, no one capable of carrying on the sacred girl band flame.
And then, again overnight, pop was in again. The Spice Girls, day glo, bright and colourful, would launch themselves to Australian audiences in late October 1996 and stay at the top of the charts until the end of the year, and in 1997, they were followed to the top of the charts by Hanson and Aqua.and in 1999, the goddess herself Britney Spears would make “…Baby One More Time” the finest pop song of all time, and would ensure Pop was the dominant musical force, and all around the world, music producers were spending money to try and create “the next big thing”…
Amazingly though, in all of this pop revival, not one Australian "pop" act had a #1 single. There was quite clearly cash to be made in this revival, but no one seemed to be finding the formula. In this golden 3-4 year period, no one was investing in the idea of a proper, revived Australian pop band, especially a girl band. There was a brief, unsuccessful attempt to create a girl band – the amazingly ill fated Cherry. Launched via a series of lavish promotional appearances, a promotional tie in with Live Saver lollies, and highly hyped performances on Hey Hey it’s Saturday and Video Hits 1000th episode special, Cherry crashed and burned quickly even by the standards of Australian Pop. Their biggest hit, Saddest Song charted at #46 on the 25th July 1999, and fell out of the top 50 quickly, with other songs “SOS” and a cover version of Transvision Vamps “I Want Your Love” quickly vanishing. Comprising Dieter Brummer’s ex Amy Canto, a red headed girl called Gerri, and Camielle, Zoe and Hayley, the band was either horribly mis-managed or simply failed to convince the Australian public a girl band was a good idea. They failed to make an album, and are now amazingly impossible to find information on, as if the whole exercise never happened. All that remains is the matching “Cherry” outfits in a wardrobe somewhere. It seemed as though somehow, they hadn't found a way, despite several examples overseas, to pitch an Aussie girlband correctly...
Still, someone, somewhere, had to be able to break the pop drought – and during the Australian Open, in the year 2000, trailers began running…”coming soon…the search for a supergroup...Popstars...”…and thus…the famine…surely it was broken…
Bardot were coming…
* Robyn would depart from Girlfriend, and the remaining girls would go on soldier on as “GF4” – interestingly, their single “Sooner Or Later” was the first Australian single to feature a multimedia component, containing the film clip and behind the scenes footage. In spite of this and the fantastically titled follow up “Need Luv (to make the sex feel right), with a frog on the cover, GF4 failed to achieve lasting success, although research shows “Sooner Or Later” actually made it as high as #11 in the charts, although tellingly “Tomorrow” by Silverchair was #1 at the time in a top 10 that also contained “Spin the Black Circle” by Pearl Jam. Internet suggest rumours suggest one of the members of Girfriend has since passed away, but this is unconfirmed.