Something very strange happened to The Fun Boy Three in the summer of 1982. The first hint of it came when they turned up for a brief cameo, 1:52 into this Madness video:
Yes, that’s pop’s great stoneface, Terry Hall, laughing his head off. And amazingly, this wasn’t a one-off! All of a sudden, Terry and his bandmates were smiling in photos. Consider, for example, this absolute shocker of a sleeve image for the Japanese release of “Summertime”:
Um, anyway… we’ve got some music to digest as well. And another cover version – this time going all the back to 1934 and George Gershwin‘s “folk opera”, Porgy and Bess. Not that long ago I suggested that Robert Burns‘ adaptation of “Auld Lang Syne” may be the biggest hit song of all time. But when it comes to songs that are still in copyright, “Summertime” really is the biggest hit of all time, at least in terms of the sheer number of recorded versions out there. Of course, it helps that there are plenty of recorded versions of Porgy and Bess, but there are also literally thousands upon thousands of standalone covers of “Summertime”. Its lyrical and musical evocation of a hot, lazy summer has proven irresistible to performers from all genres. It’s not exactly an obvious match for The Fun Boy Three, though, so why did they do it? According to Terry Hall… “because Nicky liked it and came up with a nice classical arrangement for it”.
Nicky? Aha, yes… Big changes were afoot for The Fun Boy Three. The first album’s minimal, percussion-based arrangements were partly born out of necessity. Of the three members, only Lynval Golding actually played an instrument, and at that stage they didn’t want to bring in a lot of session musicians. But for the second album they were striking out in a new direction, and the first step was to recruit… well, someone who knew what they were doing, basically. That someone was keyboard player, arranger, and new FB3 musical director Nicky Holland, formerly of The Ravishing Beauties with Virginia Astley. And that “classical arrangement” meant that for the first time, The Fun Boy Three were supported by a full band. Holland (keyboards and backing vocals) and Annie Whitehead (trombone) would go on to become part of the backing group for FB3’s second and final abum, while the single also benefitted from the talents of Caroline Verney (cello), Nick Parker (violin) and Frances Lynch (backing vocals).
I suspect Holland is the unsung hero of The Fun Boy Three, phase two, but I don’t think she did them any favours by choosing “Summertime” as a song to cover. The reviews dismissed it as a throwaway (and worse), and to be honest, it is a bit dull. I mean, it’s pleasant enough – it would take a real effort to go badly wrong with “Summertime” – but it feels like a bit of a try-out. Because, well, it is.
The B-side is a bit bonkers in its instrumentation, but arguably a stronger track – and certainly a better representation of The Fun Boy Three as a group. A year on from “Ghost Town”, “Summer Of ’82” finds FB3 surveying the social landscape again, and finding that “hatred’s becoming an annual event”, while also taking a pop at the well-to-do for their disregard for the less-well-to-do. There’s no extended version of “Summer Of ’82”, so just three single tracks this time:
“Summertime” made the lower end of the top 20, as was becoming customary for FB3 singles, and really it deserved no more. A look at the chart for the week that “Summertime” peaked at number 18 reveals many of the acts that Terry, Lynval and Nev could consider their peers – Madness of course, but also Dexys Midnight Runners (sitting proudly at number one with “Come On Eileen”, and soon to do the same in the USA), Bananarama, fellow ska-scenesters Bad Manners, and The Bodysnatchers spin-off The Belle Stars – all of them enjoying bigger hits than FB3 were.
“Summertime” got a more spirited rendition when the augmented group played it in concert for The Old Grey Whistle Test in the spring of ’83, in a medley with previous B-side “The Alibi”:
As an aside, FB3 weren’t the only high-quality hitmaking group of the era to release a disappointing and moderately-performing cover of a song from Porgy & Bess. This track from The Age Of Consent, with the coda lopped off, would become Bronski Beat‘s christmas single for 1984:
Next time: Pop and politics. That old chestnut.