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