Phil Harding’s memoirs of the Stock Aitken Waterman pop juggernaut get the boxed set treatment
The original edition of Phil Harding’s 2009 recollections of his very productive years with the Stock Aitken Waterman “hit factory,’’ PWL, was an entertaining and amiable read that served dual purposes. First, it provided readers familiar with the principals and their prodigious output during the late 80’s and early 90’s welcome background into the inner workings of what was arguably the UK’s most successful record production organization. Second, it served as a valuable introductory volume for overseas readers who are familiar with some of their hits, but for whom Stock, Aitken and Waterman might not be household names (as they were in the UK during their heyday).
The response to the original edition (which Harding published himself) was enthusiastic enough to warrant the current second edition under review [See interview with Harding, below], this time published through Cherry Red Books. Much more than a simple update, the Expanded Edition adds a wealth of additional interviews, discographies, photographs, charts, technical information and other sections that effectively swells the new volume to twice its original content. In the process, Harding succeeds in elevating his already useful book from a simple recollection of his perspective on an important chapter in popular music production to a crucial resource for students, scholars, researchers and music fans interested in learning more about the nuts and bolts of late 20th century popular music production.
Section A of the Expanded Edition is an autobiographical account of his role and observations as engineer, mixer, producer and writer in the PWL organization. Harding was prescient enough at the time to keep a detailed diary of his activities at PWL, which allows him to render his account with vivid detail, tracing his career from tea boy at Marquee Studios through the growth and glory years of PWL, and culminating with his break with the organization and subsequent establishment (with long-time production and writing partner, Ian Curnow) of a successful independent production company at Strongroom Studios in London. The Expanded Edition allows Harding to provide additional detail and engrossing anecdotes that were necessarily left out of the original edition, which now feels somewhat abridged compared to its generously fleshed-out successor.
Harding’s prose style is appropriately conversational and genial, which renders the many first hand accounts with a sense of “you-are-there” familiarity. This quality is very helpful to overseas readers of PWL From the Factory Floor (this writer included) for whom some of the participants and projects might be a bit obscure. (While artists like Bananarama, Rick Astley, Dead or Alive, and Kylie Minogue were very successful worldwide and widely known, others—like Blue Mercedes, Big Fun, Sinitta and Climie Fisher—are more obscure outside the UK and cult audiences, especially twenty years on.)
His even-handed style allows him to discuss the shortcomings of his former colleagues at PWL with an admirable lack of judgmental animus. This is quite a feat, given the fact that there seemed to be no shortage of oversized egos within the PWL empire. Of course, it is the collective hubris of the Stock-Aitken-Waterman troika that allowed it to dominate the UK charts, and have dizzying success worldwide, during its amazing run from 1987 through the early nineties. However, as the author points out, this also sowed the seeds for its eventual slide, as SAW turned their back on the dance market—which had supported the team in its early days—in search of wider mainstream popular success. In Harding’s view, this was a lapse in judgment from which PWL was unable to recover once the public grew weary of the once successful PWL formula and moved on to other pop styles.
For record makers and those who study the process, the book is also a riveting look at the techniques used to create the signature PWL sound. Gear heads will revel in the descriptions of now-obsolete midi and recording technology that the resourceful Harding and his cohorts used to create their complex soundscapes (Atari computers and Cubase, anyone?) Particularly useful are Harding’s descriptions of PWL modus operandi such as “song and production plotting” (in which key elements of admired contemporary records are appropriated in the writing and production process, and “morphed” in order to create new pop music song and productions). It is also a bit of a revelation that apparently, the entire PWL recording complex—which consisted of several studios, midi suites, and editing rooms—had so few microphones (due to the midi-centric PWL production process) that when Harding decided to cut live drums for Marcalex late in his tenure at the facility, they had to hire in microphones for the task, and train their assistant engineers how to set them up!
Harding paints the artists who were part of the PWL stable with a particularly affectionate brush, resulting in a number of fascinating portraits. Rick Astley (who, amazingly, began his PWL career as an office “gofer”) and Kylie Minogue (who literally waited in the PWL waiting room for a week before hastily recording her first PWL hit—“You Should Be So Lucky”—in piecemeal fashion in the course of an afternoon hours before returning to her native Australia) are two of the better-known artists whom Harding details; it is to his credit that, thanks to his egalitarian approach, even the more obscure artists receive equal attention. This greatly enhances the readability and historical value of the book.
It should be noted that, particularly for those for whom some of the artists and records discussed might be unfamiliar, having access to the tracks under discussion (or what Editor John Palmer describes in his forward as a “comprehensively stocked iPod”) is essential to getting the most out of the book, since Harding takes pains discuss the stylistic elements and production of most of the key tracks in some detail. (This reader consulted Spotify—newly released in the US—and found roughly 60% of the tracks mentioned were available.) According to Harding, Cherry Red will be releasing a double CD compilation in the future, and one hope that it will be included in future editions of the book. [See Harding’s comments, below.]
The remaining half of the Expanded Edition consists of all-new material, which is where the volume increases its bang for the buck for researchers and fans looking for more comprehensive information on the PWL phenomenon. For musicologists and production students, Section B provides a very helpful descriptive section of the various styles employed by PWL (such as Hi-NRG, Balearic Beats, Chicago/London House, etc) with illustrative examples in the PWL canon. This section also includes in-depth description of what Harding considers his key mixes for PWL (including Dead or Alive’s “You Spin Me Around Like a Record.” Bananarama’s Venus,” and Mel & Kim’s “Showing Out”). Section C gives six key PWL artists (Astley, Minogue, Hazell Dean, Bananarama, Dead or Alive and Mel & Kim) similarly intricate treatment.
This reader found Section D particularly fascinating. Consisting of a treasure trove of studio, session and candid photos, precise floor plans of the PWL complex, and stills from a video tour of the facility, this portion literally puts a face on most, if not all, of the personnel involved in the PWL universe. It is refreshing to see the administrative folks are given their moment in the sun—how many books of this type go to the trouble to list the staff members, secretaries and assistants who helped make the machine run? (They are listed, incidentally, complete with short recollections by Harding—some bordering on the banal—for example an assistant engineer, one Stuart Brown, warrants the following: “well-spoken but quiet, with dark hair.”)
An illuminating recent interview by Editor Palmer with Harding and Curnow provides the content for Section E, while Section F offers a comprehensive discography of Harding’s work with PWL. This is a truly impressive section, as in encompasses what would, for most of us, comprise a couple of lifetimes of creative output!
Finally, Section G tackles the technical issues raised in the text. While the original edition has a similar section, here it is greatly expanded and is very helpful indeed. Those of us who have been at this for a while will be familiar with some of the technology employed in the making of those luminous PWL hits, but younger readers and lay people will find this appendix—which references mentions of things like “SSL Mixer” and “DAT” to the section in which is was mentioned (in this case, Chapters 5 & 7) and provides additional information regarding the equipment or processes involved. Also helpful is a glossary with references to outside sources.
Another highlight of this section is the “Case Study” by PWL engineer Les Sharma of Harding’s mix of Kylie Minogue’s iconic “Hand On Your Heart” (one of this writer’s favorite SAW compositions). It chronicles Sharma’s entrée to working with Harding, the role of an assistant, track notation, mixing and recall techniques, the creation of 12” mix parts, and so on. All in all, an excellent step-by-step account of creating a mix during that era, and it is to Harding’s credit that he gives Sharma his due and provides the space for him to make this contribution to the book.
All in all, PWL From The Factory Floor: Expanded Edition takes an already admirable book and turns it into a truly useful text for a variety of audiences. It works as a research reference, as a potential text for college courses (one can envision a popular music course that examines the record “factories” from the 20th century, such as PWL, Motown, Stax, etc, for which this would be a great resource) and finally, as an entertaining read about a fascinating era in pop music.
INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR PHIL HARDING
JARP: How did the Expanded Edition come about?
PH: The first edition sold out within 6 months and the response was fantastic from all parties, including ex PWL colleagues. John Palmer, my eventual editor and a long term PWL expert (he has done several PWL CD compilations for Cherry Red Records in the UK in recent years) approached me with the idea to do a second edition, to be accompanied by a double CD compilation of many of the mixes I talk about in the book from the 1980’s. He then set up a meeting with Cherry Red, who also publish music books, with the idea to get them to publish this expanded second edition and to release the CD, which is now ready and due out on November 14th 2011.
JARP: What specifically did you address in Section A of the expanded edition that you were not able to in the First Edition?
PH: More detail on Simon Cowell, more accuracy on some of the factual parts (assisted by research by John Palmer) that may have been slightly wrong in the first version of the book and a bit more detail on Kylie.
JARP: How cooperative were Stock, Aitken and Waterman in the preparation of the book, considering that they have written their own memoirs of the era?
PH: I only approached Pete Waterman for co-operation as he had some specific information that I needed, as well as that I wanted his approval to go ahead with this in the first place and to be able to use the term ‘PWL’ in the title. Pete gave me permission for that and a 2-hour interview, as well as some promo pictures together at the launch of the book at the ARP conference in Cardiff in 2009
JARP: When will the companion CD be made available?
PH: November 14th 2011 via Cherry Red Records UK [See CD listing below]
JARP: Will subsequent editions of the book include the CD?
PH: This expanded edition will be available via Cherry Red, packaged with the CD at a special price on November 14th 2011 and the first 50-100 copies will be signed by me.
JARP: Finally, a more general question: the landscape of record production is drastically altered in the 21st century. What do you feel has changed the most, and what has remained the same? Any advice for newcomers to the field?
PH: The biggest change is the convenience of the technology and the availability of Digidesign’s Pro-Tools software in pretty much every major studio in the world, as well as being present at many project and home studios. This allows us to record our projects and move around the world with ease to collaborate with anybody. The Internet allows us to also stay in our own studios and collaborate with any musicians, producers and engineers with the various file-sharing systems available.
What remains the same is the process of recording a live band in terms of microphone set-up and placement and that whole process from recording area to control room, this has surprisingly changed very little over the years.
My advice to newcomers is to get yourself set up with a mobile rig – laptop, software, interface and microphones – then offer yourself, your expertise and enthusiasm to musicians and groups that want to be recorded wherever they are.
Pete Waterman, Ian Curnow, Phil Harding (1989)
TRACK LISTING: PHIL HARDING CLUB MIXES OF THE 80’S
01. Michael Jackson with The Jackson 5 – I Want You Back [’88] (12″ Remix)
02. Eighth Wonder – I’m Not Scared (10” Remix)
03. ABC – When Smokey Sings (The Miami Mix)
04. Diana Ross – Love Hangover [’88] (12” Version)
05. Rick Astley – She Wants To Dance With Me (Original Extended R’n’B Version)
06. Four Tops – Reach Out I’ll Be There [’88] (12” Remix)
07. Holly Johnson – Americanos (PWL Extended Version)
08. Godley & Creme – Snack Attack (Extended Remix)
09. Jimmy Ruffin – Easy Just To Say (I Love You) (Extended Club Mix)
10. Basia – Until You Come Back To Me (Phil Harding 12” Remix)
11. Rick Astley – Til The Day That I Die
12. Dead Or Alive – You Spin Me Round (Like A Record) (Murder Mix)
01. Blue Mercedes – I Want To Be Your Property (DEF B4 Dishonour Mix
02. Pepsi & Shirlie – Heartache (Dot & Daisy’s Club Remix)
03. Imagination – Instinctual (Jack Leee Freak Mix)
04. Blow Monkeys – Digging Your Scene (Remix)
05. Rick Astley – Stay With Me Tonight
06. Fe Fi Fo Fum – Beat Your Body (Manhattan Mix)
07. The Blue August Project – Oxygen (Extended Dance Version)
08. Sinitta – Body Shopping (New Vogue Version)
09. XS-5 – I Need More (Extended Dance Version)
10. Agents Aren’t Aeroplanes – The Upstroke (12”)
11. Jimmy Ruffin – Truly Yours
12. Five Star – Rain Or Shine (Remix)
13. Rick Astley – Never Gonna Give You Up (Phil Harding 12″ Mix)
PWL From The Factory Floor: Expanded Edition
Cherry Red Books 2010
ISBN: 978 1901447521