Sunday, July 17, 2011

Betty Boo - Boomania

Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia is one of the largest universities in the Tidewater area and one of the top institutions of higher learning in the state. It boasts superb facilities, nationally ranked athletic teams, a decent financial endowment and a loyal alumni fanbase. The only knock I have against the place is that, in terms of nightlife and activities, it's dull as dishwater.

I got to know ODU when I lived in nearby Virginia Beach about 20 years ago. My brother was a student there, and on occasion I used to head down into Norfolk to hang out with him. But when I say "hang out", I use that term loosely - in regards to decent bars/clubs/social amenities in close proximity to the ODU campus, the area was sorely lacking. Back then, there were three locales of any distinction close to the school - the 4400 Campus Club and another bar (whose name currently escapes me [addendum - was just informed that the other bar was called Friar Tuck's]) directly across the street from the main quad, and further up Hampton Boulevard, the King's Head, which showcased decent bands from time to time. That was it. Hell, even my alma mater, Navy, had a PUMPING nightlife just outside its gates, with the bars of downtown Annapolis a mere stagger away. The lameness of the area around ODU made Annapolis look like Las Vegas, comparatively.

Still, the ODU area had its attractions - mainly, the college girls who drank there most evenings. The 4400 Club also used to host a great DJ one night a week; the guy would play some pretty decent cuts - everything from Ministry, Nine Inch Nails and the Screaming Blue Messiahs to Madonna and the Cure. The guy also had little contests he ran during his set - trivia questions and "Name That Tune" sort of stuff. It was pretty enjoyable, and I usually ended up winning something on those evenings (due to my profound musical knowledge - ha ha), so I began making a point of going to the 4400 Club on nights this DJ worked,

One night, he was having a "Name That Tune" competition with random CD giveaways as prizes. He put the first song on, which I instantly recognized as Suidical Tendencies' "I Shot The Devil". My prize was a mixtape of various obscure songs and remixes the DJ had put together (it was actually pretty good - I still have it, all these years later) and a CD, Betty Boo's Boomania.

I listened to the Betty Boo CD the next afternoon, and initially I was convinced that the DJ was taking the mickey out of his audience (and me) by having this disc as a "prize". Englishwoman Betty Boo (real name: Alison Clarkson) was an eighteen-year-old sound engineering student in London in 1988 when she hooked up with a band of female rappers called the She Rockers. The group busked around London, and one day during one of their impromptu performances at a McDonald's in the city, were noticed by, of all people, Public Enemy's Professor Griff.  Professor Griff produced the group's first single, "Give It A Rest".

He also convinced Betty Boo to leave the group, as it appeared to be going nowhere; after little more than a year with the She Rockers, Boo went solo.

Betty's solo break came mere months later, when she guested on The Beatmaster's hit single "Hey DJ! (I Can't Dance to that Music You're Playing)", which went to #7 in the UK in late 1989.

She quickly followed up with a debut single of her own, "Doin' The Do", in early 1990. The song also went to #7 UK and topped the dance charts in the US. She spent the spring and summer of that year writing and recording songs in her bedroom for her first full-length release, which turned out to be Boomania. The album went to #4 in the UK, spawned two more UK chart hits ("Where Are You Baby?" and "24 Hours"), and at the BRIT Awards the next year (the British equivalent of the Grammys), it helped her earn the title of "Best British Breakthrough Artist". She was still only 20 years old.

The majority of the songs on Boomania are a strange hybrid of dance music and pop-rap, sort of a slightly 'harder', less trippy-dippy version of the stuff that Deee-Lite (whose album World Clique and lead single "Groove Is In The Heart" were big US/UK hits) was putting out during the same time period (Deee-Lite's album was released two months earlier, in August 1990). A lot of Boo's music sounds like the template the Spice Girls used to "create" their hateful pop-rap-dance sound ten years later - not a good thing (I'm sorry, but the British can't do rap to save their lives). Another analogy (I've got a million of 'em tonight) - Betty Boo was like Peaches with a lot less sass and a lot more accent. Which is why after that first listen, I thought the DJ gave out this disc as a joke.

However, once I delved deeper into the album, I found some gold there, once you got away from her formulaic "hits". "Valentine's Day" is an unheralded but superb tune, with Boo's voice exploring a more R&B direction. But the best song on the album in my opinion is "Shame", with Boo's excellent vocals backed by a nagging, incessant bass 'n' drum rhythm that drives the dancable groove along:

"Shame" should have been a huge club hit, but I don't think it even made the charts.

Betty Boo's fall was just as rapid as her rise. She began a world tour on Boomania, but during a concert in Australia in 1991, the audience discovered her lip syncing over taped vocals, and mass derision ensued. She cancelled the rest of the tour and stayed quiet for the rest of the year. Betty also left Rhythm King for Warner Music Group in 1991, and the next year Warner released
her sophomore LP, Grrr! It's Betty Boo. The album charted in the UK, but nowhere near the heights of her first album. In 1993, she left Warner and took time away from music to care for her terminally ill mother for the next several years; this effectively ended her singing career. In the past fifteen years or so, Betty Boo regrouped, and has carved out a niche for herself as a songwriter, writing tunes for British teen pop groups and the like.

As for the "scene" around the Old Dominion campus, the block containing the 4400 Campus Club was completely demolished at the end of the '90s. The area is now the site of the Ted Constant Convocation Center, the university's multi-purpose arena. I have no idea where the students go to hang out now - I guess they have to drive into the downtown area. Oh well.

Anyway, here, for your listening pleasure, is Betty Boo's Boomania, released in October 1990 by Rhythm King, and distributed by Sire Records. Have a listen to the cuts I mentioned above, and as always, let me know what you think:

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