When Jo Dunne and her sister Maggie made their live debut with Vickie Perks and Tina O'Neill in their home town of Birmingham in 1985, they could barely play their instruments. They had three songs and a band name that was both memorable and a statement of intent: We've Got A Fuzzbox and We're Gonna Use It!! Yet, after only their second gig, Robert Lloyd, frontman of the post-punk group the Nightingales, was impressed enough by their irreverent attitude and short, sharp, strident tunes like "X X Sex" and "Do I Want To?" to sign them to his label Vindaloo, already the home of the stand-up comedian Ted Chippington.
Within a few months, Fuzzbox – as they soon became known – were recording John Peel sessions, topping the independent charts with their spiky debut EP Rules And Regulations, and selling enough copies to knock on the door of the Top 40.
In the summer of 1986, Bill Drummond, later of KLF fame but then a maverick A&R man at WEA, brought Chippington and Fuzzbox to the major company and organised An Evening With Ted Chippington, featuring both acts at the Raymond Revue Bar in London's Soho, to promote the release of the Vindaloo Summer Special EP, which included their cheeky "Fuzzy Faves" covers medley of "Sitting In The Back Seat"/"Itsy Witsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini" and "Kookie, Kookie". Fuzzbox also backed the comedian when he performed his own novelty tune "Rockin' With Rita" on the ITV children's programme Razzamatazz, but while he remained a cult figure they went on to mainstream, if shortlived, success towards the end of the decade with the perky, polished pop hits "International Rescue", "Pink Sunshine" and "Self!", as well as the Big Bang! album.
Born in 1968, and four years younger than Maggie, Jo Dunne shared her sister's eccentric fashion sense – wild hairstyles, garish clothes and make-up, quirky star-shaped glasses for Jo – that made Fuzzbox stand out, while their early sound owed a debt to their all-girl antecedents, the Slits and the Modettes. The four constantly swapped instruments, with Perks, Maggie Dunne and O'Neill singing lead, and Jo Dunne occasionally drumming but playing bass. Eventually she concentrated on her pink guitar – with trademark Fuzzbox distortion pedal – when they became a more conventional four-piece rather than the kitsch darlings of the C-86 indie movement, named after the mail-order cassette compiled by the New Musical Express that year. Of the 22 acts on C-86, only Primal Scream and the Wedding Present achieved a higher profile.
They took off faster than they could learn their instruments, leading to patronising comments from the male-dominated music press, rightly ignored since the critics seemed to miss the point of their DIY, sometimes shambolic approach. Maggie Dunne quit her job in the dole office and the other three, who had been friends since the age of 11, left college to concentrate on the group but, even when appearing on the cover of Melody Maker or on The Old Grey Whistle Test, they kept a healthy sense of perspective and injected a dose of mischievous Brummie humour into their interviews. "Forget the sex and the drugs. We're in this band for the driving," Jo Dunne told Record Mirror in May 1986.
At the end of that year, they released the fittingly "fuzzy" single "Love Is The Slug", their first bona fide hit, as well as their debut album, Bostin' Steve Austin, whose title referenced the hero of The Six Million Dollar Man TV series. The follow-up single "What's The Point" just missed the Top 50 but sported another unlikely cover – Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" – on its B-side and hinted at their potential as Britain's answer to The Go-Go's or The Bangles. WEA head honcho Rob Dickins duly recruited the American songwriter Liam Sternberg, who had penned the Bangles worldwide hit "Walk Like An Egyptian", to work on the next Fuzzbox album.
Sternberg helped them compose their two biggest successes, the infuriatingly catchy "International Rescue", inspired by the Thunderbirds sci-fi puppet series, and the equally nagging "Pink Sunshine", while the WEA machine went into overdrive to promote Fuzzbox's more commercial sound and glossier image – "glamour pussies" or "sex kittens" as the NME put it. "We got swept along," admitted Jo Dunne who, in keeping with WEA's policy of using a different Fuzzbox member on the cover of every single from the Big Bang! album, featured on the picture bag for their flop synthpop cover of Yoko Ono's "Walking On Thin Ice". When their next release, "Your Loss, My Gain", also struck out in 1990, WEA pulled the plug on a projected third album and Fuzzbox broke up.
In October 1997, Jo and Maggie Dunne guested on the identity parade segment of the TV quiz show Never Mind The Buzzcocks, while Perks appeared in the same slot 12 years later. In May 2010 the Dunnes and Perks reformed Fuzzbox for a UK tour and recorded an electro cover of M's 1979 smash "Pop Muzik". Interviewed on the BBC's Midlands Today at the time, Jo Dunne was keen to stress the fact that "of all UK girl bands, as opposed to vocal groups, we are still the most successful. And we did have a lot of fun." She died of cancer at St Mary's Hospice in Birmingham.
Jo Dunne, musician and songwriter: born Birmingham 12 November 1968; died Birmingham 26 October 2012.
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