Over the years, Stock Aitken Waterman tracks have come in for a lot of criticism (largely unjustified), but some tracks even get a bad reputation amongst SAW fans. One such track is Jason Donovan’s 1990 single Hang On To Your Love, but why is this the case...?
1989 had been an amazing year for Jason Donovan, and he entered 1990 on the back of the success of the well-received When You Come Back To Me. There was a sense that Donovan was in a strong position to consolidate that success, as indeed were his producers Stock Aitken Waterman. However, Donovan’s first single release of 1990 would come to be regarded as something of a misstep.
Hang On To Your Love was, as usual, a Stock Aitken Waterman composition and production, recorded in January 1990 as part of the initial sessions for Donovan’s second album, Between the Lines. It would seem that, consciously or not, that SAW was starting to move Donovan’s sound away from the bright pop that characterised his previous material.
One of the hallmarks of Stock Aitken Waterman tracks, especially self-composed, was the dichotomy between upbeat production and downbeat lyrical content. And that had been the case with many of the tracks on Donovan’s debut album Ten Good Reasons, such as Time Heals, Too Late to Say Goodbye and If I Don’t Have You. But Hang On To Your Love brought a darker edge to proceedings.
Sure, the beats and percussion are still present, but the synths are heavier, the strings more dramatic and the electric guitar adds to the bleakness. This is all topped off by Donovan’s doleful delivery: “Just to think I had the world in my hands / And I let it slip through my fingers” opines Jason, “I guess I didn’t know what I had / It’s just a memory that lingers”.
The result is that, at the time and even now, there was a pervading view that Hang On To Your Love just wasn’t as good as Donovan’s previous singles, to the point where even fans found it unlikable.
So this is where I come in. Because I think Hang On To Your Love is great.
I actually prefer it to When You Come Back To Me. I love its drama. I love its boldness. I love the spirit of Abba that the melody has. I love the thicker, chunkier arrangement. And I love the guitars.
So why is it so disliked?
Listening to it again for this article, the most striking thing about it is just how downbeat it sounds. The light and twinkly Yamaha Staccato Heaven preset was all over Ten Good Reasons, but here we have a thumping bassline and pounding beat accompanied by doleful synths.
And this brings me to my main proposition. Hang On To Your Love moves away from the aforementioned contrast between upbeat arrangement and melancholic lyrics/themes, and instead provides a double whammy of melancholic arrangement and lyrics. As a result, the usual bittersweet combination of joy and sadness is sacrificed for melodrama.
And it is quite a dramatic record, at least in terms of arrangement and production. The opening combination of electric guitar and strings is impressive, but it does set the tone for the next 3 minutes. There’s a certain heaviness to this track, which does match the world-weary and regretful nature of the lyrics, but the usual glimmer of hope you’d find in most Stock Aitken Waterman records is in short supply here.
In fairness to Mike, Matt & Pete, they’d gone into 1990 with a sense that it was time to try out some new methods, and whilst Hang On To Your Love was not one of the 3 experimental tracks marked out as a possible new sound, the track does reflect some of the stylistic choices made for those tracks. I am not grumbling that Stock Aitken Waterman should have made the record sound brighter or have made the lyrical content less depressing, but this is the key reason I can arrive at as to why so many listeners have an issue with a record which is just as well constructed as other Jason Donovan tracks which have a better reputation.
The extended version (expertly mixed by Phil Harding) is a fascinating listen. It’s a great mix – but the bleakness/heaviness of the track is felt even more keenly. That said, the musicianship and playing is well demonstrated in this version, and there is a great bit in the breakdown where Donovan’s echoed vocals make him sound a bit like David Bowie! It also features a great piece of vocal loc work in the instrumental break, with stuttering samples of Donovan’s vocals chugging away over sweeping strings and jangling guitars.
Whilst the video to Hang On To Your Love retains the instrumental break from the extended version (albeit without the vocal locs), the single mix released to radio and through the shops completely excises the instrumental break – with a sudden cut that is so jarring, it actually sounds like a manufacturing fault. It’s not of course, and I’m sure it was done to add some drama to the track (which was so dramatic anyway that it didn’t need any more), but it just sounds wrong. For my money this cannot have helped the reaction to the song.
And you know, whilst I am a huge Stock Aitken Waterman fan, that doesn’t blind me to the point that perhaps people just didn’t like it because it didn’t connect with them. Maybe it’s the fact that all the component parts are great and all in place, but haven’t quite been assembled in the best way. Maybe it came along at a point where the music scene was changing and people were getting bored of Stock Aitken Waterman. That said, it did get to #8, so clearly enough people did like it. And maybe there is something good in the fact that Hang On To Your Love provoked a strong reaction instead of indifference; the follow-up Another Night (which would break Donovan’s Top 10 run and in many ways indicate the end of Mike, Matt & Pete'’s imperial phase) received a much more ambivalent response. But that is another article for another day…!