Siobhan Fahey – Bitter Pill
While I’m obviously a huge fan of gigantic productions – the greatest of which is of course Left to My Own Devices as performed by Pet Shop Boys and produced by the master of pop epic-ness, Trevor Horn – sometimes I fancy something rough and just a little bit dirty for a quick three minute affair, the kind of tune that makes me want to wash my hands after listening to it.
This urge for a cheap thrill was probably awakened back in 1981 via Soft Cell’s Sex Dwarf. As a nine year old, I didn’t understand the song at all and was probably, as a Bucks Fizz fan, a little afraid of it. But all those squelchy electronic sounds were very alluring, and they somehow seemed to travel right through me, making me feel a little odd, a little disturbed, and undoubtedly a little excited. Very occasionally a record will come along that reminds me of that initial discovery, and the one that does it most is probably Bitter Pill by Siobhan Fahey.
Regular readers of Into the Popvoid will know that all things Bananarama related are cherished here, and if I have a particular soft spot for Siobhan it’s because she’s consistently been a really brilliant, gobby pop star: from the ‘Ram’s endearingly shambolic dungaree years via their later glamour period right through to the mascara drenched dark glory of Shakespears Sister. But by the turn of the century it had all gone a bit quiet on the Fahey front, largely due to the label wrangles which had seen the third Shakespears Sister album – essentially a solo project following the departure of Marcella Detroit – shelved. So imagine my surprise when one day at work in 2002, something I’d never ever seen, let alone envisioned, turned up – a Siobhan Fahey solo single! Whatever was playing in-store – probably Blazin’ Squad, given the year – was soon whipped off in favour of Bitter Pill, and by god it sounded good. Lovely, sparse, dirty electronica, and for the first time Siobhan’s voice firmly in control – no Keren, no Sara, no Marcella, no multi-tracking. What’s revealed isn’t exactly surprising – shades of Patti Smith and Lene Lovich – but it’s so far from Love in the First Degree as to be almost a different person entirely. But the reason I love Bitter Pill so much is that it gave me the exact same feelings – maybe urges is a better word – that Sex Dwarf did back in 1981 – it’s amazing what a driving synthesiser line can do, isn’t it?
There are so few components in this song – something it has in common with Kylie’s Can’t Get You Out of My Head – that when a new part is introduced, like the panting at 2:19 or the yelped “walk on” at 3:04, it becomes a genuinely thrilling pop moment, every bit the equal of a massive orchestral flourish. A goosebump is a goosebump, after all.
Released on the tiny God Made Me Hardcore label, Bitter Pill was never going to be a hit, but it’s had a rather curious life in the years since it first came out. In 2005, on the strange Island of Doctor Moreau that was the Pussycat Dolls HQ, someone decided that it was worth welding the verse and production of Bitter Pill onto the chorus of Donna Summer’s Hot Stuff. Oh god it’s a terrible chimera – just awful – but presumably it means that the song has now at least made Siobhan a few bob.
But wait! Bitter Pill wasn’t swallowed just yet – it showed up once again when Siobhan reactivated the Shakespears Sister brand for 2009’s Songs from the Red Room. The new version was, to its credit, very jangly – but I do prefer the Soft Cell approach as opposed to the Velvet Underground one it got here. Still, all this reworking raises the tantalising possibility that Bitter Pill might yet have its day. Hooray!
Entered chart: did not chart
Who could sing this today and have a hit? Seriously, give this to any lady hitmaker with something of the night about them and you’ve got a smash.