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.