From then to now - and beyond...
by Iain Denholm
For many years, Mel & Kim were as remembered for the heart breaking way their story played out as they were for their chart-topping singles. But the passing of time has seen this be slowly eclipsed by the irrepressible energy which sits at the heart of those (now) classic songs, and which was so fundamental to the girls’ mega-watt success. Since Mel passed away, in January 1990, Kim has remained a strong and active presence within the music industry - as a solo artist, a songwriter and, in later years, as an advocate and mentor for other musicians – whilst the success she achieved with her sister continues to be recognised and celebrated today.
Throughout the trials and challenges the girls endured together as Mel battled cancer, they had both remained resolute that she would beat her illness. The duo had achieved an astonishing level of success and Mel was determined to get “back out there” with Kim, and perform again. Many hours had been spent excitedly planning the details of their comeback; everything from how they would sound to how they and their music would be visually presented was discussed, and they had created the songs that they believed heralded a brighter future for them both. A future that was a million miles away from the realities they were facing together. Mel never got to fulfil those plans, so Kim made it her self-confessed “mission” to ensure that the songs they had been writing together would be heard - just as her sister would have wanted. “This is for Mel”, Kim shared. “These songs were our babies. We spent a lot of time writing them, so it was important that I had control. I knew exactly how we wanted things to be. I wanted to show people what Mel and myself had been doing for two and a half years [and how] we changed something negative into a positive”.
Having signed to EMI (with Mel) back in 1989, Kim stayed with the label, and she began to work on the album that she and Mel had planned together. There was no doubt that this must have been as difficult and painful a process as it was cathartic, but Kim was resolute in her determination, and the album’s co-producers George De’Angelis and Pete Schweir nurtured and encouraged her to trust in her own instincts as a producer, songwriter, and solo vocalist. George recalled, “I thought Kim had some great shades in her voice, but she was hesitant at first. I’m not sure if it was because Mel wasn’t there but I knew that she was a much better singer than she thought she was. As the recording sessions went on, she began exploring new things vocally and you can hear how her confidence grew from one song to another. She was amazing!” Within 6 months, the final album mix was ready to be presented to EMI, and Kim braced herself to step out from the safety of the studio environment to embark upon a gruelling European promotions campaign which matched the scale of those she had previously undertaken with Mel. This time though, she was all on her own. Kim explained, “I had to be prepared mentally and make sure I was ready, but I wanted to get out there and do it for Mel and myself, and for my mum. It was hard, but it was easy at the same time because I had so much confidence. Not in an arrogant way, but in a very controlled way. I felt great about what I was doing because of the purposes. I was so determined to get it right, and for those songs to be heard.”
On 28th October 1990, Kim released her first solo single Don’t Worry, which rocketed to #2 on the UK singles chart (only being held off the top spot by the Righteous Brothers' massive 4-week run with Unchained Melody, from the movie Ghost). Given the circumstances, many had expected that Kim would make her return to the pop charts with a ballad, but that would have felt out of step for a project which was so celebratory and hopeful. Instead, Don’t Worry was firmly rooted in the dance world that Mel & Kim were known for, although the track's production, which layers its piano house construct with flourishes of 70s disco and echoes of Tamla Motown, carried with it a maturity and richness not present on the duo’s much-loved singles. Kim had written Don’t Worry during the album's recording sessions, and her forward-thinking, optimistic lyrics - which advise another about letting go of a negative relationship - are, at points, cleverly relatable to her own experience of moving on from darker times (showcasing just how far her skills as a singer/songwriter had grown). With all this in mind, it is little wonder that Don’t Worry earned Kim a well-deserved nomination for an Ivor Novello Award for ‘Best Contemporary Song’, in 1991.
Don't Worry. Released October 1990. Directed by Liam Kan.
Released on 25th November 1990, with sales that certified it gold, the Kim Appleby album followed, to great reviews, and the girls’ fans were overjoyed to see Kim return with an album which succeeded in both honouring Mel's memory and presenting Kim to the world as a solo artist in her own right. In addition to Don’t Worry, which was now a monster-hit all over Europe - and beyond, the album went on to produce another three hit singles from its characterfully accomplished track listing: the joyously effervescent G.L.A.D. (Good Loving and Devotion), with its initialised title echoing the fun the girls had previously enjoyed with F.L.M., albeit without the less innocent double meaning, the beautiful Mama, which the sisters had written as a tribute to their mum Gladys, and which Kim sang with such sincerity, and the punchy If You Cared, which brought the project to a close, almost one year to the day from its launch with Don’t Worry. Reflecting on her album’s success, Kim shared, “It was just great to come back with such a bang. I knew that I'd always look back and think that this was the most important album of my career. To me, it was like saying 'look Mel, this is what we've done, this is what we've got. We showed the lot of ‘em!' It left me with a great feeling”.
Soon after the Kim Appleby album promotion ended, EMI commissioned its successor, and Kim began work on her second album, Breakaway. Having written the title track with producer George De Angeles, Kim felt its title reflected her own perception of this stage of her career. She had achieved her goal with Kim Appleby, which she whole heartedly viewed as a ‘Mel & Kim’ album and a tribute to her sister, but now it was time to stand up as Kim - the solo artist - and that meant finally being able to ‘breakaway’ from some of her own self-doubt. Kim shared, “I’m working hard at letting go of my hang ups. With ‘Mel & Kim’, I always hid behind Mel, vocally, ‘cause I always felt that Mel was the better singer - I still do, I think Melanie had a fantastic voice - but I just did my best and I think that she would be very proud of me”. Kim’s “best” resulted in a fantastic collection of songs (including a song she co-wrote with Mel, titled Good Love) which further progressed her sound in a more mature, soul-pop direction. However, finding her own musical identity and shedding some self-doubt weren’t the only challenges she faced with Breakaway. The success of her first album brought with it the inevitable pressure to repeat that success with her second, but the management structure at EMI had now changed, as had Kim’s promotions team, and everyone seemed to have their own idea of how the album should sound. Five different producers were brought in to work on the project and, in Kim’s eyes, the album's overall cohesion suffered as a result. Notwithstanding these challenges, Breakaway was far from a failure. It gained strong reviews from the music press and produced two brilliant singles, Light of The World and Breakaway, but despite this, the album only received a limited release and its perceived under-performance by EMI only added to Kim’s deep sadness about being without her sister. Much later, she reflected, “By the second album, as much as I’m proud of the songs - and I wrote with some great people - I wasn’t enjoying it anymore. For me, I’d done what I wanted to do, and I probably needed time to grieve. I remember travelling around Europe, and sitting in hotel rooms on my own. Back when Mel was with us, we would stay in the same hotel bed. We’d be ordering room service, flicking through the channels, and laughing and cracking jokes. That’s when it really, really hit me that I was a solo artist, and just how much we all missed her. I found it very lonely”.
Despite their perplexing management of the Breakaway project, EMI remained fully aware of the album’s obvious potential, and in 1994, plans were made to finally give it a well-deserved full release, with the inclusion of some new tracks, courtesy of Kim, Mike Stock and Matt Aitken (of Stock Aitken & Waterman). The writing and recording sessions were initially fruitful, producing the sensational Free Spirit (and the Don't Worry 94 remix, courtesy of the PWL mixing- luminary Tony King), and plans for another 11 tracks were made, but the ongoing machinations within the record label continued to reap havoc with the singles’ promotion, which affected its sales, and the other songs were sadly never completed. Mike Stock recalled, “The record industry was tearing itself apart and Kim got caught in some of that crossfire with EMI. It was a shame as we hoped to do more together”. With EMI in a state of flux, and more changes in the wind, Kim decided to step away from the ‘pop star’ life. “I decided that I didn’t want to be in the limelight. I wasn’t enjoying it, and I was rarely home”, she shared. “I wanted to take time out and get back to my life, and that’s exactly what I did.”
Free Spirit. Released October 1994. Directed by Barry Maguire.
Through her experiences, writing and producing her first two albums, Kim had discovered a true passion for the creative side of the music industry, and now that she was free from her recording contract and the relentless promotions schedules which took her away from making music, she was able to truly nurture that passion, in relative anonymity, by song-writing for other artists. “Writing and creating music is where I’m my happiest”, she shared. “I love the song writing process and I get such a buzz off being in the studio”. Having more time to stretch her creative muscles also meant that Kim could accept an invitation from the prestigious British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors (later rebranded as The Ivors Academy), to serve as chair on the Ivor Novello Awards judges panel. (Initially for Best Song Musically and Lyrically, then for Best Contemporary Song). BASCA was created to celebrate and encourage excellence in British music writing, and to protect the professional interests of songwriters, lyricists, and composers - all subjects close to Kim’s heart – and her role as 'songwriter executive' saw her undertake a variety of duties. These included, serving as depute chair of the Ivor Novello Awards committee and sitting on both the Songwriters Executive and the PRS Benevolent Fund committees, where she strove to fund and support talent development and new music, across the UK. Meanwhile, she quietly continued to develop her song writing career and, with the exception of a guest role in a 2002 episode of the UK soap opera Doctors, a 2004 stint in the popular touring play, Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues, and being the featured artist on a number of un-promoted dance tracks over the coming years, she remained largely (and happily) out of the public eye.
That was until October 2016, when a promo single titled What’s Not to Love was released as a tentative way of testing the water once again. The song was one of many that Kim wrote with her good friend, and fellow writer, Dominic King, and she recalled, “There was no pressure. I just went out there to write some tunes, and there was this wonderful energy. The songs just kept coming. It was incredible”. Together, Kim and Dominic wrote over 16 songs, and Kim was so happy with the results that she began to make plans for a possible third album. Sadly, Kim's mum’s health began to decline, and she decided to shelve the project, at least for the time being, to focus on caring for her.
2017 proved to be a major turning point for Kim, on both a professional and a personal level, and it saw her make her welcome return to the stage, after a break of almost 24 years. "Mel has probably been saying for the last 30 years: ‘why haven’t you gone out there and celebrated us?’, she shared, before going on to explain,“I’d been asked so many times, to go up there and perform the Mel & Kim songs but, as much as I was proud of it, it was also a dark place for me to go and I just never felt ready”. On the invitation of Martyn Ware (Heaven 17), and the encouragement of her mum, Kim finally got back up on stage, at the Henley Rewind Festival, fronting Martyn’s British Electric Foundation project, and she performed Respectable, for the first time in 30 years. "I was so nervous, but the audience welcomed me with open arms and their reaction was just unbelievable”, she reflected. “I had a blast, and it made me realise how much I missed performing. It felt like home.”
Kim performing Respectable for the first time in over 30 years, at The Henley Rewind Festival - 20/08/17
Early into 2018, Dancing Nation Records released a previously unheard Mel & Kim track, titled Where Is Love. Although new to the girls' fans, the recording (in its original form) was in fact over 30 years old and was the song which brought the duo their record deal with Supreme, back in 1986. The tracks' writer Trevor Cummings recalled, "Working with Mel & Kim is a moment in my career that is very special to me. [The music producer] Steve Rowland turned up with them, at my house and what I remember most was how sweet and polite they both were. They had no problem about singing in my kitchen, amongst the washing up! We got the job done, had a cup of tea and two hours later, we said our goodbyes. Somehow I just knew they would make it!” For its 2018 release, Where Is Love was presented in remixed form by a host of contemporary producers, including Kissy Sell Out, Final DJs, and 7th Heaven - as well as PWL's original 'Mixmaster' Phil Harding, who worked on many of the girls' original tracks - and it took Mel & Kim back into the worldwide charts for the first time since 1988.
Following on from the amazing audience response she received at Henley’s Rewind Festival, its organisers asked Kim to perform a full set at its hugely popular Let’s Rock and Rewind 2018 festivals. She shared, “It wasn’t a decision I took lightly, because there’s my sister's legacy to protect, but I spoke with my mum, and she said, ‘Do it! It’s what Mel would have wanted’”. In the weeks leading up to the first of her performances that summer, Kim worked closely with the resident live band, and her set list included the four original Mel & Kim singles, alongside two of her solo tracks Free Spirit and Don’t Worry. By nature, the Rewind and Let’s Rock Festivals are joyous occasions, and it was on those stages that, perhaps for the first time, Kim was able to truly feel the love and affection that remains for herself and Mel, and to celebrate their incredible legacy with the rest of us. She shared, “It has taken me so many years to embrace this part of my life, as visiting it was a constant reminder of how things ended, and I think that’s why I have stayed away for so long… but now I feel like I’ve made my peace. Feeling how much we are still loved is such a blessing, and it gives me so much joy knowing that Melanie’s light forever shines bright. This happened and it was tragic but look. This is what we did, and I’m here to fly the flag for Mel and myself.”
Kim, pictured with melandkim.com's Krisz and Iain, backstage at Rewind Scotland, Scone Palace, 21.07.18
For many other pop stars of their generation, the shortness of their career would have seen them long forgotten, but in the case of the Appleby sisters, that couldn't be further from the truth. The response to Kim’s recent festival performances and the fact that the girls scored a worldwide hit single in 2018, over 35 years after their debut single Showing Out (Get Fresh at The Weekend), is testament to that – as is the high level of traffic to this website. Whatever the future holds, Kim’s passion and creativity will always motivate her to write and produce new music, whilst the legacy she created with Mel shows no sign of diminishing. Their songs, their talent, and the impact that they made as a duo have left an indelible mark on pop culture, and Mel & Kim will have a place in the hearts of their fans forever.