The British Jackson 5…..The Nolans

If it’s one think that the Beach Boys have taught us it is don’t form a band with members of your own family or, if you do at least don’t have an abusive father in charge and don’t become so famous that money becomes a serious issue.

Its rather ironic that the wholesome surf loving family became one of the most fucked up sagas ever in the history of music the Beach Boys still make Fleetwood Mac look like the Osmonds (strangely enough the exception to the rule I am outlining here).

So back to my original hypotheses, don’t form a family band. That advice is too late for the Jackson 5. The band that put Gary Indiana on the map had a group of phenomenally talented singers/musicians and one genuine superstar but they also had their abusive father Joe who allegedly had a detrimental effect on their collective mental health. It’s debatable whether without the likes of Murray Wilson or Joe Jackson the brothers would have achieved the same level of success. There’s a dilemma, be unknown and happy or famous and fucked up, most of us assume being famous is great unfortunately when we discover it’s not all it’s cracked up to be its too late and there are lots of expensive distractions to help us through the pain.

But we had our own band of brothers, or rather sisters.

The Nolans, initially the Nolan Sisters, were omnipresent throughout the 70s and into the 80s. Like the Jacksons there were a lot of them and they just kept on coming, like the Jacksons, and the Beach Boys, they had an abusive patriarch and eventually they just couldn’t get along and split into various bickering factions.

The differences between the two groups mirrored the difference between 70’s Britain and America.The Jacksons were black and funky, they played the chitlin circuit where they honed a tight musical act which translated into some great records. The Nolan’s were white and gauche, they played working mens clubs and variety shows, and while they toured with Frank Sinatra somehow they never made millions. They made records which were poppy and occasionally just about ok.

For most of the 70’s The Nolans floundered with terrible clothes and hairstyles. To some extent this is why we liked them they looked like a typical teenage girl at her birthday party. As a teenager myself I struggled to differentiate between the various sisters, there were blond ones and dark haired ones and some were older than the others. To be fair if you take Tito’s guitar away I would struggle to differentiate most of the Jackson 5 though. After a while however they began to take shape in my mind aided by the fact that they were women. There was Anne the oldest, Linda the blondest, Maureen, the most attractive one and Bernie who was clearly the feistiest. To this day I would struggle to identify Denise but soon the sisters were joined by Coleen who was by far the youngest.

The family was originally from Ireland, in fact Coleen was the only one born in Blackpool where the family had migrated. The family were steeped in the Irish showbiz tradition and ideally placed to crack the northern club circuit. Originally both parents were part of the act. The family harmony was a facade though. Father Tommy Nolan was apparently violent towards his wife and the young Coleen. Worst of all, after his death Anne alleged in her autobiography that her father had sexually abused her between the ages of 11 and 15.

Although they seemed to be almost permanently on peak time TV for most of the decade it’s didn’t mean they shifted a lot of records. In fact from what I’ve seen in interviews the sisters themselves are quite disparaging about their own careers. They were loved by the BBC who wanted them on any variety show going and insisted on dressing them in a variety of horrendous badly fitting outfits for performances. Things improved when The Nolans realised the BBC where charging them for these costumes and decided it was time to dress themselves.

The group eventually petered out as various members diversified into acting and musical theatre. Things turned sour after a reformation tour when Anne and Denise were excluded from the line up resulting in the sort of fallings out that only families can do really well. The sisters were also plagued with health problems with Linda, Anne and Bernie all being diagnosed with breast cancer which finally took Bernie’s life in 2013.

Just like the Jackson’s had the car crash that was Michael it was Coleen who seemed to epitomise the hollow success of showbiz. Here was a woman who had been singing and dancing almost since she could walk. She had lived through the good times and bad times and at the age of 14 had been groped on TV by Jimmy Saville. She has since made a full time career of being a TV presenter and being the sort of celebrity who goes on celebrity TV shows. She has been on Big Brother twice and both times seems to have sucked all the turgid air out of the house, she’s not a happy woman.

And to some extent that is the entire appeal of The Nolans. They used to be the girls next door and now they are the middle aged women next door soon they will be the grandmothers next door. The Nolans have had similar lives to ourselves, bad marriages, illness, family feuds and bereavement, and they have just kept on going. I saw a clip of them on YouTube performing on ‘Loose Women’ (where else). Bernie was still with them and they just seemed to be having a great time in the way that middle aged women can when they’ve worked out that life is pretty shit so you’ve got to enjoy the good bits when they appear. It was strangely moving, at one point I felt the stirrings of a tear.

The song they performed was ‘I’m in the Mood for Dancing’ the more I hear it the more apparent it becomes that this is not exactly ‘Visions of Johanna’ but it works in a mumsy hen night sort of way and it is the song that will be forever their signature tune.

 

The Nolans were on a roll when this was released and were achieving a slightly ironic fan club with the rock set, they even got to perform with Motorhead. And so, in 1980, sick of the white noise of post punk I declared myself a Nolans fan. The turning point was this single which my friends Al and Clare bought me for my birthday. To be honest I would still rather listen to it than The Pop Group or early Scritti Politi .

Or maybe not!

Happy Easter ,

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