Sunday, 26 March 2017

KCM Hotshot #3: Running Back For More – Delage

A look back at the underrated second single from 1990s SAW girlband Delage…

As discussed previously on this blog, Stock Aitken Waterman entered the 1990s in search of a new sound; a quest which became more important as their signature sound became less prevalent in the marketplace. This would result in a period of experimentation akin to that of 1985-1986, yielding some real undiscovered gems. One of these gems was Running Back For More, a 1991 house-inspired track from four piece girl band Delage.

A new band put together by PWL and named after one of Pete Waterman’s favourite classic cars, Delage were originally called Dazzle (and indeed, the promos of their debut single carried this name). The band originally comprised Rhonda, Karena, Charlotte and Judy, and were first referenced in a fascinating Smash Hits article entitled “Are Stock Aitken Waterman Down The Dumper?”. The Dumper, as Smash Hits put it, was the place that unsuccessful acts and records would end up after failing to achieve chart success, and 1990 had indeed seen a decline in the amazing success SAW had enjoyed in 1989. This article, built around an interview with Mike, Matt and Pete, enabled the trio to answer back to the critics who had written them off, and as part of that, they outlined some of their future plans. Boy Krazy were referenced (albeit as Boy Crazy), as were Delage; both as new acts to relaunch SAW in the 1990s.

Delage’s debut single would emerge a few months later, just ahead of Christmas, released via the PWL/Polydor joint venture which had been set up on the back of the Band Aid II single. The Boy Krazy singles were also issued as part of this arrangement, as were the two Grease-related megamixes put together by Phil Harding and Ian Curnow.


This debut release – a cover of the Hues Corporation’s 1974 hit Rock The Boat – was produced by SAW, and issued with a computer-generated cover of a boat, rather than a photograph of the band members. It’s a robust SAW production and a faithful cover, carried along by some energetic brass and strings, plus the inclusion of more modern elements such as a “1-2-3-4” sample, and a sax riff which tipped its hat to Chad Jackson’s Hear The Drummer Get Wicked.

This release reached #63 in the UK Singles Chart, which whilst unspectacular, wasn’t too bad for a single with limited exposure in the run up to Christmas. However, it would be nearly a whole year before a follow-up appeared.


The classy and understated SAW-composed and produced Running Back for More was issued in October 1991, by which time there had been a change in line-up between singles, with former members Charlotte and Judy replaced by Emma and Frances.

Certainly you can tell the difference in the vocals between Rock The Boat and Running Back For More; however, to my ears at least, the vocals on Rock The Boat sound very much like SAW stalwarts Mae McKenna and Miriam Stockley (who were indeed credited for backing vocals on the sleeve), whilst Running Back For More adds Cool Notes’ lead singer Lorraine McIntosh for backing vocals, therefore it is difficult to get a real sense of what Delage really sounded like. That’s not to suggest they did not sing on these tracks, just that I wonder if the vocals of McKenna & Stockley, and McIntosh were very prominent in the mix.

Running Back For More features one of Mike Stock’s most impressive lyrics; a story of a woman chastising her friend for remaining in an unsuitable relationship, Stock makes very word count and tells the story with maximum emotional effect. “You ain’t learned nothing at all / And you still ain’t closing the door / On the boy who tears you apart / Telling you every lie you know by heart” is the first verse, and that final line carries so much truth in its effective simplicity. The melody of the verses is wonderfully fluid, and adds even more to the delivery of the lyrics.

The track gives us yet more lyrical gold with “So don’t you come to me for advice / If the truth hurts more than his lies”; a line which may not mean much on paper, but is dynamite within the track itself.

The chorus is perhaps more sedate than most SAW choruses, but it totally works within the song. This is the apex of the song’s message: “Running Back For More / Like a fool / I don’t think you know what you’re doing / He’s gonna break your heart, that’s for sure / You’re running back for more / Running back for more”. It’s an understated chorus, but is clearly influenced by the US house style of that time.

More than any other SAW composition, the entire melody seems very organic with the chorus growing effortlessly from the building of the verses and bridge. There are no key changes, or dramatic shift in instrumentation, so there isn’t the usual lift into the chorus. This is no bad things though; this change of approach results in a cool, minimalistic house-influenced track.

Production-wise, there’s a change of emphasis in the sound. The arrangement is relatively sparse, driven mainly by a house piano and punctuated by techno bleeps, although there is effective use of strings at key moments. At the time of release, I wished that the track had a more typically dense SAW arrangement, but I’ve come to appreciate the delicacy of its instrumentation and its attempt to try something different.

The single was released on 7”, 12” and CD single formats, with the main track restricted to a 7” mix and an extended mix, both mixed by Dave Ford. (An unreleased 12” Remix of Running Back For More would emerge when a Running Back For More single bundle was issued on iTunes). The B-side was a further SAW composition and production, I Wanna Shout About It – a powerful, contemporary dance track. Ironically, this was possibly a more obvious candidate for the A-side than Running Back For More, as it was more in line with other chart fare at the time.

As I’ve written previously on this blog, SAW were experiencing mixed fortunes chartwise in 1991, and Running Back for More was a particular casualty. In fact, its #153 chart placing ranks it amongst the worst performing SAW singles – a great shame, as it is a much stronger track than this position suggests.

I can only speak for myself but it was difficult to actually find a copy of the record; even in a city the size of Liverpool, I only managed to find the CD single and 7” in the new releases rack of a second-hand record shop the week after release. That said, the PWL/Polydor releases seemed to suffer from distribution problems (aside from Band Aid II of course), and certainly this is reflected in the scarcity of the Running Back For More CD single, which now commands high fees on the record collecting market.

In some ways, the record’s availability is almost irrelevant when you consider its TV, radio and press coverage was virtually non-existent. I don’t recall any major radio play, or seeing the video on TV. And perhaps the main press coverage I do recall was in Number One magazine, when Sonia carried out that week’s single reviews. Coming not long after her split with SAW and PWL, Sonia rather predictably gave a negative review, dismissing the track as “yesterday’s beats” – highly ironic given that Sonia’s recent singles included the 60s-styled Only Fools (Never Fall In Love) and Be Young Be Foolish Be Happy!

Given the commercial failure of the single, there would be no further releases from Delage. There was however a further unreleased track, a SAW-produced version of the Bananarama track Ain’t No Cure. This latter track in particular was a missed opportunity for Delage and SAW; Ain’t No Cure had been recorded by Bananarama during the abortive 1989 sessions with SAW, and, on the basis that it was unlikely that the Bananarama version would be issued, it was called into use for Delage. The Delage version is a beefier, full-on hi-NRG assault with house overtones, and most notably employs a different emphasis on the verses (which is perhaps why Sara Dallin’s co-write credit is absent from the Delage version). This will be sacrilege to most Bananarama and SAW fans, but I much prefer the Delage version and genuinely think it would have had a great shot at chart success. However, Bananarama elected to include their version on Pop Life, which I assume removed it as an option for a Delage single.

Whilst Delage themselves parted ways with SAW and the PWL/Polydor deal, they did continue under the new name of Eden, and released two European singles in 1992.

Running Back For More -- as is the case with Rock The Boat and also Ain’t No Cure -- is available as single bundles on iTunes, including various mixes, instrumentals, backing tracks and B-sides.

Delage were cited as one of the bright new hopes for SAW in the early 1990s, but for various reasons they were not given the full support required to make this happen. However, Running Back For More remains an underrated track which represents an experiment in a new sound for SAW, and boasts an impressive lyric and melody. Well worth a listen.


Friday, 24 February 2017

Update

Just a quick post to say that the blog is still active -- the day job is all-encompassing right now but there are new articles in progress -- covering Debbie Harry, Dead or Alive and Brilliant amongst other topics. Hoping to start publishing again in March! Thank you for your patience!

Monday, 19 September 2016

Bananarabba: when Mike & Pete went all Benny & Bjorn

A look at the two ABBA-styled tracks Stock & Waterman fashioned for Bananarama in 1992...

As far as inspirations on the oeuvre of SAW goes, it's clear that there were various touchpoints which influenced Mike, Matt and Pete.

Certainly Mike Stock has cited Stevie Wonder and Billy Joel amongst others, whilst Matt Aitken has professed a love of Led Zeppelin. And there is surely a shared admiration of The Beatles amongst all three.

However, a line can be traced right back to the Swedish group ABBA. Whilst Stock and Aitken have not explicitly referred to ABBA as a direct influence, Waterman has repeatedly discussed his love of the band and there is something of the band's expertise in melody and arrangement in many SAW records.

And this has perhaps never been more overt than in the two ABBA-esque singles Mike Stock and Pete Waterman wrote and produced for Bananarama.

Bananarama and Stock Aitken Waterman had enjoyed a successful partnership between 1986 and 1989, starting off with the hi-NRG cover of Shocking Blue's 1970 hit Venus and culminating in the cover of The Beatles' 1964 hit Help! for Comic Relief. During this time, founding member Siobhan Fahey had departed the group and was replaced by Jacquie O'Sullivan, and the band returned to start work with SAW on new material. However, the band were disappointed with the initial results -- as well as apparently being concerned that the sound they had developed with SAW was being applied to many different artists (an accusation also levied at SAW by Dead Or Alive). As a result, Bananarama withdrew from working with SAW and commenced work on a new album instead with producer Youth (formerly of SAW-produced band Brilliant).

The resulting album Pop Life -- which actually did carry two SAW tracks (Ain't No Cure & Heartless) from the aborted 1989 sessions -- was a critical success in 1990, but after initial success thanks to two high-charting singles, the campaign petered out, with final single Tripping On Your Love peaking outside the Top 40. O'Sullivan departed the band shortly after for personal reasons.

Bananarama carried on as a duo -- Sara Dallin and Keren Woodward -- and in 1991, started planning their follow-up album. Their record label London Records urged them to work again with Mike Stock and Pete Waterman; the production trio, like Bananarama, had also slimmed down in the wake of Matt Aitken's departure in 1991.

When one considers the negative comments Bananarama had made about their reasons from moving away from SAW, their reunion with Stock & Waterman may have been a surprise -- but it wasn't a shock move. The music scene had changed dramatically by 1991/1992 and, looking back, it's difficult to see what direction Bananarama should have taken in a music scene dominated by techno and indie. Perhaps London Records were at a loss as where to take Bananarama, and decided to bring Stock & Waterman in as a safe pair of hands.

The resulting album -- Please Yourself -- apparently had a long gestation period, with the majority of tracks going through various mixes to please London Records. As a result, the album does not have a cohesive feel but instead tackles different genres; this is no bad thing as it is a strong album but it does not always sound like a Bananarama album. The overriding theme is 70s disco, with tracks like Give It All Up For Love, Is She Good To You? and Only Time Will Tell. You're Never Satisfied is perhaps the most typical S(A)W sounding track, whilst You'll Never Know What It Means draws on house and techno sounds to create a very contemporary sound. Closing ballad I Could Be Persuaded taps into US soul, with breathy vocals, male backing vocals as well as an elongated intro and coda, which shows off the excellent instrumentation and playing.

Waterman has since referred to the project as "Abba Banana", commenting that it was an attempt to tap into the Abba sound -- which of course was enjoying a revival thanks to the release of the success of Erasure's Abba-esque EP and the ABBA Gold compilation. However, this is not strictly accurate and I would argue that any nod towards ABBA is restricted to two tracks -- both released as singles: Movin' On and Last Thing On My Mind.


Movin' On was the first single from the album, and indeed relaunched Bananarama as a duo in 1992. The Benny and Bjorn influence is clear from the get go, with a terrific piano riff that tips its hat to Dancing Queen, leading to a verse, bridge and chorus melody that could have been written by the Swedes themselves. Interestingly though, the original mix (eventually released on the aforementioned re-issue) lacks the ABBA elements; it actually has its roots in a 70s disco sound in line with the overriding sound of the album. It would appear, from PWL archivist and expert Tom Parker's excellent sleevenotes for the 2013 Edsel re-issue of Please Yourself, that Last Thing On My Mind was the final track recorded for the album and was styled upon ABBA from the get go -- but one wonders if the ABBA influence was introduced to Movin' On following the success of Erasure's Abba-esque EP two months prior to the release of Movin' On.

A co-write between Stock, Waterman, Dallin and Woodward, Movin' On deals lyrically with the break-up of a relationship and the protagonist's attempt to put the pain behind them. However, you could argue that a parallel could be drawn with Bananarama (and indeed Stock & Waterman!) dealing with the loss of their respective former members, and making a statement that they would carry on stronger than before.

The verses are typically melancholic -- "And now the sun has finally set / And this is where the story ends / We didn't count upon a rainy day" -- whilst the chorus reveals new-found optimism -- "But I had no way of knowing / And I don't know where I'm going / But I'm movin' on". The strong lyrics contribute to the powerful flow of the melody; the track has a real organic feel to it, with little reliance on tricksy key and chord changes (though there is nothing wrong with such tricks!). It sounds like an effortless piece of work, though undoubtedly lots of hard work and talent went into its creation.

The girls sound in good voice on this track; there's a really successful match between their vocal delivery and the musical arrangement on this track. The upbeat backing supports their voices, and strengthens their impact. A note too for the backing vocals; most SAW Bananarama tracks had the girls themselves on backing vocals, but here, Stock & Waterman deploy the male backing vocalists they had introduced in 1991 for Kylie Minogue's Word Is Out. Whilst it detracts from an attempt to replicate the ABBA sound, it does adds to the contemporary sound at play here.

And that's a point worth making; whilst the ABBA influence is clear to see, Stock & Waterman have taken that and fused it with their own sound. In the same way that Jason Donovan's I'm Doing Fine evokes the sound of The Beatles whilst not actually sounding like The Beatles, Movin' On projects the ABBA sound with some of the band's key stylistic and melodic touches, whilst combining them with the S&W touches of a robust rhythm track, warm synth pads and prominent backing vocals.

However, whilst Stock & Waterman were indeed experimenting with different styles in 1992, the arrangement was still based around their signature sound enough for it to lack the modernity of the hit records of the time. Perhaps this was why Movin' On peaked at #24; a respectable position but perhaps a disappointing one for London Records. Given the "quality" of its contemporaneous rival singles, Movin' On'certainly was worthy of a higher position.

The single did receive fair promotion, although Dallin and Woodward were left exposed when the backing track tape jammed during a Radio 1 Roadshow performance to launch the single. Alan Jones wrote in Music Week that "Bananarama return with an impossibly commercial reminder of their former glories. Movin' On they ain't, but hitbound they most certainly are".

Released in August 1992, Movin' On was officially issued with a number of mixes; the 7" mix and the slightly extended Straight No Chaser mix (with a different coda than that of the 7" mix) both by Dave Ford, as well as harder, clubbier mixes -- the Bumpin' Mix courtesy of DJ CJ Mackintosh, and the Spag-A-Nana Dub by Tony Humphries. A further mix was issued on promo, the Bumpin' Mix, from PWL staffers Gordon Dennis and Peter Day.

It should be noted that there were numerous in-house mixes of the track which remained unreleased until the Please Yourself re-issue; the original 12" mix, the NRG Mix, the Movin' Mix, the NRG Mix and the Norty Banana Mix. Whilst one can understand why London Records -- and especially Bananarama's A&R man, DJ Pete Tong -- would want to get the track into the clubs, it is a shame that they opted to withhold the PWL mixes in favour of trendy mixes which did not treat the material sympathetically.

Of the PWL mixes, it's worth checking out the Bumpin' Mix and especially the Original 12" Mix, which has a raw disco appeal that is quite at odds with the polished Abba-esque single mix. There was also a Spanish version -- entitled Nueva Direccion -- which features Bananarama singing the song in Spanish over the backing of the 7" mix, although the absence of any backing vocals renders this version a little sparse. The definitive version must be the Straight No Chaser, with its lovely extended instrumental sections which feature a lovely descending pattern, although special mention must also be made of the terrific 70's style guitar solo.


The next single, Last Thing On My Mind, followed in November 1992 -- and this took the Abba tribute to the next level. Tom Parker states that this track was the final track to be recorded for the album, and one wonders whether the Abba-fever sweeping the nation bore any influence on the direction of this track. As stated above, whereas Movin' On appears to have been adapted to sound like ABBA, Last Thing On My Mind definitely sounds like an ABBA tribute by design.


If anything, Last Thing On My Mind went deeper into ABBA territory, not just in melody but especially in production. Boasting a very intricate arrangement, the track features a plucked harp on its opening riff (a nod to I Have A Dream), arpeggio synth lines (reminiscent of Abba's 1981/1982 material) and some lovely guitar (channeling the work that ABBA session guitarist Janne Schafer did on the classic tracks). Building up the warm sound are strings, synth pads and real-sounding drum programming. Overall, it has the sound -- albeit modernised -- of a latter-day ABBA track, and could almost fit in somewhere between One Of Us and Under Attack.

Melodically, the dramatic verses give way to an almost sing-song bridge -- and then straight into a chorus worthy of Benny and Bjorn themselves. The phrasing is classic ABBA -- "And you're suddenly like a stranger / And you're leaving our love behind" -- but the following lines -- "Of all the things I was planning for / This was the last thing on my mind" -- nails it. You can imagine Agnetha and Anni-Frid singing that bit, no question.

However, the Bananarama version of Last Thing On My Mind gets a bit of a bad rep, with many people seeming to prefer the later (and more commercially successful) Steps version. If you check out a few pop music forums such as Popjustice, you will see numerous references to the track being "plodding" or "dull".

Now I LOVE the Bananarama version (and much prefer it to the Steps version)... but I do understand what people mean by such comments. I seem to recall that, at the time of release, I loved it but felt it could have benefited from a bit more "oomph" -- but I listen to it now and if anything, I appreciate the track more than ever... yet I cannot put my finger on why it has such a lukewarm reception from fans of S(A)W and Bananarama.

I mean, the instrumental is BEAUTIFUL. Seriously. It just sparkles. It was only released recently as part of the Bananarama In A Bunch CD singles box set, and I was amazed to hear so many parts & elements that were new to me -- even after 24 years of listening to it. The instrumental isn't available to listen to online in its entirety but you can hear a 2 minute extract at the Juno website.

So if there isn't a problem with the arrangement, what of the vocals? Now there are various views regarding Bananarama's vocal ability but they clearly can sing. For me, Bananarama sound better when their vocals are set against a dense, upbeat backing, as with I Heard A Rumour, I Can't Help It -- and even Movin' On. That juxtaposition works. However, in the case of Last Thing On My Mind, you have Bananarama set against a mid-tempo -- and intricate -- backing. And I'm not sure that this backing provides the boost that their vocals sometimes require. Perhaps it is this which results in any perceived "plodding"?

Certainly, many fans prefer the hi-NRG Mix which, as the title suggests, sets the girls against a backing of pounding synths and robust drum programming. Whilst this version is perhaps more typical of the S(A)W sound, it doesn't have the same allure of the main mix, with its lovingly, carefully crafted musicianship.

When it comes down to it though, I adore this track. The melody and arrangement are just gorgeous, and I do actually think that it's largely well performed by Bananarama, despite my comments above.

Alas, it appears that the record buying public of 1992 did not share my enthusiasm, as Last Thing On My Mind could only reach #71 in the UK singles chart. As with Movin' On, it did receive decent promotion; it was certainly playlisted on BBC Radio 1, and I remember DJ Steve Wright making positive comments about it on his afternoon show for that station. Unfortunately, his admiration was not shared by Smash Hits, where Mark Frith ended his one-star review of the song with the following statement: "Now that Mike & Pete make so few records, you'd think that the ones they did make would be really ace, wouldn't you? You'd be wrong".

Mark Frith doesn't hold back on what he thinks of "Banarama"!
The single release spawned the 7" mix and the hi-NRG mix (by Dave Ford) along with the FXTC Dub, the Tone Tone Mix and the Tone Instrumental -- the latter three by Tony Humphries, which again did little to enhance the appeal of the original mix. A mention too for the B-side, the brilliant '70s disco stomper Another Lover, which was quite frankly wasted as an additional track, and even worse, was omitted from the original version of the Please Yourself album.

As with Movin' On, there were further in-house PWL mixes that went unreleased until the Please Yourself re-issue, including an extended version (of the 7" mix) and an Xtra NRG mix. The extended version is definitely worth a listen, as is the aforementioned hi-NRG mix -- and especially the amazing instrumental version.


Clearly, the failure of Last Thing On My Mind to achieve a Top 40 chart placing was cause for concern for London Records, who opted to release a cover of Andrea True Connection's More More More (with additional lyrics by Stock & Waterman, and Bananarama). This track, remixed and buffed up from the album version, was more in line with the overall disco direction of the album, and did take Bananarama back into the Top 40, matching the #24 peak of Movin' On in March 1993. However, this contemporary update of a 70s disco classic ended the attempts at an ABBA-styled sound.

The Please Yourself album followed soon after in April 1993, and a fourth single -- the immediately catchy Is She Good For You? -- was earmarked for release in remixed (by Dave Ford) versions. However, the poor performance of the album led to the single release being aborted -- and ultimately to Bananarama parting ways with London Records, their label of 12 years.

Looking back on the exercise, the two ABBA-esque Bananarama tracks masterminded by Stock and Waterman point to a fascinating experiment that never reached full fruition. It seems that these tracks signified a late-in-the-day change in direction for a 70s disco-influenced album which was largely completed by that point -- and as the first two singles of the album campaign, were not fully representative of the Please Yourself album.

Whilst Please Yourself was perhaps less immediate than the power pop of the earlier SAW-produced album WOW!, it's a strong album with a pleasing take on disco and soul. But while You'll Never Knows What It Takes provided a tantalizing glimpse of a new Bananarama sound for 1993 (which frustratingly was never built upon), one does wonder what a full Bananarama album of S&W-helmed ABBA-infuenced tracks would have sounded like...


References:

Tom Parker -- Sleevenotes to the Edsel 2013 Deluxe Edition of Please Yourself
Alan Jones -- Market Preview, Music Week, August 1992
Mark Frith -- Singles Reviews, Smash Hits, November 1992

Sunday, 4 September 2016

You've Got A Friend: looking back at the 1990 Big Fun & Sonia charity single for Childline

October 2016 sees the 30th anniversary of Childline, a UK support service which helps vulnerable children and young people. For much of its history, Childline has been a telephone based service but this September, Childline (with the help of Barclays Bank) is launching an iPhone and Android app called For Me, which will allow children and young people to seek help via their phones and tablets.

To coincide with the launch of the For Me app, Childline asked Mike Stock to write and produce a record to help promote the app and support the charities involved.

This record -- which I'll come to later -- is released on Friday 9 September 2016, but as SAW fans know, this is not the first record Mike Stock has made in support of Childline.

The Childline service had been set up in 1986 by BBC TV presenter Esther Rantzen and BBC producers Sarah Caplin and Ritchie Cogan on the back of Childwatch, a programme they had produced about child abuse. Childline offered -- and still offers -- a 24/7 telephone counselling service for children and young people up to the age of 19, offering support for a wide range of issues.

Childline would eventually be incorporated into the NSPCC in 2006, but the service had been funded for its first three years by benefactor Ian Skipper. By 1990, funding was a real issue for Childline; the service was getting more calls than it was able to handle, meaning that there were children and young people unable to access the help they needed. Its founder, TV presenter Esther Rantzen, was appealing for funding on TV and in the press, and was also looking at other funding opportunities.

Back in early 1990, SAW were still riding high after dominating the charts the previous (and most commercially successful) year. Whilst there were signs that the market would start to move away from them later in the year, they and their acts were still enjoying great success. Two such acts were male trio Big Fun -- who had enjoyed three big hit singles so far -- and solo singer Sonia, who had followed up her debut number one single, You'll Never Stop Me Loving You, with three further hits.

Both acts were on the bill at a Childline Big Day Out charity event at the Alton Towers theme park in early 1990, and as Big Fun member Phil Creswick states in his notes for the 2010 reissue of the Big Fun A Pocketful of Dreams album, Rantzen asked Big Fun and Sonia if they would record a charity single to raise funds for the charity. Both acts liked this idea, and Big Fun's manager Bill Grainger put the idea to Pete Waterman.

By this time, SAW already had produced a number of charity records, including Let It Be (in aid of the 1987 Zeebrugge Ferry disaster), Ferry 'Cross The Mersey (in aid of the 1989 Hillsborough football tragedy) and most recently, a new version of Band Aid's Do They Know It's Christmas. Therefore, it was almost a given that SAW would agree to support Childline in this way.

A SAW produced version of the 1971 Carole King classic, You've Got A Friend, was recorded, but, for some unknown reason, it was decided that this cover version would not be released. Instead, a new composition with the same name was written by SAW. It is assumed that, given the speed surrounding most of the SAW charity singles, the artwork for the single had been produced before the decision was made not to proceed with the cover version, which would have forced the new composition to carry the same name.

The Carole King cover version remained unreleased until 2010, when it was issued as an extra track on the re-issued Big Fun album (although a short snippet had been available a few years before on the PWL website). Listening to it now, it is a solid version in what many would consider typical SAW style for the time; driven by some pleasingly chunky house piano, backed by swirling synth pads and a funky bassline, it's a fizzy and endearing version of the song. There's no question that this version would have been a hit, so it is difficult to work out why it was ditched in favour of a new composition.

That said, I do think the better track was issued as the single. While the Carole King cover was very much in the vein of early 1990 SAW, the mid-tempo SAW composition is refreshingly different -- and actually, in a different class.


The first thing that grabs you, after some jazz piano and the tight drumming kicks in, is the gorgeous saxophone riff, courtesy of occasional SAW collaborator Gary Barnacle. Barnacle was a very prominent session musician at the time, and this is certainly reflected by his credit on the cover (although it is fair to assume that, given the track's charitable status, this was offered in return for an unpaid contribution). The use of "real" instruments -- whether it be brass, strings or guitar -- was always a welcome addition to SAW records, and actually occurred more often than people think, even if you have to sometimes listen very closely due to their placing in the mix. Here though, Barnacle's sax is right out front, and really embellishes what was an already classy production.

The SAW composed You've Got A Friend is Mike, Matt and Pete in their jazzy soul mood. Underpinning the sax riff is a solid rhythm track -- more laidback than usual but energetic all the same -- whilst the aforementioned jazz piano combines with some neat rhythm guitar, warm synth pads, steady bass and sustained strings. Adding to proceedings are the lovely backing vocals from Mae McKenna, Linda Taylor and Mike Stock, which as usual bring real warmth to the track.

Vocally, it is Sonia who takes the lead, handling the second and third verses solo with typical finesse, with Big Fun's lead vocalist Mark Gillespie handling the first verse. The chorus, as one would expect, is sung by all four performers, and here, the combination of voices works well. That said, I think I'd have preferred it to have been a solo track for Sonia rather than a joint effort with Big Fun. It's almost churlish to suggest this -- given the goodwill shown by the participants for a deserving cause -- but for me, the Big Fun vocals detract a little from the overall effect of this track -- Gillespie's falsetto is very unique, but there is something about its tone which I sometimes find it difficult to warm to.

Lyrically, the track posits as a message to the listener from a friend and/or a lover, offering their support in bad times -- but of course, the lyrics can also relate to the help offered by Childline to those children and young people who are feeling vulnerable and in need of help. This is a "multiple meaning" lyrical trick which SAW used a number of times to great success, and indeed, one which Stock and his co-writer Johan Kalel have used on the Chloe Rose Childline-supporting track.

The whole affair adds up to a more mature sound for SAW compared to much of their output at the time -- and one wonders if this had any impact on its ultimate chart position. Certainly, a peak of #14 is completely respectable (and probably in line with both acts' chart performance in 1990), but given that the charity records helmed by SAW in previous years were much more successful, there must have been some slight disappointment at this chart position.

For me, the problem was this: the SAW composed You've Got A Friend is a classy, mature track that would have appealed to an older audience who would not be seen dead buying a record performed by Big Fun and Sonia (or indeed, produced by SAW). And I suppose the flipside of this is that the teenage audience who predominantly bought records by Big Fun, Sonia and SAW may have considered You've Got A Friend as too mature for them.

That said, I still consider this a fine record, immaculately arranged, mixed and produced. Somewhat underrated in the SAW canon, it's yet another stylistic departure for SAW and one wonders if it would be better remembered had it been performed by a SAW performer such as Sybil or Lonnie Gordon. I would direct you to seek out the extended instrumental, which really showcases the terrific playing by Stock, Aitken and indeed Barnacle -- it's a lovely, smooth listen.


Released in June 1990, the track came in four mixes: the 7" mix, the extended mix, the 7" instrumental and the extended instrumental -- all mixed by Pete Hammond. The 7" mix can be found (as can the previously unreleased Carole King cover) on the 2010 Cherry Red Special Edition of the Big Fun album A Pocketful of Dreams, whilst the other three mixes are currently out of print -- though one hopes for a digital release at some point.

It is worth noting that You've Got A Friend was the penultimate PWL single for its performers: Big Fun would release a SAW produced cover of the Eddie Holman track Hey There Lonely Girl in July 1990, but it's #62 chart position would see it as their final release on Jive Records. Sonia's SAW-produced cover of the Skeeter Davis track End Of The World performed better with a #18 peak in August 1990, but alleged business disagreements would see Sonia leave PWL & Chrysalis Records for a fairly successful run of singles with Simon Cowell's IQ Records.

Whatever your view of the track, You've Got A Friend raised much needed funds for the Childline support service and was therefore a worthy effort by all concerned. And 26 years on, Mike Stock is helping Childline once more, having written and produced a new charity single to support this much-needed service. The track -- For Me -- is the debut single for new pop singer Chloe Rose, and is an upbeat, contemporary pop song which carries the Childline message across in a very clever way. I've covered the track in more detail here. All proceeds go to support Childline, the NSPCC and the Wayne Rooney Foundation, so I would urge you to buy the track as not only is it for a great cause, it's also a terrific melodic pop song --  and we don't get enough of those these days.

You can buy For Me by clicking on the image below:



References:

Phil Creswick & Tom Parker - sleevenotes to A Pocketful of Dreams 2010 re-issue (Cherry Red)
Childline - Wikipedia page

Thursday, 11 August 2016

For Me and for all fans, a new pop smash from Mike Stock

Apologies the blog has been quiet recently; I am working on a few new articles but it's slow progress due to a busy period of work and family commitments. However, I simply have to drop in to mention Mike Stock's latest release.

Mike commented a few years back that he was desperately looking for an amazing girl singer he could write and produce pop songs for.

Well I think he's found her.

Her name's Chloe Rose and she's gearing up to release her debut single For Me -- written and produced by Mike -- on MPG Records.

It's a charity release in support of Childline/NSPCC and the Wayne Rooney Foundation, and is released in September to coincide with the new Childline app -- also called For Me -- which help those children in need make contact with people who can help them.

For Me is exactly the kind of record Mike Stock should be making now; it combines his amazing ability for melody and lyrics with a real sense of modernity to the production and arrangement.

And my word, it's catchy. The chorus in particular grabs you by the throat and won't let go.

This is important. There is a real emphasis on the sound of pop records today, rather than on their melody. Which means that many pop tracks these days sound great, but they get boring very quickly. Not so with For Me; it lodges in your head after the first couple of plays and refuses to budge.

The production sizzles. Squelchy synth pads, soaring strings, thumping drum fills and a nifty little "Oh - oh - ohh" vocal hook all combine to create a thoroughly modern Stock sound, whilst tipping its hat to his classic style.

Chloe Rose is a real star in the making. She looks like a pop star and has a great voice; there's a really sweet tone to her voice, but also power too, and she really sells the song.

Lyrically, it has that neat trick Mike uses on occasion, where the lyrics have a double meaning. Whilst the lyrics can be read as a girl praising her boyfriend, they're written in such a way that they also nod towards a young person contacting Childline. In this case, they work really well, getting the message across in a subtle way.

It's a terrific pop track and I would urge you all to support it.

Promotion of the track is now underway, with pre-orders now being taken on iTunes (with other digital music vendors to follow) -- and the track will be released on 9 September 2016.


Hopefully it will raise much needed money for the charitable ventures it is supporting, but here's hoping it gives Chloe Rose's music career the launch it deserves. An album is in progress, with half the tracks complete -- and if For Me is anything to go by, the signs are good that it will mark a real return of Mike Stock in his full pop pomp!

Monday, 13 June 2016

KCM Hotshot #2: Je Ne Sais Pas Pourquoi - Kylie Minogue

Kylie Minogue was enjoying huge success with Stock Aitken Waterman in 1988, with the tour de force that was I Should Be So Lucky followed by the introspective, perfect pop of Got To Be Certain, not to mention the SAW reworking of The Loco-Motion. When it came to the fourth single, the Kylie album had been released to huge sales, so PWL hedged its bets by issuing a double A-sided single, comprising one of the most popular tracks from the album and a brand new track.

The lead track of this double A-side -- Je Ne Sais Pas Pourquoi -- clearly took a French influence, not simply in the use of the well-known phrase (which translates in English as I Don't Know Why) but also in its sound. The UK pop charts of 1987 and 1988 had seen a number of Euro Pop hits from the Continent, such as Spagna's Call Me, Vanessa Paradis' Joe Le Taxi and Desireless' Voyage Voyage -- and their success led Pete Waterman to indulge in what he later referred to as his "French phase". Not only was Waterman credited as remixing (with Pete Hammond) Voyage Voyage for UK release, he also arranged for a number of French pop hits to be remixed by PWL staffers and issued in the UK. Whilst Dave Ford & Waterman's remix of France Gall's Ella Elle L'A and Pete Hammond's remix of Jakie Quartz's A La Vie A L'Amour gained fans when played on Waterman's Saturday morning radio show on Liverpool's Radio City station, they -- along with PWL remixes of Debut De Soiree tracks -- could not replicate the success of Voyage Voyage.

Nevertheless, there is something of the feel and the sound of those French tracks present in Je Ne Sais Pas Pourquoi. For one thing, it has a maturity and sophistication which arguably Kylie's other tracks of that time do not possess; that's not a criticism, more to say that this grown-up track is a pleasant diversion. It's also a double dip in melancholy; as often stated on this blog, SAW had a trick of combining downbeat lyrics with upbeat arrangements -- but not so here. The lyrical and thematic matter -- about Kylie finally realising that her lover will never reciprocate the depth of feeling she has for him -- is matched in equal measure by a sombre mid-tempo backing; it's crisp and stoic as opposed to slushy and emotional -- and all the better for it.

I often marvel at Mike Stock and Matt Aitken's songwriting abilities, especially at their clever use of chords and their melodic abilities, but also at their quirky touches (of which there are plenty, despite what their critics may have you believe). In this case, I'd love to know how they hit upon the use of the Je Ne Sais Pas Pourquoi phrase in this track -- though whatever the reason, it works. It really lifts the song and makes it even more interesting.

Opening with a undulating piano motif -- which bizarrely fades out quickly -- the song kicks in properly with some pounding drums, soon joined by a mournful synth lead and wistful chimes. Proceedings are kept in order by the driving bass line, with moody synth pads accentuating the descending chords in the verse.

The opening lines -- "Rain falling down / Another minute passes by" -- evoke the setting and situation with minimal fuss. Kylie's been here before -- but "this time (she) won't cry".

Kylie's delivery of the second verse is punctuated by welcome blasts of Matt Aitken's guitar, which add to the gloomy air as Kylie ponders where her lover is -- "Are you with another love?".

A clever contrasting turn of phrase from Stock & Aitken -- "You've stood me up and let me down" -- takes us into the bridge, underpinned with effective wailing of Aitken's guitar as Kylie cries "I... I... I'm wondering why...".

The first part of the phrase which takes us into the chorus, completed by "...I still love you / Je ne sais pourquoi / I still want you / Je ne sais pas pourquoi".

"Lights about town" opines Kylie in the third verse, before letting down an exasperated cry, "Expect me just to hang around?". This is the closest Kylie comes to losing her composure, regaining her control with a "You just stand me up and let me down".

The instrumental break makes a knowing nod back to I Should Be So Lucky, with it's "I... I... I" motif; whereas Lucky utilises an excitable, trigger-sampled "I-I-I-I -- I-I-I-I" vocal loc, Pourquoi gives us the plaintive "I... I... I..." of a wiser, resigned Kylie, backed by haunting synth pads.

Instead of ending on a repeat of the chorus, we are treated to a lovely instrumental coda -- which very much befits the song.

For all I've said about the French influence, there is another European influence at play here -- and it's Swedish. There are a number of SAW songs which have an ABBA feel, but there's a strong nod to Benny and Bjorn here, which is no bad thing. The chord progression and melody -- not to mention the melancholy! -- recall the more mature, sadder latter-day ABBA tracks, and you may find yourself trying to imagine what it would sound like had it been sung by Agentha and Anni-Frid.

Not to detract from Kylie's vocal -- it's one of her more assured performances, certainly of that early period, and she gives the song her all.

There is little of the full-blown exuberance of what is typically considered as the SAW house style here; no incessant percussion or tricksy drums, no ebullient brass or ingenious overdubs. Stock & Aitken's arrangement matches the maturity of the song; it's still pure pop, certainly, but the change of pace is welcome. It's a lovely backing track with some nice playing; it's not as dense as some SAW arrangements, and it's great to pick out some of the component parts, thanks in no small part to Dave Ford's excellent and typically crystal-clear mix.

Alongside Dave Ford's original mix, there are two extended mixes; the Moi Non Plus Mix which is a straight extension of the single, again by Ford; and the Revolutionary Mix, by Phil Harding, which adds more of a dance element to the track. Both worthy versions, but the original single/album mix is the definitive version.

The promo video too is worth a watch, placing Kylie in 1940s France with some clever use of isolated colour within black and white footage as a full colour Kylie dances with her black and white suitor; whilst perhaps a literal take on the lyrics, it's evocative of the song and suits it well.

As with her preceding two singles, Kylie would frustratingly stall at #2 with this wonderful track. Obviously, #2 is an amazing chart position, but frustratingly close to pole position. Unfortunately, the downside of the song's success was that it's fellow A-side track Made In Heaven was not flipped as planned, and became a B-side by default. Whilst a definite fan favourite, this joyous heady concoction is a lesser-known track as far as the general pop fan is concerned -- a shame, as it's deliriously, intoxicatingly catchy.

That said, I would argue that Je Ne Sais Pas Pourquoi itself has suffered from lack of exposure since 1988, and tends to be overlooked in favour of the previous three singles. As such, it's something of an underrated track which actually stands up better than many of the late 80's Kylie tracks. Listening to it repeatedly tonight whilst writing this blogpost, I'm almost ashamed to admit that I'd forgotten how good this track is. I mean, it's brilliant. It's emotive without being overly emotional, and I think Kylie carries such melancholy well. So my parting shot to you, mon ami, is to recommend you give Je Ne Sais Pas Pourquoi another listen, with fresh ears, and soak up a bit of classic SAW magic...




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Je Ne Sais Pas Pourquoi - Kylie Minogue
PWL Records - PWL 21, #2, 1988
Written, arranged & produced by Mike Stock, Matt Aitken & Pete Waterman
Mixed by Dave Ford

Saturday, 14 May 2016

KCM Hotshot #1: Always Doesn't Mean Forever - Hazell Dean

UK vocalist Hazell Dean is probably best known for her hi-NRG dance records, such as Searchin' (produced by Ian Anthony Stephens) and her numerous recordings with Stock Aitken Waterman, such as 1984's Whatever I Do and 1985's No Fool For Love. However, her recordings with SAW have taken in other styles, and one in particular -- the 1987 single Always Doesn't Mean Forever -- marked a move in a different direction for Dean.

After a period of working with different producers between 1985 and 1986, Dean reunited with SAW for the effervescent 1986 single Stand Up. Unfortunately, that release didn't find a wide audience, peaking at #79, and it would be a year later before a further collaboration with SAW would emerge.


Always Doesn't Mean Forever took Dean into darker territory -- both lyrically, thematically and musically -- and away from the comfort zone of her earlier hi-NRG recordings.

Sure, the pulsating synths are still there, as is the strident percussion track, but there is a slightly darker feel to proceedings on this track. Heavy orchestral hits punctuate the track, and a robust electric guitar riff (courtesy of Aitken) recurs throughout.

This sparse but heavy arrangement suits the theme of the song well, as lyrically it deals with the end of a relationship, with the protagonist telling their former lover some cold hard truths about love (and indeed life). Dean's delivery of the lyrics is well suited, as there is an almost vicious tone to her vocal here. "I never asked you to feel this way / So don't you put the blame on me" she hisses at one point, not long after declaring "I never asked you to fall in love / Now you know what life's about".

Many people make the mistake that SAW songs are all happy and positive, but whilst the arrangements may be upbeat, the lyrics are often melancholic. But I'm not sure SAW ever got so vitriolic as they did with Always Doesn't Mean Forever; there's little sadness here, or little duty of care to the former lover -- Dean's had enough of tiptoeing around hurt feelings, and she's telling it like it is.

It's a very melodic song, with real pace and urgency to the verses, with an effective bridge ramping up the excitement. The chorus isn't necessarily as singalong as other SAW examples, but it is catchy whilst suiting the pessimism of the song. Dean spits the chorus out -- "And though you're old enough to fall in love / You're still too young to know why / Always doesn't mean forever / Every time". As already stated, this is beyond melancholy -- this is a downbeat record whose pessimism almost borders on nihilism.

The arrangement is an interesting collision of styles; there's definitely a Latin Miami sound influence in there (the 12" is named the My-Ami Mix) with the electric piano, the layered percussion and the fluttering synth that backs the bridge, but we also have the orchestral hits, the SAW trademark vocal locs and the electric guitar riff which point more towards the UK pop scene of the period. As ever, there is some great playing from both Stock and Aitken.

Notably, this track features an early appearance of the "Funky Joe" sound (as it was named by Stock & Aitken). Very prominent in Kylie Minogue's I Should Be So Lucky, this resonant, bouncy metallic tone would go on to feature in a number of SAW tracks of the period, and it certainly brings a hypnotic quality to Always Doesn't Mean Forever.

It's also worth noting that this song was originally written for (and recorded by) Sheila Ferguson of The Three Degrees; she had been recording a solo album with SAW (and Matt Bianco's Mark Fisher) in 1986, which remains unreleased at the time of writing. It would be interesting to hear Ferguson's version, which presumably would be more oriented towards a soul/funk sound.

Regarding Dean's released version, I'd advise new listeners to seek out the extended My-Ami version over the 7" mix, at least for a first listen; the track has more space to breathe, and the instrumentation builds up nicely. Even better, Aitken's guitars gain greater prominence towards the end and combine with an effective slowed down sample of Dean's vocal loc to create a really haunting feel which reinforces the downbeat lyrics.



It's worth pointing out that many SAW tracks were created as 12" mixes, then editing down to 7" mixes. Such editing was often seamless, but to my ears, I think the 7" mix of Always Doesn't Mean Forever is less successful in this regard. It's not bad by any means, but I think the edit loses some of the impact and appeal that the 12" mix possesses.

There are only 4 released mixes; the 7", the My-Ami 12", plus a slightly longer 7" instrumental and a shorter instrumental version of the 12" -- all mixed by Pete Hammond.

Released in June 1987, Always Doesn't Mean Forever failed to reach the Top 75, peaking at #92 -- a rare chart misfire at a time when SAW were very much on the ascendant. It's a good little track, and one I admire greatly, but I wonder if it's thematic bleakness went against it in terms of finding favour with radio playlisters and the record buying public. Nevertheless, it is an interesting diversion for both SAW and Dean, not simply in arrangement but especially lyrically and tonally.

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Always Doesn't Mean Forever - Hazell Dean
EMI Records - EM8, #92, 1987
Written, arranged & produced by Mike Stock, Matt Aitken & Pete Waterman
Mixed by Pete Hammond