Cherry Pop #5: Let It Bee by Voice Of The Beehive

In our occasional series that revisits debut albums, Julie Brain takes us back to the late 80s and the opening shot from Voice of the Beehive. Nearly three decades on, it’s still whip-smart trouble-gum jangly pop of the highest order. Amidst the barrage of guitars, mega-hooks and skyscraper harmonies, there’s a sharply executed, man-baiting, feminist agenda readying itself (female readers step aside for a moment) to squeeze your balls. Almost inevitably, they never made another album as good as this, their first. But then they were never going to. And here’s why…

We begin my story at Wolverhampton Civic Hall in 1991. Sisters Tracey Bryn and Melissa Brooke Belland had just released their second offering, Honey Lingers. “It’s Honey Lingers, man!” Tracey screamed into the mic, vodka clutched to her chest as a hoard of biker guys lurched towards the stage chanting the obviously intended rhyming Latin. I was slap bang in the middle of ‘em: squished, terrified and torn from my somewhat more bewildered friend who’d agreed to accompany me to the gig simply because I was alone in my adoration of these barbarian baiters. I think I’d sold Voice Of The Beehive to her as – to make a modern comparison – something along the lines of The Saturdays meets Jessie J. “Dream logic operator, he falls out of the car, he says, 'I’ll fuck ya later now just get me to the bar.'” I tricked her a bit. In the mosh I got stuck and accidentally did a popper. Blimey.

Look, up until 1987 I loved The Kids from Fame and The Nolan Sisters – okay? Full disclosure. When the other kids were listening to Duran Duran, Spandau, and debating George O’Dowd’s gender, I was longing for legwarmers and singing into my hairbrush in front of the mirror about how I was gonna live forever. And boy, was I in the mood for dancing. As a lanky, gangly, self-conscious teen, desperate to be one of the cool kids (and clearly on a hiding to nothing – see above) these fabulous, loud, camp, colourful emblems of “fuck-it-all” spelt art, music and and buoyancy when everything else in those teenage years seemed to be judging my every clunky breath. I made my mum trawl Birmingham’s rag market with me for enough netting to build a Beehive skirt, and I was away. I’d listen to 'The Beat of Love' from 1988's Let It Bee on my fast-forward-only Walkman in the back of my parents’ Ford Sierra. “The beat of love is a nasty one, there are all kinds of ways to get banged. They'll tell you it’s violence, they'll tell you it's sex and they'll tell you that it's all the same.” I was too naïve to truly appreciate the brilliance of sickly sweet pop tunes juxtaposed with the most cutting of lyrics – but I was starting to realise that I shouldn’t listen to everything 'they' wanted me to believe.

Voice of the Beehive encapsulated all the women I’d wanted to be up to that point: Debbie Harry, Christine Cagney, Wonder Woman and my RE and music teachers - yep. Strong, funny, intelligent, opinionated, flawed, and honest. Add to that heady muddle of mayhem big hair, big dresses, wild eyes, mouths like sailors and a passion for telling it like it really was and it seemed the perfect No Bullshit cocktail. At fifteen I lived in my bedroom listening to the singles I’d managed to glean from Inner Sleeve – Tamworth’s last 'proper' record shop - on my Fidelity HF32 portable record player.

“I’m not what they believe and if they find out they will leave,” played John “Tune it in and rip the knob off” Slater on Birmingham’s local radio station, BRMB, (7 until 9 every week night) in 1987. It was like they knew me! He’d also play Fuzzbox, Strawberry Switchblade, Belly, PJ Harvey and The Primitives (look at all those guitarsnotcleavage!) I didn’t have any cleavage. Or guitars. But I knew people (boys) who did (have guitars, not cleavage). Primal Scream’s session drummer and I were mates from school, Julian Cope lived just around the corner between the park and the vicar’s house – apparently his girlfriend was a bit nutty (yeah, you know which one). I loved this stuff. The soundtrack to my teenage years: we were all going to die of heroin, nuclear war or AIDS in the late 80’s. Thankfully, accompanying me on the journey to this (according to Thatcher) unavoidable, drug-addled, promiscuous and explosive end was indie pop rock. For me, this was headed up by the VOTB girls.

I pored over a vacuous Smash Hits interview when 'Don’t Call Me Baby' made it big. “Do your earrings fall off when you’re sick?” the girls were asked. I remember Tracey responding that her earrings were far too sturdy for this to occur, and that she tended to be sick into the bath as there was more space. Such was my adoration of every syllable they may or may not have uttered. I actually remember that. Dear lord. Still now, as a Prozac-popping single mum teacher cliché, I listen to 'Sorrow Floats' and feel relieved that it’s not just me. “Don’t you ever get sick of feeling sick about it?” Twenty five years ago I still felt the same; back then I used to long to be twenty two so that I could sing that line and it be true.

Again, that hasn’t changed. That Bryn was in her late twenties when she 'made it' is somehow refreshing now. Today, if a kid hasn’t made it by twenty – forget it. You’re washed up, old, past it. But perhaps there wouldn’t be room for a Voice of the Beehive today? To be fair, in those skirts it was a bit of a squash even in the eighties. Similarly, knowing that Tracey Bryn is now a teacher is something of a comfort – a validation, perhaps - for me. She screamed about the world being a bit of a shitty place, our inability to avoid self-absorption despite knowing that altruism is the ultimate aim. Now she must be off sharing a passion for art, music and I hope to fuck massive swirly skirts and a perfect screwdriver recipe with impressionable vessels. God knows that’s what I’m trying for on a daily basis. In the 21st century we are forever lamenting that narcissism and fame for fame’s sake are our time’s invention. Honey Lingers’ 'Look at Me' is a reminder that even way back when, it was a more than familiar concept. “Everybody’s sayin’ 'Look at me, look at me.' Everybody’s certain they’ve got something no one else can see. The earth is drying. Planets are dying. Everybody’s saying, 'Yeah, I know but look at me!'"

Personifying a concoction of cute and clever, the girls singtalked me through 'The Man in the Moon', gently explaining that the ideal man is a thing of fantasy – unattainable, unrealistic, and non-existent except for in fairy tales, nursery rhymes and lies we tell our children: “He never says nothing so I know he understands. He's the brother I never had - the husband I'd never want...” It sounds kind of harsh, but it was done with big-sisterly love and nothing but good intentions. Collaboration with Zodiac Mindwarp on 'There’s A Barbarian in the Back of My Car' lent the ultimate cool to the girls from California who longed to be London rock ‘n’ rollers. To work with the self-declared High Priest of Love (later to be endorsed officially rock and roll greatness by no less than Alice Cooper himself) meant that to my fifteen year old mind, these women were where it was at.

According to the internet, Belland has been selling fairy dolls and “other sparkly creations” on Laguna Beach to earn her keep these days. Of course she does. Having won an X Factor-style small business competition headed up by Ivanka Trump (who else?) she channelled her artistic flair and quirky razzmatazz style into continuing to dazzle. She describes the sisters’ time in the spotlight as “famous for a few minutes in the eighties.” I wonder if they know, if they could have any idea, just how much they meant to girls like me: terrified, desperate to please, longing to be different but liked, and self-loving and loathing in equal measures. Who are the Beehive equivalent now, or anyone similarly, genuinely, quirkily rough-edged and raw that fifteen year old me’s can look to for solace?

Twenty five years ago this band captured my heart and mind as they shouted angrily - tongues planted firmly in cheeks - that we should all just get along. It’s a philosophy to which I still cling because fifteen year old me has never quite gone away. In my ideal world, Beehive, Russell Brand and Amy Winehouse would be knocking around together, and I’d be their best friend.

I watched them reunite to support The Wonder Stuff in Birmingham in 2003. It was fun – but not the same. I couldn’t help but think back throughout their set to that night at Wolverhampton Civic Hall. A mind warped with barbarians, love, desires for fame, and vintage clothing. Trust me, sorrow floats. I walk the earth and oh love, don’t call me baby. What else was there to say?

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