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...