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