Bucks Fizz babylon: the wild lives of Britain’s Eurovision champions
“If only they’d have sold as many records as they did newspapers, we’d all have become millionaires!” laughs Nichola Martin, halfway through Robert Norman-Reade’s deliciously frank 2011 film: The Bucks Fizz Story. The woman who put the Eurovision-winning band together pauses for a moment, then smirks. “Well, I suppose I did become a millionaire…”
Instead of making millions, the members of Bucks Fizz would end up broke and feuding, staggering on as a cautionary tale to today’s wannabe pop stars.
Martin herself had always yearned to clutch a mic beneath the bright lights. Her then-boyfriend, songwriter Andy Hill, wrote two songs to enter into the 1981 Eurovision Song Contest. The first – and best – was written for him to sing with Martin, under the name “Gem”. That tender ballad, Have You Ever Been in Love, would later win the Bracknell-born songsmith an Ivor Novello award, and be covered by Leo Sayer.
But Hill had never performed live before he appeared on Song for Europe, the selection show hosted by Terry Wogan. A friend had given him some beta-blockers to calm his nerves, advising him to “take one before the show”. In the event, Hill popped them all day, and by the time he came to sing at the piano he was surprised he still had a pulse.
Martin and Hill were then blown off the stage by the other song, a cheesy track Hill had written for Martin’s manufactured act: Bucks Fizz. The melody to Making Your Mind Up started life as a commercial jingle, but expanded into a song over a night during which Hill admits taking a wide variety of substances to stay awake. But audiences were equally charmed by the peppy performance, during which Mike Nolan and Bobby G whipped the long skirts off Cheryl Baker and Jay Aston.
Chirpy Mike Nolan – graduate of London pub circuit act Brooks, which would also give the world Kadjagoogoo’s Limahl – was bothered by the line “Don’t let your indecision take you from behind.” “It sounded really rude,” Nolan told The Guardian in 2016. “Andy laughed and said: ‘Never mind that, just sing it.’”
Martin had put the band together only weeks earlier. Nolan, whom she knew, was already on board. First, she zeroed in on Cheryl Baker, who had lost her Song of Europe cherry with the eight-piece Co-Co in 1976 and the song Wake Up. Although the band came second (beaten by eventual Eurovision winners Brotherhood of Man by two points), Martin was struck by Cheryl’s “pretty girl next door” features and her wholesome energy. She phoned the shoemaker’s daughter at the family home in Bethnal Green, only for her mum to pick up and say: “She’s on the lav, love.”
Martin decided to balance Baker’s sweetness with the “raunchy” Jay Aston. Born into a theatrical family, Aston had been performing since she was 14, appearing in a show with her mum during which the pair pretended to be air hostesses, singing songs from around the world. Aston’s brother Lance had represented Britain at Eurovision (as part of Prima Donna) in 1980, and felt his career had nosedived as a consequence of coming second. But his sister overcame her qualms to sign up.
The band’s last member was Bobby G: a builder with a child by his first wife, and already remarried. Bobby had bills to pay and was unconvinced by the act’s camp stylings. But he was a grafter who’d be fighting for his place in showbiz for years. Now that Bucks Fizz was formed, the two-girl/two-boy quartet was inevitably decried as a budget ABBA, who had also launched their career at Eurovision back in 1974. But the Swedish act had shown that the formula had legs.
And yet, although they all concede that the famous skirt-ripping moment gave them the edge in both Song for Europe and Eurovision, nobody in the band wants to take personal credit for it today. Baker thought the song was more 1950s, warranting jives and long skirts, while the more sexual, experimental Aston saw it as a 1960s number, better suited to miniskirts. At some point, they hit upon a compromise: simply whip the longer costumes off halfway through.
Baker says her experience of Eurovision 1976 (in France) had been more like a conference, while the Irish were determined to make a party of it in 1981. Despite the IRA threat to the English entry (they had bodyguards to go shopping), Bucks Fizz had a blast. “A whirlwind of gloriousness,” was how Aston described the experience when appearing (as an unsuccessful contestant) on The Voice in 2013.
Everything went downhill after that, but not as quickly as expected (or often recalled). The band had a record contract, and were determined to fight for some kind of quality. There were two more number one singles, and a series of albums.
The singers, unfortunately, realised that Martin and Hill were making all the money but weren’t experienced or united enough to raise a challenge. Cheryl and Mike formed one camp, while Jay and Bobby resented them in another. Mike hated Bobby for getting the lead vocal roles; Cheryl was late for everything, just to wind Bobby up, until Martin threatened to fire her.
By 1984, both Cheryl and Bobby were uncomfortable with avant-garde styling which saw the women donning conical bras a decade before Madonna, and dancing around a theatrical stage (based on “an Orwellian post-nuclear” building). The songs were a surprisingly mixed bag. There were weird videos, including one featuring a minute, mummified midget (Talking in Your Sleep). But they included the surprising hit, The Land of Make Believe, with lyrics by King Crimson’s Pete Sinfield, who later explained that “beneath its tra-la-las, it’s a virulently anti-Thatcher song”. “Something nasty in your garden’s waiting,” sang the perky kids next door. “Your dream is burning far, far away.”
And then there was the coach crash, following a sell-out gig in Newcastle in 1984. The details seem to involve a typically mundane bit of bickering about who had eaten a box of Ferrero Rocher chocolates (Nolan thought the coach driver had nabbed them). While Baker was wading up the central aisle to resolve the quarrel, the coach hit a lorry, throwing her, Nolan and the band’s guitarist through the windshield and onto the road.
Despite bouffant hair full of blood and glass, they all seemed initially well. But by 2am, Nolan had fallen into a coma and his family were called to his bedside to hear the Last Rites. He woke up after three days, but was left with lifelong mood-swings, reduced vision and epilepsy. He told Baker he could remember her name but couldn’t say it, only spell it: B-I-R-D-Y.
In the wake of the crash, Aston’s frustrations with the group’s limitations came to the boil. She felt the sting of being part of a manufactured band, and thought they weren’t being properly paid. “We got about a penny a single, and twenty pence for an album,” she later said in the 2011 documentary. “We were the idiots who signed the contract,” Nolan added, calling Martin a “cow”.
Aston left. And she told The Sun all about her affair with Martin’s by-then-husband, group songwriter Andy Hill. She described the world of Bucks Fizz as “bitchy”. Hill hid in the studio. Martin called Aston “tacky”. Baker said nobody was sorry Aston was gone.
In 2016, Aston told the Telegraph: “It was a tough time. I was sued. [...] I had to sell my house in west Kensington to foot the legal bills. At the age of 23, I had 13 lawsuits to deal with. I didn’t lose any cases, nor did I go bankrupt, as has been said of me in the past.” But, by then, she had worked out how little she was making anyway. “On one 45-date, sell-out tour, the band members only got £1,600 each while musicians walked away with £7,000 each. You would be amazed at how little we received.”
Although around a decade younger than the rest of the band, West End graduate Shelly Preston was drafted in to replace Aston in 1985. She evolved quickly from obedient yes-girl to rebel. Galvanising moments included an appearance on Top of The Pops, where nobody would give her a costume while all the rest of the band were dressed.
Eventually Martin materialised holding a black swimming costume, emblazoned with the words HOT PROPERTY in white. Preston was appalled at how she was being objectified. “Thank God I had a long black jacket with me,” Preston recalled, “or I would have gone out there in just a swimsuit.”
Although Preston was part of the line-up that scored Bucks Fizz’s 1986 hit New Beginning, she quit in 1991, by which time Baker concedes “she’d had enough of us and we’d had enough of her.” By then, Baker was focused on a career in television; she co-presented Record Breakers with Roy Castle and the Saturday Picture Show with Mark Curry.
The whole Bucks Fizz deal had gone flat. Martin had let her rights to the band’s name lapse, and Bobby G’s third wife, Heidi, snapped them up. This allowed Bobby to perform under the name with three unknowns, forcing the reformed Nolan, Baker and Aston to rebrand themselves as The Original Bucks Fizz.
The timeline of who was in which band when is ridiculously convoluted. Nolan and G had appeared together for a while after the women left, but Nolan thought G a bully and quit. G worked briefly with Dollar’s David Van Day, but they fell out. Van Day then approached Nolan, working with him for a couple of years until it emerged that Van Day had stolen hundreds of thousands of pounds from Nolan, whereupon Van Day declared bankruptcy.
(In 2007 Van Day stood – unsuccessfully – as a Conservative candidate in Brighton. The following year he appeared on I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! Nobody liked him.)
As of 2020, the band remain divided. Bobby G still appears with his wife in “Bucks Fizz”. The other trio still rock Butlins as The Fizz. They made what was billed as a “final” album before Jay Aston’s surgery for tongue cancer in 2018, but after parts of her thigh successfully replaced that tongue, they completed another record, Smoke & Mirrors. It was released in March, and reached number 29 in the UK album chart.
Baker has been a vocal supporter of Brexit, and The Fizz appeared at a Brexit rally in 2016. That said, in 2017 Baker was fretting over the referendum’s effect on future Eurovision votes; there were a lot of jokes about “making your mind up”. That year, she was so broke she took a job with a friend’s company, working in the office and cold-calling under her birth name of Rita. An appearance on Dancing on Ice in 2018 reignited her celebrity and put another shot of gas in the trio’s tank.
The personal feuds, however, have faded. Baker now sends supportive Tweets to her old rival, Aston. She and Nolan campaign heavily for The Headfirst, a charity that supports research into head injuries. Nolan also works with BUSK, Belt Up School Kids, to raise awareness of the dangers of travelling on buses without wearing a seat belt.
So yes, they were daft. They were mean. Watching them pop up on daytime TV, still hand-jiving, can be excruciating. A live appearance by The Fizz on This Morning last year saw viewers begging for the “car crash” to end. (Their recent socially-distanced version of Making Your Mind Up, above, was little better.)
And their songs, which were meant to be disposable, continue to bob indestructibly through our brains, like plastic in the ocean. But Bucks Fizz have survived so much, it’s hard not to admire them, and their ability to keep grafting with holiday-camp smiles on their faces.