Possibly more than any other decade, the 1980s was a period of excess for the music industry. I’m not simply talking about artists and how they lived the rock and roll life, I’m also talking about the sheer amount of money spent by the major record companies.
Vast amounts of money were plunged into albums with recording sessions lasting months, into ground-breaking videos and into remarkable marketing campaigns.
Whilst this investment was repaid in many cases, there were a number of acts heavily promoted during the 1980s who were unable, for whatever reason, to break through and achieve the success they desperately craved. Those of us who were around at the time may fondly recall acts such as Drum Theater, Habit, and Two People – bands with good material but just didn’t seem to resonate with the record buying public.
The above mentioned acts were just the tip of the iceberg; the 1980s seemed littered with such acts with great promise that would ultimately be unfulfilled.
As we know, Stock Aitken Waterman were involved with a number of acts who were similarly unable to make that breakthrough, but one of their early projects is, in particular, a fascinating snapshot of how the music industry operated at that time.
Spelt Like This was a three-piece band comprising of three talented musicians, managed by Tom Watkins (who would later manage Pet Shop Boys, Bros and East 17) and signed to EMI Records. The band, as with many of that period, was promoted with an elaborate marketing campaign and boasted production from the hot production team of Stock Aitken Waterman.
However, this promising proposition resulted in two flop singles, a shelved album and an overall experience that Pete Waterman described as “the biggest travesty I’ve been involved in in my life”.
The story of Spelt Like This starts with Tom Watkins. Watkins was, by the mid 1980s, an emerging music industry figure, though his focus at that time was on design, branding and marketing. His XL Design company enjoyed great success with its design and promotional work for Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Kim Wilde and others, but Watkins was also developing a parallel career in music management and was keen to create his own hit pop act.
Some years earlier, Watkins had managed a band called Portraits and had used the bassist of that band, Russell McKenzie, for an album cover photo shoot for another of his acts, Grand Hotel, who were signed to CBS Records.
By the end of 1982, McKenzie had met a vocalist called Alan Richards (later known as Alin Karna), who was signed to Rocket Music, and became involved in Karna’s new venture, a seven-piece soul band called The Motivations. McKenzie invited Watkins to see the band, which led to Watkins discussing spinning Karna and McKenzie off into a new two-piece pop band.
In his fascinating Let's Make Lots Of Money autobiography, Watkins says he took Karna & McKenzie out of The Motivations and teamed them up with guitarist Alan Rawlings to form what Watkins termed as a “manufactured act like Frankie”. Given Watkins’ close working with Frankie Goes To Hollywood, ZTT Records and genius producer Trevor Horn, he must have seen the opportunity to take a group of musicians and wrap them up in a controlled production and marketing package. Like at least three members of Frankie, the members of Spelt Like This were musicians so one wonders what they would have thought of Watkins’ intention, whether they were fully aware of it or not.
With this newly-formed band commencing work on writing material and recording demos, Watkins set to work on developing his masterplan.
Watkins states that the name Spelt Like This was devised as a promotional gimmick, “a punchy, Scrabble-inspired moniker. It could be jumbled up into anagrams to circulate to the press to generate the maximum buzz”.
Watkins would eventually sign the band to EMI, after negotiations with EMI’s A&R manager Dave Ambrose. Ambrose is a legendary music figure, having been a former member of influential progressive rock band King Crimson, and had signed both The Sex Pistols and Duran Duran to EMI Records.
Watkins believes his XL success and proximity to Frankie Goes To Hollywood helped in this regard, and indeed, it appears that discussions took place with Horn to produce Spelt Like This; given Watkins association with Horn and ZTT, one can see the sensibility in such a move, but it appears that Horn’s workload at the time closed off that avenue.
Spelt Like This initially worked with producer Stuart Levine (Womack & Womack, Simply Red) but the band became unhappy with the direction Levine was taking – the band wanted to go down a more electronic route - and these sessions were aborted.
Interestingly, it appears that synth wizard Tony Mansfield (New Musik, a-ha) was also approached to produce the band, but declined after hearing the demos on that basis that “they weren’t his cup of tea”.
It then came to pass that Stock Aitken Waterman were approached to work on the Spelt Like This project in late 1984; by this point, the trio had scored two big hits with Divine and Hazell Dean, and whilst the follow-ups for those two acts had just missed out on Top 40 placings, it was clear that they were a production team in the ascendant. (Indeed, Watkins was at this time also keen for Stock Aitken Waterman to produce the first Pet Shop Boys album, Please).
By all accounts, the recording sessions for the SAW-produced SLT sessions were very frustrating for all concerned. Aside from the fact that recording was taking place in Waterman’s new Borough studio which was still in the process of being fitted out (with additional recording taking place at Ridge Farm Studios in Surrey), tensions were rising between the act’s manager and the producers.
Phil Harding, who engineering and mixed the SAW-produced SLT material, notes in his excellent PWL From The Factory Floor book that “we just couldn’t please Tom Watkins or the record company”, and adds that Stock & Aitken were frustrated by the fact that Waterman was not present for much of the recording process, which suggests that they were left to deal with the exacting demands of Watkins and EMI.
For his part, Watkins, in his autobiography, states that the work on Spelt Like This’s album “was not going well”, and makes reference to its “difficult birth”. He does, amusingly, add that “SAW declared that the songs were substandard and the band lacked talent (this from the people who would later give the world The Reynolds Girls)”.
From Karna’s perspective, he says he was largely unaware of these troubles, adding that it was McKenzie and Watkins representing the band in such discussions, with he and Rawlings left out. Karna says he really enjoyed the recording process, with particular fondness for his close working with Mike Stock.
In relation to the songs, Watkins mentions that he “started writing with Russell (McKenzie). We wrote big, catchy songs, majestic anthems that I was certain would become permanent fixtures on daytime radio… I supplied the words and some of the hooks, and Russell wrote the music”.
This is an interesting observation, as Watkins is not credited for songwriting on any of the tracks (though that alone does not suggest he did not contribute). Certainly, Karna states he originally wrote Contract of the Heart in 1983, and agrees that Watkins contributed lyrics to the third verse at the time it was recorded with SAW –
According to Karna, Spelt Like This recorded 10 tracks (all written by the band) with SAW for inclusion on their projected debut album, Word Perfect: Contract of The Heart / Stop This Rumour / Walking Not Falling / Larger Than Lions / Lovers Lost No Return / Out of Water / Bonkers / Centre of Attention / Double Dare / Love Surrender & Devotion / Emocean. (A further track would also be recorded for the B-side of their debut single.)
Karna states that the songwriting duties in Spelt Like This were largely led by him, with contributions from McKenzie. Karna adds that Rawlings, by virtue of joining the band later, had less to do with the majority of the songs, but all three wrote Love Surrender & Devotion together, and Emocean was solely a Rawlings composition.
Contract of the Heart, recorded in December 1984, was selected as the debut single from Spelt Like This. It’s a very strong track, with a beguiling melody, plus heartfelt if slightly elliptical lyrics; it is clear that Karna wears his heart on his sleeve with this composition.
The whole thing is wrapped up in a lovely arrangement and production courtesy of SAW; Neil Tennant, in a 2006 interview for Popjustice, noted that SAW were going for the Scritti Politti sound, and others have made that comparison, but if that was indeed the inspiration, then SAW bring their own sensibilities to it. Sure, the chiming guitar riffs are a clear nod to Scritti Politti, but the warm synth pads, noodling bass and crisp percussion give Contract of the Heart real warmth and match the emotion of the lyrics.
At this time, it is understood that SAW often created a 12 inch as the master and would then edit the track down into a 7” version. Listening to both versions of Contract of the Heart, it certainly sounds like that was the case, and whilst the 7” version is perfectly fine, the track definitely works better in its extended form.
The B-side carried the SAW-produced instrumental St Valentine’s Day Mascara (Say It With Cadavers) and its extended variant 12 inch Extensive Massacre. Credited to all three band members for composition, the track was based on an instrumental backing created by Mike Stock and Matt Aitken, with the additional elements and samples contributed by the band and the producers. Whilst this track is not a typical pop track and does not have vocals, it’s a great experimental track that one feels would have made an impact on the charts had it been an A-side.
With the release date set for February 1985, Watkins and EMI set about a huge promotional campaign for both band and single, in which no expense was spared.
A wealth of SLT-branded promotional items was issued to TV, radio and press outlets to generate coverage for the band and their much-anticipated debut single; these apparently included badges, T-shirts and even a dictionary.
The music press carried a number of advertisements for the single, building up from small ads many weeks before release to full page ads in time for the release date.
The 7” and 12” singles came in double covers, as one would get with a vinyl album. The outer cover was die-cut, with square holes displaying the letters printed on the inner cover to reveal the title of the single. The inner sleeve of the 12" single included photographs of a naked male lower torso on one side, and a naked female lower torso on the other.
Interestingly, the record carries the credit “Produced by WASP”, which is an acronym for Waterman Aitken Stock Productions. Certainly, there were a number of variations of the SAW credits at this time before they settled on Stock Aitken Waterman, but this is an especially interesting one.
Two promo videos were produced for the track: a live action one, helmed by prolific music video director Andy Morahan, featuring the band performing the track on a globe, with flag-bearing representatives from the world’s continents at the sidelines until all come together for the final renditions of the chorus. Featuring various optical effects and archive footage, it’s a typically overwrought 80s pop video.
The second video is a largely animated affair, created by Big Pictures, which incorporates elements of the live-action version; it’s a crazy kaleidoscope of words, pictures, logos and graphics. It’s not the best fit for a thoughtful track like Contract of the Heart but it arguably carries more impact than the live action version. Interestingly, Rawlings (in comments posted on YouTube) states that he never knew the animated version existed until it appeared on YouTube in recent years!
Sure, there was a great deal of hype around launching new artists in the mid-80s, and one may argue that Spelt Like This was more a vehicle for Tom Watkins than anything else. But there must have been a degree of confidence in the band and its material to justify this expense – and certainly Contract of the Heart was a strong track. Some might say it doesn’t have the impact of, say, Relax by Frankie Goes To Hollywood, but it was certainly no worse than much of the chart fare back in 1985.
However, the best the track could manage was a #91 placing in the UK Singles Chart, which must have been devastating for the band, for the label and certainly, for Watkins. This chart position must have given all parties pause for thought. Especially, it appears, Stock Aitken Waterman. If Mike, Matt and Pete were utterly frustrated by the difficulty of the recording sessions with Spelt Like This and Watkins, then the commercial failure of the first single must have been the final straw.
Waterman’s autobiography I Wish I Was Me states that he decided to withdraw from the SLT project in the spring of 1985 (he refers to a Bank Holiday so it’s likely this was April or May), and this timeline is borne out by an account in Phil Harding’s book where he says the project ended in April or May 1985.
It is fascinating that, given the act’s lack of success, so much space in given to them in Waterman’s and Watkins’ autobiographies, as well as in Phil Harding’s book. It is clear that the whole experience was keenly felt by those involved, from the high hopes Watkins and EMI had for the band through to the apparent struggle of SAW to produce material which met the satisfaction of Watkins and Spelt Like This.
As Waterman’s biography outlines, the entire SAW operation was still burgeoning at this point in early 1985 and finances were especially precarious. Therefore, it must have been a difficult decision to make to pull out of a big commission and potentially have to give back much-needed income. Waterman refers to a “huge argument” with EMI after telling them he and SAW no longer wanted to work on the SLT project, but it was agreed that SAW would withdraw. The tapes of the SAW sessions were given to EMI, and all parties could move on.
(Interestingly, Stock suggests in his autobiography that Watkins attempted to poach he and Aitken away from Waterman around this time).
Karna says that, despite suggestions that SAW did not complete the album recording, SAW did in fact provide 11 largely completed tracks back to EMI, but they had not reached the stage of final mix and mastering. To that end, further work would be required prior to any release.
Karna states that McKenzie took the lead on this additional production work, alongside producer and engineer Nick Froome (Pet Shop Boys, Stephen Tintin Duffy). Again, it appears that these sessions were fraught with difficulties, with tensions rising between the band members.
The second Spelt Like This single, Stop This Rumour, emerged in July 1985. Whilst production was credited to Stock Aitken Waterman, additional production and mixing was credited to McKenzie and Froome for both the 7” and 12” Lust Mix. (Harding’s own discography refers to an unreleased 12” mix of this track).
Stop This Rumour was a different beast to Contract of the Heart; it was bold, brash and in your face. Driven along with a pulsing synth bass, chiming guitar riffs and day-glo synth lines, Stop This Rumour has a catchy chorus complemented by interesting verses.
It is difficult to tell how much of the finished product can be accredited to SAW, or to Froome & McKenzie, but this sparse, more electronic sounding track lacks the richness and polish of Contract. That said, it’s a good track, and deserved a better reception that it would ultimately receive.
The B-side carried an experimental instrumental track, The Alphabet, written by the band, and produced by McKenzie and Froome. Based around a Speak and Spell-style voice running through the alphabet with example word, this synth-led workout is great fun.
Whilst EMI was surely looking to recoup the huge amount of money it had invested in the project, this time round both marketing and packaging were more low-key. Available in 7” and 12” format, the packaging was fairly standard if high quality. There was a single video, featuring the band performing on stage in a theatre watched by a passive audience decked out in 3D glasses.
However, Stop This Rumour fared worse than its predecessor, failing to reach the Top 100 UK Singles Chart. Aside from the relative lack of promotion, what didn’t help was that the band effectively imploded at the time of release, with Karna walking out of the band as the in-fighting became too much to take. This led to the bizarre move of Watkins roping in vocalist Michael Duignan (later of short-lived MCA act Jet Vegas) as replacement lead singer, and using greenscreen technology to place Duignan into the video – whilst retaining Karna’s original lead vocals!
Whilst this was still an era of record companies giving struggling acts numerous chances at a Top 40 hit, the fact was that both Spelt Like This singles had failed even to reach the Top 75 and it would seem that EMI had little confidence in the act to invest any more money into a third single or album release. As a result, Stop This Rumour was the final release from Spelt Like This. The tracks completed for the album continue to languish away in the EMI archives, little-heard and largely forgotten. (It is worth noting that Spelt Like This did get a further release in 2015 as part of the Edsel Say I’m Your Number One SAW singles boxset, which contained a CD single bringing together all of the previously released SAW SLT tracks and mixes).
One fascinating postscript is that Fergus Harper, who was the lead singer of 80s band The Europeans (which also included a pre-Marillion Steve Hogarth), did some session work for Watkins after The Europeans had split in 1985, which included him singing lead vocals on the unreleased Spelt Like This tracks. Whilst these recordings would go unreleased, Karna wonders whether McKenzie and Watkins (or indeed EMI or Warner Brothers Publishing) were looking at ways of exploiting these Spelt Like This tracks.
Regarding Spelt Like This themselves, the band split shortly after the failure of Stop This Rumour, despite the last-minute substitution of Karna with Duignan. Karna later reunited with Rawlings on a number of projects, and has in recent years been working on solo material. Sadly, Russell McKenzie passed away in the late 1980s.
It is interesting to note that, soon after the decision to withdraw from the Spelt Like This project, Stock and Aitken set to work on a demo reel of their own compositions, including an early version of Princess' Say I’m Your Number One – which Pete Waterman loved and backed its development into the full version.
It is fair to say that the experiences of working with Spelt Like This (and also with WEA act Brilliant) was a key factor in SAW’s move towards focusing on being writer/producers, rather than simply producers; indeed, Harding indicates that Stock and Aitken felt they could write better material than much of the artist-written tracks they were producing at that time.
Indeed, the Brilliant album, which SAW started around the time the SLT project ended, was a further example of SAW producing material they weren’t keen on, with perhaps the final straw being the drawn-out recording sessions for Dead Or Alive’s Mad Bad and Dangerous To Know album in 1986; the latter in particular being a draining and stressful experience for all concerned.
It is fair to say that this crucial decision of moving away from production-only work towards writing and production is what determined the future path – and massive success – of Stock Aitken Waterman. It also shows an early sign of the focused, and almost ruthless, approach to how they would make records; SAW were quick to discard things that were not working, whether that be instruments, tracks or indeed entire acts, in order to focus on the things that did work. This is a key learning that KLF’s Jimmy Cauty & Bill Drummond, and record producer Youth would take away from their experience of working with SAW on the Brilliant project.
Spelt Like This may not have made a huge impact on the 1980s charts, but their legacy lives on through the music they released and their collaboration with a future hitmaking production trio. Maybe it’s just me, but I’d be fascinated to hear the other, unreleased SLT tracks. Hopefully, one day, they may just see the light of day…
As this is a blog about Stock Aitken Waterman, this article is focused on Spelt Like This’ collaboration with SAW, but the full story of Spelt Like This is fascinating in itself. To that end, this article is complemented by an in-depth piece by Spelt Like This lead singer and songwriter Alin Karna, who has kindly written about his time in the band. This is an essential read for anyone interested in the 1980s music industry, and my thanks to Alin for the time and trouble he has taken to do this.
Author's personal correspondence with Alin Karna, 2017
Phil Harding, PWL From The Factory Floor (Cherry Red Books, 2010)
Mike Stock, The Hit Factory: The Stock Aitken Waterman Story (New Holland, 2004)
Pete Waterman, I Wish I Was Me (Virgin Books, 2000)
Tom Watkins, Let’s Make Lots of Money (Virgin Books, 2015)
No.1 (IPC/Time) – images sourced from Shane Marais’excellent No.1 archive
Tony Mansfield, information from http://www.discog.info/mansfield-interview.html