Released today in 1982: Iko Iko

Stiff BUY150

Stiff BUY150

Iko Iko is a song that has been covered by numerous artists over the past sixty years. Its lyrics are based on chants uttered by participants at the New Orleans Mardi Gras, as heard by songwriter James Crawford and first performed by his band Sugar Boy & His Cane Cutters in 1953. On that release, the song was titled Jock-A-Mo (although years later Crawford stated he was singing ‘chocomo’, his interpretation of what some of the festival-goers seemed to be saying, and the company issuing the record had misspelled it) and featured verses referring to a ‘spyboy’ and ‘my queen’. The rest of the words didn’t mean very much, as the original chants he was copying were believed to have been in a French Creole dialect peculiar to Louisiana, which Crawford wasn’t familiar with. (Subsequent phonetic approximations of the lyrics over the years have rendered it nonsense.) Regardless, the single wasn’t a hit and that was an end to the story until girl-group The Dixie Cups put out a single called Iko Iko that was a hit in the mid-60s. Although they sang about different characters (a ‘flag boy’ and ‘my king’, plus some new ones), there were remarkable similarities between Iko Iko and Jock-A-Mo. Nevertheless The Dixie Cups themselves took the writing credit on their single, and it is this recording that most subsequent covers have been based on. Two artists releasing versions of The Dixie Cups’ take on Iko Iko did so on the same day in 1982. All-girl band The Belle Stars and solo artiste Natasha had something in common: both had released several singles each without any chart success, and were counting on this popular song to change that.

Scot Dorothy Sherratt arrived in London in the early 70s and sang in a couple of bands (using her middle name Natasha) before she met and married musician Bob England. Together they went into music management, with Natasha assuming a number of back office roles, including talent scout. She was instrumental in promoting Darts and getting them signed to Magnet in 1977. Via Darts’ lead singer, Natasha was introduced to Brooklyn sisters Betty and Jackie Burns and the three of them formed Flirts; the same same label issued a single by them in 1979. Deciding she would prefer to be a soloist, Natasha then issued another single on Decca in 1980 under the name Natasha and the Delites. (Check the photograph on the sleeve carefully: ‘the Delites’ were fictitious backing singers portrayed by Natasha herself.) Soon afterwards, the Englands established their own company, Towerbell, and Natasha was the first signing.

Most of The Belle Stars had worked together in the late 70s as part of the all-girl ska band The Bodysnatchers. They released a few singles in 1980, having a Top 20 hit with one of them, and toured with the likes of The Specials, Go-Go’s and The Selecter. But when Terry Hall quit The Specials, lead singer Rhoda Dakar left to join Jerry Dammers’ new group The Special AKA and The Bodysnatchers came to an end. Five of the former members then recruited a new bass player and a new lead singer, Jennie McKeown, and The Belle Stars were formed. Signed to Stiff, it was suggested that they were the female equivalent to their label mates Madness.

Both Stiff and Towerbell released versions of Iko Iko by their artists on Friday 21 May 1982, and both singles charted in the same week. The Belle Stars’ effort was much closer stylistically to The Dixie Cups’ recording (on the demo for which, the Dixies had improvised the musical accompaniment by beating drumsticks on metal objects in the studio and thereby maintaining the carnival atmosphere of the song). Natasha’s attempt had a far more pronounced rhythmic bass line and sounded more contemporary; the promotional clip to accompany it took a Mad Hatters’ Tea Party approach. Here’s how they fared in the charts:

Week ending The Belle Stars Natasha
5 Jun 82 74 54
12 Jun 82 44 38
19 Jun 82 35 24
26 Jun 82 41 16
3 Jul 82 52 14
10 Jul 82 71 12
17 Jul 82 10
24 Jul 82 15
31 Jul 82 21
7 Aug 82 32
14 Aug 82 52

So, Natasha was the winner – at this point. But this was to be her only big hit; her marriage to, and working relationship with, Bob England was breaking down. He wanted children, she wanted to wait; he wanted her to record more cover versions, she wanted to write her own stuff. The last Natasha single was released at the end of 1985, and six months later Towerbell itself released its final discs before folding. “Lack of singles success, a period of full sale or return, and TV advertising expenditure unjustified by the status of the artists promoted all contributed to the eventual financial collapse,” Billboard reported on 15 November 1986, quoting the liquidator as saying that the expensive television campaigns in particular were “violently disproportionate” to likely sales, and listing among the creditors owed money EMI (manufacturing), PRT (distribution) and MCPS (publishing). Natasha herself was owed too; Bob England fled to Antigua.

In the end, it was The Belle Stars’ recording that was the most enduring, and the one that sold the most copies worldwide – years after the group had split up. Their Iko Iko was later included on the soundtrack to the hit film ‘Rain Man’ and in 1989 it was issued as a single in America, going all the way to #14 on the Hot 100.

NEW SINGLES on sale from May. 21
1982
The BELLE STARS (Jennie McKeown) Iko Iko (Stiff BUY150)
SIOUXSIE AND THE BANSHEES (Siouxsie Sioux) Fireworks (Polydor POSP450)
1984
MADNESS One Better Day (Stiff BUY201)
David SYLVIAN Red Guitar (Virgin VS633)
TRACIE (I Love You) When You Sleep (Respond KOB710)

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