Reproduced from the 3rd edition of the SAW?PWL fanzine ROADBLOCK:Interview by Paul Smith
Let's start with some background. How did you first get started with music and what were you doing before you met Mike?
My first professional job was playing at American bases in Germany which was quite a common thing to do, just touring around generally in a band doing covers for G.I.'s but I had been semi-professional for years before that. So my first professional job was that and then I went onto other jobs like cruise liners, discos ... the wackiest place I ever played was in the Outer Hebrides off Scotland. I earned a reasonable living at it whilst I was employed but then you also get periods of time out of work but I did all right at it. I met Mike through a singer I knew and he knew, Mike had his own band that he used to do functions with, and she recommended me to him and I ended up playing with their band for one night. I think their usual bloke was a bit of a drinker so when he left I king of became a permanent fixture of Mike's cabaret band.
Have you got any formal training?
Yes. From about the age of nine all I ever wanted to do was play guitar, but my parents wouldn't let me have one. We had a piano in our front room so it was like if you want to play music then you'll learn to play this first. So I was made ... made to learn formal piano which I didn't really want to do and all I used to do was play Boogie Woogie whenever they went out. I also used to manage to get to play the church organ when I had time so I used to be in there playing Deep Purple (laughs). That grounding though made it an awful lot easier for me to understand guitar.
So when you met up with Mike was this the kind of set up you were aiming for i.e. writing and producing for other artists or did you want to perform your own work?
At the time that I met Mike I was in about five different bands. I was involved in another writing relationship with two guys who owned a studio, I was in a jazz/funk band that was based in Debtford, I was doing gigs with other people and working with Mike's band. Mike also had an original material band which he had written all the songs for and I ended up playing in that as well. The attempt at that point was to cover all your bases which was to try and develop the original material side but still obviously try to make a living. I never considered being a co-writer with Mike until his partner left and we were spending so much time in the studio together. I think the first song we wrote together was called "Another Alias" bit I can't be sure.
So what then made you make contact with Pete?
The long version is that we had been working in the studio for about a year and a half making our own records under various guises, not seeking major releases just going onto local independent labels and producing for other people. Of course as well as all this we were supporting ourselves by doing all those other gigs I talked about earlier and basically we would have stayed doing that forever because it was very comfortable but the problem was that we couldn't cover both bases very well, we could cover them fairly well but we wanted more. We took a decision that we were going to have to make the studio pay for itself so we took the brave step of trying to get a deal on one track that we had done with two girls from Essex, we invented the concept, invented the name of the group and went around to various people one of whom was Pete who had previously covered one of Mike's songs with another artist so we knew Pete and knew he was involved in production. When we first went to Pete we were actually just after some advice on the publishing side. It wasn't with a view of working with him. But at that time he had just split up with his partner so Pete was effectively looking for someone else to manage at that time. But didn't want to be known as manager he wanted to be co-producer. So we had various conversations and it was clearly obvious that we had a lot of common ground and in the end we decided to re-cut the track that we had taken to Peter and re-do it again and that was how we started working with him.
Can you define each others roles in the Stock, Aitken, Waterman partnership?
If you put it into black and white terms you would say that Pete did the business and Mike and I made the music and wrote the songs. That would be black and white terms. In actual fact it wasn't like that. Pete was involved in the creative side of course and we were involved in the business side so there was a great deal of smudging of responsibilities.
What act or artist did you enjoy working with most?
To be absolutely honest, it's not a barrel of laughs. Most people think its sex, drugs and rock n' roll but that's not the way that we work, we do it professionally and responsibly. We arrive at 11 o'clock in the morning and finish at 10 p.m., do a five day week and that's what we do. We learned fairly early on that by and large it was a mistake to become involved on anything but a professional level with people that we worked with because sooner or later you end up falling out for whatever reason. But favourite act ... I actually enjoyed working with Sigue, Sigue Sputnik a lot because they were mad (laughs). Seriously I actually liked their previous single, I thought it was very good and they had a couple of ideas that I thought were genuinely quite astounding and it was a very good collaboration. I actually think that we made an excellent record between us. Yeah, they were good fun. Now as a singer it would take a lot to beat Donna Summer, life is a breeze when you are working with someone who can sing that well, she gives you as much as you give her. It's very rare that you will get as much back from the singer as you put into the song.
Is there an artist now that you would like to work with?
I like Sting's music a lot. I always liked the Police and I think his solo albums have been great. He makes good, interesting, classy records, writes good lyrics and is a great vocalist. As for working with him, I don't think that is likely to happen but it might be a nice experience.
Would you now consider working with artists with whom you worked before i.e. Sonia, Jason, Bananarama etc?
Yeah! Why not? I suppose you mean because of bad vibes. Well I can honestly say that I don't think there was ever an occasion when I personally had bad vibes with an artist, possibly one. If we fell out with people it was generally on a business level or a career level. It is fair to say that almost without exception people who did leave were not as successful as when they were with us and you have to put that down to bad management. Rick Astley is a classic case but the guy is still a fantastic singer and if he gets a great song then it will happen again.
So back in the heady SAW days how did you get involved with artists. Was it a case of Pete walking in and saying OK boys this is Sonia, write her a song?
(Laughs) Well it did happen. Quite often people would just turn up that we knew nothing about. The Kylie story is a classic example of that. Usually we would have a pre-production meeting where we would get to know a little about the person, except for Rick who worked with us for quite a while before his first record. It does happen now if somebody turns up cold you work cold and you try to make it as best you can. We're not here to make friends, we're here to make records and to do the best job. I mean, Debbie Harry flew over from the States for about three hours. She came straight from the airport to the studio and then flew back, it's not uncommon.
Tell me about Boy Krazy as they are very popular with fanclub members.
Boy Krazy were put together by a management company in the States as a female version of New Kids On The Block. It all went horribly wrong on the record company side of things. They didn't break the record here even though it was released twice but it was a big hit in the States about two and a half years after we had originally recorded it. There was also all sorts of personality conflicts within the band and with the management which wasn't a very stable environment to be working in. Now all the girls had different singing voices; one could sing rock, one could sing R'n'B, one could sing ballads and so on. But no one had taken the fore thought when they were putting the group together about their musical direction and we got no guidance at all when they came over. Plus we were primarily aiming at an American market which was something we didn't know particularly well so we basically found out what the girls were capable of and tried to cover all our bases. They were all good singers in their own way, one of them Jocelyn I think it was, had a voice that was absolutely stage, it was a stage voice. she couldn't sing soul and she didn't sound pop so in the end the song we wrote for her could have been out of an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical.
Do you have any conception of the huge impact you have had on popular music both in this country and abroad particularly in America where you have a huge following?
I know we have a big gay following in the States but in the 80's we were probably the only people who made music that catered for that market. I am aware of the impact we have made and when I think about it, well it's just phenomenal. We have always made records that people like to sing to and to dance to and that appeals to most people, but yes the success is amazing.
Can you explain why you felt it necessary to leave SAW and PWL?
There were many contributory reasons but the primary one was that I wasn't enjoying what I was doing anymore. I felt that we had lost direction. It is actually my belief that we should have stopped working with Kylie and Jason earlier that we did because we came to rely on them extremely heavily for our singles profile and it stopped us, I think, being adventurous in other areas. Not for any other reason than I think it took up so much of our time and we tended to use it as a cushion and the acts that came along subsequently to that with the possible exception of Lonnie Gordon and Boy Krazy, I'm talking about Sonia and Big Fun here particularly, took us into an even more pop area than we had been before and I think that was the wrong way for us to go at that time because the market was changing. Then again it shows you how lucky we were in coming across the right artists at the right time in our career anyway. If the right artists don't happen then you don't have a vehicle for what we do and I believe that the right people didn't come along. Boy Krazy is a perfect example. We bust a gut on that album and it was quite clear that they had no idea where they were going and the American record company didn't either. Basically we were producing fantastic gear boxes, wonderful tyres, marvellous steering wheels and the best engines in the world and nobody was actually assembling it properly and putting it on a race track. The same happened with the Lonnie Gordon album we wrote some brilliant songs on that. The first one was a big hit and then with the second one it all went horribly wrong and I felt quite depressed about that. Originally I was only going to take a couple of months off as I was really tired and it just went on and on. I did not leave to pursue a career in motor racing as was quoted at the time and I want to go on record as saying that. The reason, the real reason, was cut out so that it wouldn't jeopardise the potential deal with Warner Brothers Records. That was another reason. I could see things getting out of hand with major record company involvement.
So what did you do during this self-imposed retirement?
Well, I raised a family .... tended the crops (laughs). Well I spent a year doing exactly what I wanted and that was doing more motor racing than I had had time to do, we moved house ... actually when I stopped working I wondered how I had ever run my life when I had been working. It was very nice for me to spend a lot of time with my family and just be at home a lot.
Did you ever consider doing anything musically during that time, it must have been very frustrating for you.
To be quite honest I didn't have any desire to play. I didn't pick up an instrument from the moment I walked out the door until we did "No More Tears" which was three years later. That was the extent of my disaffection of the whole thing. To tell the truth it's only in the last week that I've really started enjoying it again, at the moment everything I hear seems to sound great so that obviously means that I am enjoying it.
So how does it feel now starting all over again?
It was extremely weird when we did the first record partially because we were in a different studio and environment and methods of doing things had changed quite a lot. It was wonderful to have a top twenty hit with the first record back after so long, I thought that was excellent but I did think it would have been a lot bigger that it was.
You and Mike are two of this world's greatest songwriters, so why all the cover versions?
Well, there are many reasons but primarily the reason is that until we discover an artist or two artists that are right for us that can be a vehicle for our songs, then there's no point just writing willy nilly. We would very rarely work with a new artist with a new song now. If we worked with someone like Whitney Houston we would write her a song because she has her own fan base.
It's been very quiet on the release front on the Ding Dong label lately. Why is that?
Well, the deal was set up with a guy called Simon Cowell and Arista Records. Simon has left Arista so we believe that deal to be over. We will probably transfer the deal over to RCA or start another one with them.
Can you tell me a bit about your deal with Scotland's excellent dance Label Steppin' Out Records?
They are a good little bolt on for us because they've got their ears to the ground out there. They know things that are happening that we might not otherwise come across. Musically we are not that far apart, they tend to be a little bit more at the ravey end. They provide us with things that we want and we provide them with marketing and mixing and things that they want. Every time the guys come down they have got a fistful of cassettes and we ferret through it and choose things that are appropriate to do at that time.
What is happening with Kim Mazelle and Jocelyn Brown?
I've no idea. We initially intended to do an album with the girls then they decided that it probably wasn't right for their respective careers to be tied to a duet situation. We were then going to do an album with Jocelyn but as you've said before Simon Cowell left Arista and it all fell through.
Who or what brought the fabulous Nicki French to your attention?
It was actually Pitstop our promotions guy here. He said the original was doing really well but thought there was a lot more mileage in the record than it had actually achieved because it had been released by a very small record company and only in a specific area. He told us it was very hot in the U.S. and it needed remixing and beefing up and so we had a listen and got involved.
Why wasn't it a hit first time round?
Basically Radio wouldn't play it because it was too in your face. Radio has gone so M.O.R. at the moment, they want quiet beginnings and space, and so we had to consider that when putting the record out again. There's no point in making a great dance record that comes into the charts at No. 12 that radio won't play and so stalls and falls out again because there is no exposure. I think the new radio mix we did is really good and it took the song into another area completely. Jim Steinman absolutely loved it. The art of making that song a hit was managing to condense it into a three minute format which was very difficult as its got nine verses and eight different choruses. We had the same problem with "No More Tears". 50% of the work on that track was condensing all the bits and eventually by being ruthless we managed to get it down to four minutes twenty seconds. When the original was six minutes thirty five seconds. Radio of course will very rarely play six minute records so it had to be done.
Do you realise the similarities with the original "Total Eclipse...." and "Gold" by East 17?
Yes. Someone played that to me and you're right there are extreme similarities and also with Dr Albans "It's My Life" but that part of the track was inserted by the boys at Energise and was probably the Primary Hook of that version. That was another difficult decision to make when we did the definitive version to exclude that section completely as I think that was a very good section of the song. The East 17 song has a very similar piano riff hasn't it? We actually took that section from the original, I had never hear the East 17 song until after we had finished working on it first time round. It's funny how things turn out but you know there are only so many notes (laughs).
What is your favourite SAW song?
Now this is one of those questions that I can never answer basically because it changes all the time.
OK then, songs that you have worked on since teaming up with Mike again. Do you have a favourite? I would have to go with "No More Tears".
Yeah, I think I'd have to go with "No More Tears" too. I was also very pleased with the follow up of that (Gimme All Your Lovin'). The fact that we made it work at all was miraculous because it was such an off the wall idea and with Tony King's input it worked really well. I thought that was a terrific record.
Here's a heavy one for you. What would you say about the state of British Pop Music today?
All I can say is that I don't believe there is any genuine British pop music at the moment.
Well motor racing obviously, eating, drinking (laughs). I like sport. I'm a real TV sports fan. What I really like is watching the whole five days of a test match. In terms of chill out that's the ultimate. If you can do five days and not miss a session. Cricket at that level and played over that length of time is the most tactically and mentally invigorating game possible although to an outsider who just catches five minutes it can seem incredibly boring.
Throughout your career what has been the memory that sticks with you the most?
The thing I'll always remember was when we did Hazel Dean. We were driving somewhere and the Radio One Roadshow came on the Radio and it started with Whatever I Do and in the middle of the track they started fading it down and 60,000 people were singing along to the record. That was a real golden moment. Another gob smacking moment was doing the Ferry Aid single when everyone started singing the chorus and the sound that came off was just amazing. It doesn't come over that well on the record but at the time it was awesome and the energy and enthusiasm of all those people was just wonderful.