'We were all crying as Jay recorded a song the day she found out she had cancer'
Former Bucks Fizz stars Cheryl Baker, Jay Aston and Mike Nolan are full of festive cheer following the re-release of their Christmas album. The 80s pop stars tell Lucy Mapstone about the emotional impact of Aston's shock diagnosis, their plans for the future and why they're still a success nearly 40 years after winning Eurovision
It's fair to say The Fizz - the group comprised of former Bucks Fizz stars Cheryl Baker, Mike Nolan and Jay Aston - have had a difficult 18 months. For a group with such a chequered history (a near-fatal coach crash, numerous line-up changes, in-fighting and even a legal conflict over the band's name with original band member Bobby G, to name just a handful of their more difficult moments), what the trio have dealt with most recently has undoubtedly been one of their most challenging battles yet.
When Aston (58) was diagnosed with mouth cancer in June last year before undergoing a gruelling operation where a large portion of her tongue was removed and replaced with part of her leg, nobody knew if she would ever sing again.
With her own and the pop group's future both hanging in the balance, it was an undeniably tricky time.
Full of determination, however, Aston got herself straight into the recording studio to sing her parts on their Christmas album, as well as the forthcoming new record.
"When Jay was diagnosed, we literally just had to throw her in the studio," Baker explains.
"We had no time to think about what was going on because we had to get all of Jay's vocals down before she had the operation, because nobody knew what was going to happen after.
"So she went in first of all and did all of her bits, all the harmonies that she could do and everything, and then Mike and I went in afterwards."
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The group worked simultaneously on their first Christmas album - the Mike Stock-produced Christmas With The Fizz, released quietly last year - and their upcoming fourth LP Smoke & Mirrors, which will drop in 2020.
"The Christmas album and the one that's coming up, which we've actually now been recording for over 18 months because of my situation... they are both very emotional for me every time I hear them," Aston admits.
"They take me straight back to the point where I wasn't entirely sure I was going to see Christmas. They are quite poignant for me."
For Baker and Nolan, both 65, there is a song by Aston on the unreleased album that particularly resonates.
"There's a song Jay recorded the day she was told her condition had developed into cancer," Baker says.
"The song could be taken as someone singing to their partner, or it could be someone who has lost somebody, or someone who is getting married or even a love song.
"It was so moving, and when Jay was singing it, she started crying, and we were all in the studio crying watching her. It was the most emotional thing, and she did the most fantastic job of it.
"It's a great song and I'm really looking forward to hearing the response from fans. Every time I hear it, it reminds me of that day."
Aston is now fully immersed in the band's workload again, having recently re-released their Christmas album to give it another push, and as they prepare to release their new album and go out on tour next year.
"I went back to work relatively quickly, after about three months, but it was tough," Aston says.
"I mean, I've lost nearly 40% of my tongue and it was replaced by a bit of my leg, so it's a bit like having a brick in your mouth when you're trying to talk and sing.
"I've had to learn how to sing again. It hasn't affected my voice, it's just how it comes out and the pronunciation of things.
"Also my energy levels are very low, so I have days where I feel very, very tired, and other days I'm kind of better. But I would say I've not recovered yet because I just don't have the energy I used to have on a daily basis. There is progress, it's just quite slow."
The trio will sing and perform as usual on their Up Close and Personal Tour, but they will also entertain the audience with video footage and a Q&A session about their career as a chart-topping group, which will give Aston the chance to relax a bit more than usual on stage.
"To do a dozen or 15 or so two-hour concerts at that level, I'm not up to that yet, so even though this was suggested before my illness, I'm very pleased it's not going to be as taxing!" Aston admits.
Having spent so many years together as a band - whether in the original Eurovision Song Contest-winning line-up of 1981 along with Bobby G, or the many other iterations the group has experienced under a myriad of monikers, including The Original Bucks Fizz - Nolan insists that working together and performing is as enjoyable as ever.
"The shows are a dream, you go out there and perform and it's great fun," he says, reflecting on performing their biggest hits Making Your Mind Up and The Land Of Make Believe years later.
"The travelling to gigs is the hardest part, but it is more enjoyable than it used to be. When we first started, everything was so routine, but now we can do what we want to do and in our own time. I prefer it now."
With a cheeky laugh, he adds: "Plus, being in a band where the other two really adore you is lovely!"
As Baker and Aston roll their eyes good-naturedly, Baker recalls the earlier days in the group, when things were far less harmonious.
"Bobby G and I used to fight like cat and dog," she says of her relationship with her former colleague, who continues to tour under the Bucks Fizz name with his wife and two other singers.
She continues: "We're a lot older now and not necessarily wiser, but we work better together. There are arguments, but they are very few and far between, and it's much more harmonious."
Looking ahead to the future, Aston wants to make it clear that there is more to the group than just skirt-ripping routines and "fuzzy pop", and that they still have what it takes to be a viable pop outfit nearly 40 years after rising to fame.
"There's actually a lot more depth to us as a band," she insists.
"And when people come to see the shows, people who have been convinced to come by somebody else, we always end up converting them, because they realise there have been loads of songs that have been our hits that they've forgotten about, and they go, 'Oh I remember that!'
"I think we're at our best when people can see us perform live, rather than the distant memory of Eurovision, where we're portrayed as a one-trick pony.
"There's an awful lot more to us, and when you come and see us that's evident."
Christmas With The Fizz is available now. The Fizz kick off their Up Close and Personal Tour on March 13 at The Spotlight in Broxbourne. Smoke & Mirrors will be released in 2020