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...


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

Sunday, 4 September 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Thursday, 11 August 2016

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

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

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

Well I think he's found her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 13 June 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Saturday, 14 May 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Thursday, 5 May 2016

Is Mike Stock's best chorus hidden away on a WRESTLING album???

There are many varied opinions of the talents of Stock Aitken Waterman, but even their critics tend to grudgingly admit that they had an astonishing and enviable knack at coming up with amazingly catchy choruses.

A straw poll of their best choruses would no doubt include such contenders as Too Many Broken Hearts, Never Gonna Give You Up and Better The Devil You Know.

All great choruses, and I could roll off at least a hundred more examples.

But I want to put a proposition to you. A controversial proposition, and one which may seem strange.

I think Mike Stock's best chorus is hidden away on a wrestling album.

The chorus in question belongs to Never Been A Right Time To Say Goodbye, written and produced by Stock & Waterman, performed by Bret "Hitman" Hart and featured on the 1993 World Wrestling Federation's Wrestlemania - The Album.

That album followed the Stock & Waterman written & produced Slam Jam single, which reached #4 in December 1992. This funk-inspired, US-sounding track featured various WWF wrestlers shouting their personal manifestos in the verses, with the chorus sung by regular PWL backing vocalists, plus a rap in the middle-8 performed by former SAW collaborator Colin "Einstein" Case. A robust track, with a solid rhythm track and helpings of guitar, it was again another take on a new sound for Stock & Waterman, and one that seemed to catch on. A further Stock & Waterman written & produced track Wrestlemania followed in early 1993 -- very much in the same vein as Slam Jam, if perhaps more melodic -- which was followed by the album release.

Wrestlemania - The Album was very much an "all PWL hands on deck" project. Whilst Stock & Waterman were credited as Executive Producers, the bulk of the album was written and produced by other PWL personnel such as Dave Ford, Tony King & Gary Miller (though it is interesting to note that Stock & Waterman gained a writing credit on these tracks, even if Stock's influence was not immediately apparent). Whilst these tracks were expertly written and produced as you would expect, it is the Stock & Waterman produced tracks which stand out here: Slam Jam, Wrestlemania -- and Never Been A Right Time To Say Goodbye.

Never Been A Right Time To Say Goodbye is very much the outlier of the album. Whereas the other tracks are thumping, beat-heavy wrestling-themed cuts, Never Been A Right Time To Say Goodbye is a love song. Or rather, a song about the end of a relationship -- and the inclusion of such a love song on an album performed by wrestlers has to be insanity bordering on genius.

Interestingly, this song has a prior history. In 1992, Simon Cowell commissioned Stock & Waterman to write & produce tracks for David Hasselhoff (who Cowell had signed to Arista Records), and although that project was later aborted (apparently at Stock & Waterman's request), one of the tracks Stock, Waterman & Hasselhoff were working on was a version of Never Been A Right Time To Say Goodbye. It is unclear if Hasselhoff's version was ever completed, but either way, it can be assumed that Cowell liked the song and asked for it to be resurrected for the Wrestlemania album.

This song was assigned to Bret "Hitman" Hart as his solo track for the album. Hart, whose catchphrase was "The Best There Is, The Best There Was, The Best There Ever Will Be", was one of the leading lights of WWF at this time, and was almost certainly the star turn on the album.

Now it should be noted that most wrestlers are not noted for their singing abilities, and certainly none of the wrestlers featured on the album actually sang. Their contributions were restricted to spoken word, with any singing being capably handled by regular PWL backing singers Lance Ellington, Leroy Osborne, Miriam Stockley, Mae McKenna & Cleveland Watkiss.

What this of course means is that, although clearly a standard melodic pop song, Never Been A Right Time To Say Goodbye has Bret "Hitman" Hart speaking the verses, with the chorus performed by the male session singers. This makes for a slightly disconcerting listen at first -- but, you know, in a funny way, it kinda works.

Sure, Bret Hart's "Monster Mash" reading of the verses carries zero emotion -- he could be reading out a Nando's menu for all the effort he puts in -- but his stoic performance brings a worldly-wise take on failed love, and actually this one-tone delivery presents an interesting contrast to the over-the-top arrangement backing him.

That's not a criticism by the way, it's wonderfully over-the-top. Seriously, there's more drama in Stock's arrangement than in all of the Christmas episodes of BBC's EastEnders ever made and ever will be made.

Pounding along with terrifically punchy drum playing, the track has a pleasing amount of electric guitar (courtesy of Gary Miller), a lovely bass line and sweeping strings. Not to mention some fab 80s rock synth effects, and wonderful backing vocals.

Whilst it's not a rock track -- it's definitely and defiantly pop -- it has a rockier feel than many S(A)W tracks, and really benefits from an intricate production and arrangement.

If you listen closely, the lush synth pads hint at the verse melody and if you grab the lyrics from Mike Stock's site, you can approximate how the song could have sounded had it been sung throughout. And the thing is, it sounds like this would have been a GREAT track had it been performed conventionally.

But, for me, it all comes back to that chorus. It's a work of art. And, all things considered, I actually do think it is the best S(A)W chorus ever committed to tape.

Lyrically, the chorus is clever; concise but packs a punch. "Never been a way / Things you gotta say / Will break her heart / Make her cry" -- each line is delivered in a jab-jab rhythm, then the delivery opens up for the hook -- "There's never been a right time / To say goodbye, to say goodbye".

Even better, we're treated to a "double chorus". A classic SAW trick, the first time you hear the chorus, you get one iteration of the "main" chorus. The next and subsequent times, you get the main chorus, swiftly followed by a second iteration with amended lyrics. It's a really powerful trick, and at it's best, the swap over from the end of the first chorus to the second chorus is electrifying. Never Been A Right Time To Say Goodbye is no exception.

So the "second chorus" gives us a new take. "Never been a line / Never been a sign / That would let her down / Easier / There's never been a right time / To say goodbye, to say goodbye".

Straightforward these lyrics may be, but their brevity carries a lot of truth.

A lot of the success of the chorus has to be attributed to just how well it is performed here. Ellington, Osborne & Watkiss are superb vocalists, able to handle anything Stock threw at them, and their rich, powerful voices sell Stock's irresistible melody. No disrespect to Hasselhoff, who has a powerful voice, but I am not sure he would have carried the chorus off as well as it is here.

One thing which surprised me at the time was why Cowell allocated the track to the WWF album, rather than giving it to Worlds Apart, the Simon Cowell-backed boyband whose album (released around the same time as Wrestlemania - The Album) also featured two Stock & Waterman tracks. Surely this track would have been dynamite for a boyband, and in my opinion, could have been a significant hit for a band which never quite attained the heights which Cowell anticipated.

Nevertheless, the song survives in this half-spoken, half-sung hybrid version -- almost like a latter day MacArthur Park. So let's make the most of it, and listen to the full, released WWF/Bret "Hitman" Hart version. I would urge you to give it a try, and listen all the way through. Look past the WWF connection, look past the spoken verses and hear the song as it could have been. 

But most of all, experience the full glory of that amazing chorus...

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

It's Like You Never Left At All: Taking a look at one of Mike Stock's favourite compositions

"I think from the point of view of what's personally given me greatest pleasure is one of the songs I did with Suzette Charles called "After You're Gone"... it has a very strange spiritual lyric, it's not so much a direct pop song as some of the others."
Mike Stock, interviewed by Paul Smith (Roadblock fanzine, 1994)

Mike, Matt and Pete have often been asked -- separately or together -- to choose their favourite song out of their own back catalogue. Whilst the common answer has been broadly "the songs the public loved the most" such as Never Gonna Give You Up and I Should be So Lucky, Mike Stock has also cited another, more obscure, track as one of his favourites.

The song in question is After You're Gone performed by US singer Suzette Charles, and one that most people are unlikely to have heard.

A former Miss America, Suzette Charles signed a record deal with RCA America and elected to record an initial six tracks with Stock & Waterman in 1993. One of these tracks -- soulful breakup song Free To Love Again -- did see a UK release via RCA UK and made it to #58, but it has been suggested that record industry politics resulted in the project being pulled.

As with pre-1987 SAW, the 1991-1993 Stock & Waterman period saw a great deal of experimentation in different styles, but the six Suzette Charles tracks were very much playing to their strengths as mainstream soul pop. The released single Free To Love Again was a lyrically clever track with a contemporary sound, whilst Just For A Minute was a dramatic slab of pop with a killer chorus. Don't Stop (All The Love You Can Give) was probably the most populist cut (and was earmarked as a possible second single given that Charles performed it on This Morning), whilst What The Eye Don't See was a classy piece of 90s Soul. Every Time We Touch was a slow, US-style ballad, effective if perhaps not in the recognised SAW style.

And then there's After You're Gone.

After You're Gone is a track which doesn't easily fit into categories like the other tracks do. Sure, at first listen, it's shiny and it's catchy, but underneath, it's a difficult track to pin down. Many SAW tracks present a dichotomy of upbeat arrangement and melancholy lyrics to the listener -- an interesting fact missed by many commentators -- but this track is more ambiguous.

If we take the lyrics of the chorus -- "And the spirit of you / is still here in my room / After you're gone / And your presence I feel / Undeniably real / After you're gone" -- yes, there is melancholy there, but also optimism.

An initial reading would perhaps suggest that Charles is singing about how she misses her partner when they are apart. However, I would argue that Stock's lyrics can be read in at least three different ways; yes, it could be a song about missing a partner, but it could be a song about a much-missed ex-partner, or even a partner who has passed away. I appreciate that the opening lines of the song -- "Every time we say goodbye / and you leave me" -- suggest a living partner, but Stock's suggestion of the lyrics having a spiritual quality could point towards a more supernatural visitation.

The recording itself helps with this ambiguity. What is clear from this track (and indeed the other 5 tracks) is that Charles has an amazing voice. Very smooth, very lyrical, but there's great power there -- and crucially, control. Some vocalists have powerful voices, but can sometimes sound like a foghorn belting a song out. It's obvious Charles has a strong voice, but the control she exercises is what makes it. And that benefits After You're Gone; the song demands emotion, but the ethereal, spiritual quality of the lyrics also requires temperance.

Likewise, Stock's arrangement manages to walk a fine line between upbeat pop and emotional ballad, supporting Charles' performance and aiding the sense of ambiguity. Opening with a sitar-esque sound, the track takes a mid-tempo pace with light percussion, guitar and undulating synth line, punctuated with backing harmonies and descending synth pads. The production gives the vocals room to breathe, which suits the lyrical and thematical qualities of the song, and the overall effect is to musically reflect the sense of mixed emotions presented by the lyrics.

A snippet of the track (the into and opening verses) was featured in an item about Charles on ITV's magazine show This Morning in 1993, but as the project faltered shortly afterwards, the track (along with four of the other five tracks Charles recorded with Stock & Waterman) did not see an official release. Although bootleg copies of those tracks did emerge in fan circles a few years later, it was not until Stock made the track available for streaming on his website that it garnered wider attention.

For me, this is my favourite Suzette Charles track and one of my favourite tracks of the Stock & Waterman period. I find most SAW fans (myself included) favour the more obscure tracks over the big hitters, and certainly After You're Gone is a fan favourite. Longtime SAW fan and expert Paul Smith has taken his love of this track even further, by having the chorus lyrics tattooed on his arm!

After You're Gone is a fine track, with a typically seductive Stock melody, neat production, ambiguous lyrics and a winning vocal. It deserves an official release, and one hopes that, given the ongoing re-issue of SAW product, one won't be too far off.

In an interesting postscript, Charles has recently been recording again with Stock, and writing about the song on his own website, Mike Stock states that he's "still very keen on this song and the nature of the lyrics, and I'm sure it will crop up again in some form or another in the future". So, whilst it's unclear if and when these recordings will be re-issued, it is not unreasonable - given Stock's love of the song - to suppose that one of those tracks could be a new recording of After You're Gone...

images copyright Mike Stock

With thanks to Paul Smith -- check out Paul's comprehensive Mike Stock discography at

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Stock, Elton & George: how Stock Aitken Waterman turned Elton John's "Wrap Her Up" into a dance stomper!

Whilst Stock Aitken Waterman had experienced big success straight out of the gate with Divine and Hazell Dean, they entered 1985 with a desire - and more pertinently, a need - to build upon that flying start. Whilst they couldn't have wished for a better start to the year with Dead or Alive's You Spin Me Round (Like A Record) giving the producers their first UK number one, it was still early days, and like all new businesses, finance was still an issue.

Apparently, the money from the commission from WEA to produce the debut album for Brilliant, Kiss The Lips of Life, would go a long way to establish the PWL operation financially and cover the costs of the PWL studio build, but this was still a period which saw Pete Waterman going to his bank manager at Allied Irish Bank for an overdraft extension to cover the release of Princess' Say I'm your Number One single.

So whilst firmly on the up as writers and producers, Stock Aitken Waterman diversified into remix work in 1985. One was their 12" remix of Thereza Bazar's debut single The Big Kiss, which was a fairly straight take on the original, albeit with additional production to beef up the dancefloor elements.

The other was the remix we are going to look at in this blogpost, which is SAW's treatment of Elton John's 1985 hit, Wrap Her Up. Which was ANYTHING but a straight take on the source material.

The SAW "Club Mix" of Wrap Her Up is INSANE. Totally bonkers. And, as a result, totally brilliant.

Featuring on Elton John's 1985 album Ice On Fire, Wrap Her Up was the follow-up to that album's lead single Nikita. The track - which reached #12 on the UK Singles chart - features George Michael on guest vocals, although the single release is solely credited to Elton. Written by Elton John and Bernie Taupin, along with Charlie Morgan, Paul Westwood, Davey Johnstone and Fred Mandel, Wrap Her Up is an upbeat live-sounding pop track which positions itself as a love letter to women everywhere, although the middle-eight contains a long list of Hollywood actresses and other famous ladies.

The coupling of Elton's deep-vocal on each line of the verse, with George's falsetto echo after each line, is an effective trick which really makes the most of the terrific melody. Special note must be made of Elton's pronunciation of "attached" as "attach-ed", in order to make sure the line rhymes with the equally unusual pronunciation of "catched" as "catch-ed" two lines earlier!!! Strange pronunciation aside, Bernie Taupin's lyrics are typically interesting, particularly clever and playful here, with the whole track neatly assembled by legendary producer (and long-time Elton John collaborator) Gus Dudgeon.

By this time in 1985, SAW were considered as a rising hotshot production team, so one can understand why Rocket Records (Elton John's own record label) would have approached them to work their magic on a traditional pop record so that it could go out to the clubs.

So SAW (with the help of Phil Harding) set to work on the remix. But you know what, you can almost picture Mike, Matt & Pete in the studio, thinking "Additional production is for wimps!! What's the point of adding in a few more drum beats? And why waste your time chucking in a few synth overdubs??".

So the three producers just went for it. Big time. And thank god they did!

The original Gus Dudgeon production of Wrap Her Up is typically robust and well put together, as is the main 12" mix which adds in some synth bass. But in their remix, SAW completely transform the track into a pop dance stomper. If any of Dudgeon's original arrangement is in there, then someone will have to point it out - because SAW have kept the vocals but have provided a completely new arrangement.

So here it is -- big thanks to SAW fan and expert Paul Smith:

Kicking off with an orchestral flourish, the track opens with arpeggio synth bass and a fat synth line, carried along by rattling production. Elton and George appear shortly after, with sampled stuttering "Wrap Her Up" shouts flying into the track. After which we get a breakdown, the synths and bass giving way to the first iteration of the chorus.

Verses follow, with Elton's singing of the lines echoed by George's impressive falsetto, backed up by brass, occasional repeats of the opening orchestral flourish and the synth lead, which is used to create an interesting chord change within the verse.

The middle-eight - which sees Elton and George name-check their favourite female film stars - is truncated here, but is no less effective. Each name is interspersed with the backing vocal of "Dream lady!", whilst Elton's final cry of "Billie Jean!" is treated to an effective sampled reprise.

We get more brass, more orchestral flourishes and blasts of the "Wr-wr-wr-wr-wr-wrap her up!" vocal refrain, before the track breaks down (as per a standard 12" mix) to the drum track, then reintroduces the synth bass. What follows is undoubtedly the craziest vocal sampling I have ever heard or will ever hear in my life.

I have replayed this segment to work out how this amazing sampling showpiece plays out but it goes something broadly like this:

Every-one Every-one Every-one Every-one Every-one Nnec-Nnec-Nnec-connec-conne-connec-conne-connected to too-ooo-ooo too-ooo-ooo Blue Bl-bl-bl-bl-bl-bl-blue blood Bl-bl-bl-bl-bl-bl-blue blood Bl-bl-bl-bl-bl-bl-blue blood blue blood

The playing around with samples in this way (as opposed to the stuttering effect) was still in its relative infancy at this point in time, and whilst impressive, it does lack the finesse of the later sampled vocal trickery which would become part of the trademark SAW sound towards the end of the decade. It is completely off-the-wall, and as a result, it's hysterically wonderful!

Interestingly, the track fades out to the chorus, rather than breaking the arrangement down to the percussion as was the norm.

Although the SAW remix of Wrap Her Up was issued as a promo (ostensibly to be played in clubs to promote the main release), it was not commercially released at the time - and indeed, remains unreleased at the time of writing. No reason has ever been given as to why the SAW remix was not issued as a second 12" release as was common at the time, but it is not difficult to imagine Sir Elton sitting in his office listening to the remix for the first time, getting to the sample madness at 6.24 and shouting "WHAT THE F*** HAVE THEY DONE WITH MY VOCAL???".

Seriously though, perhaps the reason is that it is a fairly radical reworking of the original track. Although the late 1970s and early 1980s had seen the amazing rise of the 12" mix, the vast majority of remixes during that period involved a restructuring of emphasis of the original arrangement, and/or some additional production in terms of percussion and other elements. Whilst there were of course some key remixers taking a more radical approach to remixes at the time, the SAW remix of Wrap Her Up is - as far as I am concerned - an early, pioneering example of the remix method which would become more prevalent in the 1ate 1980s and beyond. Namely, that SAW effectively re-produced the track to give it a very different sound and arrangement.

It's clearly a very radical and bold take on the original track, and as stated above, there appears to be very little of Gus Dudgeon's original production in there. Interestingly, SAW deployed an arrangement evenly split between pop and dance, and perhaps Rocket Records were expecting a full-on 100% Hi-NRG stomper. Certainly Phil Harding in his brilliant PWL From The Factory Floor book comments that "in retrospect, maybe we should have gone more Dead Or Alive Hi-NRG with it, because it kind of ends up being neither one thing nor another".

Ultimately, I think the remix is very ambitious, and perhaps just slightly falls short of its aspirations. And I say that as someone who really loves the remix. But you know, getting the opportunity to work on an Elton John track was and is a big deal, so of course SAW would have thrown everything but the kitchen sink at it; if the bombast is occasionally too full on, well you can't blame SAW too much for that.

I consider it a bold experiment which, for me, largely works and genuinely brings new life and energy to the original recording.

Anyhow, I love this track, and hopefully you will too. Whatever your take on SAW and/or Elton John, please listen to the original then the SAW mix, see what you think. No strings attach-ed!

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Art Rock Stock: When Stock & Waterman took on David Bowie and Roxy Music

After Matt Aitken departed the Stock Aitken Waterman partnership in 1991, Mike Stock and Pete Waterman continued as production partners until late 1993. This two-year period saw less releases and a divergence of styles, culminating in what appeared to be some kind of resurgent chart success in 1993. One interesting avenue pursued by Stock & Waterman during this period was their take on two Art Rock classics; one of which was released at the time to a mixed reception, with the other emerging 23 years later to perhaps surprising praise.

Our first Art Rock cover comes courtesy of five-piece band Slamm. Slamm first emerged in 1992 with their cover of Love & Money's Candybar Express, released through their own Totally Norted Records label. This led to their signing to PWL Records in 1993, where they initially worked with Stock & Waterman. Slamm eventually ended up being marketed as a boy band, but they had a bit of an edge which separated them from the standard boy-band fare of the time, and they were also bona fide musicians. Slamm's debut PWL release was the Stock & Waterman-composed Energize, a high-octane dance track which combined pulsing synth riffs with rattling percussion, underpinned by what sounds like reverbed steel guitars. It's insanely catchy, both in verses and choruses, but peaked at #57.

However, it is Slamm's second single which is of interest here. Moving on from the "in your face" dance sound of Energize, Slamm toned down the galloping synths and brought in more guitar for their take on the Roxy Music classic, Virginia Plain. Widely considered as an innovative piece of avant garde pop, the original version of Virginia Plain was released in 1972 and was a pioneering record with its use of electronic sounds. It's also such an idiosyncratic track that many rock music fans would consider it uncoverable, so it was a brave move by Stock & Waterman and Slamm to cover it. That said, the Slamm version is generally quite a faithful updating; sure, it has a pounding 90s beat and it could probably do without the "rave crowd roar" sound effects during the intro, but the combination of synth pads and house piano for the main riff is quite effective plus it's full of quirky sound effects which tip their hat to the original. There's also a blistering guitar solo, and a very faithful take on the lengthy squelchy synth instrumental break (which was no doubt commercial suicide in 1993). Lead singer John Wilks' raspy vocals suit the song without being a blatant attempt at mimicking Bryan Ferry, and there's a great use of the stereo spectrum as a car zooms from the left ear through to the right as Wilks' sings "Last picture show down the drive-in / You're so sheer / You're so chic / Teenage rebel of the week".

I like this version, but then I am an unusual case, being a fan of both Roxy Music and Stock (Aitken) Waterman. I think if you're a SAW fan, you'll probably think it's a bit weird, and if you're a Roxy Music fan, you will no doubt consider it the devil's music! Certainly, a review of the single in Smash Hits amounted to two words: "Absolutely pathetic". Ouch. And let's not forget, this was the final release of the original S(A)W partnership. It peaked at #60 in the UK, but according to a later radio interview with Slamm, it did gain some airplay on US East Coast radio stations at the time.

Our second -- and final -- Art Rock cover comes from Bananarama, who of course had a successful career going back to 1981, and had moved into a renewed phase of their career in 1986 when they teamed up with Stock Aitken Waterman. After a number of big hits, Bananarama moved away from SAW in 1989 and worked with producer (and former member of SAW-produced act Brilliant) Youth for their 1991 album Pop Life. That album and its singles suffered mixed fortunes, and in 1992, Bananarama (by then a two-piece comprising Sara Dallin and Keren Woodward) were encouraged by London Records to reunite with the by-then Aitken-less Stock and Waterman for their Please Yourself album. That album yielded two Top 40 hits, as well as a number #71 placing for Last Thing On My Mind (later covered to greater success by Steps), but despite this, Bananarama would part ways with London Records in 1993. PWL expert Tom Parker's excellent sleeve notes for the recent reissue of Please Yourself indicates that the initial intention was for Bananarama to continue working with Stock & Waterman following their departure from London, but these plans were thwarted when Stock moved on.

At least one post-Please Yourself track was recorded in 1993, which was a cover of David Bowie's Changes. Due to the reasons cited above, this track was not released at the time, nor did it emerge on any of the recent (and very comprehensive) Edsel Bananarama re-issues. A short clip of the track was available on the Pete Waterman Entertainment website some years back, but for a long time, that was as much as fans could hear. Until January 2016, when the track leaked, ostensibly as a tribute to Bowie, who sadly passed in that same month. Released as a single in 1972, Changes is undoubtedly one of the key Bowie tracks, displaying the great man's talent with melody and lyrics, and it has earned a new resonance following his untimely passing.

Whilst the emergence of Bananarama's Changes was no doubt a very pleasant surprise for fans of Bananarama and SAW, what was even more surprising is that the cover was generally positively received. Sure, there were detractors, but there were also many voices of praise. It must be pointed out that Mike Stock stated on twitter that he wasn't sure he ever fully finished the track (and this was corroborated by producer Mike Rose, who worked with Stock at the time), but it sounds pretty good for what is essentially an unfinished recording.

Avoiding the harder dancier elements which featured in Slamm's Virginia Plain, Bananarama's take on Changes is a fairly faithful take on the original. Opening with some nice guitar work and swirling synth pads, the main riff kicks in with pleasingly chunky piano, giving way to Sara and Keren singing in a low-register, supported in the verses by piano and strings, with the odd appearance of the SAW-beloved Staccato Heaven preset! The chorus is delivered with aplomb, with synth brass and glorious sampled-stuttering of "Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes!". Perhaps the middle-eight could have benefited from a beefier sound, but as stated, the track was not finished, and anyway, the gorgeous swelling build up to the final choruses more than makes up for it. Overall, it's a very pleasant listen, and very much in the typical spirit of the Bananarama sound. And for a fan like me, it's always a delight to hear an unreleased S(A)W track after all these years. Hopefully, an official release will be forthcoming.

My overriding view on both of these tracks is that they will no doubt divide opinion. The original versions of both Virginia Plain and Changes are rightly considered genuine classic pop/rock songs, and to be honest, any act covering these songs are on a hiding to nothing as they are both considered sacrosanct. That said, I do think that these Stock & Waterman produced covers are faithful to the originals, albeit redressed in the sounds of the early 1990s, and prove to be an interesting take on these Art Rock classics.

Sunday, 31 January 2016

I'm Mandy - Buy Me! Why couldn't Stock Aitken Waterman break Mandy Smith in the UK?

Over the years, Stock Aitken Waterman worked with a wide-range of vocalists, from top-flight legends through to the girl next door. Within this, there was a spectrum of singing ability, but even so, the sure hand of the three producers would often guarantee some modicum of success for their artists.

But there is one artist in particular who, whilst controversial for a number of reasons, one would have expected to have greater success. She did have hits internationally, but UK success eluded her. So why couldn't Mandy Smith have a hit in Great Britain?

Mandy Smith was a well-known – and controversial figure – in 1986 for her relationship with Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman; although she was 16 in 1986, it was in this year that the press revealed she had been dating the 50-year old Wyman since she was 13. By the time Smith came to Waterman's attention, she was 16 and working as a model, though still dating Wyman and still plagued by that controversy.

It was apparently Pete Burns who suggested to Pete Waterman that SAW should make a record with her; whether this was a genuine suggestion or merely an aside is unclear, but a deal was made and Smith was the first signing to Waterman's PWL Records.

In many ways, the signing of Smith was an indication of the approach SAW would take in their most successful years of 1988 and 1989. In 1986, SAW were still largely operating under a model of producing tracks written by the artists they were asked to work with, so the very notion of taking a young artist, writing material for her and directing her career resulting in SAW and PWL protoyping what would become their modus operandi.

According to Smith's former manager Maurice Boland, the first track Smith recorded with SAW was a cover of Terry, originally released by British female singer Twinkle in 1964. It would seem this choice was also inspired by Burns' comments to Waterman; he had seen a photo of Smith on a motorcycle, which minded him of a similar photo of Brigitte Bardot, and of course Terry is a tragic tale of a boyfriend losing his life in a motorcycle accident; a storyline strangely popular in 1950s and 1960s pop! This update of Terry is very much a curate's egg; whilst featuring a robust hi-NRG backing evocative of the 1986 Dead or Alive track Brand New Lover, Smith's quiet vocal struggles against the relentless arrangement. In truth, the largely instrumental Matt's Mood Mix serves the track better, but it is interesting to note that Matt Aitken cited it as the worst SAW track when interviewed for Sean Egan's excellent The Guys Who Wrote 'Em book.

It appears Boland did not consider Terry as a suitable candidate for Smith's debut single, and urged SAW to record an original composition for his charge. SAW obliged, and the end result was Smith's 1987 debut single, I Just Can't Wait.

I Just Can't Wait was a slightly unusual record for SAW to make, even at this still-experimental time in their career. Most SAW-written songs played on a model of melancholic lyrics against a bright optimistic sound; here, that is reversed. Opening with shimmering synths and carried along with a languid bass line, the arrangement is otherwise sparse, with the record hanging largely on Smith's vocals as a result. Many have commented on the weakness of Smith's vocals – and indeed there is the suggestion that her vocals were augmented by ghost vocalists – but in fairness, she acquits herself well enough here.

Despite Burns' reference to Brigitte Bardot, one cannot help but note a parallel between Smith and the youthful Marianne Faithfull. Both dated Rolling Stone members (Faithfull was in a relationship with Mick Jagger), both were blonde ingénues and I Just Can't Wait could be seen as the antecedent of Faithfull's debut record As Tears Go By. Although As Tears Go By was lyrically a story of heartbreak as opposed to I Just Can't Wait's optimistic and defiant lyrics, both records share a downbeat, melancholic sound.

I Just Can't Wait is clearly tailored lyrically to Smith; although the song casts Smith in the role of an archetypal teenager, one can't help wondering what Wyman made of lyrics such as "They'll never see you / The way that I do" and "They talk as if / I'm just a baby”.

However, the plaintive vocal, the low-key arrangement and the downbeat nature of the record makes for what is largely an ethereal listen. The song is expertly crafted, with a lovely chord progression in the verses, and even the spoken part over the instrumental section works, when most spoken parts don't -- but in my opinion, the song is a slow burner. Whilst I liked it back in 1987, it wasn't one of my favourite SAW tracks, but I must admit it has grown on me over the years and I find it to be an interesting record.

Interestingly, Boland's blog also suggests that the BBC banned I Just Can't Wait. Whilst it is more likely that the BBC chose not to playlist the track rather than banning it outright, it would suggest there was some nervousness about promoting Smith's records given the reputation she had acquired.

It peaked at #91 in the UK charts, but did achieve more success internationally. It's interesting to note that in countries where Smith's reputation did not precede her, the music was able to stand on its own and garner a successful response. Some European releases carried different versions of the standard 7” and 12” mixes, which were more upbeat and closer to the classic SAW style; these are also worth checking out.

As is well documented, the record would have a second life, as a result of one of its extended remixes. The UK 12” single carried the 7”, extended mix and B-side You're Never Alone, but a remix 12” was issued, featuring The Cool and Breezy Jazz Version.

Remixed by the Extra Beat Boys, this version was almost a complete departure from the original. Tapping into the Balearic style gaining popularity at the time, this version was primarily instrumental, with the verses only featuring well into the track, and the chorus omitted completely. As the title of the mix suggests, the arrangement leaned towards a jazz dance sound, heavy on bass and piano, driven along by impressive guitar work from Matt Aitken (who according to Pete Waterman performed it it one single take prior to going on a date!). Laidback but energetic, this reworking was quickly adopted by DJs out in Ibiza and also in clubs closer to home. Though this came too late to help get the track into the charts, it became – and still remains – a classic dance anthem. One wonders if a single edit of this version may have resulted in more chart success, but we will never know.

Single number #2 for Smith in 1987 was another original SAW composition. Positive Reaction was an upbeat, catchy pop stormer, taking its influence from the Latin Miami-style pop prevalent at the time. With arresting blasts of timpani, nicely building synth brass, and driven along with some terrific-Chic-style guitars from Matt Aitken, Positive Reaction was an intoxicating piece of dance pop, with a deliriously catchy chorus. This track was possibly ahead of its time, as it was indicative of the SAW sound and style which would see them dominate the charts a year or two hence. Smith's vocals are noticeably pitched higher here than on I Just Can't Wait, when possibly the lower-register suited her voice better. This is a joyous slab of pop in anyone's book, but again, it didn't perform well in the UK, missing the UK Top 100. A shame, as one can almost imagine that this could have been a big hit for Kylie or Sinitta, although it must be said the track suits Smith and she does make it her own.

Although subsequent singles would be provided by other PWL producers, SAW would record further tracks with Smith. Album track He's My Boy was again an upbeat, catchy track, which drew comparisons to Bananarama, whilst Smith was the first artist to record Got To Be Certain, but this was re-allocated to Kylie Minogue as the follow-up to I Should Be So Lucky. Smith's version is similar, but with different phrasing in places.

Smith would go on to release an album, entitled Mandy, with the remaining tracks produced by Phil Harding & Ian Curnow, Pete Hammond and Daize Washbourn. Singles three and four – Victim of Pleasure and Boys & Girls respectively – were both produced by Washbourn, but again failed to make any in-roads to the UK charts, despite both being effervescent pop songs. After a gap of a year, Smith returned for a fifth and final UK single –  a cover of Human League's Don't You Want Me – produced by Pete Hammond. This earned Smith her best UK chart placing yet – it reached #59 – but she and PWL would part ways soon after.

So Smith had the benefit of good material, but it would seem that -- rightly or wrongly -- the odds were stacked against her. Not wanting to dwell on the ethical or moral aspects of the relationship between Smith and Wyman -- this is a music blog after all -- my recollection of events was that much of the public and media negativity was directed at Smith rather than jointly with or solely at Wyman. Perhaps this was symptomatic of the times; it is likely that Smith would gain more support these days than perhaps she did thirty years ago.

However, the fact remains that there was a lot of negativity towards Smith, and surely this must have had some impact on the success or otherwise of her recording career, at least in the UK. It is interesting to note that Smith did achieve some reasonable success in mainland Europe, with Switzerland, Italy and Sweden amongst others providing great support. There is footage on YouTube of Smith performing to enthusiastic crowds on Sweden's Peter's Pop Show, and it is fascinating to observe the warm reception she gets from the audience. No matter how good her material was or could have been, it is difficult to imagine her getting the same response in the UK.

And that's the wider point here: Smith's reputation via the media meant that it would have been near-impossible for her to achieve any big success in the UK. Pete Waterman told Smash Hits in 1987 that if "we could break Mandy Smith in Britain there would be an end to musical snobbery in this country", and whilst that might be a typically grandiose-Waterman claim, it's not difficult to see what he means. Possibly more than any other SAW/PWL artist, there was a perception that Smith was an opportunist, chosen for her looks and infamy than for her natural musical ability. Smith may not have been a natural performer but she grew more confident as time went on (compare her later videos and TV performances to her early ones), and by all accounts, she was a nice girl, albeit with a lot to deal with. But one can't help feeling that even if she had recorded Never Gonna Give You Up or I Should Be So Lucky, Smith still wouldn't have made huge inroads to the Top 40. But all that said, her back catalogue has been reissued in recent years and she still attracts a loyal band of ardent followers -- which cannot be said for many of her contemporaries.

And although she may not have had a massive UK hit, she does have the kudos of making a record which became a classic and influential dance music anthem. That's gotta be a win for the teenage singer who arguably was never really given a fair crack at being a pop singer by the media who were determined to cast her as something else entirely.