This is a “Sign of the Times”: London’s Belle Stars were the ultimate ’80s all-female opening band

By on December 5, 2017

A little over an hour into this full two-hour episode of “Night Flight” — we believe it actually aired on June 21, 1983 despite the fact the chyron says July 15, 1983 — you’ll find the video for “Sign of the Times” by London’s multiracial all-girl group the Belle Stars, who were part of the great Stiff Records label stable of acts in the early ’80s.

Watch the complete episode — which yields a lot of surprises — streaming exclusively for our subscribers on Night Flight Plus!

BELLESTARS4

Over their career in the early-to-mid ’80s, the Belle Stars opened for the Clash, the Police, Elvis Costello & the Attractions, the Police and the English Beat– as well as all of the 2-Tone ska revival bands — and enjoyed no fewer than seven UK chart entries between 1982 and 1984, including four UK Top Forty hits.

We still think their neo-soul dance-track “Sign of the Times” was their best original effort, and worth a second look.

Written by guitarists Stella Barker and Sarah-Jane Owen, and alto saxophonist Miranda Joyce, “Sign” was notable for also featuring Barker talking over the song’s intro, something she says she did as a kind of joke/tribute to Diana Ross, who often did the same thing on Supremes hits.

BODYSNATCHERS2

The Belle Stars were created after Barker’s first band, the Bodysnatchers — with lead singer Rhoda Dakar — dissolved after a year and a half of playing together.

That Bodysnatchers had actually been formed by bassist Nicky Summers, who, after seeing the Specials playing at London’s Moonlight Club, decided to start a ska revival band of her own.

BELLESTARS12

She took out an ad in one of London’s music weeklies and auditioned “Rude Girls” for her all-female two-tone band.

They signed a two-single record deal with 2 Tone, and opened for Lene Lovich, the Go-Go’s (visiting from L.A.), the Specials, Madness, Bad Manners, Fun Boy Three, the Selecter and many others.

They also played Debbie Harry‘s birthday party in July ’79, at the invitation of Chrysalis Records.

BODYSNATCHERS3

In March of 1980, the Bodysnatchers released the first of their two singles, “Let’s Do Rocksteady,” a Dandy Livingstone cover, which reached #22 on the UK Singles chart, which was followed shortly (in July 1980) by an original tune of theirs, “Easy Life” (#50 UK Singles).

They appeared on Channel 4’s The Tube,” “Top of the Pops” and also appeared on the madcap Saturday morning children’s show “Tiswas,” who’d already banned Madness for life after their zany antics.

BODYSNATCHERS1

The Bodysnatchers also appeared in the ska revival documentary, Dance Craze, and recorded two live radio sessions with the BBC’s Radio One deejay John Peel.

Rhoda Dakar, meanwhile, dueted with the Specials’ Terry Hall on “I Can’t Stand It,” which appeared on More Specials.

In ’81, when Jerry Dammers left the Specials to form The Special AKA, Dakar decided to join their permanent lineup.

BELLESTARS10

Nicky Summers had also by then decided she wanted to move on, and the Bodysnatchers played their last gig at Camden’s Music Machine in October of 1980.

Barker, Owen, Joyce, tenor saxophonist/keyboardist Clare Hirst (who’d replaced keyboardist Penny Leyton) and drummer Judy Parsons were now suddenly left to figure out what to do next.

Read more about the Belle Stars below.

IDevices-For-NF-web

Hey! Do you have a Night Flight Plus subscription?

We’re offering up original uncut air masters of Night Flight programming from the video vaults of the 1980s TV show, as well as provocative new selections from the world of music, documentaries, animation, cult films and more. Sign up today!

BELLESTARS2

The five surviving Bodysnatchers recruited Jennie McKeown (a.k.a. Jennie Matthias) and bassist Lesley Shone, and played their first gig as a new group on Christmas Day, 1980.

The Belle Stars began attracting a lot of attention, appearing on the cover of Sounds in early ’81, and Dave Robinson of Stiff Records signed them to the label.

BELLESTARS13

Their debut single, “Hiawatha” — an old Bodysnatchers song — was released in the late spring of 1981, but failed to chart.

So did their second single, “Slick Trick,” and their third, the radio-friendly “Another Latin Love Song,” and so they decided their fourth single should be their cover of the Dixie Cups’ 1965 hit “Iko Iko.”

BELLESTARS5

“Iko Iko” finally landed the Belle Stars on the charts, peaking at #35 in June of 1982.

The single was also featured years later on the soundtrack to the 1988 Academy Award-winning motion picture Rain Man, becoming a surprise Top 40 U.S. hit (#14).

BELLESTARS11

The Belle Stars’ next single would also be a cover.

“The Clapping Song” was a Top Twenty re-make of the 1965 Shirley Ellis hit, and it was followed up by yet another cover, “Mockingbird,” a hit for Inez and Charlie Foxx in 1969 and then for James Taylor and Carly Simon in ’74.

They were garnering comparisons to pop bands now, one writer online even saying they resembled “an early ABC with added spunk and less chrome.”

BELLESTARS8

In January of ’83, the Belle Stars released their signature single, “Sign of the Times,” the lead-off track from the self-titled and only album for Stiff, The Belle Stars, (#15 UK Albums).

The album featured a mix of originals and more covers (including Bob & Earl’s “Harlem Shuffle,” Al Wilson’s “The Snake,” and the Velvelettes’ “Needle in the Haystack”).

“Sign of the Times” peaked at #3 (UK Singles), and the video got them a lot of airplay on MTV and other video-oriented TV shows.

BELLESTARS3

However, each subsequent single charted lower and lower on the charts (“Sweet Memory” at #22 in April ’83; “Indian Summer” at #52 in August ’83, and “The Entertainer” failed to chart).

It would be another year before another somewhat minor hit, “’80s Romance,” which made it to #71 in August of ’84.

Soon, the bloom was off the rose, and lead singer Jennie McKeown was leaving the band, followed by several others, leaving just three remaining Belle Stars: Sarah-Jane Owen, Miranda Joyce and Lesley Shone.

BELLESTARS9

In 1986, this Belle Stars trio released “World Domination,” which charted at #2 for a couple of weeks on Billboard‘s Dance charts, before they finally called it a day.

Watch Night Flight’s full episode from the summer of ’83 over on Night Flight Plus.

BELLESTARS1

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.