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Music

Decoding the treacherous split of Shakespears Sister

Shakespears Sister was a brilliant duo, typifying the fortitude and far-reaching nature of British rock in the months before Britpop became popular. And yet they weren’t a British act, as it was founded by Irish songwriter Siobhan Fahey, and bolstered by American multi-instrumentalist Marcella Detroit.

Fahey fashioned Shakespears Sister as a rejoinder to the frivolous pop Banarama spearheaded, gaining traction when Detroit joined, making it as much about the frontwomen as it was about the shimmering music. Yet they produced their music in Britain and were energised by the pace, beat and beauty of the country that surrounded them.

Shakespears Sister were the critical darlings until they weren’t, and the papers seemed determined to pit one another off each other. Some of them saw an angelic alto vocalist reduced to the role of sideman – or, sidewoman, as it was in this instance – while others saw an ungracious musician clutching onto the brilliance of their favourite member of Banarama. It all came to a halt when Fahey purportedly announced the break-up of the band at the 1993 Ivor Novello Awards, leaving Detroit distraught. Worse still, Fahey wasn’t there to announce the end of the band, instead committed her thoughts to paper, which was read out on television.

It was deemed a difficult blow, particularly since Detroit had sung lead vocals on ‘Stay’, the band’s most beloved single, and most impactful tune. ‘Stay’ was number one in the United Kingdom for eight weeks, proving Detroit had as much star power as Fahey had. But Fahey had her concerns over the single, feeling it wasn’t representative of the harder-edged tunes that padded out Hormonally Yours.

It was a lucky break for the band, but the duo also had guitar-heavy fodder ‘You’re History’ and ‘Hello (Turn Your Radio On)’ to their name, showcasing the tight, emotionally coiled harmonies at their freshest. Fahey says the two weren’t on speaking terms having endured months of constant arguments and aggression, ultimately leading to silence between them.

“The shit around us got in the way of our friendship and then the mutual paranoia built up,” Fahey conceded years later. “There were a couple of incidents. I think in the past few months of our touring I was counting down the days because it was so difficult.’The atmosphere was so fraught, we weren’t speaking. It was no fun.”

In 2019, the two women were mature enough to meet up and discuss what had ultimately been a misunderstanding. Fahey’s decision to break up the band at the Ivor Novellos was less the actions of a jealous starlet, but a considered person who felt it was time to move on from the past, and declare their freedom to the public. Detroit forgave her, as the two went on a journey to an American desert, where they enjoyed the scenery surrounding them, putting it into ‘All The Queen’s Horsemen’, their first single together in the best part of 30 years.

“It had gotten to the point that it was long overdue,” Fahey said, discussing their reconciliation. “Marcy had reached out but I wasn’t ready to go there, I was avoiding confrontation.”Fahey and Detroit both felt that although the partnership needed to dissolve, they handled it inappropriately, “because we were emotionally immature – whereas nowadays we’d just talk about it and deal with things properly.”

“But instead we just went off in a huff,” they continued, “And didn’t speak to each other, and it caused all those issues.” The press were happy to launch on the supposed attacks, but the two women maintained a polite distance from each other in public.

Personally, it sounds like thinly veiled misogyny to me. Artists always have their disagreements. Paul Simon was upset by Art Garfunkel’s popularity, despite grafting the albums almost singlehandedly, which ultimately came to a head during the recording of ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’. Robbie Williams cruelly mocked Gary Barlow at an awards ceremony, and Liam Gallagher seems determined to rake over his brother until the day he dies.

Instead, Shakespears Sister followed The Smiths in their example, and kept a dignified silence in public, happy in the knowledge that they had created an incredible album in 1992. Given their spark and energy, the two may record another track in the future, closing ‘When She Finds You’ with an aphorism that showed just how far they had come in life.

The video closes with a message that informed the two women that they could have been friends during the hiatus, much to their shock and relief. Instead, the pair have put their differences aside to create a new catalogue of work, bringing their popularity headfirst into the 21st century, attentive in detail, singular in their approach to the work in question. Best of all, the band seem to have put their differences aside, showing that time does indeed heal all wounds.

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