Monday, 8 May 2017

Ten SAW B-Sides I'd Have Made The A-Side! [Part 1]

As a Stock Aitken Waterman fan in the 1980s and early 1990s, one would become resigned to the fact that the B-side of many single releases would be an instrumental version of the A-side. As my love of all things SAW has deepened over the years, I’m now delighted to have so many instrumental versions that allow me to listen closely and pick out the different elements which make up the song.

As a teenager desperate for original SAW material, I was a bit frustrated by this reliance upon the instrumentals – but I guess this made the appearance of a brand new original SAW track on the B-side a VERY EXCITING EVENT!

Sure, some tracks would impress more than others, but every so often you’d get a SAW B-side which was just as good as the A-side, and in some cases, even better than the A-side.

So here is my – admittedly personal – list of the 10 SAW B-sides which I would have made the A-side!

The criteria for the list is:
  • Written (and/or co-written) by SAW
  • Standalone tracks not belonging to an original artist album
  • A full song with lyrics

The latter point means that tracks such as I Wanna Be Your Everything by Delage, Just Call Me Up by Jason Donovan, and Do You Dare? by Kylie Minogue are excluded. As are the instrumental pieces SAW created for the Pat & Mick B-sides (although a separate article on these will follow).

Likewise, instrumental and dub mixes of the A-side are also excluded.

Hopefully, you will find some of your favourites in this list, but I’m equally as certain that you may be aggrieved that I have missed some obvious choices out. Yes, I’ve left out certain Kylie and Jason tracks which I love, but I don’t want this to be a list full of their tracks.

So here goes, in reverse order!

10) I Wanna Shout About It – Delage
[B-side to Running Back For More]

This infectious slab of dance pop from early 1990s SAW girl band Delage appears to have had an interesting genesis. As lovely as the A-side Running Back For More is, this meaty, utterly contemporary banger is probably the more commercial cut of the two tracks, and it is a mystery why this was consigned to B-side status. That said, the recent re-issue of Running Back For More carries additional mixes of I Wanna Shout About It, including 7” and 12” mixes, which suggests that it was considered as an A-side. So we have two key versions: a full vocal single version, and the version that made the B-side of Running Back For More, which omits the verses. The full vocal version is just glorious, with a strong lead vocal and some great backing harmonies, but the official B-side version heads more in the direction of the limited vocal style of contemporaneous dance tracks. A big dirty synth riff and some frantic house piano kicks off proceedings, whilst the solid beat and shifting synth pads give this track a real edge which takes it away from the standard SAW sound of the time towards the tough dance sounds dominating the charts at the time.  A great marriage of pop sensibilities and house influences, this was a real missed opportunity for both the band and producers. One of the emerging themes from this top 10 list of B-sides is how S(A)W were able to demonstrate they were still more than capable of remaining current and up-to-date in the early 1990s, but maybe there was a lack of confidence somewhere in terms of being more adventurous in choices of single material.





9) Say The Word – I’ll Be There - Kylie Minogue
[B-Side to Word Is Out]

Whilst Word Is Out still appears to be a polarising song for S(A)W and Kylie fans, its B-side Say The Word – I’ll Be There garners a much warmer reception. Composed by Stock, Waterman and Minogue, this smooth, mature mid-tempo ballad is worlds away from the beat-led and brass-boasting affair on the A-side. Underpinned by rich, rolling piano and made all the sweeter by the glorious backing vocals, Say The Word sees Kylie in pining mode as she makes her case to the object of her affections. It’s a further development of the Kylie sound; however, where the listener can hear the S(A)W DNA deep within Word Is Out, one could be forgiven for thinking that Say The Word had been produced by a different production team. It’s lush, with a real organic feel to its arrangement and production, with little in the way of electronic sounding synths and percussion to betray the trademark sound of its producers. Certainly Mike Stock, in his recent interview with Nick Moon, cited this track as one of his favourite B-sides. Whilst it perhaps wouldn’t have been the best choice for the first single of Kylie’s fourth album campaign, it would have made for a good third or fourth single and perhaps indicated a new direction for S&W and Kylie had they continued to work together. I would add though that it is almost a crime that the track didn’t make the Let’s Get To It album.





8) Story of My Life - Jason Donovan
[B-side of Rhythm of the Rain]

B-sides often allowed SAW to try something a little different, and during their imperial pure pop phase of 1988-1990, such experimentation was very welcome. So it was that the B-side of Jason’s Rhythm of the Rain gave us Baggy Jason (baggy, of course, being the early 1990s term to describe what would later be called indie). Story of My Life is a standard Jason tale of bad luck in love (“And by the way, if you’re looking for sunshine, I ain’t the luckiest one / If you come with me, there’d be cloud in the desert / or a total eclipse of the sun”), but the arrangement and production presents a real change to the SAW sonic palette of the time. Kicking off with wailing guitars, Jason’s tale of woe is backed by a solid electric guitar riff, honky-tonk piano and a thumping beat, whilst the inclusion of brass and organ enlivens proceedings further. As Tom Parker points out in his excellent sleeve notes for the Between the Lines Deluxe reissue, this track finally gives Jason the Happy Mondays-style track he’d coveted for some time, and surely he must have been pleased with the outcome. That’s why I think it’s a crying shame this languished on a B-side; it’s a million times more adventurous than the pleasant cover version that made the A-side. This track would have really benefited Donovan’s profile – it’s poppy enough to keep the SAW and Jason fanbase, but also different enough to pull in a wider audience – and would have been a good direction for both parties to head for.





7) Another Lover – Bananarama
[B-side of Last Thing On My Mind]

Please Yourself, Bananarama’s 1993 album with Stock & Waterman, received mixed reactions upon its original release, and actually remains a polarising collection amongst S(A)W and Bananarama fans to this day. I can’t help but wonder if that reception would have been improved at all by the inclusion of this track, which was on the flipside of Last Thing On My Mind but omitted from the album. It’s a decision which beggars belief, as this is a superior slab of 70’s disco-styled pop. The use of real strings (no doubt recorded in the same sessions as those for Give It All Up For Love and Is She Good To You?) creates an authenticity of the sound, whilst the addition of brass, funky rhythm guitar and rattling drums just adds to the joyous feel – even if lyrically it’s a tale of Keren and Sara telling a straying lover to pack their bags and go. Happily, the track eventually made it to the album on subsequent reissues, thus righting the original wrong, but for my money, this should have been an A-side back in 1992/1993.




6) Better Than Ever - Sonia
[B-side to Listen To Your Heart]

This sparky uptempo track had a former life, planned as it was to be a fourth Stock Aitken Waterman-branded single in 1989, featuring sometime PWL singer Lisa Fabien as guest vocalist. That version was never released at that time (although was finally issued as part of the PWL iTunes releases many years later), but you can’t keep a good SAW tune down, so it was eventually recorded by Sonia – but insanely was consigned to B-side status. It only takes one listen to know this is a hit record not given the chance to be one. Driven by a solid beat and a mean bass, the track is a perfect concoction of synth fx, brass riffs and guitar licks, providing a thrilling backdrop to Sonia’s tale of her sickeningly perfect relationship. As much as I love the A-side – a moody, house-influenced affair and much underrated – I do think Better Than Ever was a missed opportunity for another hit for Sonia.


Next time: we count down from 5 to 1…

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Waterman Prefers Blondie

When Stock Aitken Waterman produced Debbie Harry...

Even in this day and age when there appears to be a growing re-evaluation of Stock Aitken Waterman, many people still write them off as working with supposedly "lesser" artists. True, there were some artists they worked with whose musical ability was perhaps overshadowed by other qualities, but SAW did work with a number of big name artists. Some of those collaborations -- such as Donna Summer and Cliff Richard -- are well-known, whilst others are not widely known.

Perhaps one of the more surprising collaborations was their work with Debbie Harry, best known as the lead singer with new wave rock band Blondie.


SAW would produce two tracks with Harry; one which just missed the UK Top 40, whilst the other remains unreleased to this day. It's an interesting story which resulted in two great tracks that show a different side to both SAW and Harry.

Harry -- and Blondie -- first came to prominence in 1978. Her unique voice, her stunning good looks and her attitude made a huge impact on the worldwide music scene, but there was much more to Harry than her sex symbol status suggests. Along with Blondie guitarist (and boyfriend) Chris Stein, Harry co-wrote many of the songs -- resulting in huge anthems such as Atomic, Sunday Girl and Heart of Glass.

The band enjoyed huge success until 1982, when they disbanded (although the have reunited in recent years). Post-Blondie, Harry spent time caring for Stein during a serious illness, but eventually re-ermeged to relaunch a solo career (which had commenced with 1981's KooKoo album during a Blondie hiatus) in 1986 with a new album, Rockbird.

In the UK at least, Harry's return to prominence came with the release of French Kissin' In The USA, a hypnotic midtempo, synth-led anthem which reached #8 in late 1986. The follow up, Free To Fall, couldn't match this success and stalled at #46. Eager to avoid losing the momentum created by French Kissin'..., Chrysalis Records looked to Rockbird for a suitable follow up.

In Love With Love is one of the album's stronger songs, composed by Harry with Stein, and produced by former J Geils Band keyboard player Seth Justman. Apparently a sequel, in lyrical terms at least, to the Blondie hit Heart of Glass, In Love With Love is a delicate affair, with Eastern influences to the arrangement; aside from strident piano at the start and some effective rhythm guitar mid-track, it's predominantly synth-led with an emphasis on arpeggio sounds. Whilst Justman's version is pleasant, it's very understated and lacks the commercial punch of French Kissin'...

A decision was made to create a new version of the track for single release, and that task was assigned to Stock Aitken Waterman. It is unclear who made this decision and why, but given that French Kissin'... was a far bigger hit in the UK, it's likely that the decision was to build on that UK success, and certainly SAW's star was in the ascendant at this point.


What is also unclear is whether this is truly a new version of the track or a remix with additional production. Certainly, the credits on the single are "Produced by Seth Justman & Stock Aitken Waterman", and a listen to both versions would suggest there is little, if any, of the arrangement from the Justman version.

Whilst it is known that Harry did in fact travel to the UK to record vocals with SAW, it's unclear whether that was to record vocals for In Love With Love, and/or the second track this article will cover, so it may be that the vocals from the Justman version were used, hence his credit.

It is useful to listen to the original Justman version, then the SAW version. Obviously, different people will have different preferences, but what one can't deny is that the SAW version just explodes out of the speakers.


Original Seth Justman version



Stock Aitken Waterman version

Kicking off with an earshattering drum fill, the SAW version is driven by a pulsating synth riff, with electric guitars squealing away in the background. Pleasingly full snare sounds work hand-in-hand with handclaps to deliver a powerful rhythm track, whilst the "Heart of fire" chorus refrain uses a spooky, swirling synth pad to provide a haunting effect.

SAW also manage to create a much-needed lift into the chorus, which is something the album version lacked. Whilst its a predominantly electronic production, the presence of electric guitars and strong percussion really help to give the track a fuller, heavier sound than many SAW tracks.

Unfortunately, the SAW version of In Love With Love didn't fare much better than Free To Fall, peaking at #45 in the UK. A disappointing result for a strong record, which deserved a wider hearing.

This muted success, however, did not prevent a further collaboration between Harry and SAW, albeit one that still remains officially unavailable to this day.

Intended for the soundtrack of 1987 US movie Summer School, SAW produced a version of the Michael Jay & Rick Palombi composition Mind Over Matter, with Harry on lead vocals. Jay was by this time establishing himself as a pop writer and producer in the UK, thanks to the success of his collaborations with Five Star, most notably with tracks like If I Say Yes and The Slightest Touch.

Mind Over Matter itself was originally recorded by Nikki Leeger and released on RCA Records in 1986, but failed to make any in-roads to the chart. Produced by Chris Neil, this version is a US-styled pop rock, with an early 80s synth sound to it. The arrangement is sparse and simplistic in terms of instrumentation, certainly compared to the later SAW versions, whilst Leeger's dramatic, almost operatic vocals impress. The track is enlivened by some nice guitar work, and tricksy drum programming.


That said, it is arguable that the Leeger version did not capitalise on the strong pop sensibilities of the song, and whilst an interesting version, one can perhaps understand why it did not garner a more populist following.

But, as with In Love With Love, SAW were able to bring out the best in the song for the Harry version.


Opening with a sinister, drawn-out gong-like sound, the track explodes with a metallic clang and some brilliant wailing electric guitar. This dark intro gives way to dramatic swirling pads and a catchy synth riff which recurs through the track.

Harry's vocals in the verse are augmented by distorted, haunting vocal samples, whilst other incidental sound effects accompany the bridge, with orchestral hits heralding the chorus.

And it's a great chorus. "We're doing what can't be done / Mind over matter / There's no battle that can't be won / Mind over matter" cries a defiant Harry as she belts out the song in her trademark style.

The instrumental break gives us an early example of the sampled vocal locs that would later become a SAW staple, whilst the closing chorus refrain gives us more electric guitar.

As with In Love With Love, SAW give the track a rockier, heavier feel whilst retaining its pop sensibilities.

You get a real sense that this track would have given Harry a big hit, and pick up the momentum from the success of French Kissin' In The USA. However, record company issues scuppered the release; in a fascinating interview with Stephen Hill, Jay suggests that Harry's departure from Chrysalis Records to join Geffen meant that Harry's version of Mind Over Matter could not be issued as a single. [I would urge you to read Stephen's excellent article on the track and his insightful interview with Michael Jay].

The Harry version did finally emerge via the Internet about ten years ago, albeit in a low-quality copy initially, with a better quality version leaking a few years later. Hearing it even now, it is clear that this sounds like a hit record and would appear to have been a missed opportunity.

With Harry's version unable to be released, a decision was made to re-record the track with US female singer EG Daily and it is her version with featured on the Summer School soundtrack album.


Although the UK release carries the credit "Remixed by Stock Aitken Waterman", the Daily version was actually produced by SAW. Clearly, the bulk of the production is that of the Harry version, but with some modification to the arrangement.


Daily's raspy vocals suit the track and she pulls off a stirling performance, and if anything, this new version is possibly better than the Harry version. The production is punchier; it is less rocky but still possesses a heavier sound than many of the contemporaneous SAW productions of 1988 -- this may be down to the original production dating back to 1987.

Alas, this version didn't fare well in the UK Singles chart, just about scraping into the Top 100 at #96. But then Daily did not have the profile that Harry enjoyed, and again, one wonders if Harry's version would have gained wider exposure.

So, all in all, Debbie Harry's liaison with SAW was brief but ultimately fascinating. Further collaborations would have been welcome, but clearly this was largely a case of the record company hoping to benefit from a bit of the SAW midas touch to raise their artist's profile. It did result in two strong pop tracks, which may not have set the charts on fire but remain well regarded among hardcore SAW fans as they demonstrate a different take on the SAW sound.


References:

Stephen Hill, Interview with Michael Jay, rip-her-to-shreds website
http://www.rip-her-to-shreds.com/archive_exclusive_stephen_hill_3.php

Sunday, 9 April 2017

All Mixed Up #1: Love Truth & Honesty (Dancehall Version) – Bananarama

The first in a new series – which looks at classic SAW 12” mixes – kicks off with a look at possibly the definitive extended SAW remix…

You don’t have to be a huge Stock Aitken Waterman fan to have an awareness of how the Hit Factory structured many of their 12” mixes. The instrumentation would slowly build up layer by layer, then the full song would kick in, then we’d have a breakdown before the track builds up again to a reprise of the chorus, closing with the instrumentation breaking down to leave just the percussion.

Of course, there were many mixes which deviated from this form, but the above description covers the core template of the Stock Aitken Waterman (and indeed PWL) 12” mix.

For me – and it can get very personal when it comes to the art of the 12” – the extended mix which best represents this core template has to be the Dancehall Version of Bananarama’s Love Truth & Honesty.


Issued in September 1988, Love Truth & Honesty was perhaps a change in style for Bananarama, but then the band itself had recently undergone change. Siobhan Fahey had departed, with Jacqui O’Sullivan coming in as her replacement, starting with previous single I Want You Back, which was partially recorded and remixed from the original Wow! album version (which had featured Fahey). As such, Love Truth & Honesty was the first brand new material from the new Bananarama line-up.

A more thoughtful track for Bananarama, Love Truth & Honesty takes its rueful lyric of a woman betrayed by her lover and marries it with an upbeat arrangement; a clever juxtaposition often deployed by Mike, Matt & Pete. In terms of tune, it’s certainly a departure from preceding single I Want You Back and subsequent singles Nathan Jones and Help!, but in that sense, it’s an interesting diversion for Bananarama during this period.

Reaching #23 in the UK Singles Chart, the record didn’t set the world alight back in 1988 but over the years, it has become a firm favourite with both SAW and Bananarama fans.

Whilst there were radical remixes of the track, with PWL’s Phil Harding & Ian Curnow giving it a Baelearic overhaul, there was only one “standard” extended mix issued for the track as part of the original release, and that was Dave Ford’s Dancehall Version.

Ford had joined PWL in 1988, so at this time, he was one of the newer mix engineers compared to Phil Harding and Pete Hammond, but he was a very experienced music industry professional at this time. And this shows in his Dancehall Version mix.

Whereas other PWL mix engineers and producers have stated they added layers of production to Stock Aitken Waterman tracks, Ford has tended to underplay his contribution in this area and stressed he was always focused on making the most of the materials provided to him.

What you do get from a Ford mix is real clarity; he has a real straightforward approach, with a real sense of which elements of instrumentation work together.

His Dancehall Version mix is perhaps not the most radical mix to come out of the Hit Factory, but for a real SAW fan like me, the first couple of minutes of his mix gave a real insight into the various layers that make up a Stock Aitken Waterman track.

Let’s take a closer look at Dave’s mix:

0.00: The track opens with percussion, followed quickly by a drum fill
0.04: A Bananarama vocal loc – “L-L-Love” – signals the introduction of rhythm guitar
0.13: A metallic DX7 synth-bass sound is introduced
0.22: The “L-L-Love” vocal loc returns, signalling the introduction of the bass guitar
0.25: A synth-riff kicks in at this point
0.37: The “L-L-Love” vocal loc returns, signalling the introduction of synth pads
0.46: A rising synth line comes in, building up to –
0.50: A swirling, reedy synth pad is added
1.12: The horns make their first appearance
1.31: The appearance of chimes, and drum fills herald –
1.36: The main opening riff with all instruments in place, building up to –
2.01: Bananarama’s vocals kick in with “ooh-ooooh-oooh”, followed by the opening verse

Looking at the above list (and I’ve tried to capture the timings as best I can), we can see how Ford gives each new element their own “moment in the sun” but for different lengths of time. The rhythm guitar gets 9 seconds before it’s joined by the metallic DX7 synth-bass sound, whilst the synth riff gets 12 seconds of glory. Interestingly, the swirling synth pad gets 22 seconds, but I take that as Ford building atmosphere and pausing before the horns come in.

It's also worth noting that Ford makes use of the “L-L-Love” vocal loc to mark the addition of a new element, yet does not use this every time a new element is added. The fact he uses it sparingly makes it more effective.

Ford also uses a double start approach to tease the listener; the introductions of the horns at 1.12 suggest the start of the actual song, but we have to wait a further 24 seconds for the full intro, and even then, a further 25 seconds for the opening verse.

The simplicity of Ford’s approach in this intro makes it all the more effective, as he shows off Stock and Aitken’s playing and programming off in all its glory. Sure, these sounds may be sequenced in the mix, but they had to be played and/or programmed in the first place and this mix allows us to hear some of these in some form of isolation.

As for the rest of the mix, we get the bulk of what we’d call the single version between 2.01 and 5.13, at which point, we head towards the breakdown (which is designed to allow DJs to mix to another track).

Let’s get back to the minute by minute analysis:

5.13: The vocals end, leaving an extended instrumental period leading towards –
5.29: The breakdown, which removes all elements except for percussion, rhythm guitar and horns
5.46: The horns are removed
5.49: The synth riff returns
5.54: The swirling, reedy synth pad returns
6.00: A drum fill marks the return of the metallic DX7 synth-bass sound
6.17: The horns return, as do Bananarama’s vocals for a reprise of the chorus
6.52: Many of the musical elements drop out, leaving the percussion and synth-bass-style sound, and the track eventually fades out with various drum fills

As we can see, we get a breakdown, then a build up to a reprise of the chorus, then a final comedown towards the fade. As with the intro, we get a sense of the key layers of the track, albeit in reverse.

The mix has a real sense of symmetry in how it builds up from the start, and breaks down as it heads towards its end.

For me, there is so much to love about this mix. The metallic DX7 synth-bass sound is one of my favourite SAW / PWL sounds, and was a key element of their records in 1987 and 1988. It never fails to excite me, and it’s well used here. Likewise, the exposure of Matt Aitken’s rhythm guitar is very welcome, as much of his guitar work is often lost in the mix. The synth riff is effective, and is used sparingly and effectively, whilst the synth pads – often handled by Mike Stock – add real atmosphere to the whole affair.

The horns are great, but I think they dominate proceedings a little. The original 12” mix of Love Truth & Honesty was eventually released in 2015 as part of the Edsel In A Bunch Bananarama CD singles boxset, and interestingly uses the horns differently.

Whatever one may think of the record, I think it’s a must listen for anyone interested in how records are made, as it clearly shows what the key elements are and how they are put together to make the final record. That aside, it’s simply a terrific mix of a fab (if overlooked) Stock Aitken Waterman track.

And if you’ve read this far, here’s the Dancehall Version itself:



Monday, 3 April 2017

If Only We Had Worked It Out Somehow…


The melancholic majesty of Kylie's If You Were With Me Now

Ask the general public about Stock Aitken Waterman and they will tell you that they made catchy, happy three minute pop records. Which, in fairness, is palpably true.

But Mike, Matt and Pete were equally adept at balladry too. Witness the beautiful pain on display in Rick Astley’s Spanish-guitar-led It Would Take a Strong Strong Man, as Rick agonises over whether he should end his relationship. Likewise, Kylie tugs at the listener’s heart-strings as she puts a brave face on losing the love of her life in the desperately sad I’ll Still Be Loving You. And don’t get me started on the heartbreaking tale of two people who can’t be together in Donna Summer’s In Another Place and Time.

There’s more where they came from too. Lonnie Gordon’s Beyond Your Wildest Dreams, Sybil’s Make It Easy On Me and Jason Donovan’s I Guess She Never Loved Me are among the numerous ballads that the trio helmed.

What I especially like about most of the SAW ballads is that they are not slushy American-styled affairs; they are a very British take on the slow love song, whether that is down to a spikier production or a melancholic approach to the lyrics. Certainly, I’ll Still Be Loving You is actually mid-tempo, with possibly the saddest (in the truest sense of the word) synth sounds ever ramming home the emotional melody.

But we did finally get a slushy American-style ballad from the Hit Factory in 1991, when Mike Stock & Pete Waterman crafted If You Were With Me Now for Kylie Minogue and Keith Washington.

The track was recorded for Kylie’s fourth and final PWL studio album, Let’s Get To It. The album was among the first original Stock & Waterman material issued following Matt Aitken’s departure, and it could be taken very much as a statement of intent from Mike Stock. The album was a real departure in sound and songwriting for Stock, as much as it was an assertion of Kylie taking real control of her career.

The album showcased different genres, from New Jack Swing to acoustic guitar pop to techno, with possibly only the cover of Chairman of the Board’s Give Me A Little More Time the only track that sounded anything like a “typical” SAW production.

But one of the album’s crowning glories is If You Were With Me Now, a moving duet about two former lovers ruminating over their failed relationship and reaching the conclusion they’ve made a big mistake.


As the male voice, US singer Washington was not a well-known figure in the UK, but had established himself in the soul & R&B fraternity with releases such as 1991’s Kissing You. Minogue was a big fan of Washington, and as legend would have it, Pete Waterman approached Washington to duet with Minogue on this track.

The track is credited as a Stock / Waterman / Minogue / Washington co-write, although it is fair to suggest that the majority of input was Stock’s. Washington did travel to London to record his vocals at PWL, so perhaps he contributed additional lyrics at this point. He and Minogue, as is generally the case with modern day duets, did not record the track at the same time, with Minogue recording her vocals a few days later.

Lyrically, the song is a song of lost love, with a real melancholic edge to it. “Without you standing by my side,” opines Washington in the opening lines, “love and good fortune passes me by”. Quite a powerful line, and things don’t get much brighter from there on in.

The track hints at the male having cheated on the female; Washington sings “I know I may go astray…” whilst Minogue stresses that “If I’m sure of one thing / One love at a time”.

There’s plenty of wistful longing; “How different would the world be now?” offers Washington, whilst Minogue adds the plaintive “If only we had worked it out somehow”.

One possible reading of the song is that the closing lines hint at a possible reconciliation: “If loving you is right / then turn back the hands of time” begs Minogue, whilst Washington counters with “I'll do anything to make you mine”, and then both adding “There's nothing that i wouldn't do / I could make you feel my love for you” as the melody takes a hopeful turn.

Minogue sings her heart out here and has probably never sounded better, whilst Washington also impresses with a powerful yet smooth performance.

Stock provides a typically fine melody, big on emotion whilst holding back on sentimentality. The verses are measured and thoughtful, with the chorus (such as it is) restricted to three lines, with the title of the song as the final line.

The arrangement and production is gorgeous. Waterman arranged for the string section to be arranged by legendary Motown arranger Paul Riser in New York. This creates a rich, lush sound to this epic ballad, and Stock’s own instrumentation is in fitting, featuring a doleful piano and neat percussion.

Phil Harding was responsible for the immaculate mixes, and makes the song shine.

As I indicated before, I’m not really a fan of the American-style slushy ballad, but full marks to Stock & Waterman for their take on that sound. They take that late-night soul sound, and bring their own British melancholy to it.

If You Were With Me Now became the second single single taken from Let’s Get To It, released in October 1991 on 7”, 12”, cassingle and CD single. Apparently, one of the reasons it became a single is that DJ Pat Sharp (of SAW act Pat & Mick) loved the track and played it on his Capital Radio show – the response from listeners made it a contender for single release.

At the time, I was slightly disappointed; although I liked the track, I was hoping that a more radical track like Let’s Get To It, Right Here Right Now or Too Much Of A Good Thing would be issued – a track that would show a new modernity to the Hit Factory sound. But looking back, it was a good single choice, reaching #4 in the UK Singles Chart.

I’ll be honest; it’s only fairly recently that I have fully realised how great this track is. I’ve been listening to it a lot over the past few days, and aside from it being yet another example of S(A)W’s diversity, it’s such a sincere piece of music – although I accept it may be too sweet for some tastes. Maybe it’s an age thing, maybe it’s cos I’ve been through a tough few years relationship-wise, but I think it’s so powerful in its simplicity. If you ask me today, then I’d probably say it’s the best S(A)W track ever. I’ll probably give you a different answer tomorrow, but go with it for today and give it a play below.



References:

Mike Stock, "25 years ago today...", Facebook post, 21 October 2016

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