As one third of the all conquering production team Stock, Aitken & Waterman, Mike Stock ruled the music charts in the 80s and 90s, and his impressive talent for creating musical narratives which reflected the artist, whilst appealing to the masses, is his undeniable musical legacy. It is testament to Mike's song writing abilities that, some thirty years later, the personality driven songs he created around Mel & Kim still stand the test of time, having defined a generation as much as the girls themselves. Here Mike reflects on the early days of his partnership with Pete and Matt and on recording with the "streetwise, bubbly" sisters who he recalls with great warmth and affection, even though he admits to those memories being forever "tinged with sadness".
Hi Mike. It's great to speak with you. We have lots we want to ask you about...
(Laughs) well, you know, you guys are the aficionados on Mel & Kim.
(Laughs) I think some would call us geeks!
(Laughs) Oh right! Well, I’m only a semi-geek!
(Laughs) Going back, do you remember meeting the girls for the first time and your first impressions?
Yeah. I remember Nick East brought them into a studio we were renting at the time called The Vineyard... and Matt Aitken and I found them both to be just lovely. My first impressions? I wouldn’t say the girls were innocent, but they were fun-loving and very outgoing which could give the appearance of innocence - though they were certainly streetwise. They were attractive, good looking girls. Outgoing and bubbly, and I thought, this sounds like it could be fun to work with them. They sat with us and as soon as I began talking to them, I thought blimey, there’s a wealth of information here (laughs). My creative radar was on full alert because they were saying things and they were very forward and outgoing and fun. So there was plenty of scope for me as a writer. When I’m writing songs, I’m always thinking about what people say and trying to come up with ideas and scenarios, and to think of stories, sort of like a soap opera. Mel & Kim were a great resource for that because they were just so fun and open.
The sisters were very new to the recording world. How did they adapt to the professional studio environment?
In the first instance, my impression was that they were naïve about studio work. As singers, they had sung to each other and sung in the bath, or in the shower (laughs), but not in a proper studio. So at first, we were really feeling our way. Initially, they couldn’t get used to singing with headphones which, unless you’ve done that before, is quite strange. So, we put them behind a set of speakers in the control room, so they were monitoring off live speakers without headphones and singing into a microphone. That meant that we didn’t get a perfect separation but it enabled them to get something down on tape, which was encouraging for them. Then, the next time we got them in the studio, we tried the headphones again and built on their confidence until they were able to get on a mic using headphones.
Mel & Kim are known for their very distinct vocal sound. Was that sound achieved using one of the girls' voices more predominantly in the mix or did you always record the girls singing in unison?
Most of everything we did would be Mel and Kim singing the lead vocal and then Mel and Kim, or just Mel or Kim singing the harmonies on a double track. The girls both wanted that and we also felt it worked better if they were both on the microphone together, as that gave them the freedom to feel comfortable in themselves. They had sung to each other all their lives so they felt comfortable facing each other as they were singing, and they could synchronize their mouth movements that way - and they sparked off each other. Then, of course, they would set themselves off giggling, which we recorded quite a lot of (laughs), so it was fun doing it.
Had you already written System [the song originally planned as the sisters’ 1st single] before you met Mel & Kim and what influenced you to shelve the track and change musical direction for the sisters’ debut?
No, we wrote System for Mel & Kim, after we had met them. That was the normal practice for Matt and me. We would sit around and go, ‘what kind a song do we wanna do here?’ and we would throw all sorts of ideas around. Initially we wanted to be a bit RnB with Mel & Kim, and System was the song we wrote to go that route. At the time there was the pop group - Five Star - and a few others who had an, almost, watered-down, Americanised, RnB sound, and we thought we might go in that direction, but it didn’t take me long to realise that there was nothing fresh enough about that sound for these girls. I thought there was a bit more to them than that! It is the same idea we had with Rick Astley. We started to go a bit 'Motown' with Rick, and then I thought we would be better off writing him a song as he’s got such a great voice. It was a bit like that with Mel & Kim. I was thinking we should find a style for them that's not the sort of thing that other people are doing in the UK. So, although the first thing we did [with the girls] was System, I quickly moved on from that idea.
So, what inspired the writing of Showing Out, and the choice of the Chicago House music sound, to present the girls as an act to the public with?
Pete Tong, from London Records, was the A&R man [Artist & Repertoire] for Bananarama and he had given me a tape of Chicago House music which he though would be a good direction for Bananarama - but I listened to it and thought it was the direction I was looking for for Mel & Kim, though I didn’t tell him (laughs). At the time, there was Darryl Pandy and Farley Jack Master Funk, and a few others who were doing that kind of stuff, and it was 120 beats per minute, ‘four on the floor’, House, dance beats. That sound seemed more lively, more innovative and more suited to Mel & Kim than the very well-trodden RnB route of System, so the original idea came from that cassette. In Showing Out you’ve got those elements of Chicago House, and the lyrical content was really written to reflect who I felt Mel & Kim were as people.
Having already recorded System, how did the girls react to the news that, instead of a soul track, their debut single was now going to be the pop/Chicago house hybrid - Showing Out (Get Fresh At The Weekend)?
Well, to be fair, their opinion wasn’t really asked for at that stage. It was Matt and me, but I think they loved [Showing Out] from the beginning and I think they trusted us. If there was any concern, they didn’t express it to me and Matt, and the studio wouldn’t be the place for that anyway. We always felt that studio time had to be used efficiently, for the artist sake, because they have gotta pay for it, at the end of the day. It comes out of their royalty. When I heard Showing Out, on the day we did it, I thought, well actually this is quite exciting, and I’m sure the girls felt the same. The Chicago House route we went was a fresh path, which is something I am always looking for with any new artist. I’m always looking to break some new ground. I mean, one of the lyrics on F.L.M. is “Need to make a few headlines”, you know? That's what you need. You need something to punch through all the rest. Sometimes you’ve gotta go down other avenues and take other routes, and you never know where that is gonna take you, ‘cause you are being creative. But the idea that I always felt in my heart you know, deep down, was that I’ve gotta do the best I can for these girls. I’ve gotta get them the best vehicle to give them success.
Looking back, Showing Out really was the perfect choice of track to introduce Mel & Kim to the public. The sound was so new and exciting and the lyrics reflected the girls brilliantly!
Yes. I mean, when it really works in pop music is when all of those elements come together and resonate. The song fits properly with the persona of the singer. It fits properly with their lifestyle and who they actually are, and they’re not trying to pretend they’re someone else. As you heard in their spoken bits, Mel & Kim are very Cockney. There was no attempt to sound Americanised, although when they sang, they did sing with the flattened vowels because it just sounds better, otherwise you sound like David Bowie, you know?
Can you describe a typical recording session with the duo?
(Laughs) well, always fun and lively! Try and bear in mind though that, after Showing Out, really we couldn’t get the girls, because they were off all over the country and abroad, doing performances on TV and in venues - so when they would come back in the studio - they would just have come back from Holland say, and they had dance routines to learn. Then there was all the attention they were getting. It really was a whirlwind for them! So, we got them when we could get them and, a lot of times, a day in the studio was a bit more relaxing (laughs) than what they were otherwise doing. It was a bit of a relief for them, but they were always so excited to be in the studio, it was fun!
When singing together, Mel & Kim's voices blended almost seamlessly. How did you rate them as vocalists and in what ways did their voices differ?
They were very good, very natural, excellent singers, even from the early moments where they were unsure what they were doing. As I said, initially Mel & Kim struggled in the studio, that's why we had the thing without the headphones to begin with, but they overcame that very quickly. Now then, getting a bit technical (laughs), Kim’s vocal was slightly richer than Mel’s, but I think there was no real difference in the tonality, in terms of where they were - which is somewhere between soprano and alto - and, because they are sisters, their blend was already there, so they didn’t have to work too hard at that. They just both had an ear for music and they picked up the harmonies very quickly. Yeah, they were both excellent singers!
Being an excellent singer yourself, you provided backing vocals on many of the Mel & Kim tracks, and your voice blends incredibly well with theirs, but what inspired you to also sing the middle eight of Showing Out on your own?
Well, on Showing Out, everyone including Mel & Kim, Matt and the engineer, went down the pub at ten o’clock, but we still needed a middle eight so I stayed behind and just sang it myself (laughs). I normally sang a lot of backing vocals for all the acts, but singing on my own? That didn’t happen a lot! (laughs). It kind of worked though ‘cause the theory of that song was all about materialistic ideas. You know, the man comes in and says that he owns the girls because he buys them nice things. Showing Out was actually a very early feminist song (laughs). Before it was popular!
(Laughs) Indeed! Then, soon after recording Showing Out, you guys started to work on the F.L.M. album. How long did the album take to complete?
As I said, it really was a whirlwind and the demand for Mel & Kim was exploding everywhere, so we got them in the studio when we could, and the album kind of evolved and came together. It wasn’t a concerted effort or (laughs) ‘let’s go in the studio for six months and do an album’. I mean, we weren’t making a concept album, like ‘Sgt Pepper’s’ [The Beatles]. We were working with so many different acts at the time, so we were fitting Mel & Kim in around Bananarama or Rick Astley, or anybody else we were working with, and coming up with the songs that we could, when we could. If I pieced all the sessions together though, it would be a standard length of time that it normally takes, which was a few months, but spread over six months probably.
Rather than sticking with the Chicago House sound that the girls were known for, the F.L.M. album includes a variety of musical styles. Was this pre-planned prior to recording?
Well, I don’t want this to sound wrong but we didn’t have a clean run at it so, in the end, the album became a little bit... well you call it variety yet some people might call it a ‘dogs dinner’, you know? It depends (laughs). I’d say we are somewhere between the two! The F.L.M. album was slightly cobbled together in view of everything that was going on at the time and the speed at which Mel & Kim had their hits, and the demand for more material from them. We didn’t really have much time to sit and plan anything, so there is a variety of styles on there only because those were the songs that we were writing on the day, or songs we had already written that somebody else had done, that we thought would suit them. I think that, in the end, we were forced to do what we could with the material that we had, but the point I’m trying to make is that, if we had gone on to the second or third albums with the girls then that would have been when you would have seen what Mel & Kim could really have become.
One of the album tracks, I’m The One Who Really Loves You, was remixed by Clivillés & Cole (of the famed C & C Music Factory) for its US single release. What did you think of his remixes of your song?
I’ve never actually heard them (laughs)! But I always liked I’m The One Who Really Loves You. It was Austin Howard, who we originally did it with and, to be honest, it’s one of those songs that we never completely nailed. There is a story about Motown, where Heard It Through The Grape Vine was sung by every Motown act because Berry Gordy [the founder of Motown] wasn’t sure. Eventually, he went with Marvin Gaye’s version. With Austin, I wasn’t sure that we got it right and I’m not sure that, with Mel & Kim, we did (laughs) but I always thought it had something. You just do what you have to do on the day and hope that you get a good result. I mean, I still like Mel & Kim’s version.
Speaking of I’m The One Who Really Loves You, can you tell us why some versions utilise the chorus vocals from the original 1986 Austin Howard version (mainly the US and Asian releases) in place of the girls’ vocals (which appear on the UK and European releases)?
Oh really? That sounds a bit bizarre to me. There shouldn’t really be different versions out there and I don’t know how that would have happened, I don’t recall anything in the Asian market that would be different but who knows what Supreme Records or Nick East might have put together.
Were you aware of Supreme Records original plan for the F.L.M album to include a solo track performed by either sister in its song selection?
No, there wasn’t really a plan as far as I knew, though Nick East might have had other ideas. More Than Words Can Say happens to be Kim singing lead, though I don’t know how that came about. I think Mel was away when that was recorded, but I don’t recall why. Certainly, Matt and I weren’t thinking we’ll give this one to Kim and that one to Mel when we were writing.
Looking back, do you have a favourite track that you wrote for the girls?
Well, I suppose... Respectable, because I always take my favourites from what the public endorses. So that, being the #1, I’ll go with that!
On the subject of song writing, there has been a debate among fans for many years now concerning the song From A Whisper To A Scream. Early pressings of the F.L.M. album state that this was written by A&A, which many thought was ‘Appleby & Appleby’, yet later pressings credit 'Stock, Aitken & Waterman' as the writers. Can you shed some light on this for us?
Yeah, that track was done with Mel & Kim, that was us writing with them, together.
It is a great track!
Yes... but it was just an album track. It was a bit... experimental, as I recall (laughs).
At a later session, Mel & Kim recorded another song they co-wrote with yourself called You Changed My Life. Was it always the plan for Mel & Kim to begin writing?
Well, notwithstanding what happened to Mel, you start where you start but you have an aim to make them into world stars on the global stage. After the first hit, we could see Mel & Kim were genuine artists with ten, fifteen years ahead of them, so our aim, as it was with all the acts, was to gradually grow them up. We believed that writing their own songs would make them more genuine as artists and give them some longevity.
You mentioned earlier that Mel & Kim were initially inexperienced in the studio. With an album to quickly record and the demands of everyone's schedules, it sounds like there was little time to make mistakes in the studio. The girls must have had to learn fast?
Yes they did. They learned everything very quickly. I remember we got them in on the Zeebrugge ferry disaster charity single Let It Be, and by that point they were already confident and could sing on a microphone, and deliver. They grew up! In terms of their professional recording artists status, they grew up, very quickly.
Speaking of Let It Be - with so many artists involved, how did you decide which artist sang where on the track?
That’s a good question! I didn’t have any plan on the day so I got most people to sing the song through from the top to the bottom, and then I did the editing later, but that’s the way you would normally do it anyway. These days, using pro tools, you set the system up so that you sing it 150 times then spend three days editing it but, back then, I edited it as I went along. I’d go for this verse, or for that line, and piece it together like a jigsaw on the day, to compile the final vocal. I remember that we recorded it on the Friday and the Saturday, and we had it in the charts on the Monday or the Tuesday of the next week, so there was no time to mess about. On the day, we had to contend with everybody, Paul McCartney, Kate Bush... you know? They were all there and, yes, because Mel & Kim were our artists, I got them a good spot (laughs) in the song, I got the spotlight on them. That was under my control! I bet you there is another version of that song with totally different people singing in different bits, that I couldn’t fit in though. (laughs)
On March 16th 1987, Mel & Kim made a whistle-stop trip back to London from Europe to contribute to the Ferry Aid charity ensemble single 'Let It Be', before returning to Germany a few hours later to resume their promotions duties.
So, Mike, does that mean that somewhere there is a recording of Let It Be sung completely by Mel & Kim?
Yeah, there will be somewhere (laughs).
Wow! We would love to hear that! On the subject of unreleased tracks, we wanted to ask you if you recalled working on an early instrumental plot called Brian?
(Laughs) yeah! Prior to the 2013 takeover by the Warner Music Group, we were assisting EMI with a Mel & Kim rarities release they were planning, and we uncovered an early instrumental track titled Brian, which was noted as being an early working idea for a song with the girls.
I’m just trying to think.... Matt and I would sometimes have a working title for a chord structure or a rhythm, or some idea that we liked, but I’d have to hear it to know what that was. It might have been a working title, as we might call something ‘Sidney’ or ‘Derek’ (laughs) if we didn’t have a title. Who knows? Just a working title!
Looking back, are there any recording sessions you shared with the girls that really stand out in your memories?
Well, it was always great fun but, unfortunately, most of the memories that stick with me are the ones that happened after Mel became ill. I remember, she had been in hospital and she just wanted to come back to the studio... she just really wanted to do that... but she wasn’t well. I remember she could hardly stand up, but we set up a session for her anyway, because it was her wish and, I think, an attempt to create something for the future, and to do something that had promise and life associated with it, and not doom and other stuff, you know? And so that is the last time I saw her. She was just so excited to be in the studio again, but she really wasn’t well. Matt and me will always remember that. It is very, very sad!
That recording session produced You Changed My Life and That's The Way It Is, which was released as a single in February 1988, before Mel was fully able to promote it. Understandably, the lack of Mel's visual presence in the singles promotion appeared to increase the pressure on the girls from the media to reveal what was happening. Was there any press pressure on you guys to reveal details of Mel’s health battle?
Yeah there was. You know, there always is. Just as there was with Kylie, everybody wanted to know everything about her. Matt and I very rarely ever gave interviews, because we were too busy on other things, and I would never have talked to the press about Mel anyway! We were happy to do the [That’s The Way It Is] session because that’s what Mel wanted but really we shouldn’t have done it because she was not well enough. Matt and I were not stupid and we knew what was gonna happen and what the future was gonna hold for Mel, so we went through with the recording session because we felt it was the least we could do for her. Look... I don’t wanna say too much here but at that point, we all knew that the prognostication for Mel was bad and so, you know... that’s a scenario that I don’t wanna have to ever do again.
After what must have been a very difficult time, yourself and Matt Aitken worked with Kim once again, though this time as a solo artist. How did that 1994 session come about?
I knew Peter Robinson, who was Kim’s A&R man with EMI, because he originally signed Rick Astley at RCA. Peter suggested us writing together again and Kim came back to us at Union Street. That's when we did Free Spirit.
How was it to work with Kim again?
We were great and we worked fine together. It was a good session and we all enjoyed it but, at that point, the record industry was tearing itself apart and Kim got caught in some of that crossfire with EMI. I don’t know what happened but Peter Robinson was moved out of the job, the label got torn about, and suddenly there was no more interest so... that was a shame.
Yes, it really is. Did the session produce any more songs and, if so, do you ever see those songs coming to light?
Well, we did record bits of songs, but they were snippets, rather than whole songs. Back then, we were still using digital tape, on big reels, and they have all been put into storage and hidden away now, for the last twenty years, because everyone is now on computers. There will be stuff locked away on tape but getting hold of it and then finding a tape machine that can play it (laughs) is another thing - but yes, there is other stuff, but we can’t get to it.
That is such a pity!
Yeah, Free Spirit could have been bigger than it was, and we could have done more with Kim, which I was hoping we would.
Looking back, there were many acts who recorded with you over the years. Why do you think there is still so much love for Mel & Kim?
I think that the love for Mel & Kim that is still felt is partly because their career was cut short. A lot of people go on to blemish their careers (laughs) but for them, it is kind of an unblemished career and the facts are that what remains are only a handful of hit records and nothing but love!
Absolutely! Finally, what are your last memories of the girls together?
I remember I saw them on The Wogan Show they did, and recently I re-looked at that again. All of these things - my memories of them together - are tinged with sadness, you know? It’s the saddest thing to happen to us in our professional lives, and I know it hit Kim very, very hard... and I don’t think that she is ever really gonna get over it. I don’t think you do really. You live with it! So, that [The Wogan Show] is what my last memory of them together is, but, up until that point, they were so excited about it all. They were just bouncing around the studio, highly excited, like kids at Christmas, you know? They really were just two lovely kids who were into the fun of it all. It was a beautiful thing really!