Tuesday, 1 August 2017
Under the auspices of songwriter/producer Andy Hill, Buck's Fizz's original 1980s run of material (running from 1981's Making Your Mind Up through to 1988's Heart of Stone) is a strong, and often underrated, back catalogue, with its reputation perhaps undermined by the band's initial Eurovision status. Making Your Mind Up is a fun, frothy party track, but its late 70s pub band sound is unrepresentative of what was to come later. However, Hill's adoption of new technology for second album Are You Ready? album saw him give the Buck's Fizz sound a much needed boldness and modernity. The result were two number hits with The Land of Make-Believe and My Camera Never Lies, both tracks displaying Hill's love of complex vocal harmonies and tricksy drum programming. Third album Hand Cut was again led by Hill, albeit with songwriting and production contributions from others, resulting in hits with If You Can't Stand the Heat and When We Were Young. A terrible coach crash had a devastating impact on the band, not only personally (the band suffered serious injuries, most notably Mike Nolan) but also professionally, with 1984's I Hear Talk album not achieving the success it deserved. The band took time out to recover from the accident, but also had to deal with the departure of Jay Aston. The band (with new member Shelley Preston) would return to the charts with 1986's New Beginning (Mamba Seyra), but worthy follow-ups failed to make any huge chart impact. Ironically, the band's final single of the 1980s - Heart of Stone - would later be a huge hit for Cher, but missed the Top 40 in its original incarnation.
The intervening years have been a fascinating if frustrating time for the original members of Buck's Fizz; the band saw members drop out of the line-up, then saw a spin-off led by Mike Nolan and Dollar's David Van Day, followed by further re-groupings. There now exists two "splinter" versions of the band; Bucks Fizz, led by original member Bobby G with three non-original performers, and The Fizz (aka Formerly of Bucks Fizz), which comprises original members Cheryl Baker, Mike Nolan and Jay Aston, plus Bobby McVay (who was part of the line up for the 1983 UK Eurovision act Sweet Dreams).
Which brings us right up to date -- and the reason I am writing about all this on a SAW blog.
The Fizz have teamed up with Mike Stock, and have been working on new material over the past year or so. (Indeed, fans had a sneak preview of this new material with the limited release of a Christmas-themed The Land Of Make Believe 2016).
It's an interesting collaboration, but one that probably makes sense for both parties at this point in time. It's not entirely without precedent, as Pete Waterman states in his autobiography that RCA A&R man Peter Robinson approached him in 1985 to see if SAW could come up with some new material for Bucks Fizz -- although it appears nothing came of this request. It's also worth noting that it is believed that Stock and Hill knew each other; indeed, Stock and Aitken recorded their first post-SAW release -- No More Tears (Enough Is Enough) by Kym Mazelle and Jocelyn Brown -- at Hill's Comfort Place studio.
Whilst there was no tangible collaboration between SAW and Bucks Fizz in the 1980s, it does sound like Mike Stock had some kind of long-held desire to work with the band; in a 2016 interview with Xanthe Bearman, he referred obliquely to The Fizz project, citing that he was working with them "for reasons that I have deep within my soul"!
Now, thanks to a very successful Pledgemusic campaign, The Fizz are due to release a brand-new album, The f-z of Pop, in September 2017. Produced by Mike Stock and Jimmy Junior, the album comprises 8 new songs, 3 remade BF songs plus additional mixes. And today (Tuesday 1 August 2017) saw the first airplay of the album's lead track, Dancing In The Rain.
It's a great, catchy track; it has the trademarks of classic Buck's Fizz but one can hear elements of Steps in there too. Some nice percussive elements, guitar work and incidental synth sounds, but it has a nice laidback feel which would see it sit well on the Radio 2 playlist (here's hoping!).
Overall, it's a solid return to form, and any new pure pop track is very welcome these days. I'm certain the dedicated The Fizz fanbase will be pleased, but whether the SAW purists will be as pleased remains to be seen. I for one look forward to the album and hearing the full results of this interesting collaboration.
Sunday, 30 July 2017
In case you missed part one, the criteria for the list is:
• Written (and/or co-written) by SAW
• Standalone tracks not belonging to an original artist album
• A full song with lyrics
So, without further ado, here's my Top 5!
5) Closer – Kylie Minogue
[B-side to Finer Feelings]
As Kylie Minogue approached the end of her tenure with PWL Records, she clearly had a growing influence on her material. Certainly, the whole Let’s Get To It album demonstrated this, even if the singles chosen to promote the album did not necessarily reflect this change in style. This new direction was probably more keenly felt in the B-sides of those singles; Say The Word – I’ll Be There (previously covered in part one of this article), the house-techno pastiche I Guess I Like It Like That, the storming Do You Dare?, and this track, the B-side to adult ballad Finer Feelings. Kicking off with a hypnotic metallic synth and heavy breathing, Closer sets out its stall from the outset – a spooky and sensual deep house track that takes Kylie and Stock & Waterman into new territory. The robust house beat and the vocal locs show a more mature, less tricksy approach to Stock’s arrangement than previously demonstrated, with an amazing squelching synth workout in the middle. Minogue’s vocals appear to have a filter applied in places, which adds to the trippy sense to proceedings. But Stock (with Waterman and Minogue on co-writing duties) also takes an alternative approach with the song’s construction; it only has two verses (as opposed to the usual three), with the chorus tacked on to the end of each – with quite a gap between both of those verses. There is also no bridge as such (a key part of many SAW tracks). The lyrics have a pleasingly elliptical style to them, hinting towards the pleasure of sexual union (which actually complements the lyrics of the A-side), and these are of course reinforced by the heavy breathing which punctuates the track. Overall, it’s a refreshingly adult track in term of theme and sound; whilst there would be a year and two further PWL single releases before Minogue released the post-PWL Confide In Me, Closer actually indicates the mature stylised direction Minogue would take with her initial DeConstruction material. As much as I love and admire Finer Feelings, Closer was actually an utterly contemporary track that would have set a new course for both Minogue and Stock & Waterman – and arguably, the producers would have benefited more from such a re-evaluation at that time.
4) Never Knew Love Like This Before – Nancy Davis
[B-side to Higher And Higher]
Pizza-waitress turned karaoke-contest-winner turned pop-star Nancy Davis was a real missed opportunity for Stock & Waterman and PWL; her strong soulful voice and striking looks made her a real candidate for a new star for the 90s, and her debut track If You Belonged To Me was a strong classy house/pop crossover. However, when this track missed the top 40, her follow-up (and sadly, final release) took safer ground with a cover of Jackie Wilson’s Higher and Higher; whilst a joyful take on that classic, it took Davis away from the credible house/soul path and towards pure pop. The B-side was more interesting; again, more pop than house, but Never Knew Love Like This Before at least went some way into creating a new style that could be Davis’ own. The arrangement is a strange brew of both the 80s and 90s S(A)W sound; the house piano and brass base the track in 1992, whilst the vocal locs and incidental chime sounds hark back to the producer’s golden period. The elasticity of Stock’s melody allows Davis’ voice to shine, with her tackling the almost conversational lyrics, which present Davis telling the world how happy her new relationship has made her. One striking element of this track is that Mike Stock is on solo backing vocals here, and you can hear his isolated vocals just after the instrumental break. As with Say The Word – I’ll Be There, Stock cites this as another favourite B side, classing it as a bit of an experiment. And I guess that’s a good description. It sounds like Stock trying to forge a new pop sound for the 90s; if anything, he was a bit early – whilst this sound would have played better later in the decade, it didn’t really fit with the chart fare of 1992. As such, I’m not sure Never Knew Love Like This Before would have been a hit at that time, but, as per the challenge I set myself with this article, I’d have chosen this as the A-side over Higher And Higher.
3) Made In Heaven – Kylie Minogue
[B-side to Je Ne Sais Pas Pourquoi]
You might say this is a slight cheat, as Made In Heaven was originally intended as a double A-side single with Je Ne Sais Pas Pourquoi. This French-styled classic track was the fourth single from the massive Kylie album, so there many have been concerns over its chart performance given that so many people already owned it on the album and that is why new track Made In Heaven was appended to the release. As it was, Je Ne Sais Pas Pourquoi was another smash hit, peaking at #2 in the UK Singles Chart – and as a result, the single was never “flipped” to make Made In Heaven the A-side. A great pity, cos this one’s a little gem that deserves to be better known. Heavy on plucked strings and luscious synth pads, this tale of a girl building up to a first kiss is brought alive by an irresistible melody. The verses and bridge are exquisite enough, but that chorus just knocks it out of the park. It just shows the confidence and the winning streak of SAW at that point that such a belter of a pop track could be consigned to the flipside of another bona fide hit. Most SAW fans will know this one, but well worth checking out if you don’t.
2) You Changed My Life – Mel & Kim
[B-side of That’s The Way It Is]
Back in 1988, there was a lot of anticipation regarding a second Mel & Kim album. Whilst there was talk of recording taking place with other producers (notably Prince alumni David Z), further recording with SAW was anticipated. Alas, Mel Appleby tragically lost her fight against cancer and the full potential of Mel & Kim was never realised. The only tantalising glimpses of that second album were the hit single, the bold, classy That’s The Way It Is, and its B-side, You Changed My Life. A co-write between SAW and the Appleby sisters, You Changed My Life is a full-on pop frenzy, yet still possessing the cool dance edge of previous material. The chorus is solid gold A-side material, whilst the verses are perhaps even better, with an intoxicating melody, moody synths and winning vocals. Lots of lovely incidental synth sounds make this a proposition that’s hard to turn down. It appears there are two mixes of this track; the sparse, funky version that was actually the B-side, and a warmer, poppier version that features on the 2010 Cherry Red Deluxe Edition of the FLM album.
And in pole position is…
1) She’s In Love With You – Jason Donovan
[B-side to Happy Together]
In many ways, this track was the last hurrah for Donovan’s work with the original SAW team; it featured on the B-side of the Stock & Waterman-produced Happy Together, which was Donovan’s final single release on PWL Records. As good as the A-side was (a lovingly created take on The Turtles classic), few knew of the absolute belter that lay hidden on its B-side. You could almost class She’s In Love With You as the definitive Jason SAW track; it kicks off with a cracking electric guitar riff (a la Too Many Broken Hearts); it features soaring strings which evoke the emotion of Jason’s tale of thwarted love (“No matter what I planned / She never let me hold her hand”), and it has The Chorus To End All Choruses. Seriously, this chorus is WASTED on a B-side but then it’s so amazing that had the track been an A-side, it would have punched a hole through the universe. I can’t really find the words to describe how catchy the chorus is, but of particular note are the three last lines – “There’s nothing more to say / I’m gonna walk away / And live to love another day” – which are delivered in a breathless rhyming triplet and is yet further proof if any were needed) of Mike and Matt’s songwriting skills. It is a crime that this track was not an A-side; okay, I get that it was a nod back to Jason’s 1989 sound and may not have been deemed as truly contemporary in 1991, but this is a solid gold 24 carat pop smash that never got the chance to prove it.
Again, I stress this is my personal list and that, crucially, it is not necessarily a list of the best or my favourite B-sides -- this is a list of B-sides that I would have swapped with the A-side track for single release.
I'll be exploring the other SAW B-sides in a future article, as there are some fascinating tracks included in that canon.
Monday, 8 May 2017
As a teenager desperate for original SAW material, I was a bit frustrated by this reliance upon the instrumentals – but I guess this made the appearance of a brand new original SAW track on the B-side a VERY EXCITING EVENT!
Sure, some tracks would impress more than others, but every so often you’d get a SAW B-side which was just as good as the A-side, and in some cases, even better than the A-side.
So here is my – admittedly personal – list of the 10 SAW B-sides which I would have made the A-side!
The criteria for the list is:
- Written (and/or co-written) by SAW
- Standalone tracks not belonging to an original artist album
- A full song with lyrics
The latter point means that tracks such as I Wanna Be Your Everything by Delage, Just Call Me Up by Jason Donovan, and Do You Dare? by Kylie Minogue are excluded. As are the instrumental pieces SAW created for the Pat & Mick B-sides (although a separate article on these will follow).
Likewise, instrumental and dub mixes of the A-side are also excluded.
Hopefully, you will find some of your favourites in this list, but I’m equally as certain that you may be aggrieved that I have missed some obvious choices out. Yes, I’ve left out certain Kylie and Jason tracks which I love, but I don’t want this to be a list full of their tracks.
So here goes, in reverse order!
10) I Wanna Shout About It – Delage
[B-side to Running Back For More]
This infectious slab of dance pop from early 1990s SAW girl band Delage appears to have had an interesting genesis. As lovely as the A-side Running Back For More is, this meaty, utterly contemporary banger is probably the more commercial cut of the two tracks, and it is a mystery why this was consigned to B-side status. That said, the recent re-issue of Running Back For More carries additional mixes of I Wanna Shout About It, including 7” and 12” mixes, which suggests that it was considered as an A-side. So we have two key versions: a full vocal single version, and the version that made the B-side of Running Back For More, which omits the verses. The full vocal version is just glorious, with a strong lead vocal and some great backing harmonies, but the official B-side version heads more in the direction of the limited vocal style of contemporaneous dance tracks. A big dirty synth riff and some frantic house piano kicks off proceedings, whilst the solid beat and shifting synth pads give this track a real edge which takes it away from the standard SAW sound of the time towards the tough dance sounds dominating the charts at the time. A great marriage of pop sensibilities and house influences, this was a real missed opportunity for both the band and producers. One of the emerging themes from this top 10 list of B-sides is how S(A)W were able to demonstrate they were still more than capable of remaining current and up-to-date in the early 1990s, but maybe there was a lack of confidence somewhere in terms of being more adventurous in choices of single material.
9) Say The Word – I’ll Be There - Kylie Minogue
[B-Side to Word Is Out]
Whilst Word Is Out still appears to be a polarising song for S(A)W and Kylie fans, its B-side Say The Word – I’ll Be There garners a much warmer reception. Composed by Stock, Waterman and Minogue, this smooth, mature mid-tempo ballad is worlds away from the beat-led and brass-boasting affair on the A-side. Underpinned by rich, rolling piano and made all the sweeter by the glorious backing vocals, Say The Word sees Kylie in pining mode as she makes her case to the object of her affections. It’s a further development of the Kylie sound; however, where the listener can hear the S(A)W DNA deep within Word Is Out, one could be forgiven for thinking that Say The Word had been produced by a different production team. It’s lush, with a real organic feel to its arrangement and production, with little in the way of electronic sounding synths and percussion to betray the trademark sound of its producers. Certainly Mike Stock, in his recent interview with Nick Moon, cited this track as one of his favourite B-sides. Whilst it perhaps wouldn’t have been the best choice for the first single of Kylie’s fourth album campaign, it would have made for a good third or fourth single and perhaps indicated a new direction for S&W and Kylie had they continued to work together. I would add though that it is almost a crime that the track didn’t make the Let’s Get To It album.
8) Story of My Life - Jason Donovan
[B-side of Rhythm of the Rain]
B-sides often allowed SAW to try something a little different, and during their imperial pure pop phase of 1988-1990, such experimentation was very welcome. So it was that the B-side of Jason’s Rhythm of the Rain gave us Baggy Jason (baggy, of course, being the early 1990s term to describe what would later be called indie). Story of My Life is a standard Jason tale of bad luck in love (“And by the way, if you’re looking for sunshine, I ain’t the luckiest one / If you come with me, there’d be cloud in the desert / or a total eclipse of the sun”), but the arrangement and production presents a real change to the SAW sonic palette of the time. Kicking off with wailing guitars, Jason’s tale of woe is backed by a solid electric guitar riff, honky-tonk piano and a thumping beat, whilst the inclusion of brass and organ enlivens proceedings further. As Tom Parker points out in his excellent sleeve notes for the Between the Lines Deluxe reissue, this track finally gives Jason the Happy Mondays-style track he’d coveted for some time, and surely he must have been pleased with the outcome. That’s why I think it’s a crying shame this languished on a B-side; it’s a million times more adventurous than the pleasant cover version that made the A-side. This track would have really benefited Donovan’s profile – it’s poppy enough to keep the SAW and Jason fanbase, but also different enough to pull in a wider audience – and would have been a good direction for both parties to head for.
7) Another Lover – Bananarama
[B-side of Last Thing On My Mind]
Please Yourself, Bananarama’s 1993 album with Stock & Waterman, received mixed reactions upon its original release, and actually remains a polarising collection amongst S(A)W and Bananarama fans to this day. I can’t help but wonder if that reception would have been improved at all by the inclusion of this track, which was on the flipside of Last Thing On My Mind but omitted from the album. It’s a decision which beggars belief, as this is a superior slab of 70’s disco-styled pop. The use of real strings (no doubt recorded in the same sessions as those for Give It All Up For Love and Is She Good To You?) creates an authenticity of the sound, whilst the addition of brass, funky rhythm guitar and rattling drums just adds to the joyous feel – even if lyrically it’s a tale of Keren and Sara telling a straying lover to pack their bags and go. Happily, the track eventually made it to the album on subsequent reissues, thus righting the original wrong, but for my money, this should have been an A-side back in 1992/1993.
6) Better Than Ever - Sonia
[B-side to Listen To Your Heart]
This sparky uptempo track had a former life, planned as it was to be a fourth Stock Aitken Waterman-branded single in 1989, featuring sometime PWL singer Lisa Fabien as guest vocalist. That version was never released at that time (although was finally issued as part of the PWL iTunes releases many years later), but you can’t keep a good SAW tune down, so it was eventually recorded by Sonia – but insanely was consigned to B-side status. It only takes one listen to know this is a hit record not given the chance to be one. Driven by a solid beat and a mean bass, the track is a perfect concoction of synth fx, brass riffs and guitar licks, providing a thrilling backdrop to Sonia’s tale of her sickeningly perfect relationship. As much as I love the A-side – a moody, house-influenced affair and much underrated – I do think Better Than Ever was a missed opportunity for another hit for Sonia.
Next time: we count down from 5 to 1…
Saturday, 22 April 2017
Even in this day and age when there appears to be a growing re-evaluation of Stock Aitken Waterman, many people still write them off as working with supposedly "lesser" artists. True, there were some artists they worked with whose musical ability was perhaps overshadowed by other qualities, but SAW did work with a number of big name artists. Some of those collaborations -- such as Donna Summer and Cliff Richard -- are well-known, whilst others are not widely known.
Perhaps one of the more surprising collaborations was their work with Debbie Harry, best known as the lead singer with new wave rock band Blondie.
SAW would produce two tracks with Harry; one which just missed the UK Top 40, whilst the other remains unreleased to this day. It's an interesting story which resulted in two great tracks that show a different side to both SAW and Harry.
Harry -- and Blondie -- first came to prominence in 1978. Her unique voice, her stunning good looks and her attitude made a huge impact on the worldwide music scene, but there was much more to Harry than her sex symbol status suggests. Along with Blondie guitarist (and boyfriend) Chris Stein, Harry co-wrote many of the songs -- resulting in huge anthems such as Atomic, Sunday Girl and Heart of Glass.
The band enjoyed huge success until 1982, when they disbanded (although the have reunited in recent years). Post-Blondie, Harry spent time caring for Stein during a serious illness, but eventually re-ermeged to relaunch a solo career (which had commenced with 1981's KooKoo album during a Blondie hiatus) in 1986 with a new album, Rockbird.
In the UK at least, Harry's return to prominence came with the release of French Kissin' In The USA, a hypnotic midtempo, synth-led anthem which reached #8 in late 1986. The follow up, Free To Fall, couldn't match this success and stalled at #46. Eager to avoid losing the momentum created by French Kissin'..., Chrysalis Records looked to Rockbird for a suitable follow up.
In Love With Love is one of the album's stronger songs, composed by Harry with Stein, and produced by former J Geils Band keyboard player Seth Justman. Apparently a sequel, in lyrical terms at least, to the Blondie hit Heart of Glass, In Love With Love is a delicate affair, with Eastern influences to the arrangement; aside from strident piano at the start and some effective rhythm guitar mid-track, it's predominantly synth-led with an emphasis on arpeggio sounds. Whilst Justman's version is pleasant, it's very understated and lacks the commercial punch of French Kissin'...
A decision was made to create a new version of the track for single release, and that task was assigned to Stock Aitken Waterman. It is unclear who made this decision and why, but given that French Kissin'... was a far bigger hit in the UK, it's likely that the decision was to build on that UK success, and certainly SAW's star was in the ascendant at this point.
What is also unclear is whether this is truly a new version of the track or a remix with additional production. Certainly, the credits on the single are "Produced by Seth Justman & Stock Aitken Waterman", and a listen to both versions would suggest there is little, if any, of the arrangement from the Justman version.
Whilst it is known that Harry did in fact travel to the UK to record vocals with SAW, it's unclear whether that was to record vocals for In Love With Love, and/or the second track this article will cover, so it may be that the vocals from the Justman version were used, hence his credit.
It is useful to listen to the original Justman version, then the SAW version. Obviously, different people will have different preferences, but what one can't deny is that the SAW version just explodes out of the speakers.
Kicking off with an earshattering drum fill, the SAW version is driven by a pulsating synth riff, with electric guitars squealing away in the background. Pleasingly full snare sounds work hand-in-hand with handclaps to deliver a powerful rhythm track, whilst the "Heart of fire" chorus refrain uses a spooky, swirling synth pad to provide a haunting effect.
SAW also manage to create a much-needed lift into the chorus, which is something the album version lacked. Whilst its a predominantly electronic production, the presence of electric guitars and strong percussion really help to give the track a fuller, heavier sound than many SAW tracks.
Unfortunately, the SAW version of In Love With Love didn't fare much better than Free To Fall, peaking at #45 in the UK. A disappointing result for a strong record, which deserved a wider hearing.
This muted success, however, did not prevent a further collaboration between Harry and SAW, albeit one that still remains officially unavailable to this day.
Intended for the soundtrack of 1987 US movie Summer School, SAW produced a version of the Michael Jay & Rick Palombi composition Mind Over Matter, with Harry on lead vocals. Jay was by this time establishing himself as a pop writer and producer in the UK, thanks to the success of his collaborations with Five Star, most notably with tracks like If I Say Yes and The Slightest Touch.
Mind Over Matter itself was originally recorded by Nikki Leeger and released on RCA Records in 1986, but failed to make any in-roads to the chart. Produced by Chris Neil, this version is a US-styled pop rock, with an early 80s synth sound to it. The arrangement is sparse and simplistic in terms of instrumentation, certainly compared to the later SAW versions, whilst Leeger's dramatic, almost operatic vocals impress. The track is enlivened by some nice guitar work, and tricksy drum programming.
That said, it is arguable that the Leeger version did not capitalise on the strong pop sensibilities of the song, and whilst an interesting version, one can perhaps understand why it did not garner a more populist following.
But, as with In Love With Love, SAW were able to bring out the best in the song for the Harry version.
Opening with a sinister, drawn-out gong-like sound, the track explodes with a metallic clang and some brilliant wailing electric guitar. This dark intro gives way to dramatic swirling pads and a catchy synth riff which recurs through the track.
Harry's vocals in the verse are augmented by distorted, haunting vocal samples, whilst other incidental sound effects accompany the bridge, with orchestral hits heralding the chorus.
And it's a great chorus. "We're doing what can't be done / Mind over matter / There's no battle that can't be won / Mind over matter" cries a defiant Harry as she belts out the song in her trademark style.
The instrumental break gives us an early example of the sampled vocal locs that would later become a SAW staple, whilst the closing chorus refrain gives us more electric guitar.
As with In Love With Love, SAW give the track a rockier, heavier feel whilst retaining its pop sensibilities.
You get a real sense that this track would have given Harry a big hit, and pick up the momentum from the success of French Kissin' In The USA. However, record company issues scuppered the release; in a fascinating interview with Stephen Hill, Jay suggests that Harry's departure from Chrysalis Records to join Geffen meant that Harry's version of Mind Over Matter could not be issued as a single. [I would urge you to read Stephen's excellent article on the track and his insightful interview with Michael Jay].
The Harry version did finally emerge via the Internet about ten years ago, albeit in a low-quality copy initially, with a better quality version leaking a few years later. Hearing it even now, it is clear that this sounds like a hit record and would appear to have been a missed opportunity.
With Harry's version unable to be released, a decision was made to re-record the track with US female singer EG Daily and it is her version with featured on the Summer School soundtrack album.
Although the UK release carries the credit "Remixed by Stock Aitken Waterman", the Daily version was actually produced by SAW. Clearly, the bulk of the production is that of the Harry version, but with some modification to the arrangement.
Daily's raspy vocals suit the track and she pulls off a stirling performance, and if anything, this new version is possibly better than the Harry version. The production is punchier; it is less rocky but still possesses a heavier sound than many of the contemporaneous SAW productions of 1988 -- this may be down to the original production dating back to 1987.
Alas, this version didn't fare well in the UK Singles chart, just about scraping into the Top 100 at #96. But then Daily did not have the profile that Harry enjoyed, and again, one wonders if Harry's version would have gained wider exposure.
So, all in all, Debbie Harry's liaison with SAW was brief but ultimately fascinating. Further collaborations would have been welcome, but clearly this was largely a case of the record company hoping to benefit from a bit of the SAW midas touch to raise their artist's profile. It did result in two strong pop tracks, which may not have set the charts on fire but remain well regarded among hardcore SAW fans as they demonstrate a different take on the SAW sound.
Stephen Hill, Interview with Michael Jay, rip-her-to-shreds website
Sunday, 9 April 2017
You don’t have to be a huge Stock Aitken Waterman fan to have an awareness of how the Hit Factory structured many of their 12” mixes. The instrumentation would slowly build up layer by layer, then the full song would kick in, then we’d have a breakdown before the track builds up again to a reprise of the chorus, closing with the instrumentation breaking down to leave just the percussion.
Of course, there were many mixes which deviated from this form, but the above description covers the core template of the Stock Aitken Waterman (and indeed PWL) 12” mix.
For me – and it can get very personal when it comes to the art of the 12” – the extended mix which best represents this core template has to be the Dancehall Version of Bananarama’s Love Truth & Honesty.
Issued in September 1988, Love Truth & Honesty was perhaps a change in style for Bananarama, but then the band itself had recently undergone change. Siobhan Fahey had departed, with Jacqui O’Sullivan coming in as her replacement, starting with previous single I Want You Back, which was partially recorded and remixed from the original Wow! album version (which had featured Fahey). As such, Love Truth & Honesty was the first brand new material from the new Bananarama line-up.
A more thoughtful track for Bananarama, Love Truth & Honesty takes its rueful lyric of a woman betrayed by her lover and marries it with an upbeat arrangement; a clever juxtaposition often deployed by Mike, Matt & Pete. In terms of tune, it’s certainly a departure from preceding single I Want You Back and subsequent singles Nathan Jones and Help!, but in that sense, it’s an interesting diversion for Bananarama during this period.
Reaching #23 in the UK Singles Chart, the record didn’t set the world alight back in 1988 but over the years, it has become a firm favourite with both SAW and Bananarama fans.
Whilst there were radical remixes of the track, with PWL’s Phil Harding & Ian Curnow giving it a Baelearic overhaul, there was only one “standard” extended mix issued for the track as part of the original release, and that was Dave Ford’s Dancehall Version.
Ford had joined PWL in 1988, so at this time, he was one of the newer mix engineers compared to Phil Harding and Pete Hammond, but he was a very experienced music industry professional at this time. And this shows in his Dancehall Version mix.
Whereas other PWL mix engineers and producers have stated they added layers of production to Stock Aitken Waterman tracks, Ford has tended to underplay his contribution in this area and stressed he was always focused on making the most of the materials provided to him.
What you do get from a Ford mix is real clarity; he has a real straightforward approach, with a real sense of which elements of instrumentation work together.
His Dancehall Version mix is perhaps not the most radical mix to come out of the Hit Factory, but for a real SAW fan like me, the first couple of minutes of his mix gave a real insight into the various layers that make up a Stock Aitken Waterman track.
Let’s take a closer look at Dave’s mix:
0.00: The track opens with percussion, followed quickly by a drum fill
0.04: A Bananarama vocal loc – “L-L-Love” – signals the introduction of rhythm guitar
0.13: A metallic DX7 synth-bass sound is introduced
0.22: The “L-L-Love” vocal loc returns, signalling the introduction of the bass guitar
0.25: A synth-riff kicks in at this point
0.37: The “L-L-Love” vocal loc returns, signalling the introduction of synth pads
0.46: A rising synth line comes in, building up to –
0.50: A swirling, reedy synth pad is added
1.12: The horns make their first appearance
1.31: The appearance of chimes, and drum fills herald –
1.36: The main opening riff with all instruments in place, building up to –
2.01: Bananarama’s vocals kick in with “ooh-ooooh-oooh”, followed by the opening verse
Looking at the above list (and I’ve tried to capture the timings as best I can), we can see how Ford gives each new element their own “moment in the sun” but for different lengths of time. The rhythm guitar gets 9 seconds before it’s joined by the metallic DX7 synth-bass sound, whilst the synth riff gets 12 seconds of glory. Interestingly, the swirling synth pad gets 22 seconds, but I take that as Ford building atmosphere and pausing before the horns come in.
It's also worth noting that Ford makes use of the “L-L-Love” vocal loc to mark the addition of a new element, yet does not use this every time a new element is added. The fact he uses it sparingly makes it more effective.
Ford also uses a double start approach to tease the listener; the introductions of the horns at 1.12 suggest the start of the actual song, but we have to wait a further 24 seconds for the full intro, and even then, a further 25 seconds for the opening verse.
The simplicity of Ford’s approach in this intro makes it all the more effective, as he shows off Stock and Aitken’s playing and programming off in all its glory. Sure, these sounds may be sequenced in the mix, but they had to be played and/or programmed in the first place and this mix allows us to hear some of these in some form of isolation.
As for the rest of the mix, we get the bulk of what we’d call the single version between 2.01 and 5.13, at which point, we head towards the breakdown (which is designed to allow DJs to mix to another track).
Let’s get back to the minute by minute analysis:
5.13: The vocals end, leaving an extended instrumental period leading towards –
5.29: The breakdown, which removes all elements except for percussion, rhythm guitar and horns
5.46: The horns are removed
5.49: The synth riff returns
5.54: The swirling, reedy synth pad returns
6.00: A drum fill marks the return of the metallic DX7 synth-bass sound
6.17: The horns return, as do Bananarama’s vocals for a reprise of the chorus
6.52: Many of the musical elements drop out, leaving the percussion and synth-bass-style sound, and the track eventually fades out with various drum fills
As we can see, we get a breakdown, then a build up to a reprise of the chorus, then a final comedown towards the fade. As with the intro, we get a sense of the key layers of the track, albeit in reverse.
The mix has a real sense of symmetry in how it builds up from the start, and breaks down as it heads towards its end.
For me, there is so much to love about this mix. The metallic DX7 synth-bass sound is one of my favourite SAW / PWL sounds, and was a key element of their records in 1987 and 1988. It never fails to excite me, and it’s well used here. Likewise, the exposure of Matt Aitken’s rhythm guitar is very welcome, as much of his guitar work is often lost in the mix. The synth riff is effective, and is used sparingly and effectively, whilst the synth pads – often handled by Mike Stock – add real atmosphere to the whole affair.
The horns are great, but I think they dominate proceedings a little. The original 12” mix of Love Truth & Honesty was eventually released in 2015 as part of the Edsel In A Bunch Bananarama CD singles boxset, and interestingly uses the horns differently.
Whatever one may think of the record, I think it’s a must listen for anyone interested in how records are made, as it clearly shows what the key elements are and how they are put together to make the final record. That aside, it’s simply a terrific mix of a fab (if overlooked) Stock Aitken Waterman track.
And if you’ve read this far, here’s the Dancehall Version itself:
Monday, 3 April 2017
The melancholic majesty of Kylie's If You Were With Me Now
Ask the general public about Stock Aitken Waterman and they will tell you that they made catchy, happy three minute pop records. Which, in fairness, is palpably true.
But Mike, Matt and Pete were equally adept at balladry too. Witness the beautiful pain on display in Rick Astley’s Spanish-guitar-led It Would Take a Strong Strong Man, as Rick agonises over whether he should end his relationship. Likewise, Kylie tugs at the listener’s heart-strings as she puts a brave face on losing the love of her life in the desperately sad I’ll Still Be Loving You. And don’t get me started on the heartbreaking tale of two people who can’t be together in Donna Summer’s In Another Place and Time.
There’s more where they came from too. Lonnie Gordon’s Beyond Your Wildest Dreams, Sybil’s Make It Easy On Me and Jason Donovan’s I Guess She Never Loved Me are among the numerous ballads that the trio helmed.
What I especially like about most of the SAW ballads is that they are not slushy American-styled affairs; they are a very British take on the slow love song, whether that is down to a spikier production or a melancholic approach to the lyrics. Certainly, I’ll Still Be Loving You is actually mid-tempo, with possibly the saddest (in the truest sense of the word) synth sounds ever ramming home the emotional melody.
But we did finally get a slushy American-style ballad from the Hit Factory in 1991, when Mike Stock & Pete Waterman crafted If You Were With Me Now for Kylie Minogue and Keith Washington.
The track was recorded for Kylie’s fourth and final PWL studio album, Let’s Get To It. The album was among the first original Stock & Waterman material issued following Matt Aitken’s departure, and it could be taken very much as a statement of intent from Mike Stock. The album was a real departure in sound and songwriting for Stock, as much as it was an assertion of Kylie taking real control of her career.
The album showcased different genres, from New Jack Swing to acoustic guitar pop to techno, with possibly only the cover of Chairman of the Board’s Give Me A Little More Time the only track that sounded anything like a “typical” SAW production.
But one of the album’s crowning glories is If You Were With Me Now, a moving duet about two former lovers ruminating over their failed relationship and reaching the conclusion they’ve made a big mistake.
As the male voice, US singer Washington was not a well-known figure in the UK, but had established himself in the soul & R&B fraternity with releases such as 1991’s Kissing You. Minogue was a big fan of Washington, and as legend would have it, Pete Waterman approached Washington to duet with Minogue on this track.
The track is credited as a Stock / Waterman / Minogue / Washington co-write, although it is fair to suggest that the majority of input was Stock’s. Washington did travel to London to record his vocals at PWL, so perhaps he contributed additional lyrics at this point. He and Minogue, as is generally the case with modern day duets, did not record the track at the same time, with Minogue recording her vocals a few days later.
Lyrically, the song is a song of lost love, with a real melancholic edge to it. “Without you standing by my side,” opines Washington in the opening lines, “love and good fortune passes me by”. Quite a powerful line, and things don’t get much brighter from there on in.
The track hints at the male having cheated on the female; Washington sings “I know I may go astray…” whilst Minogue stresses that “If I’m sure of one thing / One love at a time”.
There’s plenty of wistful longing; “How different would the world be now?” offers Washington, whilst Minogue adds the plaintive “If only we had worked it out somehow”.
One possible reading of the song is that the closing lines hint at a possible reconciliation: “If loving you is right / then turn back the hands of time” begs Minogue, whilst Washington counters with “I'll do anything to make you mine”, and then both adding “There's nothing that i wouldn't do / I could make you feel my love for you” as the melody takes a hopeful turn.
Minogue sings her heart out here and has probably never sounded better, whilst Washington also impresses with a powerful yet smooth performance.
Stock provides a typically fine melody, big on emotion whilst holding back on sentimentality. The verses are measured and thoughtful, with the chorus (such as it is) restricted to three lines, with the title of the song as the final line.
The arrangement and production is gorgeous. Waterman arranged for the string section to be arranged by legendary Motown arranger Paul Riser in New York. This creates a rich, lush sound to this epic ballad, and Stock’s own instrumentation is in fitting, featuring a doleful piano and neat percussion.
Phil Harding was responsible for the immaculate mixes, and makes the song shine.
As I indicated before, I’m not really a fan of the American-style slushy ballad, but full marks to Stock & Waterman for their take on that sound. They take that late-night soul sound, and bring their own British melancholy to it.
If You Were With Me Now became the second single single taken from Let’s Get To It, released in October 1991 on 7”, 12”, cassingle and CD single. Apparently, one of the reasons it became a single is that DJ Pat Sharp (of SAW act Pat & Mick) loved the track and played it on his Capital Radio show – the response from listeners made it a contender for single release.
At the time, I was slightly disappointed; although I liked the track, I was hoping that a more radical track like Let’s Get To It, Right Here Right Now or Too Much Of A Good Thing would be issued – a track that would show a new modernity to the Hit Factory sound. But looking back, it was a good single choice, reaching #4 in the UK Singles Chart.
I’ll be honest; it’s only fairly recently that I have fully realised how great this track is. I’ve been listening to it a lot over the past few days, and aside from it being yet another example of S(A)W’s diversity, it’s such a sincere piece of music – although I accept it may be too sweet for some tastes. Maybe it’s an age thing, maybe it’s cos I’ve been through a tough few years relationship-wise, but I think it’s so powerful in its simplicity. If you ask me today, then I’d probably say it’s the best S(A)W track ever. I’ll probably give you a different answer tomorrow, but go with it for today and give it a play below.
Mike Stock, "25 years ago today...", Facebook post, 21 October 2016
Sunday, 26 March 2017
As discussed previously on this blog, Stock Aitken Waterman entered the 1990s in search of a new sound; a quest which became more important as their signature sound became less prevalent in the marketplace. This would result in a period of experimentation akin to that of 1985-1986, yielding some real undiscovered gems. One of these gems was Running Back For More, a 1991 house-inspired track from four piece girl band Delage.
A new band put together by PWL and named after one of Pete Waterman’s favourite classic cars, Delage were originally called Dazzle (and indeed, the promos of their debut single carried this name). The band originally comprised Rhonda, Karena, Charlotte and Judy, and were first referenced in a fascinating Smash Hits article entitled “Are Stock Aitken Waterman Down The Dumper?”. The Dumper, as Smash Hits put it, was the place that unsuccessful acts and records would end up after failing to achieve chart success, and 1990 had indeed seen a decline in the amazing success SAW had enjoyed in 1989. This article, built around an interview with Mike, Matt and Pete, enabled the trio to answer back to the critics who had written them off, and as part of that, they outlined some of their future plans. Boy Krazy were referenced (albeit as Boy Crazy), as were Delage; both as new acts to relaunch SAW in the 1990s.
Delage’s debut single would emerge a few months later, just ahead of Christmas, released via the PWL/Polydor joint venture which had been set up on the back of the Band Aid II single. The Boy Krazy singles were also issued as part of this arrangement, as were the two Grease-related megamixes put together by Phil Harding and Ian Curnow.
This debut release – a cover of the Hues Corporation’s 1974 hit Rock The Boat – was produced by SAW, and issued with a computer-generated cover of a boat, rather than a photograph of the band members. It’s a robust SAW production and a faithful cover, carried along by some energetic brass and strings, plus the inclusion of more modern elements such as a “1-2-3-4” sample, and a sax riff which tipped its hat to Chad Jackson’s Hear The Drummer Get Wicked.
This release reached #63 in the UK Singles Chart, which whilst unspectacular, wasn’t too bad for a single with limited exposure in the run up to Christmas. However, it would be nearly a whole year before a follow-up appeared.
The classy and understated SAW-composed and produced Running Back for More was issued in October 1991, by which time there had been a change in line-up between singles, with former members Charlotte and Judy replaced by Emma and Frances.
Certainly you can tell the difference in the vocals between Rock The Boat and Running Back For More; however, to my ears at least, the vocals on Rock The Boat sound very much like SAW stalwarts Mae McKenna and Miriam Stockley (who were indeed credited for backing vocals on the sleeve), whilst Running Back For More adds Cool Notes’ lead singer Lorraine McIntosh for backing vocals, therefore it is difficult to get a real sense of what Delage really sounded like. That’s not to suggest they did not sing on these tracks, just that I wonder if the vocals of McKenna & Stockley, and McIntosh were very prominent in the mix.
Running Back For More features one of Mike Stock’s most impressive lyrics; a story of a woman chastising her friend for remaining in an unsuitable relationship, Stock makes very word count and tells the story with maximum emotional effect. “You ain’t learned nothing at all / And you still ain’t closing the door / On the boy who tears you apart / Telling you every lie you know by heart” is the first verse, and that final line carries so much truth in its effective simplicity. The melody of the verses is wonderfully fluid, and adds even more to the delivery of the lyrics.
The track gives us yet more lyrical gold with “So don’t you come to me for advice / If the truth hurts more than his lies”; a line which may not mean much on paper, but is dynamite within the track itself.
The chorus is perhaps more sedate than most SAW choruses, but it totally works within the song. This is the apex of the song’s message: “Running Back For More / Like a fool / I don’t think you know what you’re doing / He’s gonna break your heart, that’s for sure / You’re running back for more / Running back for more”. It’s an understated chorus, but is clearly influenced by the US house style of that time.
More than any other SAW composition, the entire melody seems very organic with the chorus growing effortlessly from the building of the verses and bridge. There are no key changes, or dramatic shift in instrumentation, so there isn’t the usual lift into the chorus. This is no bad things though; this change of approach results in a cool, minimalistic house-influenced track.
Production-wise, there’s a change of emphasis in the sound. The arrangement is relatively sparse, driven mainly by a house piano and punctuated by techno bleeps, although there is effective use of strings at key moments. At the time of release, I wished that the track had a more typically dense SAW arrangement, but I’ve come to appreciate the delicacy of its instrumentation and its attempt to try something different.
The single was released on 7”, 12” and CD single formats, with the main track restricted to a 7” mix and an extended mix, both mixed by Dave Ford. (An unreleased 12” Remix of Running Back For More would emerge when a Running Back For More single bundle was issued on iTunes). The B-side was a further SAW composition and production, I Wanna Shout About It – a powerful, contemporary dance track. Ironically, this was possibly a more obvious candidate for the A-side than Running Back For More, as it was more in line with other chart fare at the time.
As I’ve written previously on this blog, SAW were experiencing mixed fortunes chartwise in 1991, and Running Back for More was a particular casualty. In fact, its #153 chart placing ranks it amongst the worst performing SAW singles – a great shame, as it is a much stronger track than this position suggests.
I can only speak for myself but it was difficult to actually find a copy of the record; even in a city the size of Liverpool, I only managed to find the CD single and 7” in the new releases rack of a second-hand record shop the week after release. That said, the PWL/Polydor releases seemed to suffer from distribution problems (aside from Band Aid II of course), and certainly this is reflected in the scarcity of the Running Back For More CD single, which now commands high fees on the record collecting market.
In some ways, the record’s availability is almost irrelevant when you consider its TV, radio and press coverage was virtually non-existent. I don’t recall any major radio play, or seeing the video on TV. And perhaps the main press coverage I do recall was in Number One magazine, when Sonia carried out that week’s single reviews. Coming not long after her split with SAW and PWL, Sonia rather predictably gave a negative review, dismissing the track as “yesterday’s beats” – highly ironic given that Sonia’s recent singles included the 60s-styled Only Fools (Never Fall In Love) and Be Young Be Foolish Be Happy!
Given the commercial failure of the single, there would be no further releases from Delage. There was however a further unreleased track, a SAW-produced version of the Bananarama track Ain’t No Cure. This latter track in particular was a missed opportunity for Delage and SAW; Ain’t No Cure had been recorded by Bananarama during the abortive 1989 sessions with SAW, and, on the basis that it was unlikely that the Bananarama version would be issued, it was called into use for Delage. The Delage version is a beefier, full-on hi-NRG assault with house overtones, and most notably employs a different emphasis on the verses (which is perhaps why Sara Dallin’s co-write credit is absent from the Delage version). This will be sacrilege to most Bananarama and SAW fans, but I much prefer the Delage version and genuinely think it would have had a great shot at chart success. However, Bananarama elected to include their version on Pop Life, which I assume removed it as an option for a Delage single.
Whilst Delage themselves parted ways with SAW and the PWL/Polydor deal, they did continue under the new name of Eden, and released two European singles in 1992.
Running Back For More -- as is the case with Rock The Boat and also Ain’t No Cure -- is available as single bundles on iTunes, including various mixes, instrumentals, backing tracks and B-sides.
Delage were cited as one of the bright new hopes for SAW in the early 1990s, but for various reasons they were not given the full support required to make this happen. However, Running Back For More remains an underrated track which represents an experiment in a new sound for SAW, and boasts an impressive lyric and melody. Well worth a listen.
Friday, 24 February 2017
Just a quick post to say that the blog is still active -- the day job is all-encompassing right now but there are new articles in progress -- covering Debbie Harry, Dead or Alive and Brilliant amongst other topics. Hoping to start publishing again in March! Thank you for your patience!