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Weekend Intermission – Whatever happened to The Belle Stars?

Weekend Intermission is our regular feature where we look at an artist or band not from the Nordic countries, just to mix things up a bit.

It is generally, although not universally, agreed that the 1980s was the top decade for popular music to date and when I was doing a little research on that era recently I re-discovered a song I’d forgotten about but which is one that epitomised the spirit, dynamism and songwriting talent of that decade.

In the previous Weekend Intermission I focused on one particular song that was performed by the subject, Kelly Llorenna, and I’ll do it again here.

While ‘Sign of the Times’ wasn’t The Belle Stars’ only hit it is the most memorable for its catchy introduction that immediately sucks you in, powerful verses, melancholically endearing chorus, strong brass parts, dominant percussion and the bravado of an unexpectedly brief two-bar bridge that catches you totally unawares. More than anything though, simply the tune. In an era of great tunes it stood out then and it still does.

It is the perfect pop song.  I know some people, and I am one of them, get a little annoyed that it is often relegated in favour of Prince’s ‘Sign O’ the Times’, a different song altogether that was released a few years later, and which doesn’t bear any sort of comparison.

Having briefly been ‘The Bodysnatchers’, a ska band, they reinvented themselves with the addition of a couple of extra personnel as The Belle Stars, performing (without a name) for the first time on Christmas Day 1980.

The lineup was Sarah-Jane Owen (lead guitar), Stella Barker (acoustic/rhythm guitar), Miranda Joyce (alto saxophone), Clare Hirst (tenor saxophone and keyboards), Judy Parsons (drums), Lesley Shone (bass guitar), and Jennie Matthias (lead singer).

They signed to Stiff Records, also home to Madness and comparisons between the two bands are often made and especially so between Jennie Matthias and Suggs.

They released their debut single, ‘Hiawatha’ in April 1981 but both it and the follow up, ‘Slick Trick’, failed to chart. The group’s third single, ‘Another Latin Love Song’, also flopped at the beginning of 1982 and the members decided on a new course of action; namely releasing cover versions. Their first attempt was a cover of The Dixie Cups 1965 US hit ‘Iko Iko’, which charted at No.35 in the UK.

(In March 1989 ‘Iko Iko’ belatedly reached #14 on the Billboard Top 100 after it was included on the soundtrack of the film Rain Man, starring Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman. The song had been a favourite of Hoffman’s. Jennie Matthias toured the US to promote the song.)

They followed this with Shirley Ellis’ 1965 US No.8/UK No.6 hit ‘The Clapping Song’ which got to #11 in the UK charts. They next recorded ‘Mockingbird’, which had been made famous by Carly Simon in 1974, but this didn’t do so well for them.

But with their confidence back, the girls set about writing for themselves again and in January 1983, they released what would become their signature single, ‘Sign of the Times’, peaking at number three, and a chart success throughout Europe. It was on their debut album, the eponymously named ‘The Belle Stars’, which would eventually make #15 in the UK charts, the same position in the Norwegian charts and #28 in Sweden.

The song’s music video, showing the Belle Stars in dinner jackets as in this Top of the Pops video, was also played frequently by MTV in the United States. The song went on to become the 30th-best selling single of 1983 in the UK.

I’ll slot the video in here. Watch out for the part the saxophones play – the instrument was such a feature of many 80s hits but is rarely heard these days – time for a comeback, songwriters? And how Jennie Matthias uses her incredibly sexy eyes. This video should be on the curriculum at every music school.

They scored four UK Top 40 hits between 1982 and 1983, and other minor hits included ‘Sweet Memory’ (UK #22) and ‘Indian Summer’ (UK #52) later in 1983, but their tenth and final release from the album, ‘The Entertainer’, only just scraped into the very bottom of the UK singles chart at #95. After releasing a new song, ‘80’s Romance’, in early 1984, the band broke up, well before they should have done, and just as Stiff Records was bought by Island Records.

Miranda, Sarah-Jane and Lesley continued The Belle Stars as a three-piece band; Sarah-Jane Owen took over lead vocalist duties although all three members often sang in unison, in the style of Bananarama. They had a US dance floor hit with ‘World Domination’ in 1986. Their song ‘Check In, Check Out’ features on the soundtrack to the Whoopi Goldberg film, The Burglar.

The girls then went their separate ways, some of them forming new or joining groups into the 1990s. In 2019 four previously unreleased tracks from an abandoned second album were released under the title of ‘Turn back the Clock’.

Tracking down what they are doing now hasn’t been an easy task. Jennie Matthias is the most prominent member, referring to herself as ‘Jennie Bellestar Matthias’ and billing herself as an “International singer, Author, Performer, Mentor and Poet.”

After the Belle Stars she went on to fill a variety of roles, such as the duo Dance Like A Mother with her friend Melissa Ritter, which signed to Virgin and released two singles and  Security One, which was formed in Miami where Jennie worked for several years organising fashion shows in a nightclub.

In 1995/1996 Jennie formed the ska-punk band Big 5 with ex-Bad Manners bassist Nick Welsh.  Together they wrote and recorded three albums and performed live as a band.

She has been involved with many non-musical projects including a vintage clothing shop in the West End of London and latterly has worked in the charity sector, running a charity shop in Islington, North London.

In 2019 she authored her first book – ‘Surviving the Storm; how to embrace your pain and grow through adversity’, “a self help book that touches on my life and how I got myself out of certain predicaments. It is aimed at anyone seeking positive change within their lives.”

It is intended particularly to help those who have gone through childhood trauma. And she did, in a highly distressing way that I won’t go into but you can discover it here (and I recommend you do).

And, on the lighter side, she’s still performing occasionally around London and at festivals.

All I can discover about Sarah-Jane Owen is that she later became a yoga teacher and ‘spiritual healer’, now living in a remote mountain community in southern California where she still plays music. Well she always did have a California Girl look about her.

Stella Barker did seem to continue with a music career, there is a solo ska song on YouTube by her dating to 2009 called ‘Meet me there’ but that’s all I can ascertain.

Miranda Joyce appears to have become a (self-taught) make-up artist from the mid 1980s.

Clare Hirst, as I mentioned earlier, is still very much a musician, performing in the Clare Hirst Quartet, and Deppa-Hirst band and having played with artists as diverse as David Bowie, The Communards, Mica Paris, Maxi Priest and Hazel O’Connor.

Clare Hirst has recently played the saxophone part on Hazel O’Connor’s ‘Will you’ in live shows (I was lucky enough to catch it in 2019); surely the greatest sax solo piece in any song, ever (and I am including ‘Baker Street’).

Judy Parsons I’m afraid I can’t track down at all. I did discover that a Lesley Shone runs a music PR business in London and I’m wondering if she’s a wandering Belle Star?

So, that’s what happened to them, or as far as I can ascertain anyway.

The question is what would have happened if they’d had the success, and chart hits, that their talents deserved. They had it all – musical ability, togetherness, looks and that joie de vivre that epitomised so many of the 1980s bands and artists.

But regrettably it was, and is, a fickle business in which there will always be casualties. The Belle Stars decidedly didn’t deserve that fate.

Postscript, January 2024. There have been numerous comments made on this article, which are useful for checking on the current whereabouts and activities of some of the members. See below.

11 Responses

  1. Thanks. I specifically wanted news on the Belle Stars after they split up and this was the only link I clicked that actually had that information.

    Great to hear what the others are doing ( I know about Jennie Belle Star).

    I wish they had been able to stay together as a ska band.

  2. Was just watching Top of the Pops from 1983. They were on and I wondered what had happened to them. Very interesting reading, thanks for the info.

  3. I’m acquainted with Sara-Jane Owens and I JUST found out tonight that she was a member of The Bodysnatchers and The Belle Stars. It was amazing to hear the she was at the forefront the rise of “Girl Bands”. So, tonight I began looking up things on-line about them and came across your blog.

    Sara-Jane is now living in Pine Mountain Club, California.
    She plays various percussion instruments with a Celtic music group up here (and I hear she has “picked up” the guitar again).

  4. Judy Parsons the drummer was in THE MISTAKES with me and 3 others before she joined THE Bodysnatchers /Bellestars she’s a top notch scientist when we last heard of her few years ago she was a science Don or lecturer I think at Edinburugh University .. shes great person serious and good fun also wrote some great songs when she was with THE MISTAKESX
    from Georgina Clarke bass player of THE MISTAKESX [email protected]

  5. Thanks Georgina. That’s really interesting. Many of the musicians of previous eras now in academia it seems, another example being Martha Ladly of Martha & the Muffins.

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