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.

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

The Harder (Sound) I Try: SAW and their three experimental 1990 singles

"[Big Fun] explain how Pete Waterman sat them down and told them that Stock Aitken & Waterman were looking for "a harder sound because they knew what they were doing wouldn't carry them into the late '90s". Lonnie Gordon's single was an experiment to try it out and, because that worked, they say "Handful of Promises" is the second."
Chris Heath, "Don't Big Fun Look Hard?", Smash Hits, March 1990

It is fair to say that Stock Aitken Waterman had a huge influence on pop music in the second half of the 1980s, and indeed came to dominate the scene in the last three years of the decade. But as the trio enjoyed their most successful year in 1989, the signs of change were in the air. Dance music was on the ascendant, whilst guitar indie bands like The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays were making in-roads to the charts.

One of the key factors of SAWs success was their ability to tap into the musical trends of the day and fuse them with their own pop sensibilities. This approach had borne great dividends, but the downside was that as SAW came to dominate the music scene, they had no-one but themselves to seek inspiration from. PWL mixmaster and producer Phil Harding comments in his excellent PWL From The Factory Floor book that he felt that SAW's amazing success in pop music resulted in a move away from their trendier dance records, and as a result, they lost a lot of crucial support from the DJ community which had supported them in the early days.

Therefore, the influx of new sounds into the pop charts and concerns about the sustainability of a sound which had already enjoyed at least three years of huge success presumably led to SAW thinking about what changes they could make to keep current without losing their unique selling point of strong pop melodies.

Various accounts have it that SAW came up with three tracks to showcase and test out a new harder sound for the 1990s. The first two -- as referenced in the Chris Heath quotation above -- were Happenin' All Over Again by Lonnie Gordon and Handful of Promises by Big Fun. The third is believed to have been Counting Every Minute by Sonia.

The question is: Did these three records really determine a new sound for SAW?

The opening salvo in this bold experiment was Lonnie Gordon's Happenin' All Over Again, which was truly an ideal blend between the melodic SAW pop of the previous year and the harder dance sounds breaking through into the 1990 music charts. Perhaps taking some inspiration from Black Box's 1989 smash Ride On Time, Happenin' All Over Again eschews the Italo piano of that track for a solid backing of acid synths and string synth pads, punctuated by a punchy percussion track. Gordon's powerful voice dominates proceedings, but special credit must be given to the intricate backing vocal arrangement -- immaculately performed by Mae McKenna and Miriam Stockley (plus Mike Stock). It sounds like a new SAW sound for 1990, and a nod back to the soul/dance material they created between 1985 & 1987. Some commentators suggest this track was written for Donna Summer -- and it's not too difficult to imagine Summer perform it -- but Gordon puts her own stamp on it and makes it her own. This venture into a harder sound was deemed a success -- it got a positive critical reaction and reached #4 on the UK Singles Chart -- and it suggested an exciting new year ahead for both Gordon and SAW. Therefore, it's sad to note that the prolonged decision-making that delayed the follow-up resulted in Gordon being unable to build on the impact she'd made with this single.

Kicking off with a dirty great air-raid siren, Big Fun's Handful of Promises certainly offers a denser sound than their two previous SAW-produced singles. "Harder" isn't exactly the right term here, given the act and some of the lyrics, but there is a move away again from the SAW sound of 1988 and 1989. No synth-brass, Staccato Heaven or dramatic drum fills here -- instead we get a crisp, hard beat, punctuated with the "whoa - yeah" sample, as well as a solid synth lead and a driving ringing riff. Some familiar staples remain, such as the synth string pads and female backing vocals, but there's also some acid house synths in there too. Melodically, it's a typically strong song, building nicely from the pacey verse, to a terrific bridge, through to the catchy chorus. There's definitely a punchier sound to this track, but unfortunately it is the act performing the track who prevent it from being "harder". Big Fun were perhaps an odd proposition as a boy band aimed at teenage girls (though they certainly succeeded in that target audience), but crucially, lead singer Mark had such an unusual voice that, in my opinion at least, detracted from the overall success of the recordings. One wonders how much better this track would have sounded with a lower-pitched vocal, though I do wonder if the opening lines of the chorus -- "Just a handful of promises / You gave me / A pocketful of dreams / That just won't do" -- could be better suited to a female performer. Handful of Promises reached #21 on the UK Singles Chart, but, despite my issues with the vocals, I think it's a good track and one which may have done better under a different act.

Sonia's Counting Every Minute completed the apparent trio of "harder" records, and indeed aims to make a statement of intent from the start. Opening with a chunky house beat, Italo house piano and acid synths, it again sounds like SAW are moving away from the trebly sound of the previous year, but the prominent use of chimes results in the record sounding more like what came before and less like a pointer towards the new "harder sound", even with the "whoa-yeah" sample. Don't get me wrong, it's a good track, with hints of Abba in the melody, and performed well by Sonia, but it's perhaps not as bold as the previous two records discussed here. There's some nice playing on the track from Mike and Matt, and interestingly the backing vocals are less prominent here than on other SAW tracks. The middle eight is great fun, with its stuttering sample and sweeping string swirl, and it has a great descending bass line at the end of the bridge, which sounds a bit like a schoolkid twanging a plastic ruler on their desk! Peaking at #16, this is Sonia at her pomp, as her subsequent two SAW singles would see a downshift in tempo.

Overall, it's fair to say that these three tracks did demonstrate an effort to develop the SAW sound for a new decade, and certainly all three were hits. That said, it's notable that all three acts would part ways with SAW as 1990 went on.

However, I'm still not sure that these three tracks fully realised the "harder" sound which Pete Waterman was aiming for, though I do think that Happenin' All Over Again came the closest. If anything, I would wager that there were other tracks in 1990 which were perhaps more successful attempts at a harder sound, such as Romi & Jazz's One Love One World (which I'll cover in more detail another time) and, most notably, Kylie Minogue's Better The Devil You Know.

Honourable mentions should also go to the two 1990 records which SAW produced under two different pseudonyms -- Grand Plaz's Wow Wow Na Na (with production credited to DJ Crazyhouse) and L.A. Mood's Ole Ole Ole (written and produced by Kean Canter Mattowski -- clearly an anagram of Stock Aitken Waterman) --  which also carried a tougher dance sound, though perhaps the Grand Plaz track was more successful in not sounding like a SAW production.

I'd wager, though, that rather than adopting a harder sound, SAW looked towards the dance and soul genres for the rest of 1990 (and into 1991). Whilst SAW still came out with pop-friendly tracks (such as Yell!'s One Thing Leads To Another and Jason Donovan's Another Night), Phil Harding has stated that following the critical and commercial success of Better The Devil You Know, Pete Waterman pursued a more club-orientated sound. Certainly, the singles from Delage, Grand Plaz, LA Mood and the third Lonnie Gordon single followed this model, though a soul & RnB sound was also catered for by the second Lonnie Gordon single and Sybil's Make It Easy On Me, as well as by the Cool Notes and Paul Varney tracks in 1991.

Unfortunately, the second half of 1990 resulted in SAW enjoying less chart success than the first half. A good number of strong tracks failed to make the Top 40, and in one or two cases, the Top 75. In some cases, such as Yell! and Lonnie Gordon, record company issues had an impact, but perhaps there was a general shift away from the SAW sound in favour of the new and exciting sounds coming through. Given that young people drive singles sales and that their tastes are remarkably fickle, it was inevitable that the market would move on -- and in many ways, it is remarkable that SAW maintained their stratospheric success for as long as they did.

One experiment I would have liked to have seen was SAW marrying their unique pop melodies with the indie-dance sound pioneered by The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays, bringing in a bit more guitar and breakbeats. That would have surely been a "harder sound" and an interesting diversification. All that said, I'm happy with what we got from SAW in 1990, but equally I am curious as to what the results of further experimentation in a harder sound would have been...

Beyond Belief: Why wasn't Lonnie Gordon's brilliant ballad a massive hit?

Everyone knows Stock Aitken Waterman (SAW) as hit-making writers and producers, but as many fans know, there are a number of singles in their back catalogue which were not big hits. Some of these lower-charting tracks are among the most interesting and admired tracks Mike, Matt and Pete were involved in, and as such, deserved better recognition and success than they achieved.

One example of this is Beyond Your Wildest Dreams by Lonnie Gordon, one of the best songs SAW ever wrote, and one of the best records they ever made.

It was the follow-up to the smash-hit Happenin' All Over Again; it had a real laidback, jazz-soul sound that suited the summer of 1990; and simply oozed class.

Yet this astonishing ballad peaked at #48 on the UK Singles Chart.

It is arguable that, out of all the lesser-known SAW singles, this is the one that really deserved to do better. Sure, it's downtempo, but this ain't no drippy, over-produced ballad; this is grown-up, honest stuff.

A story of a woman trying to get her partner to put the hurt of past loves behind them and let her into their life, the song is at turns brooding and plaintive, both compassionate and passionate. Lyrically, this is emotionally mature material which really resonates. The end of the first verse -- "The past / hurt your pride / and you're always looking back" -- provides a neat coupling with the first bridge "But the future / ain't what you believe", whilst the middle eight lyrics -- "I've been hurt / and on my bended knee / You've experienced / the same as me" -- possess a real poignancy, showing empathy with the other party. Some detractors of SAW state that all their songs sound the same -- a nonsense disproven by this track especially -- but this is not a song which many other Hit Factory artists could have pulled off the way Gordon does here.

Notably, the record does not sound anything like the perceived idea of a typical SAW production. Carried along by a delicate percussion track, laidback jazz piano and female backing vocals, the track is given space to breathe, allowing Gordon's vocals their moment to shine. She is an amazing vocalist who doesn't always get the credit she deserves, and this is surely one of her best performances. Mike Stock and Matt Aitken's musicianship is well demonstrated here; the piano work is delightful, and Matt Aitken's guitar work deserves special mention. His guitar playing, perhaps lost a little in the 7" mix, is the highlight of the main extended version, and is reminiscent of his rightly-lauded work on The Cool & Breezy Jazz Mix of Mandy Smith's I Just Can't Wait.

The song -- and Gordon's breathtaking performance -- builds slowly and steadily, until we get a release of emotion with the middle eight -- after which we get to the nub of the matter and Gordon lays her heart bare. The middle eight is a thing of beauty, lyrically (as mentioned above) and melodically, but the emotion Gordon brings to her delivery makes it all the more touching.

Often, it is the bridge which is the most striking and unique element of many SAW songs, but is often overlooked due to the killer choruses the team crafted. If anything, the bridge in Beyond Your Wildest Dreams is arguably the real hook of the song, the signature of SAW in a song which doesn't immediately sound like one of theirs. The song carries three variations of the bridge, with the first two building up to the third and final iteration, which Gordon almost spits out "If only you won't / hold back / stop fighting / me please...".

It's a remarkable song and a brilliantly crafted record, which poses the question... why wasn't it a bigger hit?

There are a number of possible explanations. The first is that switching Gordon from dance to ballad maybe came too quickly. Happenin' All Over Again was a proper belter and seemingly set Gordon up as a dance diva; perhaps the follow-up track should have also been an upbeat dance track, so that Gordon was more established before going for a ballad. And yet, that appears to have been the original intention. The follow-up to Happenin' All Over Again was originally How Could He Do This To Me?, another upbeat (and lyrically strong) track, but the story goes that Supreme Records decided to release Beyond Your Wildest Dreams instead.

It is worth considering that 1990 saw Stock Aitken Waterman looking for a "harder" sound to take them into the new decade, and it is believed that three records in particular formed part of this experiment. Sonia's Counting Every Minute was one, as was Big Fun's Handful of Promises -- and Happenin' All Over Again. It could be that there was a view that Beyond Your Wildest Dreams was again a new take on the SAW sound, and that may have led to the enthusiasm for that to be the follow-up. Conjecture on my part perhaps, but one can perhaps understand how the record company would have been seduced by the sophisticated sound of this track.

The second possible reason could have been the six month gap between the release of Happenin' All Over Again and Beyond Your Wildest Dreams; in hindsight, perhaps this gap should have been smaller in order to capitalise on the success of Happenin' All Over Again and establish Gordon in the eyes (and ears!) of the record buying public. (It has been suggested that Gordon's record label, Supreme Records, was struggling at this time; indeed, it would later fold. This may be a contributing factor).

Another reason could be the beginning of a change in SAW's fortunes. They were still riding high at the start of 1990, but by the time Beyond Your Wildest Dreams was released in July 1990, some commentators were suggesting the SAW bubble had burst. This was mainly instigated by the failure of Jason Donovan's Another Night to reach the top ten in June 1990, stalling at #18 (although the follow-up Rhythm of the Rain would reach #9 in August 1990). The music scene was undergoing big changes at this time and it is fair to say that as 1990 progressed, SAW were not enjoying the same level of success as in previous years, but I would argue that it wasn't so much that the public was tired of the SAW sound -- it was more that the media had moved away to the new styles of music, therefore SAW material was not getting the same level as coverage as in previous years. Certainly Beyond Your Wildest Dreams does not appear to have enjoyed the same level of promotion achieved by Happenin' All Over Again.

The final possible reason is one which could apply to many records which do not become big hits: perhaps people just didn't like the record enough to go out and buy it in droves. In fairness, I find it difficult to understand why many of the SAW "flops" didn't break through, but I do feel that Beyond Your Wildest Dreams deserved to be a bigger hit. That said, Stock & Waterman re-recorded the track with Sybil for a 1993 release and that stalled frustratingly at #41, despite a strong production and an amazing performance by Sybil. I recall that version getting airplay -- on local radio at least -- but again the song didn't seem to take off.

Some fans jokingly refer to "The Curse of Beyond Your Wildest Dreams", as not only did the Lonnie Gordon and Sybil versions miss out on a Top 40 chart placing, but a third version was recorded by Nancy Davis in 1992. Davis was a waitress who won a karaoke contest run by women's magazine more!, which included Stock & Waterman as judges; this led to her releasing two singles through PWL Records -- a Stock & Waterman original If You Belonged To Me and a cover of the Jackie Wilson classic Higher and Higher. Unfortunately, neither track was a big hit and there were no further releases from Davis --  although it appears she recorded other tracks with Stock & Waterman, including the cover of Beyond Your Wildest Dreams. Davis had a soulful and very engaging singing voice -- if perhaps not as powerful as Lonnie and Sybil -- but judging by the clip of her version which appeared on the PWL Empire website, she performed the song with real emotion.

For me though, Beyond Your Wildest Dreams is one of the very best Stock Aitken Waterman songs; it's mature, heartfelt and very accomplished. It's almost criminal that this song has not yet had a second life. Here's hoping that it is a song whose time is yet to come; after all, sometimes the wildest of dreams can come true...

Lonnie Gordon - Beyond Your Wildest Dreams
Written and produced by Stock Aitken Waterman
Supreme Records  SUPE 167 / #48, 1990

Extended Version: mixed by Dave Ford

Originally published on Meaningless Insights

Stock, Aitken &... Brazilian?? When Mike, Matt & Pete went bossa nova in 1986!

1986 was an interesting year for Stock Aitken Waterman. The writing and production team had only been together for two years, but had already achieved significant success with their early work for acts such as Divine, Hazell Dean, Dead Or Alive and Princess. 1986 would see the team experiment with a number of different styles and genres, before finding a niche in the dance-pop style that would take them into the stratosphere, and some of their most interesting records were made during this period.

Perhaps the most surprising releases during this phase was a delightful trio of singles which saw the triumvirate tackle a bit of Brazilian bossa nova & latin jazz.

First up was Mondo Kane -- which appears to have been Stock Aitken Waterman undercover as a studio band, albeit fronted by the team's regular backing singers Dee Lewis and Coral Gordon -- and their debut single, New York Afternoon.

New York Afternoon was written by US jazz saxophonist Richie Cole, who originally recorded it in 1977 with Eddie Jefferson on vocals. This original version has a very traditional jazz feel, with an arrangement led by piano, bass, and of course, saxophone. As the title suggests, the song relates the lazy Sunday afternoon enjoyed by two lovers as they wander through New York in June, making memories that "We'll remember / When skies are grey and snow's fallin' in December / That was a New York afternoon". It's a very accessible, well-performed track, benefiting from Jefferson's rich voice -- and scatting!

Whilst the Mondo Kane take on New York Afternoon would retain the jazz influence of the original, Stock Aitken Waterman introduced a bossa nova element -- resulting in a sound tipping its hat to artists such as Herb Alpert and Sergio Mendes. Indeed, Mike Stock has commented that the Sergio Mendes & Brasil '88 version of Waters of March (from the 1978 album Brasil '88) was an influence on the Mondo Kane sound. It's an inspired decision, as the Mondo Kane version of New York Afternoon is simply joyous.

Opening with a chirping bird flute riff (which would recur throughout the track), the track is carried along with some fine nylon guitar, sharp bass and high-hat, bass drum and cross-stick percussion. The Jefferson role on the Mondo Kane version was taken by guest vocalist Georgie Fame, the legendary jazz / R&B singer, and his mellifluous vocals brings an extra dimension to proceedings, although Lewis and Gordon are less prominent as a result. The track also includes a terrific saxophone solo (alas uncredited); the addition of real brass always lifted a Stock Aitken Waterman track, as it does here.

Mondo Kane - New York Afternoon: Extended Version

In addition to the main 7" mix, there was an Extended Version (which really highlights the fine playing by Mike Stock, Matt Aitken and then-regular keyboard player Andy Stennett), the Nip On mix (which omits Fame's lead vocal, allowing Lewis and Gordon their moment in the sun), and the Little Samba Mix (which appears to be a re-edit of the 7" mix). The B-side was an original Stock Aitken Waterman instrumental composition, Manhattan Morning, which is the vein of the A-side, but with a more modernistic arrangement -- a pleasant listen all the same. Phil Harding was on mixing duties for all the above.

The single was released on Lisson Records, a label run by music industry legend and PWL A&R Tilly Rutherford, but despite some fair promotion, the record peaked at #70 in the charts. A word for the sleeve, which takes the look of a 1940s film poster. Announcing "A Fiesta of Music", it lists the song title and performers in a billboard style, with prominent credit for the producers -- indeed, in line with the film poster theme, the front cover carries a "Produced and Directed by Stock Aitken Waterman" statement. The rear of the sleeve, unusually, carries a detailed description of the recording techniques and facilities of PWL Studios!

The sleeve also carries a credit for soul DJ (and Georgie Fame fan) Chris Hill as A&R Co-Ordinator, which would suggest that he was responsible for Fame's involvement and would indeed play a significant role in the second of the three tracks we're looking at.

Our second track is Samba (Toda Menina Baiana) by Georgie Fame. A cover of the 1979 Gilberto Gil track Toda Menina Baiana (retitled Samba for this release, although the original title was used as a subtitle) with English lyrics by Fame, the song title translates as "Every Bahian Girl", referring to the Bahia state of Brazil. The song itself discusses the good and bad qualities of the "Bahian girl", indicating that this duality is God's will.

Samba saw Mike, Matt and Pete develop the bossa nova sound further; if anything, it leaned even further towards the Brazilian elements found in the Gil original. Ambling along with classic bossa nova percussion, nifty bass and flute, the low-key arrangement allows Fame's voice to take centre stage. Fame is at ease with both his English lyrics and the original Brazilian Portuguese lyrics, and his light scatting during the chorus is nicely done. Lifted by the bright backing vocals, handclaps and lovely trumpet, it's a delightfully uplifting track with a real summer feel -- and it's almost a shame that this was released late Autumn/early Winter.

Georgie Fame - Samba: Toda Menina Baiana Mix

Alongside the main 7" mix, there was the Toda Menina Baiana Mix (which is a straight extended version) and a further 12" remix, Ipanema Beach Party Mix (which interpolates elements of Fame's Yeh Yeh, and Astrud Gilberto's Girl From Ipanema amongst others). The 7" and 12" mixes were by Pete Hammond, with the Ipanema Beach Party Mix by Phil Harding.

The single was released on Ensign Records (a subsidiary of Chrysalis Records); Chris Hill was A&R at Ensign, and was credited as Executive Producer. One account has it that Samba was apparently especially recorded by Fame & Stock Aitken Waterman for a soul weekender in South Wales, but either way, the concept is credited to Hill on the sleeve. Unfortunately, the single stalled at #81, but it's another interesting diversion from what is regarded as the typical Stock Aitken Waterman sound -- and well worth checking out.

The final record of the three bossa nova tracks is the second (and sadly last) Mondo Kane single, which was released in late 1986. An Everlasting Love (In An Ever-Changing World) (The Doop De Do Song) was an original Stock Aitken Waterman composition, again performed by Lewis and Gordon but sans Fame this time.

An Everlasting Love (In An Ever-Changing World) (The Doop De Do Song) carried the sonic hallmarks of its predecessor -- nylon guitar, latin percussion -- but introduced some different elements such as synth pads, drum fills and electric piano. This broadened the sound but without losing the bossa nova basis. Lewis and Gordon's vocals are lovely, switching between the breathless delivery of the verses and the buoyant singalong of the catchy "do-do do do do do do do-do do do do do do" chorus refrain. There's definitely more of a pop vibe to this track but that's no bad thing; it still benefits from a shimmering latin jazz sound and is a charming listen.

Mondo Kane - An Everlasting Love (In An Ever-Changing World) (The Doop De Do Song): A Foggy Day In London Town Mix

This release only had three mixes: the Radio EditA Foggy Day In London Town Mix (both mixed by Pete Hammond) and an Instrumental version (mixed by Phil Harding).

As before, the single was released by Lisson Records, with pretty much the same front sleeve (albeit with different colours and text). The rear sleeve again carried the technical blurb about PWL Studios -- which incidentally ends with "As PW (Pete Waterman) always says, "always remember you can't hum a bass drum"!! Unfortunately, this single fared less well than even New York Afternoon and Samba, and appears not to have made the Top 100.

Stock Aitken Waterman's intriguing experiment into bossa nova and latin jazz largely came to an end with the final Mondo Kane single release. One factor must surely be the failure of these three singles to reach the Top 40 but it should also be considered that by the end of 1986, Stock Aitken Waterman had had hit singles with Bananarama's Venus and Mel & Kim's Showing Out (Get Fresh At The Weekend) -- these successes would suggest that Stock Aitken Waterman had found the new sound they had been looking for, and this would indeed be the case. As a result, there was perhaps less of a need to explore the sound adopted by the Mondo Kane and Georgie Fame singles. Whilst Stock Aitken Waterman would not return to this genre wholesale, they would include latin jazz elements in subsequent tracks, such as The Cool & Breezy Jazz Mix of Mandy Smith's I Just Can't Wait, and the Jazz Mix of Erik's The Devil and The Deep Blue Sea.

Whilst the influence of Sergio Mendes has been cited, it should also be noted that acts like Matt Bianco and Working Week had enjoyed some success with a latin jazz / bossa nova sound in that mid-1980s period. However, the interest in these acts chartwise was waning at the point these three Stock Aitken Waterman productions were issued (though it is fair to say that Matt Bianco went on to sustain a good level of global success and continue still to this day). Indeed, the Mondo Kane records are unfairly classed by some commentators as Matt Bianco rip-offs, which is simply a lazy comparison. If anything, the three tracks covered here all benefit from Stock Aitken Waterman merging their pop sensibilities with this jazz-funk genre, resulting in contemporary records which make a respectful nod to traditional styles.

All three tracks remain interesting examples of the versatility of Stock Aitken Waterman as producers, and demonstrate that they were capable of much more than their trademark style suggests. Best listened to if you fancy groovin' on a New York Afternoon, or indeed, on a Manhattan Morning...

Originally published on Meaningless Insights

Welcome to Kean Canter Mattowski!

Many years ago, I ran a website about Stock Aitken Waterman called Kean Canter Mattowski. And now, it's back!

This is a place where I will write about varying aspects of Stock Aitken Waterman, as well as PWL personnel such as Phil Harding, Pete Hammond and many others.

And in case you're wondering, Kean Canter Mattowski is an anagram of Stock Aitken Waterman (which they used as a pseudonym on their 1990 dance track, Ole Ole Ole by L.A. Mood).

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