Interview

Bucks Fizz: The inside story of the Eurovision winners – 40 years on

Cheryl Baker, Jay Aston, and Bobby G talk to Mark Beaumont about Eighties pop stardom, cliques and infighting, the crash that nearly ended their lives, and the little piece of Velcro that changed everything

Sunday 04 April 2021 06:30
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<p>Clockwise, from top left: Bobby G, Mike Nolan, Cheryl Baker and Jay Aston </p>

Clockwise, from top left: Bobby G, Mike Nolan, Cheryl Baker and Jay Aston

A door opened on a grand hallway behind the scenes at the Dublin concert hall RDS Simmonscourt, and the cheers of the 7,000 strong crowd – echoing those of 500 million TV viewers across the continent – gave way to a blizzard of flashbulbs. “Once the show went off air,” says Jay Aston, one of the four dazzled Brits being ushered from obscurity to superstardom in just a few steps, “we went into this huge hall where there were hundreds of photographers from all over Europe. It was that moment we realised our lives had changed with a silly three-minute song.”

The song was “Making Your Mind Up”, already a hit in the UK following its success in A Song for Europe and now – in a nail-biting race for the top, 40 years ago this week – the winner of the 1981 Eurovision Song Contest, en route to becoming a Europe-wide smash and, for all its skirt-ripping rock’n’roll frivolity and fluffiness, a totemic sign of British pop’s early Eighties supremacy. And the band were Bucks Fizz, a ragbag of showbiz hopefuls who’d only known each other for a matter of months but were about to be catapulted into overwhelming fame and success, racking up three UK number ones and nine top 10 hits in the following two years and becoming one of the best-selling UK acts of the 1980s.

“When I was about nine I had a little book and I had a list of all the things I wanted to achieve,” says Aston today. “I had ‘win the Eurovision Song Contest’, ‘be on Top of the Pops with a number one record’ and ‘do the Royal Command’. I’d done all of those by the time I was about 21.”

Yet Aston and her bandmates were also set out on a course of friction, exploitation and exhaustion. A journey that would, but for a piece of fruit, very nearly cost them their lives.

Though strangers until they entered a rehearsal room together early in 1981, the members of Bucks Fizz already had a wealth of showbusiness experience behind them, and no few links to Eurovision. At 27, Cheryl Baker was something of a veteran of the contest; her previous band Co-Co had entered A Song for Europe in 1976 and then represented the UK in the 1978 Eurovision with “The Bad Old Days”. So when song-writing partners Nichola Martin and Andy Hill – having already entered themselves into 1981’s A Song For Europe contest as Paris with the song “Have You Ever Been In Love?” – chanced upon her on reception at a recording studio while recruiting a rival band to enter another of their numbers, “Making Your Mind Up”, she was a natural fit.

“My 1978 Eurovision was not a great experience,” Baker says of coming a disappointing 11th in Paris. “It was a real let-down for me because it had been my childhood dream and to lose so badly and for the memory of it all not to be as good as I wanted it to be, I went into the 1981 Eurovision with my eyes wide open, expecting it to be the same. And it wasn’t, it was fantastic.”

‘It was that moment we realised our lives had changed with a silly three-minute song’

Baker joined Hill’s friend Mike Nolan, an Irish boyband singer of 26, as the core of the band, while 300 auditions at the end of 1980 uncovered club singer and West End musical actor Bobby G, who was 27, and Jay Aston, a 19-year-old dancer and actor of Italia Conti stock. Her showbiz family background had seen her “doing summer season” since the age of 14 and her brother had come second in Eurovision in 1980 with his band Prima Donna.

“They wanted us all to look similar – petite and blonde,” Aston says. “Then we had to go in the studio and all record ‘Making Your Mind Up’ and that was the deciding factor. To this day there is an unusual blend with our voices.”

No one recalls being blown away by the song. “It wasn’t my cup of tea,” says Laurel Canyon fan Baker, while Bobby G, having heard it had started life as a commercial jingle, had concerns for its longevity. “The thing that you have in the back of your mind is there’s an awful lot of one-hit wonders out there,” he tells me over Zoom, “and I suppose I saw the song as not the most credible piece of art.”

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Aston remembers the band’s personalities being “all very different, different ideas, different backgrounds, different experience”. She and Baker failed to click initially. “When you’re 19 and someone’s 26 or 27, there’s quite a big gap in ideas,” Aston says. “I was still a girl and she was very much a woman. I look at it now, I look like I was 12, this skinny little girl. I was also very un-street and Cheryl was very streetwise – she was brought up in Bethnal Green. [Aston was from Purley in Surrey, where she had been crowned Miss Purley in 1978]. We were different animals. So we didn’t gel particularly and Mike and Cheryl were so close that they just clicked like brother and sister.”

“The only two that gelled were Mike Nolan and I,” says Baker. “I always had a problem with Bobby and he had a problem with me. He was very much a tea-drinking man’s man, but women make the tea. That was Bobby G. He likes to be in control, so he didn’t like the fact that I had a lot of knowledge and I’m quite outspoken and I won’t be talked down to by someone like him.”

G is more diplomatic. “I think I probably had a little bit more business sense,” he says of his lack of bond with Baker. “We had disagreements over the way that we should do things but we never fought. In that first 18 months we were all pushing in the same direction, and we all had so much individually to gain from it, so it was really OK.”

Onstage, though, there was Euro-magic. Bucks Fizz swept through 1981’s A Song for Europe and had a top five hit even before the Eurovision ceremony, buoyed by an attention-grabbing gimmick whereby Nolan and G would pull Baker and Aston’s long skirts off at the lyric “if you want to see some more” to reveal miniskirts underneath. “It was basically because I wanted miniskirts and Cheryl wanted long skirts and it was a compromise,” says Aston. “My husband now was in a band at A Song for Europe,” says Baker. “At the dress run, when we ripped the skirts off he said to the rest of his band, ‘we might as well go home now.’ That rip-off skirt was almost like a safety blanket. It made you feel more positive about your performance because you knew that if anyone in Europe hadn’t seen the skirt-rip yet that was the moment where they’re not gonna forget us.”

Eurovision- Bucks Fizz performs 'Making Your Mind Up' for the UK

Were there any wardrobe malfunctions down the years? “There was one time on live TV in Holland, going out to millions of viewers, when Bobby completely forgot to rip my skirt off, so I did it myself,” Aston laughs. “And there was one recently where I went out without my proper attire when I ripped off. I felt the cold breeze and I was slightly horrified. It was nearly a disaster but not quite.”

Despite the buzz among the media and public that Britain might have backed a winner, the band tempered their expectations. “My whole thinking was ‘do the Song for Europe because your mum and dad can video it, I’ve got that for posterity and you can go back to being a secretary,” says Baker. “I saw it as a three-minute thing,” Aston agrees. “That’s possibly why we signed one of the worst contracts we could’ve possibly signed. The guy who advised us to sign it was fired a month after we signed.”

On the big day in Dublin, Bucks Fizz were kept under high security due to an IRA threat. “We had armed guards outside our bedroom doors and everywhere we went,” Baker remembers. “We were kept in a separate hotel, we had our own separate coach and outriders on motorbikes whizzing us through red lights, taking us on the wrong side of the road. Like young people do, we thought it was really exciting, as opposed to thinking, ‘we have a death threat on our heads, we could all die at any minute!’” They did, however, feel intimidated by the strong entries from Germany’s Lena Valaitis and Ireland’s Sheeba. “We thought, ‘oh no, this is tough competition,’” says Aston. “But we were all excited as hell. It’s a wonderful thing to go out there.”

The voting was certainly dazzly-nail-biting stuff. France and Ireland were neck and neck after early voting, then a brief UK lead was scuppered when our own judges gave 12 points to Switzerland, allowing them to leapfrog into pole position. “I almost didn’t pay too much attention until 25 minutes into the voting and I started to see us climbing up,” says Aston. “It wasn’t really until the last few votes that we all felt, ‘oh my gosh, we could win this.’” With two countries’ votes to declare, the UK, Germany and Switzerland were equal; it was a final five points from Sweden that secured the victory.

“It was wonderful,” Baker beams. “At the end of it I did think, ‘that song and that piece of Velcro has just changed our lives.’ I love my country, I love saying that I’m British, I love my Queen, I’m a proper royalist, and to actually represent your country and win that award was everything to me.” She tears up when recalling her phone call home from the celebration party. “The cheer went up, it was a tiny council flat rammed with neighbours and friends. I was born in this block of flats and my sister said, ‘you should have seen it, everyone was out on their balconies, they all threw their windows open,’ because they’d grown up with me, I was one of theirs. All I wanted to do was get home and give my mum a hug.”

On their return from Dublin, Fizzmania had broken out. “There was this whole big contingency at Heathrow all singing ‘Making Your Mind Up’ and all the fans had turned up with posters and big banners,” Aston says, “[Then] it was a whirlwind for about two and a half years.” With “Making Your Mind Up” an instant international hit, the band promoted the song as far and wide as Japan, Australia and the Philippines.

“It was absolute lunacy,” says Baker. “It was really lovely to get back into my council flat and have Sunday roast and sit in front of the telly with my family round me and feel normal. The next day we had a meeting and they said, ‘right, tomorrow we fly to Austria to do TV, from Austria we fly to Germany, from Germany we fly to Holland.’ It was just crazy. ‘Pack your bags, we’re going to Australia, pack your bags, we’re doing Japan, pack your bags, we’re going to South America.’ It was fabulous, but proper non-stop. Our personal lives fell apart but I didn’t care because I was living the dream.”

“It was hard graft, full on promoting,” says G. “In the initial stages I thought I might get a year or two out of this and then I’ll go back in the West End or something. What I was trying to do was suck in as much of the experience as I could… I thought it might be short-lived.”

Subsequent singles marked a sharp swerve into contemporary pop and number one hits “The Land of Make Believe” and “My Camera Never Lies” made the Fizz start to look very much like the British ABBA. “There was always a desire to progress musically,” Aston explains. “Our fans today love the fact that our music was so widely diverse.”

As they rocketed towards 50 million record sales worldwide, though, the pressures of huge overnight success on a group of people who barely knew each other began to cause frictions. “There were definitely two camps,” says Aston. “Mike and Cheryl are joined at the hip, they absolutely adore each other. Bobby was his own man and I was the vote in the middle. I’d quite often agree with Bobby because Mike and Cheryl, even to this day, would go the opposite of Bobby.”

Bucks Fizz performing at the 1981 Eurovision Song Contest in Dublin

In 2015, Baker admitted to having fallen in love with Nolan when she first saw him but attested that “nothing untoward” had ever happened between them. “I’d say there was one camp, that was me and Mike,” she says. “We could do everything together and have a great time. Unfortunately for Jay the only other person in the band was Bobby, and Bobby really was only interested in Bobby. I feel sorry for Jay now, when I look back I could’ve tried harder to make her feel a part of the fantastic relationship I had with Mike Nolan, but it was never gonna happen.”

Feeling, according to Baker, “absolutely controlled… we didn’t have any dealings with how we ran our lives”, the downsides of their contract began to reveal themselves too. “The contract was pretty horrendous and made other people very, very rich,” says Aston. “When you’re working 365 days of the year, flying here, there and everywhere, and they’re buying five-storey houses in Mayfair and you’re still riding around in a Fiat 124, which is a bit like a lawnmower, you start to feel a bit resentful.” G disagrees, considering the deal “very fair” considering the lifestyle and career opportunities it afforded the four. “The people that should have had the reward were getting the reward,” he says. “To be fair, I think we benefitted just as much as anybody else.”

With tensions rising within the band and their team (Aston would later reveal she’d been having an affair with Hall) and rockier mid-Eighties singles seeing their star decline, Bucks Fizz’s peak era came to a screeching halt on 11 December 1984 – literally and almost fatally.

“I was sitting at the front of the coach,” Aston recalls of the journey home from a sold-out gig in Newcastle, “and I decided to go up the back to go to the loo and there was some fruit rolling about, so I grabbed the fruit just as it was about to fall on the floor and then I saw my manager and I went, ‘oh,’ because I needed to talk to her about something. I heard someone say, ‘we’re gonna hit that,’ and that was when we hit this massive articulated lorry that had loads of steel on it. The impact was about 75 miles an hour, it was horrific, we were thrown all over the place.

“That split-second decision to pick up some fruit stopped me going to the loo, which would’ve pierced my whole body through the middle. The main girder of the coach went directly through the toilet area. A tangerine saved my life.”

Aston was hospitalised with back injuries, Bobby G with whiplash and Nolan and Baker were both thrown through the coach windscreen. Baker broke three vertebrae in her spine – “My hair looked like it’d been backcombed full of blood and glass,” she says – and Nolan, with internal bleeding and head injuries, reportedly died on the operating table before he was revived. He suffers after-effects from his injuries to this day.

‘A tangerine saved my life’: the coach Bucks Fizz were travelling in after the crash in 1984

Both personally and professionally, the crash shattered Bucks Fizz. With time on her hands while Nolan recovered, Baker took up TV presenting offers that would soon overshadow her work in the band: “In a weird way, professionally, that crash worked to my favour,” she says. And it was crunch time for Aston. “A big part of why I left was when everyone’s still being antagonistic when Mike’s at death’s door and we’re all very badly injured,” she says. “I’d been very unhappy for about a year in the band because of all the friction. It was the third day after the coach crash that I thought, ‘I’ve got to get out of here for my own health and sanity.’”

The contractual litigation that followed Aston’s departure in 1985 would force her to sell her dream home to pay legal bills running into hundreds of thousands of pounds; “I had hardly anything left by about ’91,” she says, and it was only a solo deal and the opening of her own Theatre Arts School which turned her life back around. Bucks Fizz, meanwhile, continued, plucking 21-year-old Shelley Preston from 800 auditionees to replace Aston. But revived fortunes would prove short-lived – “we were looking for an audience that wasn’t actually there,” Baker says – and as the bingo halls called, the band gradually disintegrated. Baker left in 1993, Nolan in 1996, yet Bucks Fizz continually regrouped and reformed with a dizzying array of line-ups, many barely recognisable from the Eurovision glory days. At one point around 2001, Dollar’s David Van Day led a version of Bucks Fizz with no original members at all.

Nolan, G, Baker and Preston reunited in 2004 as The Original Bucks Fizz, but wrangles over rights to the name mean that two versions exist today: G leads the official Bucks Fizz (which he describes as “more of a hobby”) but it’s Baker, Nolan and Aston – who returned to the fold after the band’s appearance together on Living TV’s Pop Goes the Band in 2009 – that fans consider the real deal. Renamed The Fizz, they’ve hit the top 30 with two new albums produced by Stock, Aitken and Waterman legend Mike Stock: 2017’s The F-Z of Pop and last year’s Smoke & Mirrors.

Life in The Fizz remains wracked with drama. In 2018, diagnosed with mouth cancer, Aston underwent a seven-hour skin graft operation to remove part of her tongue: “I haven’t been gigging every week, so it is a bit like having an elastic band around your tongue all the time,” she says. She also caused a stir when she stood as a candidate for the Brexit Party in Kensington in 2019. “It was purely because I thought we were losing sight of democracy and I thought that was a critical turning point for our country,” she explains, unrepentant. “When you see what’s been happening with withholding vaccines, I think it’s proved a point that leaving was a better option and I stand by that.”

Four decades on from the cork popping on the Bucks Fizz phenomenon, how has pop changed? “You can make an average song sound pretty good because of all the technology today,” Aston argues. “The craftsmanship that was developed by songwriters because of the lack of technology meant that through the Seventies and Eighties there was a real level of craftsmanship and I think we’ve lost some of that.”

Indeed, whatever your thoughts on “Making Your Mind Up” there’s no denying its innocent, guile-free appeal, or its hallowed place in British pop’s golden Eighties era. At a time when artful electropop and the New Romantics were on the rise in the UK charts, here was proof that even our Eurovision entries were world-beating masterpieces of the form.

“I have a great fondness for it,” says G, “it’s stood the test of time. British pop around that period, I think we were at the forefront of pop music in the world, and I think it has become part of that.”

“It’s part of me now, it’s part of my DNA,” says Baker. “Look how old we are, we’re getting our pension and yet when the skirts come off the cheer goes up, to this day. I honestly think that in 10 years’ time, if we’re still doing it then, we might be on Zimmer frames but when the skirts come off the cheers go up, every time.”

“The song is quite magical,” says Aston, laughing at the impact those throwaway three minutes had on her life. “It cuts across, it’s a silly song that’s just got something. I think it broke some boundaries and people couldn’t help but kinda like it… It’s amazing how many complete strangers come up to me when I’m shopping, choosing some cereal of something, and they say, are you making your mind up?”

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