“The most interesting lives in pop music are rarely those of the superstars, whose typical rags-to-riches stories eventually become a blur of self-congratulation; instead, it’s the artists who almost made it – who through a series of circumstances beyond their control had a taste of fame, some small level of tantalizing success, and watched as it all slipped further and further away,” wrote Dave DiMartino in 1994. He was talking about ‘the secret diva’ Essra Mohawk, who in a career which has now lasted 50 years has never had a charting release despite making a string of quality albums. Indirectly, but quite rightly, DiMartino’s article called for the re-appraisal of Mohawk’s work. But as she was quiet in the 1980s (just one official release, 1985’s album E-Turn), my nomination for 80s Artist Most Deserving Of Reconsideration is singer-songwriter Helena Springs.
If you don’t know the name, you’ve heard the voice. The 80s were her busiest decade musically, and she can be heard on several hits, such as Skipworth And Turner’s Thinking About Your Love, and most notably on West End Girls. Chris Lowe commented on her vocals in the sleeve notes to the reissue of Pet Shop Boys’ album Please (from which the single was taken) in 2001: “Helena Springs has got one of my favourite female backing voices of all time.” Neil Tennant added, “She’s got a fantastic, magisterial voice.” It was added to a couple of other Pet Shop Boys songs recorded at the time of the Please, and Springs co-wrote a song with them for an album of her own. Pet Shop Boys’ original demo of this song, which they titled A New Life, appeared on the B-side to their single What Have I Done To Deserve This? in 1987. “She’d already written an idea, which became the bridge of this song, and we took that way and wrote the rest,” Tennant said in the sleeve notes to the 2001 reissue of Pet Shop Boys’ Actually album. “She also already had that part of the lyric: ‘the night goes by…’ I wrote the rest of the words, except she had a good line we wanted to keep in ‘then rise, the daylight sky’… Helena Springs did her own version, for her solo album which was never released, which she called A New Love. Hers was much more complicated.”
In fact, Springs’ album was released, and she named it after the track in question (New Love, 1987). Signed to Arista in the mid-80s, she had already stock-piled a number of recordings by late ’85 which appeared on a demonstration cassette (and, apparently, on a commercially released collection called Helena – she didn’t use the name ‘Springs’ on early releases). The earliest press I could find about her in the UK media was a short article in Melody Maker on 27 October 1984, which advised that her solo career was to be launched before the end of the year, probably with the “splendid song” White Lies. In fact, this song (unless it was later re-titled) never appeared, and later articles elsewhere suggested her first single would either be Love Satisfaction or Black Stockings, both of which eventually turned up on New Love. The single Arista led with in the end, though, was 1986’s I Want You, which received generally favourable press coverage if few sales.
Springs wrote or co-wrote a number of the songs on her album. She had been writing since the late 70s, mentored by Bob Dylan, whose touring band she was a permanent part of from 1978-1979. “Dylan basically taught me how to write a song,” she told Melody Maker in that 1984 piece. “The first song I wrote by myself was Boy, Want You Down On Your Knees. Bob loved it and made me write more. Dylan’s an incredible teacher. You might think he wouldn’t be but he’s so patient, so easy and has an ear that’s unreal. Dylan taught me how to write rock and roll.” Numerous copyright records exist showing writing collaborations between Springs and Dylan, and while he performed some of them during his late 70s tours, he recorded none. Their Walk Out In the Rain and If I Don’t Be There By Morning were however recorded by Eric Clapton for his album Backless. But it wasn’t just rock and roll that Springs wrote; numerous influences were evident on New Love, such as the almost Eurobeat Paper Money with its clever-clever and witty lyrics. There were some choice covers too, including a version of BA Robertson’s Other Side Of The World, which her regal voice lifted from a good to great song. Q magazine’s review gave the album a very respectable three stars out of five, and with regard to her voice said it was her greatest asset: “She has three distinctive singing styles – her Diana Ross, her Tina Turner, and her Helena Springs. Though it may lack Ross’s cool, Helena’s voice is much better than Tina Turner’s and as herself she’s undeniably impressive.” But it was the song selection that was questioned (“though the record has been very professionally organized, the songs are unfortunately mostly second rate”). Nevertheless, Arista saw fit to release four of the songs as singles and I would argue this was justified – New Love is an excellent collection, sadly unavailable now. Although it was mastered for release on CD and a catalogue number was allocated, it seems it never appeared on that format so the music is not now available digitally.
After this, Springs gradually withdrew from the music industry. She had appeared on TV specials with Bette Midler, toured with big names such as Elton John and had backed David Bowie on stage at Live Aid, but her full-time job as a singer ended with the 80s. It was her daughter (actress Nina Lisandrello – ‘Springs’ was a stage name) who inspired her next, entrepreneurial project. In an unexpected career move, the lack of racially-diverse dolls and toys on the market while Nina was growing up in the 80s inspired Springs to start up Hamilton Design Systeme, which encouraged buyers to “collect the multicultural dolls of the Fashion Candi Couture” when the Candi Girls line of fashion dolls was launched in 1994. The most interesting lives…
NEW SINGLES on sale from Oct. 28
ABC That Was Then But This Is Now (Neutron NT105)
AZTEC CAMERA (Roddy Frame) Oblivious (Re-mix) (WEA AZTEC1)
EURYTHMICS Right By Your Side (RCA DA4)
IMAGINATION (Leee John) New Dimension (R&B RBS216)
MADNESS The Sun And The Rain (Stiff BUY192)
MARILYN Calling Your Name (Love MAZ1)
The POLICE Synchronicity II (A&M AM153)
The SMITHS (Morrissey) This Charming Man (Rough Trade RT136)
STRAY CATS Rebels Rule (Arista SCAT7)
Gary NUMAN Miracles (Numa NU13)
PET SHOP BOYS West End Girls [Re-issue] (Parlophone R6195)
The POWER STATION Communication (Parlophone R6114)