On the first day of SAWmas, the DJ played for me…
When I Fall In Love – Rick Astley
Although Mike, Matt and Pete had been operating as a trio since 1984, it wasn’t until 1987 that they made their first assault on the Christmas market, and, given that 1987 had been their most successful year yet, the ambitious producers set their sights on the Christmas number one.
1987 had seen SAW really start the move from trendy underground producers into mainstream pop hitmakers; big hits from Mel & Kim, Bananarama and Sinitta had made a huge impact, but arguably it was the success of Rick Astley which really proved that SAW had arrived.
Rick’s debut hit Never Gonna Give You Up was an instant classic and this reputation only continues to build with the passage of time, whilst the follow-up – a polished remake of O’Chi Brown’s Whenever You Need Somebody – further entrenched the 21-year-old from Newton-Le-Willows as a rising star.
So all eyes (and a few betting slips) were on Rick Astley when it was announced that he was releasing a cover version of When I Fall In Love as his third single in time for Christmas 1987.
The SAW-produced Rick Astley version was probably the first of the “faithful cover versions” that became a SAW staple; Mike, Matt and Pete would take an old song, give it to one of their artists and wrap it up in a modern take of the original arrangement. Yesterday’s Sound, Tomorrow’s Technology, if you like. Notable examples include Jason Donovan’s Sealed With A Kiss, Kylie Minogue’s Tears On My Pillow and Big Fun’s Hey There Lonely Girl, but Rick’s When I Fall In Love must be the pioneering example.
It’s a lush production, eschewing the then-emerging trademark SAW synth sound for a warm, string-led arrangement, which is actually credited to Gordon Jenkins (who was responsible for the string arrangement of the Nat King Cole Version). The synthesised strings are so effective (especially for 1987) that one could be forgiven for thinking they are real, and one senses the involvement of PWL’s Ian Curnow, who had joined the organisation that year and had been given the task of getting to grips with the Fairlight music computer. (Certainly, Curnow is credited on the Whenever You Need Somebody album sleeve as providing Fairlight programming on the SAW-produced tracks).
Rick performs the song effortlessly; clearly, his mellifluous voice suits the track, and has a similar tone to that of Nat King Cole, which probably inspired the song choice.
Whilst the song itself is not explicitly about Christmas, the warmth of the arrangement and production of Rick’s version (not to mention the opening’s similarities with the arrangement of Nat King Cole’s The Christmas Song) creates a real connection with the Yuletide season. However, it’s the video which reinforces the seasonal feel, with Rick walking through the snow outside a log cabin.
It would be churlish to criticise such a classic song as When I Fall In Love, and certainly SAW created a typically polished version, but equally it is fair to say this is not the most exciting of SAW tracks. (For this listener, the real excitement was on the flipside, which contained a new SAW composition and production My Arms Keep Missing You, and would itself become the A side in the New Year of 1988). One wonders about the real appeal to SAW’s core audience of these “faithful cover versions”, and When I Fall In Love is no exception. But perhaps that’s just me, as it did reach number 2 in the UK Singles Chart.
So, what stopped it from getting to number one? Well, it was another old song which claimed that top spot that Yuletide, but a rather more contemporary take than Rick’s. Pet Shop Boys took the crown with their hi-NRG version of Always On My Mind, an old standard previously recorded by Willie Nelson, Brenda Lee and, most famously, by Elvis Presley. Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe had, like Rick and SAW, enjoyed a successful 1987, and topped it off by turning a tender ballad into an explosive dancefloor extravaganza.
However, no matter how good the Pet Shop Boys track was, there is possibly a second reason why Rick failed to reach the top spot. At the same time as Rick’s version was climbing the charts, Nat King Cole’s version was re-released… by EMI Records. Which just happened to be the record company who owned Parlophone, the label who Pet Shop Boys were signed to. There are suggestions that this was a deliberate act to take away sales from Rick Astley, and therefore increase Pet Shop Boys’ chances on reaching number one. How true this alleged intention was is unknown, but as the Nat King Cole re-release hit number 4, there must have been some impact on Rick’s sales.
So, SAW’s first attempt at Christmas number one was ultimately unsuccessful, but number 2 ain’t such a bad result at all. As it was, SAW would make their second attempt at Christmas number one the following year, albeit an attempt which was effectively forced upon them…
Based upon and expanded from material originally published in 80s UK Christmas Singles (available on Kindle)