The Pipettes: Formula fun

Polka-dotted bubblegum pop is back - and not before time, The Pipettes tell Fiona Sturges
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The Independent Culture

If you're tired of the ubiquitous male, four-piece guitar band - say, the testosterone-fuelled retro-rock of Razorlight or Babyshambles - then look no further than The Pipettes. This all-female Brighton trio combine a postmodern, post-feminist agenda with polka-dot dresses and sharp harmonies in an affectionate tribute to Sixties bubblegum girl groups such as The Shangri-Las, The Ronettes and The Supremes. The girls, who have adopted 'Pipette' as surnames, see themselves as champions of old-fashioned pop and the ultimate challenge to "dour, unimaginative, meat-and-potatoes bloke rock".

The past few weeks have seen the band on a promotional tour of Italy, Holland and Germany. Today, from their management company headquarters in north London, they are full of stories of free dinners, fancy hotels and excited fans. Clearly, the novelty of giving interviews has yet to wear off for Gwenno, 25, Becki, 23, and Rose, 20. Where most artists regard promotional duties as a chore, The Pipettes see it as an opportunity to air their views on everything from how The Beatles ruined music to their favourite Sixties girl groups.

"We don't want to copy the music of that era," says Rose, the baby of the band. "What would be the point? We're trying to bring a fresh approach and we're very aware of the music of our time."

Along with their Sixties idols, The Pipettes revere pop acts from the 1970s to the present, from Abba and The Osmonds to Kylie and Girls Aloud. "We see Sixties music as our starting point," says Gwenno. "We don't claim to be original; we're just trying to find a different line in musical history. So many bands come along and reference exactly the same line of artists. But before music became about egos and personalities and tortured geniuses, it was about good pop songs. We really like the idea of a pop factory, of having a great song and finding someone to sing it for you."

Despite their love of all things pop, it should be pointed out that The Pipettes are light years away from the current manufactured outfits produced by TV talent shows. Not only have the trio introduced a healthy dose of punk to their pop confection, they are also stalwarts of the live scene.

"The difference between us and other pop acts is that we've been out there, working our way up and playing all the small, grotty venues," says Rose. "Much as we enjoy doing it, we don't really fit into that scene either. I think to the traditional gig-goer, we're a bit of an anomaly."

This doesn't seem to have stopped The Pipettes from gathering a small army of fans during the past two and a half years, many of whom turn up to gigs wearing polka-dot clothes and slavishly copying the girls' choreographed dance moves. Last year, they toured with The Magic Numbers, British Sea Power and The Go! Team, while this year's single, "Your Kisses Are Wasted on Me", reached No 35 in the charts.

Now The Pipettes are ready to take their music to the next level. "We want to play big venues, have glittering sets, employ huge orchestras and really do it in the classical sense," states Becki. "We want to get to as many people as we can."

Certainly, their debut album, We Are The Pipettes, promises to be the soundtrack to the summer with its catchy choruses and mischievous lyrics. The album comprises three-minute punk-pop songs dealing with everything from desperado boyfriends trying to get their end away to the delights of schoolboys in blazers.

Among the more controversial aspects of The Pipettes' manifesto is their vehement criticism of The Beatles. "There's always been this rule that if you like music, you have to worship The Beatles," grumbles Gwenno. "We've had John Lennon's voyage of self-discovery imposed on us, and it's all wrong."

"It's not so much The Beatles themselves, as what they started," adds Becki, more diplomatically. "Because of them, music has been dominated by men and has sounded the same for the past 40 years. I mean, just look at Babyshambles or The Libertines. I find it incredible that anyone takes them seriously."

For The Pipettes, the greatest challenge, so far, has been convincing people that they are neither a novelty band, nor the product of a music-industry pow-wow. In fact, the band was dreamt up by "Monster" Bobby, now the guitarist in the girls' backing band, and original member Julia Clark-Lowes.

"Julia had been reading The Manual (KLF Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty's 1988 book offering a step-by-step guide to writing a hit single) and Bobby had been listening to a lot of Phil Spector and Joe Meek," reveals Rose. "They were having a drink in the pub one day and decided it would be great to reinvent the classic girl bands of the late Fifties and early Sixties. After that, they asked the rest of us to join. When Bobby talked to me about it, he had it all worked out. He said, 'You'll wear polka-dot dresses, you'll be called The Pipettes and these are the types of songs you'll be singing.'"

Though Bobby was initially the head of the operation, it quickly became a collaborative effort as the girls set about writing their own songs and refining their dance moves. "There was no danger of him being a Svengali figure," notes Becki. "If he'd tried that, he'd have had a war on his hands."

The Pipettes started out playing pubs and small venues in their native Brighton, in costumes stitched together by their mums. After a year, Julia quit the band and was replaced by Gwenno, formerly a professional dancer. Gwenno had seen them play live in her native Cardiff and was already a committed fan. "They auditioned quite a few girls, so I made sure I knew all the moves and the vocal parts. As far as I was concerned, this was the band for me. It was fate."

Despite their exasperation with contemporary guitar bands, The Pipettes are now bridging the gap between bubblegum pop and indie rock. Their audiences take in everyone from teenage girls to shaggy-haired indie boys in skinny ties. "It's great to have a broad appeal, though I think it's both our strength and our weakness," says Rose. "Record companies have had trouble knowing where to put us. Are we indie or are we pop?"

Missing the point entirely, one major label suggested the girls meet their in-house songwriting team, while another saw them purely as a covers outfit. In the end, The Pipettes elected to go with a small independent label, Memphis Industries. "They immediately understood what we were doing," says Rose. Now it seems that The Pipettes are blazing a trail for a new generation of bands in the thrall to old-style girl groups. The Priscillas combine 1950s pin-up styling with Sixties garage rock, while New York's The Dansettes pay similar homage to Sixties pop and R&B. Soon to release their debut album are west London's The Revelations, billed as the 21st-century Ronettes.

"People keep suggesting that we should be in competition with these other groups but we think it's great," says Gwenno. "We're delighted that there are other women trying to get away from the guitar-rock formula and do something different like us. It's about bloody time, don't you think?"

The single 'Pull Shapes' (Memphis Industries) is out now. 'We Are The Pipettes' is released on Monday

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