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.