Hooks ‘N’ You: Voice of the Beehive, “Sex & Misery”
I can still remember stumbling upon the CD for Voice of the Beehive’s Let It Bee for the first time. I guess you could argue that it stood out because, comparatively speaking, there just aren’t that many artists filed under “V” to catch your eye, but, no, I’m pretty sure it was the combination of the bluish tint of the cover photo and the glistening lips of the two really cute girls in the band. I mean, the blonde was blowing me a kiss, for God’s sake! How can you forget that? Granted, it wasn’t until the group started to score airplay on “120 Minutes” that I realized that they were more than just looks, but it would be a lie to suggest that the looks of Tracey Bryn and Missy Belland – they’re sisters, you know – weren’t directly responsible for bringing me into their orbit for the first time.
Although they scored some college radio hits in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Voice of the Beehive were never as huge in the States as they were in the UK. Maybe it’s because they had a slightly kitschy look about them (the Brits love a gimmick), or maybe it was their vaguely retro, harmony-laden sound, but I’ve always figured it was something to do with the fact that they had two former members of Madness – Woody and Bedders – in their line-up. Whatever the reason, they ended up with two top-20 hits (“Don’t Call Me Baby” and “Monsters and Angels“), had three more enter the lower half of the Top 40, and even made it to #12 in Australia with their fun cover of The Partridge Family’s “I Think I Love You.”
Unfortunately, after the requisite support for 1991′s Honey Lingers, the band went into stealth mode…and stayed there for half a decade!
When the third Voice of the Beehive album, Sex & Misery, emerged in 1995, a fair amount had changed. For one, the band had shifted from London Records over to the Warner Brothers subsidiary label, Discovery Records. More importantly, though, the sisters were now doing it for themselves, as it were. Bedders had been gone for awhile (he came quick and didn’t stay long), but now so was Woody; also MIA were Mike Jones and Martin Brett, who’d also been stalwarts within the group. Tracey and Missy now had a new songwriting collaborator: keyboardist Peter John Vettese, who also produced and arranged the album. Vettese had some impressive pop credits to his name, having contributed keys to The Adventures’ Sea of Love, The Bee Gees’ One, Simple Minds’ Real Life, and a trio of Jethro Tull albums (The Broadsword and the Beast, Under Wraps, and Rock Island), but was he a good fit for the sensibilities of the Belland sisters?
Actually, he didn’t do too badly…though, with that said, it’s easy to understand why fans of Voice of the Beehive’s earlier work might’ve dismissed Sex & Misery as being too polished for its own good. Yes, to use one of my favorite expressions, there are moments where the material is produced to within an inch of its life, but let’s keep things in perspective, shall we? This was 1995, after all. Warner Brothers was clearly looking for a hit from the band…and they really should’ve had one with “Scary Kisses,” frankly, but it stalled at #77 on the charts. The problem with the record, one presumes, is that it was too smooth for the college-rock crowd who’d previously embraced the group (“Scary Kisses” didn’t even earn a placing on the Modern Rock charts), but its fate was truly sealed when it was insufficiently pushed to the mainstream audiences who probably would’ve eaten it up if they’d only gotten more exposure to it. More depressingly, even the UK wasn’t biting this time around. No less than four singles were released from the record, and the only one of the bunch to chart – “Angel Come Down” – only crawled to #103 before vanishing forever.
Listening to Sex & Misery now with the 37-year-old ears of a husband and father (as opposed to using the very single ears that I was wearing when I was 25), the album might not be on the level of the two records that preceded it, but it’s definitely a more mature work. I guess that’s a backhanded compliment of sorts, since what I mean by that is that it’s less quirky and more mainstream, but, y’know, the older you get, the more you find yourself thinking, “That’s good, but it’s a little rough around the edges.” You definitely won’t say that while you’re listening to “Angel Come Down,” and that’s not such a bad thing, really; tracks like “Heavenly” and “Moonblind” spotlight the wonderful harmonies of Tracey and Missy with sparkling instrumentation behind them. One of my personal favorites is “Blue in Paradise,” a collaboration with Andy Partridge (which you’ll know the moment you hear the chorus) that’s mostly mellow until the 2-minute mark, lunges into bombast at the 2-minute mark, then comfortably eases back into the mellow once more. If I had to pick the great lost hit from this record, though, I’d go with the darkly poppy “Playing House,” which is probably the album’s only full-fledged rock-out. Seriously, I can’t believe no-one pushed this as a single. It fucking rocks.
Alas, there’s been no further work from Voice of the Beehive since this record. The old gang got back together a few years ago and did some reunion shows, but for the most part, Tracey and Missy have been living in that strange world known as domesticity…or their version of it, anyway…and enjoying it quite well. I dropped the band an E-mail through their MySpace page, however, and Tracey was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about the group’s origins, the Sex & Misery era, and whether we’ll ever see or hear anything else from Voice of the Beehive again.
I did not know until today, while doing the research for these questions, that your and Missy’s dad was a member of the Four Preps. So were you two gifted from birth with the harmonizing gene, or did it take a bit of work to hone it?
Yep, my dad was in the Four Preps when we were kids. Harmony came really naturally to us. I guess we inherited it. But there is always work required for things like singing on key and singing properly, so you don’t lose your voice. But, definitely, there was always music around. My dad used to take us to Tower Records on Sunset Blvd. every other weekend and let us get a record. Missy used to get the Ohio Players and Black Cherry, and I would get Judy Garland and George Gershwin. Go figure.
How did it come to pass that you two ended up with former members of Madness as part of the band? And, for that matter (since it happened at about the same time), how did you two end up on Bill Drummond’s The Man album?
Our manager heard that Bedders and Woody were looking for some projects after Madness broke up, just something to keep them fresh while they decided what to pursue next. He asked if we’d be interested in working with them on the single until we could find permanent members, and we couldn’t have said “yes” fast enough. Bill Drummond was also a good friend of our manager’s and wanted some very “girlie” voices on his record. I had no idea who he was, but when I heard The Man and talked to him, I realized he was hugely unconventional and I could learn a lot from him. We ended up being quite good friends. Bill, Zodiac, and I spent many hours in pubs brainstorming crazy ideas for projects. There’s a whole chapter on it in Zodiac’s book, Bad Wisdom. Zed’s paragraphs are fictional and really funny, but Bill’s are true. Those were some of my favorite times in London.
The two albums Voice of the Beehive did for London Records – Let It Bee and Honey Lingers – got play on college radio in the States, but they were legitimate mainstream successes in the UK. What was it that caught their attention more than America’s? The vaguely retro look, their appreciation for classic pop music, or a bit of both…?
The Brits just have better taste in everything.
How on earth did you come to collaborate with the legendary Zodiac Mindwarp on “There’s a Barbarian in the Back of My Car”? However it happened, it must’ve been a pretty successful collab, since you worked with him again on “Love Locked Inside,” on Sex & Misery.
Zodiac Mindwarp became my closest friend in London. Unlikely, I know. Again, we had the same manager and would see each other in the office a lot. He called me in the middle of the night playing “Just a City,” and we talked until the morning. He asked me for a drink, and everyone was saying, “He’s very crazy and dangerous. You’ll be sorry.” That night, we walked all through London and ended up back at his place watching vintage Disney cartoons. He never tried anything more than holding my hand when we crossed a street. I adored him immediately and wrote “I Say Nothing” about the experience. When he figured out it was about him, he took the single and buried in a church courtyard where we’d go to read. (“There is a place somewhere, sometimes you’ll find me there.“) He watered it with holy water and said a little prayer for it to bring me success. That’s the guy people were telling me was an asshole. He has his dark side, no doubt, but he’s never turned it on me in the 22 years we have been friends. Leaving him was the hardest part of coming back to the United States. He’s a great friend and was absolutely a muse to me. One time he called the office and said, “Tell Tracey that Zed says, ‘Adonis Blue.’” I got the message and, even though I didn’t know what Adonis Blue was, the words inspired me so much that the song was written that night. That’s how our relationship worked.
Speaking of Sex & Misery, it appeared a considerable length of time after Honey Lingers…five years…on a completely different label and with a new line-up. To get a long answer out of a short question, I’ll just ask the obvious: what happened?
Record company bullshit politics. They always got in the way of our band. I think it was because people had such commercial hopes for us that, when we didn’t break hugely worldwide, they panicked about making their money back and didn’t want to release anything that didn’t sound like a guaranteed #1 hit. So they took forever to make the records and, by then, the momentum was lost.
Do you have any anecdotes from the recording session for Sex & Misery that really stand out?
Sex and Misery was one of the hardest recordings we ever did. We were really homesick. We missed the boys, who had to get other jobs because our tiny new record deal didn’t allow us to keep them on the payroll. I had friends that were dropping like flies from AIDS and Missy had just had a horrific break up. We didn’t know who we were musically. But, having said that, I like the record a lot.
How did the co-write with Andy Partridge on “Blue in Paradise” come to pass?
I need to say for the record that, along with Morrissey, I think Andy Partridge is the most brilliant wordsmith I’ve ever come to know. I still absolutely am knocked out by his turn of phrase and intelligent but playful style of songwriting. I was asked if I wanted to collaborate with him and I was thrilled, and then I went into a total panic. I called my sister from the train station and said, “I can’t do this. What the hell do I have to offer to a collaboration with Andy friggin’ Partridge!!??” She was really smart. She said, “Okay, I’ll go”. And it made me realized there was no way I could miss this. So I had one of those miniature brandies on the train, and I’m sure I reeked of alcohol when he opened the door that morning. He greeted me really warmly and instantly put me at ease. Then, when I was standing in the family kitchen talking to him, I felt this tiny little hand slip into mine, and it turned out to be his little boy, Harry. I was so touched by how immediately loving he was that I realized this was a really lucky day, so I should just relax and learn. It was one of the best days of my life and, needless to say, the song is very special to me. I can’t believe I share writing credit on something with Andy Partridge.
What are your thoughts about the album today, as far as how it holds up?
I love “Love Locked Inside,” “I’m Still In Love,” and “Angel Come Down.” I couldn’t tell you where “New Day” came from, because it is the opposite of the sarcastic and cynical edge I would write with. Little Miss Positive Outlook…yuck. I always skip over it. Put it this way: I really like Sex and Misery. I think it has a lot to say, but as far as a Voice of the Beehive recording, without Mike Jones’s guitar, Martin’s bass and Woody’s drumming, it’s not a real Beehive record. I like it as a work of music by Missy, Pete Vettesee and myself, but not as a Voice of the Beehive piece. The innocence was lost and the joy and exuberance that you heard (and hopefully felt) in songs like “I Say Nothing” was now replaced with a kind of resignation that I felt as a songwriter. Even my other collaboration with Zodiac was a really really sad song. He gave me the music that he had been working on, and I just played it non-stop on my headphones walking through rainy London, knowing it was coming to an end. It was such a different mood from the smart-ass defiant girl that sang “Barbarian in the Back of My Car.”
Were you disappointed that it didn’t manage to capture a larger audience, or did you go into it with certain expectations, given how much music had changed since your last record?
If that record had hit and become huge, I would have felt such little connection to it. Without the family of the five of us, I wasn’t interested in success. If people wanted that kind of big sound and polished style, I don’t think they would have appreciated our early “rough around the edges” style. Having said that, I am so grateful to the fans that appreciate all three CD’s for what they were individually.
What’s been going on with you and Missy since Sex & Misery? Why did you guys call it quits after that record, and would it be a pipe dream to hope that we might see another VOTB album in the future? I know you’ve done a few gigs since then, at least.
The story of the band’s end is vague. It just naturally came to a close. Missy and I live in Laguna Beach, where she is a local artist (check our her website, Made In Heaven By Missy), and I am an art teacher and at college getting my teaching credentials. Missy just had a baby, Glory Vivienne (the Vivienne is for the great Vivienne Westwood), and I have been with my delicious man, Mark, for seven years. We still talk to the boys all the time (mainly Mike and Martin), and I still have midnight conversations with Zodiac Mindwarp…but now it’s online! My sister and I live next door to each other and we always give her daughter, Glory (“Glow”) free concerts. I will never rule out Voice of the Beehive gigs, but both of us are pretty happy and fulfilled, and it seems like lifetimes ago. I’d almost rather work towards my future than go back to the past, but I’ve learned to never say never.
Tracey and Missy today (more or less)