Saturday, 22 April 2017

Waterman Prefers Blondie

When Stock Aitken Waterman produced Debbie Harry...

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.

Original Seth Justman version

Stock Aitken Waterman version

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

All Mixed Up #1: Love Truth & Honesty (Dancehall Version) – Bananarama

The first in a new series – which looks at classic SAW 12” mixes – kicks off with a look at possibly the definitive extended SAW remix…

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

If Only We Had Worked It Out Somehow…

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