The very name alone could strike scorn in the hearts of the staunchest rock critic. They were cotton candy boys with cotton candy hair, and cotton candy tunes. They first appeared as an appendage to the media monster that was Duran Duran in their imperial period, ca. 1983. I remember that my Duran Duran obsessed friend was telling me about this new band that Nick Rhodes of Double Duran had produced with Colin Thurston; Duran’s regular producer. In advance of the mothership recording “Seven + The Ragged Tiger,” Rhodes had somehow found time to nurture this fledgeling New-Ro band called Kajagoogoo. Their singer went by the mononym Limahl. Of course he did!
The band’s debut single was inescapable. “Too Shy” would be known to anyone reading these words 35 years later. It was a megasmash piece of swooning pop fluff from the oh-so-appropriately titled album “White Feathers.” It reached number one in the UK in advance of the Duran mothership. It charted high around the world and even made number five in America; then falling hard for the “New Music” of the “Second British Invasion.”
I never heard more than this single at the time. I was pretty resistant to its charms, apart from that admittedly killer bass line courtesy of Nick Beggs. After hearing it about 600 times as it was in heavy rotation all over MTV from day one, I began to just groove on the bass line and could let the rest of the insubstantial song evaporate out of the speakers. Which it did without much effort.
The next year brought big changes as the band [in America, at least] were now named Kaja, and Limahl was ousted in a coup; leaving bass player Nick Beggs the lead singer. As I did back in the day, I made “middle of the night” MTV tapes whenever I had fresh tape and would then tape around anything good enough to save. All of the “Low Rotation” interesting stuff, could be seen this way, if you had patience. And luck. Imagine my surprise when on one such tape the Kaja video for “Turn Your Back On Me” manifested to my utter shock and awe. As seen below.
Yow! That’s some hot stuff! The gimmicky US version of the music video was fun, too. Run that one right after M+M’s “Black Stations, White Stations” for maximum op art effect. Against all odds, the band had gotten about 500% more ambitious for their phase two period. Beggs was a capable vocalist but his talent for bass exploded with his adoption of the Chapman Stick, the coolest rhythm instrument in that it can also play melody for a neither fish nor fowl sound that has always entranced me. I now badly wanted this album that the MTV video touted, called “Extra Play.” Apparently, it was five cuts from the second UK Kajagoogoo album, “Islands” with a pair of US remixes on the flip side for seven total tracks. Long for an EP but this was the 80s – a time where nothing succeeded like excess!
Except that I never found a copy. I was attending record shows [remember those?] in the mid-90s and I finally came upon the full “Islands” album, where it has sat in my Record Cell ever since. It was not too much longer when I also came across the Kajagoogoo 8″ US laserdisc of the three clips from “White Feathers.” On principle, since I bought any even marginal 8″ music video on laserdisc [there weren’t many].
The three clips on there were typical of their time period, and are a fizzy time capsule of early-mid 80s style influences now. Which is more than I can say for the songs. I mean, what can one say about a song that has the audacity to name itself “Ooh To Be Ah?” I just gave this a spin while brushing my teeth this morning and I can’t say it made much of a musical impression. But the later material with Beggs in the driver’s seat was much more interesting indeed! Far more interesting was this record that I finally saw and bought on my last trip to Atlanta earlier this year!
Kaja: Turn Your Back On Me US 12″ 
- Turn Your Back On Me [flipped disc mix]
- Turn Your Back On Me [dub mix]
These US mixes were by Steve Thompson and Michael Barbiero and represent a much more interesting 12″ mix than what the UK got. The band created a lurching, almost sinister dance-funk here with Beggs doubling on popping funk bass as well as the grinding funk grooves proffered by his Stick. The synths were PPG Wave as favored by Dolby at the time. The sampled percussion breakdowns were fairly innovative here, while the sample flute highlights were the only featherlight thing about this darker, much more muscular sound. This song sounded like the cream of Level 42 [think “Hot Water”] touched with King Crimson at their dancefloor best [think “Sleepless”]. I had been waiting way too long to have this luxuriant 7:00 mix of this dynamic song. The B-side dub mix was a fair to middling attempt at an honest dub of the track. Better than some but you won’t be forgetting Adrian Sherwood.
Nick Beggs has gone on to be something of a favored son for the Stick community. They released some of his solo albums and he’s currently the featured artist for 2018 on the Chapman Stick site. Like anyone who makes the Stick their environment, he’s much more Prog now than his bygone pop era would have suggested. Playing with Steven Wilson, Steve Hackett, and John Paul Jones show that his bleached roots were ignored. Only the power that he brought to the table mattered, and as his leadership turn with Kaja/googoo showed, he was capable of making dark, rich, powerful dance material not terribly removed from where Shriekback were venturing at the same time.
p.s.: Im my haste I forgot to mention that I had planned to write about this last Friday then Pete Shelley suddenly died, so that went out the window. A day or two later, djjedredy @ My Vinyl Dreams coincidentally blogged about this exact same record! And djjedredy posts rips, so if you want to hear this exact mix and B-side, click here.
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If you weren’t going to mention Beggs’ turn toward prog (which began in the early ’90s in the band Iona), I was! He’s a heck of a player. Anyway, I knew Kajagoogoo released an album post-Limahl with Beggs on vocals, but I had never bothered to hear anything from it…until now. That song wasn’t too bad, but that video is certainly cringe-worthy! I can get past that, of course. I had to flush the memory of “If I Was” from my head after all. Anyway, he’s not a bad singer, at least for the style of music played by that band. I *might* seek out more Kajagoogoo (w/ and w/out Limahl), but that’s up in the air. I think I like them well enough at arm’s length without needing to hear more.
Headline of the year. So good it even made me click and read about Kajagoogoo. I can’t believe I’m going to admit this, but I have that 12″ of Too Shy. Aaaaarrrggh!
Look, I’m DONE thinking I have to treat any love for kaja or googoo as a “guilty pleasure”. It’s just not THAT bad!
I owned the Limahl-fronted debut album but didn’t return to it often. Years laterI found some Kaja 12″ singles in the 2/$1 bin…. and was pleasantly surprised. Granted, my expectations were low.
I suppose I always viewed Limahl-less kajagoogoo similar to…say, Nick Heyward-less Haircut 100.
bpdp3 – That seems like just the right metaphor – but I would reverse your criteria!
I was never a fan of the Limahl fronted version of the band. I quite liked a few of the singles with Nick Beggs on vocals such as Big Apple. They quickly faded from the limelight though. I agree that Nick is an excellent bass player.
+1 on the bpdp3’s comments; not all that bad if your expectations are in the lower rungs and its used as background filler when tasking about the house. The Haircut 100 comp is valid as well although I have the majority of Heyward’s solo releases and nary a Limahl solo item in my collection.
Very timely on the Beggs prog/chapman stick comments; I just saw Steve Wilson in mid Nov here in Calgary. He is so amazing to listen to live and seems the consummate pro on stage. Has he commented on his past much in interviews / press getting to ‘here’ from ‘there’? (at work so no googling right now). The hair is still looking good as well.
Hope it is okay to link to my buddy’s blog for pics/review of that show as Beggs is commented on a fair bit in both
I one had a blog (in Russian) where I posted in-depth biographies of the “New Wave” bands – and my Kajagoogoo feature prompted probably the biggest responce (apart from Visage multi-part story). They were actually quite known in Soviet bloc – especially popular in Poland, as for the USSR, they were sometimes mentioned in the official press – who remarked snidely about the habits of fashionable youths who hungrily seeked the latest music from the UK and how in their circles you allegedly were seen as a Neanderthal if you didn’t know Kajagoogoo :) Of course they disappeared in a flash and couldn’t capitalise on their sudden worldwide fame. Actually I think they were gone too quickly – maybe if they persisted for about several years more, they’d get more recognition. Though with THAT name, however shortened… Nah!
As for myself – I’ve read about them for a bit too long so the expectations were very high as I kept seeing words like “synthpop” and “New Romantic” applied. And when I heard “Too Shy” it was nothing like Ultravox or Visage or even early Spandau (and quite like Duran, whom I never liked). It was underwhelming and immensely disappointing. The song is flimsy and hangs on the bass line a bit too much. Their first album also didn’t impress, the songs seemed to lack hooks, being too straghtforward and insubstantial. Also, the tone of Limahl’s voice kind of irritated me, plus he often sounded out of breath somehow – though he was certainly a colourful frontman and getting rid of him was an insane idea. But as the 1980s were the decade of insanity it came to pass. Still, hard to tell if they would’ve had a longer carrier with him – Limahl as a solo performer faded almost similtaneously with the rest, in 1986.
Unfortunately, to this day they are of little interest to me, no matter what line-up. I just don’t find that certain something in their songs, they are generally unmemorable and way too repetetive (“Turn Your Back on Me” is a great 2:30 song – but as a 4:30 one it’s close to aural torture). Nick as a singer is no better to my ears than Limahl – I have time for his singing only in small doses, it’s certainly much stronger, but with next to no variation or nuance. The best one is probably “Big Apple” and that’s about it.
One thing I can say in their defence is that they did great instumentals. As a fan of “New Wave” instrumental music I have all the time in the world for their stuff. “Pump Rooms of Bath” is just wow! Now here 2:30 length is just criminally short! Also interesting that the B-sides for “White Feathers” are head and shoulders above the LP songs. “Animal Instinct”, “Interview Rooms”, “Take Another View” – not bad at all! Sounds like they took time over them, unlike with album songs that are just too plain. Overall, though, just passes me by, I’m afraid.
Vlad – Well, the New Romantic movement was dead and buried just days prior to their debut in 1983. If you’re not a Duran fan, then there’s not much point to Kajagoogoo! You do intrigue me about this instrumental B-sides, though. I may have to sample them online an act accordingly.
I really liked Shouldn’t Do That – their single from 1985 which should have been huge. Also Kajagoogoo (the song) is a guilty pleasure K A J A G O-O! You also omit Ellis Beggs and Howard’s Homelands which I heard on You Tube not long ago. This is where Beggs dabbled in neo-soul and that stick on Big Bubbles, No Troubles is killer!
kelvinhayesglobal – Aha! Well, that’s because until I wrote this researched this post [believe it or not, I sometimes actually do that] I have never heard of Ellis, Beggs + Howard! I must investigate if I can only eke out the necessary time!
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This seems like the moment to confess that I had a bit of a crush on Nick … high competition for Mr. Rhodes, who was also the most visually appealing member of his band! I admit I enjoyed but didn’t really dwell on the baselines for Kajagoogoo but I do recall the video for “Turn Your Back on Me” and being happy that Nick was the lead singer now. Nevertheless, I lost track of Kaja after that and was unaware until today that Nick when on to be king of the Stick!
Kajagoogoo were the fluffy side of New Romantics and for their brief moment did rather well. White Feathers has its moments; Hang On Now and Freyo spring to mind, and I agree the B sides were better than many of the banal (anyone fancy a song about banging saucepans?). It appears the band sacked Limahl becuase his lyrics were just too awful for them to ever be taken seriously. Islands had more depth but for me their best was ‘Crazy Peoples Right To Speak’ which had the production values of the first album with the stronger sound and lyrics of the second but it just fizzled out after the first (good) single flopped so badly they didn’t even bother releasing a second. The remasters they did of the three album a few years ago are well worth searching out as they include all the b sides and most of the extended versions. They also released a very affordable box set last year of the three Kaja albums with Limahls two solo albums and the quality difference is huge (even though one had music written and recorded by Giorgio Moroder).
Richard Anvil – Alas, I waited too long on those Kajagoogoo DLX RMS from 2004. Albums 2 and 3 are a middling two figures and out of my price range. I’ve never heard the first note from “Crazy People’s Right To Speak” and it’s far too costly. So they sacked Limahl for writing the lyrics to a song entitled “Ooh To Be Ah?” Can’t say that I blame them. Plus, his moniker sounds like a tony, yet middlebrow French shopping center.
Actually his real real name is Christopher Hamill and his stage name is an anagram of his surname.
Richard Anvil – I knew that but I still like to rib him on the even more appropriate moniker. He seemed every inch the “Limahl.”
Don’t get me wrong I loved Kaja with or without Limahl. Islands is one of my fave albums period. And I love Nick. But my god, Hang On Now by Kajagoogoo is one of the most gorgeous 80’s songs EVER. I can’t believe you didn’t like it.
I totally agree David-Hang on Now is by far my favourite song by the band,though I also love the 12″ version of Big Apple.
Limahl’s vocal on HON is like liquid caramel and it is quite an unusual pop song to my ears.
Gavin – Okay, okay! Time to revisit and report back with my findings. I get it. Watch this space.
David – Welcome to the comments! I only gave the 8” laserdisc a spin two years ago. Maybe I should re-acquaint myself with it? But I’ll just say that most things next to “Turn Your Back In Me” will end up with the short end of the stick for me.
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