Sunday, 19 May 2019

Hang On... it’s not that bad, is it?

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…!

Monday, 22 October 2018

Review: An Evening with Pete Waterman - The Hit Maker (The Brindley, Runcorn - Wednesday 17 October 2018)

Until last Wednesday night, I'd had two close-but-not-quite encounters with Pete Waterman. The first was in 1989 when my friend and I attended a Radio City Hitman Roadshow hosted by Pete on the Royal Iris Mersey Ferry; a heady mix of Pete, headline act Sonia, and a couple of hundred kids - travelling up and down the River Mersey for two hours. My friend and I wanted to go up and speak to Pete, but we were a bit nervous and didn't quite know what to say -- so after about 90 minutes, we picked up the courage to go over, and my friend asked him when the next Hitman Roadshow was. Of all the things we could have asked (and, as a SAW fan of a few years standing by that point, I had a good few questions), he asked the most pointless question ever. At least he asked, I was too shy to speak! Indeed, our disappointment at blowing the opportunity was only tempered by our amusement when, during Sonia's performance below deck, the ferry lurched in choppy waters and the audience inadvertently rushed forwards -- leading Sonia's Pat-Sharp-lookalike bodyguard (thinking his charge was about to be mobbed) to leap in and protect the singing starlet with a dramatic sweep of his arm.

My second near-miss took place a good 20 or so years later, when I found myself in London's Euston Station waiting for a train to take me home to Liverpool after a day at a very dull conference. I was leaning against the side of the Tie Rack shop when I did a double-take as I saw Pete Waterman, striding purposefully past, carrying two big laundry bags, off to catch a train. I had that split second of "should I go up and say hello?", conjuring up names like Michael Prince and Jeb Million to drop into said quick hello so he knew I was a Real Fan. But then I realised how uncool that would be, and how Pete deserved his privacy like anyone else, and also how a load of Londoners -- used to seeing famous people -- would roll their eyes as I broke the unspoken etiquette of the capital city.

So, as I sat in The Brindley in Runcorn on Wednesday night as part of the audience for An Evening with Pete Waterman - The Hit Maker, I hoped it would be third time lucky.

Pete has been touring venues across the UK in his one-man-show, talking about his life with the main focus on his career in the record industry, and so he took to the stage in Runcorn in Cheshire for the latest instalment in his tour -- calling it a home gig as he lives "just round the corner". The intimate venue of The Brindley was actually a real benefit to proceedings as there was a real sense of familiarity between performer and audience, which also put Pete at ease.

The first half of the show focused on Pete's life and career up to the late 1970s; he told us that he was thought to have died shortly after birth but was brought back to life by a neighbour with a spoonful of brandy and a "whack on the arse"! He showed that his entrepreneurial spirit started early when he "managed" a church choir, earning a pretty penny from arranging performances at funerals, and even picking the hymns! He took us through his early days as a DJ, and talked about how he encountered The Beatles when they played at the Matrix Ballroom in Coventry (where he DJ'd at) -- he said this was the pivotal moment of his life; the moment he knew that he wanted a career in music. He outlined how he picked up Hurts So Good by Susan Cadogan, and issued it on his own label before it was picked up by a major, giving him his first hit. He rounded off the first half with an hilarious story about how John Travolta, by way of thanks for Pete's work on A&R'ing the Grease soundtrack, ordered Pete to buy a car and he'd pick up the bill -- Pete's choice was not to Travolta's liking...!

The second half took Pete through the 1980s; time constraints meant that the early 80s work with Peter Collins for Musical Youth, Tracey Ullman and Nik Kershaw was skated over, but Pete did this so he could cover the Stock Aitken Waterman years in more detail. He referred to Mike Stock and Matt Aitken as "geniuses", which was nice to hear given there have been some disagreements between the parties over the years, and talked about how amazing it was to work with Paul McCartney on the Hillsborough record, all those years after meeting him at the Matrix Ballroom in 1962.

The final part of the show saw Pete open up the stage for a Q&A. Some interesting details emerged here: apparently the Reynolds Girls are now landladies in Ireland; Rick Astley was actually the drummer of the band (FBI) he was in before Pete signed him, and was actually standing in for the lead singer the night Pete went to see the band; Karl Twigg and Mark Topham were determined to produce Steps' 5-6-7-8 in such a way so that Pete wouldn't like it and would drop the whole idea -- and were devastated when he in fact loved it!

He also discussed something I hadn't heard before; many readers have heard Pete discuss that the Bananarama album Please Yourself had originally been designed as an Abba tribute called Abba Banana, but Pete explained that, at one stage, there was a plan for Stock & Waterman to do 6 tracks... with the other 6 tracks to be written & produced by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulveaus!

I got a question in, asking Pete which of the lesser-successful SAW singles in his opinion was "the one that got away"; he seemed stumped initially then commented he'd never been asked that question before! He thought about it some more then said there wasn't one; by which I took to mean that "if it wasn't a hit, it wasn't meant to be a hit".

I felt this Q&A section was possibly the best part of the show; not that there was anything wrong with the earlier sections, more that there was a real sense of community in the room and the show became a conversation. There seemed to be a real warmth towards Pete from the audience, and vice versa -- so it was a shame when Pete said time was up -- I genuinely could have listened to him all night. He's such a good storyteller, but the problem is he has more stories than Hans Christian Anderson  - two and a half hours ain't enough!

The winners of the Twitter competition (with the new PWL enamel pin badges as prizes) were announced at this point; Pete jumped off the stage to present the badges (pretty agile for 71 years old -- we all applauded) and I was first up! So I got my badge, shook Pete's hand and said thanks -- already an improvement on the previous two near-misses. But I wasn't done yet.

So, once out of the auditorium, I waited patiently as Pete had his photo taken with other audience members -- then I took my chance. No need to mention Michael Prince or Jeb Million this time, I just introduced myself, said how much of a fan I was and mentioned this blog. Just a quick chat as there were other people waiting... and to be honest I was worried that if I outstayed my welcome, then Sonia's Pat-Sharp-lookalike bodyguard might leap in and protect Pete with a dramatic sweep of his arm.

But I felt I'd had a proper meeting this time, and all was well with the world as I drove home across the brand spanking new Mersey Gateway bridge. Well worth going out on a school night for, and I'd urge any of you to go along if Pete brings the show to a theatre near you.


Just a quick message to readers to say that the blog has been on enforced hiatus due to my hectic work schedule and personal commitments over the past few months -- but things are starting to clear and new articles are on the way! Thanks for your patience :-)

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Alin Karna: In His Own Words

Songwriter, musician and producer Alin Karna has had a long career in the music industry, but he is known to Stock Aitken Waterman fans as the lead singer of Spelt Like This. I approached Alin whilst researching my detailed article on Spelt Like This, and not only was he kind enough to answer my questions, he actually wrote so much material that I felt it would be a crime to only use it for quotes and additional details for my article. So, Alin and I have reworked the Q&As into this fascinating account - in Alin's own words -- which gives a real insight into his career, the Spelt Like This saga, working with SAW and the record industry in the mid-1980s…

Early days…

I was born during the 1960s in mid July in a British military hospital in Old Delhi, the capital city of India. My parents were on holiday visiting my Dad’s parents; my Mum and Dad met at the North London Poly down in Kentish Town. I grew up and went to school in North London and started playing guitar around the age of 8 or 9 years old. In the second year of junior school, we had a really cool teacher who, I thought, looked and sounded like Jesus who played the guitar and taught us folk songs with his Jumbo steel-string acoustic. I became obsessed with the guitar, and soon learned to play a few chords well enough to play and sing alongside the teacher during the sing-song sessions with the children. Some years later, my parents had divorced and I re-located to Cornwall with my mother. I was soon playing in pubs and hotels with older musicians to earn a bit of pocket money!

When I left school at 16, I returned to London in the summer to stay with my Dad temporarily, and by that Christmas I had joined a professional band who had a record deal and a manager.

This was just after the new wave/punk thing. We were rehearsing down in Pimlico and then we just went out and gigged all over the shop at all the circuit venues in London like The Marquee, Dingwalls and the Music Machine and the Hope & Anchor over in Islington, as well as colleges and that. The band was called The News and was fronted by the shaven-headed lead singer, Sal Solo. The News eventually broke up (with the members later forming Classix Nouveaux), and I got into session work playing guitar, bass and singing background vocals on jingles and television advertising music.

I was really very lucky; I was playing pool one night in the local pub up in Muswell Hill and a Scottish bloke said to me ‘You play the guitar, sonny and you’re left-handed aren’t yuz?’ because he‘d noticed my fingernails. He invited me and my girlfriend round to his posh flat above the shops on the Fortis Green Road to meet his wife, Maggie, and we all got well plastered. This bloke was Billy Gray, a jingle producer working for the Jeff Wayne Music organisation which was one of the main production companies who were hired to create jingles for the top advertising agencies like Young & Rubicam (where my mum worked during the 1970s). I impressed Billy by playing his Yamaha 6-string acoustic upside down the way Jimi Hendrix would do!

As time went on, I was in and out of recording studios and soon put together a band of session players; the singer Rick Driscol was the front man, and Lindsay Elliott was on drums (Lindsay was formerly in The News and before that in Cockney Rebel with his brother Stewart Elliott who co-founded the group with Steve Harley). We recorded two A sides and a B side with Steve Harley producing – me and the bass player, Graham Culpin, had signed exclusive publishing with Elton John’s Rocket Music and Billy got us a singles deal at Pye Records with Dick Leahy. However, the record suffered due to publishing and copyright complications, which prevented its release.

The start of Spelt Like This…

The Spelt Like This story starts when I met Russell McKenzie through Johnny Timms (the keyboard player who later appeared in the Stop This Rumour video) around the end of 1982. Being signed to Rocket meant I had powerful backing, so to speak, and I wanted to put together a sort of Motown/Soul band and call it The Motivations. Rocket agreed to pay for all rehearsal and recording studio costs, so Russell and I started auditioning for the rest of the line up at 414 Studios under the railway arches on the Holloway Road in London. Very soon we had a 7-piece line up, including two girl backing singers.

Russell had known Tom Watkins prior to this and he invited Tom down to see the band in another rehearsal place we were using in Camden. That’s when I first met Tom, and this must have been around Spring 1983, as I recall there was a general election going on at the time and Margaret Thatcher won a second term. This showcase led to Tom, Russell and I talking about working together.

In the following weeks and months, The Motivations were rehearsing for live work and recording 24 track demos but it became clear to me that Russell wanted to begin a new band project with the two of us being equal partners. The first idea for a name for this band, I think by Tom, was Danger Danger, which I wasn’t too keen on. Tom and Russell were suggesting a Wham-type act and were strongly trying to persuade me to abandon the Motown idea and do something fresh.

Another issue was to get me out of my Rocket contract so a bit of a canny strategy was required for that too, so that I was free (in contractual terms) to go in a new direction. Despite all that, I’d requested that Rocket book me a 24 track studio to cut two or three tracks that I had demoed on my Revox B77 at home. Those studio recordings were passed on to Tom who then played them to Trevor Horn and Jill Sinclair at ZTT Records and a meeting was set up. However, Trevor was booked up for the following year so working with him any time soon had to be abandoned for the time being. I was immensely impressed with Tom and how quickly he was able to ‘get things done’; as a result, Russell and I were still discussing a new act (like a cross between Wham and Hall & Oates) with the two of us as equal partners, both in the band itself and with the song writing credits too.

During that summer of 1983, I’d also met Geno Washington who quickly became a friend; he asked me to put together a new backing band for him called The Mojo Kings, so in the autumn of 1983 Russell and I started a long British tour with Gino that went on through to January 1984; Russell played bass and I played lead guitar. Both of us decided to quit as we doubted that Geno was going to suddenly become a superstar and we decided to go back to working on some fresh material.

By around January/February 1984, Tom had come up with the name Spelt Like This. Russell had bought a Tascam 4 track and a Yamaha DX7, so we started writing and recording our first demos. As far as I can remember Russell had never actually written a song until he met me. He was a reasonably accomplished bass player but his real skills were in engineering (he was working as the resident live engineer at the Embassy Club in Mayfair when I met him) and he wanted to be a record producer. I, on the other hand, had been writing songs from the age of 9, became a professional guitarist at 16 and signed my first exclusive publishing deal at 18 with Elton John’s Rocket Music.

I recall having to drive from North London down to Forest Hill in South London each day to work long hours with Russell. I also recall our first photo shoot -- at London Zoo of all places (LOL) -- arranged by Tom, who by this time had well established himself with his companies XL Design and Massive Management spread across two floors of offices in Poland Street W1.

It was around Spring 1984 that we signed a management agreement with Tom, and also drafted up a partnership contract for Spelt Like This. There were a few disagreements over the ownership of that name but in the end I agreed to Russell owning that potential brand name; I suppose, thinking back, that I was so driven and ambitious back then, I‘d do almost anything to be successful.

In that summer of 1984, Tom had secured us an exclusive publishing deal with Warner Brothers Music, then by September a major record contract with EMI; the latter followed a bidding war between EMI and MCA that Tom had handled quite masterfully; he was quite capable and formidable, and we were very fortunate to have such strong and creative management.

After all the hard work we had done writing and recording enough songs for a debut album, and being groomed by Tom, we felt proud that we had achieved being signed to Warners and EMI. At this point there was talk about bringing in a third member of the group; I agreed a third member would balance us out and very much strengthen our writing capability so while I was learning dance, mime and stagecraft at the Pineapple and Covent Garden Dance Centres, Russell and Tom began auditioning for a third member to join and contribute to Spelt Like This;  Alan (Lima) Rawlings was appointed and was perfect for us in many ways.

The agreement between Russell and me then, when we started writing the SLT songs, was that we would simply split all credits and royalties 50/50. Once Rawlings joined we then agreed on an equal three-way split as was set up by the limited company partnership agreement between us. I have to add that the recruitment of Alan (Lima) Rawlings substantially improved things and was extremely beneficial to the project as he was, and I imagine, still is a hugely talented songwriter and musician and a wonderful poet and lyricist who came up with fabulous song ideas.

The next task was to find the right producer for Spelt Like This; once we had signed and secured the EMI recording contract, I think we felt as if we could pick anyone we wanted to work with. We felt on top of the world and that our future was assured (of course) but the reality was very different! We discussed a number of possibilities but so much was also subject to availability and schedules as was with Trevor Horn, which was mentioned above; he clearly had his hands full at the time including Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Art Of Noise, Grace Jones, Yes and others -- it follows that all the best ones are the busiest and hardest to book. I really liked Trevor and would loved to have worked with him, I was always a big Yes fan when I was a teenager.

Instead, our first proper recording sessions were with the American producer Stuart Levine, who had big success with Womack & Womack and later had even more success with Simply Red. He was what was described as ‘old school’ with his recording production methods and somehow he was suddenly flown over to work with us. These sessions took place at Townhouse 3 for what ended up being a fortnight to record Contract Of The Heart and Stop This Rumour both as prospective A sides. I think, looking back, Russell in particular was deeply unhappy with these sessions but actually all three of us had soon decided that the direction it was taking was not what we were looking for. Levine had the London Community Gospel Choir booked in for background vocal parts and a live drummer playing a dance beat throughout (a bit like Levine's production on Womack & Womack's Love Wars). No disrespect to these musicians at all; in fact, we thought they were all truly wonderful but it was simply not the style we were looking for.

Working with Stock Aitken Waterman…

At the time, the latest innovations (after drum machines and MIDI sequencers) were samplers. I think the band preferred to go with the latest technological wonders such as the AMS sampling effects on records by Chaka Khan, Scritti Politti and Prince, as well as those used in what was called hi-NRG dance music. Stewart Levine, the genius and very experienced producer that he was, was not what we wanted so I suppose we were then in a pickle and we needed to quickly find a replacement. Stock Aitken Waterman happened to be available and around the corner in Wardour Street at just at the right time; we immediately got on very well with them and the next thing we knew was we were then booked into the Marquee Studios to start recording the same two A side contenders, Contract of the Heart and Stop This Rumour.

I had written Contract of the Heart in the summer of 1983 and I can still vividly remember it because the experience was almost a religious or ‘numinous’ one for me. It is so hard to describe the magic of writing songs; sometimes they take 5 minutes to write when other songs can take 10 years or more to complete. The only contribution to that song that Russell made was a 1 bar rhythmic riff or mid bass keyboard (DX7) figure throughout the track that was featured on the first two demos. When we began recording and formatting the track with Matt Aitken and Mike Stock, we realised we needed to write a third and final verse so this is where Tom came in with a bit of poetry: a few lines of text written at the last minute for the third verse. Russell may have helped him but I’m not so sure about that.

I do vaguely remember some bickering over the credits for the St Valentine’s Day Mascara track (which was the B-side of Contract of the Heart). Typically the band would stay out of it and leave such matters to the management. Russell and I did have a song in mind called ‘Bonkers’ which was one of our demo songs that was a bit of a tongue-in-cheek throwaway tune but I suppose as the release date for Contract of the Heart was set for St Valentine's Day (1985), someone came up with the Mascara idea; it was probably Tom who came up with the title so it was agreed to record a B-side with that theme. I’m just glad they didn’t play it when we appeared on the Saturday Superstore kids’ show! It was a lot of fun to do and also a welcome break from the intense days and days of studio time concentrating on the two A-sides. I remember Matt and Mike had a backing track up within a few hours ready for us to add sampled voices, machine guns and other noises. I think we all had a go at the voice parts, it was a real laugh and we all looked forward to then being creative on the rest of the album.

As well as Mascara, I recall beginning quite a few structures for other tracks (Walking Not Falling, Double Dare and Emocean) at the Marquee Studios before that Christmas, so as well as the two singles we actually got a great deal of pre-production work done in the few weeks we were at that initial studio.

In January 1985, EMI booked us in to the Ridge Farm Studios near Dorking for a week for the specific task of beginning the pre-production stage as described above of many of the songs for our debut album that was later to be named Word Perfect; I think it was Tom who came up with that after he’d got back from a brief trip to New York as I recall.

We resumed recording in SAW's new studio in Sanctuary Street in South London; we were there for weeks and weeks and I recall all the building work that was going on to install the new SSL (Solid State Logic) fully automated huge mixing consoles.

We recorded the following tracks with SAW for the projected Word Perfect album:

Contract Of The Heart;
Stop This Rumour;
Walking Not Falling;
Larger Than Lions;
Lovers Lost No Return;
Out Of Water;
Centre Of Attention;
Double Dare;
Love Surrender & Devotion; and

We also recorded St Valentine's Mascara with SAW for the B side to Contract of the Heart. In addition, there were other songs we wrote as a band – including Stop This Rumour B-side The Alphabet - but these are the ones we recorded with SAW.

I sang all the vocals on the album and one of good things about working with SAW was my close working relationship with Mike Stock who was the musical, piano player member of the production team (whereas Matt Aitken primarily created the rhythms and bass lines). Mike was very good at coming up with vocal parts that weaved in and out of my basic three-part harmony blocks in the choruses and with counter parts. This very much added to the texture of the backing vocals that were all quadruple tracked; I remember with Contract of the Heart there were so many backing vocal channels we had to ‘slave up’ to a second 24-track, 2 inch multitrack tape machine.

When it came to lead vocals, it was Russell who produced and navigated those recording sessions, both at the demo stage and then with Mike and Pete doing the masters. We used a very special microphone called the Calrec Soundfield; I was told only a handful of singers and vocalists had used it before, apparently including David Bowie and Stevie Wonder. I can tell you that having worked for years with different microphones and headphones, this microphone was like a quantum leap for me in recording vocals; for the first time not having to remove part of one side of my headphones, or ‘cans’ as we called them, in order to hear my own voice above the level of the backing track. Singing with the Calrec and using the highest quality studio cans was almost like hearing the full production of the record as you performed live along with it (as opposed to having selected elements of the backing track to sing to in a ‘headphone mix’).

Alan (Lima) Rawlings played the guitars, particularly the lead guitar solos. There was a lot of sampling of guitars too, a technique that was becoming a lot more popular at that time. Indeed the AMS (Advanced Music Systems) sampler became a very useful tool to sample, for example, a block of multi-tracked backing vocals. Then that sample of chorus backing vocals could be ’spun in’ on all the choruses on the track; this way we need only to record one main chorus block of harmonies instead of having to record all the choruses sections in the song from ‘wall to wall’ or from beginning to end.

Matt would start any recording with a Linn Drum basic pattern, then some chords and a bass part were added with a rough guide vocal and it went from there.

When you have the talent, experience and ability that Mike Stock and Matt Aitken had, you don’t really need many more musicians other than obviously singers and vocalists. Most of time, Rawlings and I kept out of the control room but Russell was ever present with the recording production process with SAW because he wanted to learn as much as he could to fulfil his ambition to become a record producer. Most of the bass was sampled but there may have been some real bass guitar which would have been played by Russell. I remember doing some of the pre-production piano parts and some pads as well as some bass sequencing at the early stages as well; I knew the chords of course because I had written the tunes. Often there were sessions with Mike and Matt to go over the basic chords and key signatures of each song also referring to the demo version; I’d have an acoustic guitar or we worked at the piano and Matt would develop a drum loop and we would decide on the correct tempo for the track.

It was very much a joint effort but you cannot take away the speed and efficiency Mike and Matt worked with when starting new tracks right through to final mixes. Having top class engineers working on the project helps too as their input was always being invaluable at that level; Phil Harding was the main mix engineer; this was obviously earlier in his career and he's obviously achieved many great things since then.

Other musicians and specialists were brought in for the SAW sessions, particularly keyboard players and session technicians who knew how to operate the gear they brought into the studios (like the Fairlight) to come up with specific sounds like bass samples and other specific analogue as well as digital textures.

I have heard that Tom Watkins, Phil Harding and Pete Waterman have written about the Spelt Like This sessions, generally taking the view that they were “difficult”; I’m not exactly sure what that means -- I think I do have an idea but it comes from a perspective that was very much limited because I was kept out of the politics, as it were, and the relationships between the band’s manager, the record company and the record producers. I think Rawlings was too, to a large extent. Throughout the SLT project it was Russell who very much had Tom’s ear so to speak, and that was the way it worked. Russell was the band’s key spokesperson and representative and that was quite correct because after all he ultimately WAS Spelt Like This as was agreed within the partnership that was set up for the three members of the group. In retrospect, I can see how this makes a great deal of sense from a business point of view; you see so many groups out there who, years and years later, have huge rows when they split up over ownership and the right to use the name of the ‘act’. This issue was clearly of importance and had to be agreed and settled from the onset. From my point of view I felt I had a job to do, a part to play in the recording process and that was frankly enough on my plate as well as writing new material, studying dance and stagecraft for live work, doing photo shoots and personal appearances and dealing with some of the petty bureaucratic details that come hand in hand with working in the corporate world such as answering fan mail, signing cheques and attending meetings with accountants and lawyers.

You simply cannot have too many people in a recording studio control room during most of the recording process. Rawlings and I knew and accepted this so we respectfully stayed out. As far as Watkins, Waterman and the EMI bosses were concerned, we had very little idea what was happening in their ongoing discussions and negotiations. I think Rawlings and I were unaware of the rows going on between Russell and Tom as well; we just didn’t know what was going on in the background, we were not kept up to date properly as two members of the band, two co-songwriters and business partners -- what should have been two key people in the whole episode. If there were any difficulties during the recording process, it would have occurred between those who were in the studio control room and certainly not with the two members of the group who were treated as no more than session players on the project.

Contract of the Heart was scheduled for a February release, and this was heralded by a brilliant marketing, publicity and promotion campaign Tom and his design team had created for Spelt Like This; this was based on the theme of anagrams and wordplay: for example, everyone who was anyone in the music business at the time each received a personal sweatshirt with an anagram of their name for Christmas (often quite witty as with the playing around of letters on the Fawlty Towers title sequence). I had one but it was lost, either borrowed or stolen, so I have no idea where it is like all the tons of Spelt Like This promotional paraphernalia, some of it no doubt still knocking around out there somewhere!

During and after the release of Contract of the Heart (at which point we were still working with SAW), there was a great deal of hard, 7-day a week work going on (including photo shoots, TV and public appearances etc) and a massive sense of pressure for everyone involved but I think the real moment when things rapidly began to go downhill for the whole thing was when we stopped working with SAW and after that Russell took control over the recording and mixing process.

Our time working with SAW at the Sanctuary Street studios came to an end -- mainly because they had to move on to the very many projects they had lined up and were booked for to do in the future. In other words, they had commitments and the SLT debut album project was well behind schedule and obviously threatening to disrupt schedules. As a result, we had an album that was mostly completed but still needed additional work before final mixes and mastering.

The end of Spelt Like This…

There was a post-SAW period when we worked at Sarm West Studios with Nick Froome; Nick had worked with us at Marquee Studios and PWL Studios. I think he was very much involved with the Stop This Rumour 12 inch and the B side to that record too (The Alphabet). We also worked with Blue Weaver at his own recording studio over in West London; he had worked with The Bee Gees amongst others.

I’m afraid I wasn’t happy with the way the final tracks turned out! Not at all. I can only speak for myself but I can assure you -- and I am confident of this -- that Rawlings was also deeply unhappy with the way the songs turned out in the end as far as any final mixes were concerned. Both of us were unhappy about lots of things...

It’s obvious to me, in retrospect, that because so much money had been invested in the act with little to show for it, someone was bound to point the finger of blame at someone else because the project ended up being one monumental disaster and failure -- and to this day I am still trying to figure it out. ‘It was not our best moment’ comes to mind, and I can only just imagine what was said around certain boardrooms and offices at the time. I was told lots of very nasty things were said, rumours were spread and so on about the band being difficult to work with and worse things than that.

If that was true then it would have been slanderous and very unjustified because I remember just working as hard as possible, doing the best job I could do and as professionally as I could -- and as far as I can recall I got on with most people fine; the only rows I had were with Russell and Alan Rawlings from time to time as would be expected with brothers-in-arms so to speak, being as close as we were at the time.

It is very typical when the so-called ‘powers that be’ (wherever they happen to operate and in whatever circumstances) will always close ranks and join together to point the finger and place the blame on other entities when things go drastically wrong and when it suits them in order to protect themselves from any culpability or accountability. Someone really messed up with the SLT band project and to this day I don’t know why Contract of the Heart didn’t chart high enough to get us on Top Of The Pops back in 1985. Perhaps it had to do with product distribution timing and the actual availability of the records in the shops in time for that week during the promotion. Maybe someone out there can explain to me what exactly happened.

(On this point, Rawlings and I went to see Dave Ambrose (the EMI A&R who signed SLT) over at London Records in 1990/91. We had some new demos we’d recorded in LA to play him. All he had to say about the SLT project was that “there was a lot of bad blood” over it. I didn’t blame him for not wanting to elaborate on that because I respected him very much when others in our camp regarded him in unkind terms).

Perhaps the reader may be able to work it out but for myself and Rawlings (who was dreadfully embarrassed and unhappy about it all, particularly from when we did the Contract promo video), we still to this day have trouble understanding what caused the catastrophic failure it turned out to be.

The failure of Contract of the Heart -- and later on, of Stop The Rumour -- was very hard indeed. It was very frustrating and extremely disappointing. I can only speak for myself here because I lost contact with the other two members and indeed with anyone at the management, EMI, Warners or SAW from about the middle July 1985 onwards. During the period between the release dates of the two singles and things starting to go out of control behind the scenes, I was certainly becoming more and more unhappy and jaded with the situation. I also felt that we’d spent far too much time with the debut album and we should have been moving forward much faster given the situation with the debut single.

I wanted to go out and perform live -- for the band to prove itself as a live act -- and to this end, I had trained and prepared myself as best as I could. However, I had been very much kept out of the loop (as I said earlier), as far as the decision-making process was concerned. To be honest, I was approached by a few highly placed individuals, who I would prefer not name here, who asked me if I had considered getting myself away from Tom Watkins and Russell and do a solo thing or another act completely. I got the impression they were not particularly comfortable when dealing with the people around me but they liked me and would have been happy to work with me if I could get out of the situation. However, I have to admit in hindsight that I was very naïve and blindly loyal to Russell and Alan in particular, so I carried on during those weeks and days that led up to my eventual resignation from the band partnership.

Things really came to a head following the video shoot of the Stop This Rumour single at the Shaw Theatre. This was all happening around the time of the Live Aid concerts and as a matter of fact the last time I saw Russell was the Monday morning following that weekend. It wasn’t that the band was calling it a day, but more of an uncontrolled demolition that happened over a period of weeks as things were disintegrating in slow motion. After Russell had taken over the album’s production process, the atmosphere had become unpleasant and there was bullying, false accusations and threats. On one or two occasions, there was even violence; I remember once, Russell and I had a ‘disagreement’ outside one of the control rooms at Sarm West Studios after which I resumed the vocal recording session with a bloody nose. (You should have seen Russell!). It was like two brothers having a little punch up but things were getting more and more nasty with Russell feeling so under pressure and everything and under those conditions, there was no option for me other than to leave.

Later on I found out that there was an attempt to replace me with another lead singer after the Stop This Rumour video had actually already been released! I don’t know what was going on in Russell and Tom’s minds but the whole video was re-shot and edited with one of the backing singers instead of me as the front man. By this time, I was out of the picture anyway so I really didn’t know what was happening between the band, the management and the record company -- or I should say, I knew even less about what was going on than I did when I was actually in the band. The outcome, as predictable as it would have been then, was that Spelt Like This got dropped by EMI Records as well as Warner Brothers Music Publishing when the options came up for renewal later that year.

After Spelt Like This…

Despite all the disasters with Russell and Tom, the Spelt Like This project did not end my music career. On the contrary, it drove my own personal ambition to succeed even harder. My song writing continued to get better and better as well as my confidence in myself. Most importantly, I had broken free from all contractual ties. Again, with the benefit of hindsight, I think I had every intention of climbing right back to the levels achieved earlier; I had been poised for great success by signing to a major record company and so on, and with strong management I wanted to be in that position again as soon as possible.

A couple of years later, I got in touch with Alan Rawlings and we started writing and recording again together; for us at least, the Spelt Like This / EMI / Massive Management era was very much behind us. Looking back, although we both suffered from some form of post-traumatic-stress-disorder by surviving a fall from a pretty substantial height, we were still very ambitious and keen to move forward with fresh ideas vowing not to repeat the same mistakes as before and remaining true to ourselves in producing work that was of a very much higher quality and authenticity; in other words the intention was to create an act that was quite different from SLT in so many ways.

In 1988 I went out to California and by that autumn, I was living in Venice Beach, L.A. One evening I received a very unexpected call; it was Russell McKenzie. He was very polite, and explained to me that he’d got my Los Angeles phone number from my sister in North London. We hadn’t spoken since that fateful Monday in the middle of July 1985. He sounded very different; I could barely understand him as his speech was slow and slurred but straight away he told me why he was phoning me. He said he wanted to tell me how sorry he was about all that had happened with Spelt Like This. I was a little taken aback and I recall mumbling something along the lines that we both knew what we were letting ourselves in for and we knew how tough the music industry was and so on. He said Tom let us down, he had "taken the money and run" and then Russell asked me would I forgive him? I didn’t know what to say, I just hesitated but then heard my own voice replying; ‘Of course I forgive you Russell, I didn’t write a song called Contract of the Heart for nothing mate!’. I swear I heard him sobbing before we then ended that brief transatlantic phone call in late 1988, the last time I ever heard from him. I didn’t think much of it at the time, I was so busy focused on what I was doing there in Hollywood, I just remember a slight bit of satisfaction and that I had finally been vindicated.

Years and years later (around about 2002-2003) I was again in touch with Alan Rawlings (or Lima, as I always called him). Indeed, we’d stayed in touch on and off, and at one time he came out to stay with me and my then girlfriend/partner in Los Angeles. We were working on new material in our own project studio facility at our house in Burbank. However, by the early naughties I had moved down to Devon and one day casually suggested to Lima that we should try to get in touch with Russell. He agreed he would try to get Russell’s contact details through his mother in Basildon, Essex. A few days later I was extremely shocked to hear from Rawlings that he had indeed contacted Russell’s mum and had found out that Russell had died years earlier (I think it was either in late 1988 or 1989) apparently in a road traffic accident.

It was truly devastating news to me and naturally, I recalled our phone conversation in Venice Beach and wondered how long after that call was it that he died. I was in shock and went into a period of terrible grief and great sadness for weeks and weeks after hearing the dreadful news and I have not spoken to Rawlings since either.

I loved Russell like a brother. I looked up to him and respected him for his intelligence, strong will and tremendous talent. Like two brother warriors, we vowed to make it big in the music business together and to get to the very top. We were young, tough, hard-working, and completely fearless and we had huge ambitions to reach the highest achievements; and were prepared to work all the hours under the sun and to do whatever was necessary to be successful. Our slogan and motto was ‘whatever it takes’ and no one and nothing was ever going to be allowed to get in our way. It was precisely those qualities that were required as well as having a genuine music talent but only if you were absolutely determined and wanted it hard enough…

Looking back

I don’t think there is anything more than this I can add. I think the reader can deduce for themselves from what I have written here but this was part of my experience of the music business in the 1980s and I have to admit that it has taken me many, many years to get over it all. Today, I feel like an old veteran who is looking back, always wondering ‘what if’?

I am grateful for this opportunity to have my say and perhaps set some records straight (no pun intended!) even if it is more than three decades since this all took place!

And if I may add; I learned many years ago that you do not have to be famous, rich and powerful to be loved. All you need to do is just be a good person. When we look at the state of the world today, I have been asked a few times ‘What can we do?’. My answer is you can do your best because if everyone did their very best, the evil in this world would just simply dissolve.

© Alin Karna 2017


My thanks to Alin for his insight, honesty and huge contribution. Alin is still writing, producing and recording via his English Riviera Productions company, and is also promoting the use of 432hz music with Ananda Bosman and others.

Alin’s most recent album Providence is available on CD, plus via download and streaming via iTunes, Amazon and Spotify. It's a terrific album, very diverse and often very moving; I'd urge all readers to check it out, but in particular, I'd like to draw your attention to one track in particular "It's Your Heart".


A look at the ambitious but ultimately troubled collaboration between the fledging Stock Aitken Waterman production team and high-profile EMI pop act Spelt Like This…

Possibly more than any other decade, the 1980s was a period of excess for the music industry. I’m not simply talking about artists and how they lived the rock and roll life, I’m also talking about the sheer amount of money spent by the major record companies.
Vast amounts of money were plunged into albums with recording sessions lasting months, into ground-breaking videos and into remarkable marketing campaigns.
Whilst this investment was repaid in many cases, there were a number of acts heavily promoted during the 1980s who were unable, for whatever reason, to break through and achieve the success they desperately craved. Those of us who were around at the time may fondly recall acts such as Drum Theater, Habit, and Two People – bands with good material but just didn’t seem to resonate with the record buying public.
The above mentioned acts were just the tip of the iceberg; the 1980s seemed littered with such acts with great promise that would ultimately be unfulfilled.
As we know, Stock Aitken Waterman were involved with a number of acts who were similarly unable to make that breakthrough, but one of their early projects is, in particular, a fascinating snapshot of how the music industry operated at that time.

Spelt Like This was a three-piece band comprising of three talented musicians, managed by Tom Watkins (who would later manage Pet Shop Boys, Bros and East 17) and signed to EMI Records. The band, as with many of that period, was promoted with an elaborate marketing campaign and boasted production from the hot production team of Stock Aitken Waterman.
However, this promising proposition resulted in two flop singles, a shelved album and an overall experience that Pete Waterman described as “the biggest travesty I’ve been involved in in my life”.
The story of Spelt Like This starts with Tom Watkins. Watkins was, by the mid 1980s, an emerging music industry figure, though his focus at that time was on design, branding and marketing. His XL Design company enjoyed great success with its design and promotional work for Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Kim Wilde and others, but Watkins was also developing a parallel career in music management and was keen to create his own hit pop act.
Some years earlier, Watkins had managed a band called Portraits and had used the bassist of that band, Russell McKenzie, for an album cover photo shoot for another of his acts, Grand Hotel, who were signed to CBS Records.
By the end of 1982, McKenzie had met a vocalist called Alan Richards (later known as Alin Karna), who was signed to Rocket Music, and became involved in Karna’s new venture, a seven-piece soul band called The Motivations. McKenzie invited Watkins to see the band, which led to Watkins discussing spinning Karna and McKenzie off into a new two-piece pop band.
In his fascinating Let's Make Lots Of Money autobiography, Watkins says he took Karna & McKenzie out of The Motivations and teamed them up with guitarist Alan Rawlings to form what Watkins termed as a “manufactured act like Frankie”. Given Watkins’ close working with Frankie Goes To Hollywood, ZTT Records and genius producer Trevor Horn, he must have seen the opportunity to take a group of musicians and wrap them up in a controlled production and marketing package. Like at least three members of Frankie, the members of Spelt Like This were musicians so one wonders what they would have thought of Watkins’ intention, whether they were fully aware of it or not.
With this newly-formed band commencing work on writing material and recording demos, Watkins set to work on developing his masterplan.
Watkins states that the name Spelt Like This was devised as a promotional gimmick, “a punchy, Scrabble-inspired moniker. It could be jumbled up into anagrams to circulate to the press to generate the maximum buzz”.
Watkins would eventually sign the band to EMI, after negotiations with EMI’s A&R manager Dave Ambrose. Ambrose is a legendary music figure, having been a former member of influential progressive rock band King Crimson, and had signed both The Sex Pistols and Duran Duran to EMI Records.
Watkins believes his XL success and proximity to Frankie Goes To Hollywood helped in this regard, and indeed, it appears that discussions took place with Horn to produce Spelt Like This; given Watkins association with Horn and ZTT, one can see the sensibility in such a move, but it appears that Horn’s workload at the time closed off that avenue.
Spelt Like This initially worked with producer Stuart Levine (Womack & Womack, Simply Red) but the band became unhappy with the direction Levine was taking – the band wanted to go down a more electronic route - and these sessions were aborted.
Interestingly, it appears that synth wizard Tony Mansfield (New Musik, a-ha) was also approached to produce the band, but declined after hearing the demos on that basis that “they weren’t his cup of tea”.
It then came to pass that Stock Aitken Waterman were approached to work on the Spelt Like This project in late 1984; by this point, the trio had scored two big hits with Divine and Hazell Dean, and whilst the follow-ups for those two acts had just missed out on Top 40 placings, it was clear that they were a production team in the ascendant. (Indeed, Watkins was at this time also keen for Stock Aitken Waterman to produce the first Pet Shop Boys album, Please).
By all accounts, the recording sessions for the SAW-produced SLT sessions were very frustrating for all concerned. Aside from the fact that recording was taking place in Waterman’s new Borough studio which was still in the process of being fitted out (with additional recording taking place at Ridge Farm Studios in Surrey), tensions were rising between the act’s manager and the producers.
Phil Harding, who engineering and mixed the SAW-produced SLT material, notes in his excellent PWL From The Factory Floor book that “we just couldn’t please Tom Watkins or the record company”, and adds that Stock & Aitken were frustrated by the fact that Waterman was not present for much of the recording process, which suggests that they were left to deal with the exacting demands of Watkins and EMI.
For his part, Watkins, in his autobiography, states that the work on Spelt Like This’s album “was not going well”, and makes reference to its “difficult birth”. He does, amusingly, add that “SAW declared that the songs were substandard and the band lacked talent (this from the people who would later give the world The Reynolds Girls)”.
From Karna’s perspective, he says he was largely unaware of these troubles, adding that it was McKenzie and Watkins representing the band in such discussions, with he and Rawlings left out. Karna says he really enjoyed the recording process, with particular fondness for his close working with Mike Stock.
In relation to the songs, Watkins mentions that he “started writing with Russell (McKenzie). We wrote big, catchy songs, majestic anthems that I was certain would become permanent fixtures on daytime radio… I supplied the words and some of the hooks, and Russell wrote the music”.
This is an interesting observation, as Watkins is not credited for songwriting on any of the tracks (though that alone does not suggest he did not contribute). Certainly, Karna states he originally wrote Contract of the Heart in 1983, and agrees that Watkins contributed lyrics to the third verse at the time it was recorded with SAW – however, the published credit on the sleeve is McKenzie / Richards / Rawlings (with Karna credited as Richards; he would change his name to Alin Karna post-Spelt Like This).
According to Karna, Spelt Like This recorded 10 tracks (all written by the band) with SAW for inclusion on their projected debut album, Word Perfect: Contract of The Heart / Stop This Rumour / Walking Not Falling / Larger Than Lions / Lovers Lost No Return / Out of Water / Bonkers / Centre of Attention / Double Dare / Love Surrender & Devotion / Emocean. (A further track would also be recorded for the B-side of their debut single.)
Karna states that the songwriting duties in Spelt Like This were largely led by him, with contributions from McKenzie. Karna adds that Rawlings, by virtue of joining the band later, had less to do with the majority of the songs, but all three wrote Love Surrender & Devotion together, and Emocean was solely a Rawlings composition.
Contract of the Heart, recorded in December 1984, was selected as the debut single from Spelt Like This. It’s a very strong track, with a beguiling melody, plus heartfelt if slightly elliptical lyrics; it is clear that Karna wears his heart on his sleeve with this composition.
The whole thing is wrapped up in a lovely arrangement and production courtesy of SAW; Neil Tennant, in a 2006 interview for Popjustice, noted that SAW were going for the Scritti Politti sound, and others have made that comparison, but if that was indeed the inspiration, then SAW bring their own sensibilities to it. Sure, the chiming guitar riffs are a clear nod to Scritti Politti, but the warm synth pads, noodling bass and crisp percussion give Contract of the Heart real warmth and match the emotion of the lyrics.
At this time, it is understood that SAW often created a 12 inch as the master and would then edit the track down into a 7” version. Listening to both versions of Contract of the Heart, it certainly sounds like that was the case, and whilst the 7” version is perfectly fine, the track definitely works better in its extended form.
The B-side carried the SAW-produced instrumental St Valentine’s Day Mascara (Say It With Cadavers) and its extended variant 12 inch Extensive Massacre. Credited to all three band members for composition, the track was based on an instrumental backing created by Mike Stock and Matt Aitken, with the additional elements and samples contributed by the band and the producers. Whilst this track is not a typical pop track and does not have vocals, it’s a great experimental track that one feels would have made an impact on the charts had it been an A-side.

With the release date set for February 1985, Watkins and EMI set about a huge promotional campaign for both band and single, in which no expense was spared.
A wealth of SLT-branded promotional items was issued to TV, radio and press outlets to generate coverage for the band and their much-anticipated debut single; these apparently included badges, T-shirts and even a dictionary.
The music press carried a number of advertisements for the single, building up from small ads many weeks before release to full page ads in time for the release date.

The 7” and 12” singles came in double covers, as one would get with a vinyl album. The outer cover was die-cut, with square holes displaying the letters printed on the inner cover to reveal the title of the single. The inner sleeve of the 12" single included photographs of a naked male lower torso on one side, and a naked female lower torso on the other.

Interestingly, the record carries the credit “Produced by WASP”, which is an acronym for Waterman Aitken Stock Productions. Certainly, there were a number of variations of the SAW credits at this time before they settled on Stock Aitken Waterman, but this is an especially interesting one.
Two promo videos were produced for the track: a live action one, helmed by prolific music video director Andy Morahan, featuring the band performing the track on a globe, with flag-bearing representatives from the world’s continents at the sidelines until all come together for the final renditions of the chorus. Featuring various optical effects and archive footage, it’s a typically overwrought 80s pop video.

The second video is a largely animated affair, created by Big Pictures, which incorporates elements of the live-action version; it’s a crazy kaleidoscope of words, pictures, logos and graphics. It’s not the best fit for a thoughtful track like Contract of the Heart but it arguably carries more impact than the live action version. Interestingly, Rawlings (in comments posted on YouTube) states that he never knew the animated version existed until it appeared on YouTube in recent years!

Sure, there was a great deal of hype around launching new artists in the mid-80s, and one may argue that Spelt Like This was more a vehicle for Tom Watkins than anything else. But there must have been a degree of confidence in the band and its material to justify this expense – and certainly Contract of the Heart was a strong track. Some might say it doesn’t have the impact of, say, Relax by Frankie Goes To Hollywood, but it was certainly no worse than much of the chart fare back in 1985.
However, the best the track could manage was a #91 placing in the UK Singles Chart, which must have been devastating for the band, for the label and certainly, for Watkins. This chart position must have given all parties pause for thought. Especially, it appears, Stock Aitken Waterman. If Mike, Matt and Pete were utterly frustrated by the difficulty of the recording sessions with Spelt Like This and Watkins, then the commercial failure of the first single must have been the final straw.
Waterman’s autobiography I Wish I Was Me states that he decided to withdraw from the SLT project in the spring of 1985 (he refers to a Bank Holiday so it’s likely this was April or May), and this timeline is borne out by an account in Phil Harding’s book where he says the project ended in April or May 1985.
It is fascinating that, given the act’s lack of success, so much space in given to them in Waterman’s and Watkins’ autobiographies, as well as in Phil Harding’s book. It is clear that the whole experience was keenly felt by those involved, from the high hopes Watkins and EMI had for the band through to the apparent struggle of SAW to produce material which met the satisfaction of Watkins and Spelt Like This.
As Waterman’s biography outlines, the entire SAW operation was still burgeoning at this point in early 1985 and finances were especially precarious. Therefore, it must have been a difficult decision to make to pull out of a big commission and potentially have to give back much-needed income. Waterman refers to a “huge argument” with EMI after telling them he and SAW no longer wanted to work on the SLT project, but it was agreed that SAW would withdraw. The tapes of the SAW sessions were given to EMI, and all parties could move on.
(Interestingly, Stock suggests in his autobiography that Watkins attempted to poach he and Aitken away from Waterman around this time).
Karna says that, despite suggestions that SAW did not complete the album recording, SAW did in fact provide 11 largely completed tracks back to EMI, but they had not reached the stage of final mix and mastering. To that end, further work would be required prior to any release.
Karna states that McKenzie took the lead on this additional production work, alongside producer and engineer Nick Froome (Pet Shop Boys, Stephen Tintin Duffy). Again, it appears that these sessions were fraught with difficulties, with tensions rising between the band members.
The second Spelt Like This single, Stop This Rumour, emerged in July 1985. Whilst production was credited to Stock Aitken Waterman, additional production and mixing was credited to McKenzie and Froome for both the 7” and 12” Lust Mix. (Harding’s own discography refers to an unreleased 12” mix of this track).

Stop This Rumour
was a different beast to Contract of the Heart; it was bold, brash and in your face. Driven along with a pulsing synth bass, chiming guitar riffs and day-glo synth lines, Stop This Rumour has a catchy chorus complemented by interesting verses.
It is difficult to tell how much of the finished product can be accredited to SAW, or to Froome & McKenzie, but this sparse, more electronic sounding track lacks the richness and polish of Contract. That said, it’s a good track, and deserved a better reception that it would ultimately receive.
The B-side carried an experimental instrumental track, The Alphabet, written by the band, and produced by McKenzie and Froome. Based around a Speak and Spell-style voice running through the alphabet with example word, this synth-led workout is great fun.

Whilst EMI was surely looking to recoup the huge amount of money it had invested in the project, this time round both marketing and packaging were more low-key. Available in 7” and 12” format, the packaging was fairly standard if high quality. There was a single video, featuring the band performing on stage in a theatre watched by a passive audience decked out in 3D glasses.

However, Stop This Rumour fared worse than its predecessor, failing to reach the Top 100 UK Singles Chart. Aside from the relative lack of promotion, what didn’t help was that the band effectively imploded at the time of release, with Karna walking out of the band as the in-fighting became too much to take. This led to the bizarre move of Watkins roping in vocalist Michael Duignan (later of short-lived MCA act Jet Vegas) as replacement lead singer, and using greenscreen technology to place Duignan into the video – whilst retaining Karna’s original lead vocals!

Whilst this was still an era of record companies giving struggling acts numerous chances at a Top 40 hit, the fact was that both Spelt Like This singles had failed even to reach the Top 75 and it would seem that EMI had little confidence in the act to invest any more money into a third single or album release. As a result, Stop This Rumour was the final release from Spelt Like This. The tracks completed for the album continue to languish away in the EMI archives, little-heard and largely forgotten. (It is worth noting that Spelt Like This did get a further release in 2015 as part of the Edsel Say I’m Your Number One SAW singles boxset, which contained a CD single bringing together all of the previously released SAW SLT tracks and mixes).
One fascinating postscript is that Fergus Harper, who was the lead singer of 80s band The Europeans (which also included a pre-Marillion Steve Hogarth), did some session work for Watkins after The Europeans had split in 1985, which included him singing lead vocals on the unreleased Spelt Like This tracks. Whilst these recordings would go unreleased, Karna wonders whether McKenzie and Watkins (or indeed EMI or Warner Brothers Publishing) were looking at ways of exploiting these Spelt Like This tracks.
Regarding Spelt Like This themselves, the band split shortly after the failure of Stop This Rumour, despite the last-minute substitution of Karna with Duignan. Karna later reunited with Rawlings on a number of projects, and has in recent years been working on solo material. Sadly, Russell McKenzie passed away in the late 1980s.
It is interesting to note that, soon after the decision to withdraw from the Spelt Like This project, Stock and Aitken set to work on a demo reel of their own compositions, including an early version of Princess' Say I’m Your Number One – which Pete Waterman loved and backed its development into the full version.
It is fair to say that the experiences of working with Spelt Like This (and also with WEA act Brilliant) was a key factor in SAW’s move towards focusing on being writer/producers, rather than simply producers; indeed, Harding indicates that Stock and Aitken felt they could write better material than much of the artist-written tracks they were producing at that time.
Indeed, the Brilliant album, which SAW started around the time the SLT project ended, was a further example of SAW producing material they weren’t keen on, with perhaps the final straw being the drawn-out recording sessions for Dead Or Alive’s Mad Bad and Dangerous To Know album in 1986; the latter in particular being a draining and stressful experience for all concerned.
It is fair to say that this crucial decision of moving away from production-only work towards writing and production is what determined the future path – and massive success – of Stock Aitken Waterman. It also shows an early sign of the focused, and almost ruthless, approach to how they would make records; SAW were quick to discard things that were not working, whether that be instruments, tracks or indeed entire acts, in order to focus on the things that did work. This is a key learning that KLF’s Jimmy Cauty & Bill Drummond, and record producer Youth would take away from their experience of working with SAW on the Brilliant project.
Spelt Like This may not have made a huge impact on the 1980s charts, but their legacy lives on through the music they released and their collaboration with a future hitmaking production trio. Maybe it’s just me, but I’d be fascinated to hear the other, unreleased SLT tracks. Hopefully, one day, they may just see the light of day…
As this is a blog about Stock Aitken Waterman, this article is focused on Spelt Like This’ collaboration with SAW, but the full story of Spelt Like This is fascinating in itself. To that end, this article is complemented by an in-depth piece by Spelt Like This lead singer and songwriter Alin Karna, who has kindly written about his time in the band. This is an essential read for anyone interested in the 1980s music industry, and my thanks to Alin for the time and trouble he has taken to do this.


Author's personal correspondence with Alin Karna, 2017
Phil Harding, PWL From The Factory Floor (Cherry Red Books, 2010)
Mike Stock, The Hit Factory: The Stock Aitken Waterman Story (New Holland, 2004)
Pete Waterman, I Wish I Was Me (Virgin Books, 2000)
Tom Watkins, Let’s Make Lots of Money (Virgin Books, 2015)
No.1 (IPC/Time) – images sourced from Shane Marais’excellent No.1 archive
Tony Mansfield, information from