STYLE YOUR HAIR DAILY
Music producer Phil Harding has built up an impressive body of work and, over his long and successful career, he has produced countless classic remixes for many artists within - and outside - the PWL Hit Factory. Phil's talents were a major force in the crafting and honing of Mel & Kim's sound and he has cemented a place in pop history for himself as the girls themselves. Phil continues to be a much in demand music producer and splits his time between his extensive recording projects and his many guest lectures at various Universities around the UK where he shares his knowledgeable insights from the music production and engineering fields. Despite his hectic schedule Phil graciously found the time to sit down and chat with melandkim.com about his memories and thoughts on the Mel & Kim project.
Hi Phil, thank you for agreeing to share your recollections.
It's a pleasure.
The Chicago House sound or the London House sound as it was soon referred to, you used for the Mel & Kim tracks seemed to deviate from the more familiar style used with many of the later PWL artists. Did you enjoy working on the sister's first few tracks?
Well people think there was only one sound (in PWL) but initially we used to flit between doing the HI NRG sounds at 120 bpm plus on the Devine & Hazell Dean records then we did some RnB/Soul stuff at around 96 bpm.
The first track the guys did with Mel & Kim was called 'System' with an RnB/Soul sound and then suddenly the Chicago House sound arrived in London. It was introduced into the building by Pete Tong and Pete Waterman picked up on this really quickly. Even though 'System' was at the manufacturers being pressed ready for release Pete persuaded Nick East at Supreme Records that we should do a fresh track with Mel & Kim with this Chicago sound that had literally only just arrived and was hitting the clubs really big in London. That then became the third PWL sound. I’ve discovered recently that some people ended up calling our hybrid of the Chicago sound and how we commercialised it the 'London House' sound. When something like that came along Pete always encouraged all of us, and in particular Mike and Matt, to be more commercial than the records we might have been listening to which explains why 'Showing Out' is an unusual song as well as being a new sound for PWL. It’s not really a verse, bridge, chorus pop song. Its lots of bits and sections with quirky melodies put together which was unusual.I I remember how quickly we turned 'Showing Out' around. When Pete put 'System' on hold it was very much - how quickly can we record 'Showing Out', get it mixed, get it mastered onto vinyl and out to the clubs? I have a memory of hearing it on Capitol Radio in London almost two weeks or so after it came out of the studio which was an incredibly fast turnaround for those days.
Was it a struggle to commercialise those club sounds for the pop market?
I don’t think that the early Chicago house records that were around were as appealing as 'Showing Out' and for the London D.J.’s (both radio and club) it was like wow this is something a little more palatable that we can play on daytime radio. Some of those early Chicago House records were just designed for the clubs and it was only as they progressed that they became a bit more commercial themselves and were played on radio. I think that’s why 'Showing Out' really stands out from what came before it and even what came after it because even when the guys did the follow up with 'Respectable' the song format for Mel & Kim became a little more normal pop rather than ... I would call 'Showing Out' ‘quirky pop’ almost a novelty record. You would have to ask Mike Stock where that synth line came from, it’s almost like a kid's toy tune but it’s very effective.
What was the general buzz around the Mel & Kim project, prior to them charting with Showing Out (Get Fresh At The Weekend)?
There was definitely a great buzz about the place. Obviously we had had tremendous success with Princess with the same combination of Pete Waterman, Nick East & Supreme Records but we were struggling to get onto a second album with Princess for various reasons so for Mel & Kim to arrive with Nick was great because you feel if you’ve had success with one combination, you can do that with a new one and that was the feeling around the place.
Did you spend a lot of time with the girls?
Unfortunately, I wasn't involved in the recording sessions with them, It's probably my biggest regret that I never got to record the girls. I did a lot of recording with Dead Or Alive, Kylie, Jason and Rick but Mel & Kim are one of those acts that I never had that recording situation with. That is a regret as I would like to have done but they always used to come down the pub with us. You probably know the famous stories that pretty much anyone who was still working in the studio at 10pm would down tools and go to the pub as a team and a family so if Mel & Kim were still with us or Bananarama were still with us or whoever, they would be invited to the pub obviously. Some artists would come, and some wouldn't, and Mel & Kim were one of those artists that would come to the pub and have an after work drink and a laugh with the team and that was fantastic!
There is an online rumour that Showing Out was originally written for Bananarama
No, it was definitely written for Mel & Kim, and very quickly so I can't see how there could have been any consideration of giving it to Bananarama. The only connection would be the fact that Pete Tong was with London records and Bananarama were his act at London. London would have hoped that Pete would have done his first Chicago House style sound record for Bananarama. Possibly there is a vague rumour there but no, definitely not! Obviously, we’ve also got the famous rumour/credit that Jamie Bromfield came up with that title. ('Showing Out') Jamie was the assistant engineer and one of the girls asked him ‘ what are you doing at the weekend?’ and Jamie replied ‘I’m showing out!’ Whether Mike and Matt really took it from that is a good question, ask him as he seems to have a really good memory.
Thanks for clearing that up. It always seemed unlikely given the track seems an authentic reflection of Mel & Kim's personalities rather than the image Bananarama projected.
Yes, the great thing about Stock, Aitken & Waterman is that they would really try to write specifically for the artist and within the artists character which was definitely true of 'Showing Out'. That was certainly also case with 'Respectable'. Mel & Kim had gone out there to the media, they've had a hit with 'Showing Out' and people were saying they were looking sexy and possibly showing too much flesh and whatever. Also they were very loud, lovely east end girls, like I said, when they arrived in a building you knew they were there so that would have been Mike Stock saying 'take or leave us – we ain't ever gonna be respectable – as kind of a bit of a message for the girls which I am sure they would have loved. That is a good example of how they wouldn't just write a song that isn't related to the artist.
Showing Out, contains a plethora of vocal effects and sounds running simultaneously. Was this a difficult process technically and did you enjoy the process of working on this track?
Somewhere between 'Showing Out' & 'Respectable' arrived a new machine called The Publison which was one of the first sample machines that allowed you to sample a voice and play it on a mini keyboard. By the time of 'Respectable' that 'Tay,Tay,Tay' is Mike Stock sampling the word 'Take' from the girls into the Publison and playing it up and down on the keyboard. Listening to 'Showing Out', I'm not sure we had that available to us at that point though there are vocal samples on there. That's what lead us on to a lot of really good mixes where we could sample other records and put them in. (Before The Publison) you were quite limited with what you could do within the key of the rest of the instruments as the samples would speed up and change pitch. If you had too much of the sample it would be out of time with the track by a couple of beats so you often hear the vocal samples being just snatches of things and, if whoever was doing it could find a melody then fantastic. 'Showing Out' went from being fairly light to Pete getting me to sample some of the heavy sounds that were on the early Chicago House records so that brass stab and the claps - they all came on the mix. There was always an encouragement for whoever was the Mixmaster to add more things. Mike Stock particularly liked that and would encourage it and if Pete wasn’t hearing enough of something he would almost kind of demand it (laughs) so the combination of being encouraged by Mike and demanded by Pete would tend to make you, as a mix engineer, work all the harder and pull out all the stops and I think 'Showing Out' is a great example of that.
For the mixing of Respectable you are credited with working alongside your fellow mixmaster Pete Hammond. Was this an easy collaboration and how did you both merge your collective ideas for the track?
What happened with 'Respectable' was a very good example of 'follow up-itus' where you are trying to do the follow up to a big first single and everybody tends to get panicky. Is it good enough? Is it better than the first single? Does it sound enough like the first single? All these kinds of questions get thrown into the mix and tend to make people overwork it. What happened with 'Respectable' is that it got mixed and remixed just for everybody to be happy with the radio version and the first 12” so it was mixed five, six, maybe seven times. We probably lost track of who mixed what and who did what. Pete Hammond mixed it a few times and I mixed it a few times and bits of each other's mixes ended up in there so we both got credited but at no point would myself and Pete Hammond be in the same room. If Pete Hammond was asked to do a mix by Pete he would generally prefer to start from scratch but my attitude was - well if Pete Waterman is almost happy with the last mix that Pete Hammond or whoever had done and he just wants some adjustment then I would get the assistants to recall the previous mix and work on from there.
Do you have a favorite within the Respectable mixes?
I did a specific remix of 'Respectable' called The Tabloid Mix and what I specifically remember was that sometime after it had been done I was in the Pasha Club in Ibiza and I remember hearing it being played in the main dance room and being quite thrilled. There is a tabla on it that's really constant and hypnotic and I remember that standing out when I heard it in the club. It's funny that something that to you is just part of the mix suddenly stands out in a different situation when you hear it. It's worth pointing out that The Tabloid Mix would have been done by myself and Ian Curnow although the name is only me as we had a strange cross over period where People forgot to credit Ian as they were so used to just putting my name on it. Really from 'Respectable' onward and 'F.L.M.' as well where Ian is credited as the keyboard player he would have been as involved in the mixes at that point as he would later on so just a little shout out as there are a number of records out there where Ian is not fully credited.
Is there a standout track of Mel & Kim’s that you mixed?
The standout for me is still 'Showing Out'. It was just a very different sound that we then utilised for the London House sound a Hell of a lot in the following years and I still think it's a good sound now. 'Respectable' suffered a little bit for the reasons that I said - everyone running around like headless chickens 'cause it was a follow up. By the time we got to 'F.L.M.' people were more confident and more relaxed though, as you know, I didn't have too much to do with it other than those three tracks. ('System', 'Showing Out' & 'Respectable')
Are there any tracks that you would have liked to go back and mix in a different style?
I think listening to some of those remixes today we were using a fairly standard but good bass sound on most of them that came from the Yamaha DX 7 that at the time we felt was great and sounded good but today it sounds a bit lacking in bass, lacking in bottom end. I think my desire now would be to boost that bass sound a lot more but from Pete Waterman's perspective if you listen to all of our stuff throughout the 80's we were always a little bottom end light and I think from Pete's point of view that was often quite deliberate knowing that a lot more bottom end would be there when it was played in the clubs.
You produced the 2 Grooves Under 1 Nation Remix of F.L.M., which is influenced by Chic’s Le Freak. Was this a sample from the original track and what inspired you to mash the two tracks for the remix?
It’s the original recording. (by Chic) Around the same time as 'F.L.M.' we were doing a remix of Chic's 'Le Freak' and we had all the original parts sent over from America which was fantastic so it’s the original parts - the guitar and the bass.
After working on the tracks for Mel & Kim you then did some great work remixing some of Kim’s solo material (G.L.A.D., Breakaway, Light Of The World). How did this collaboration come about?
The tragedy with Mel ended the creative work and Kim obviously did fantastically to come out of that and get her solo deal with EMI. 'G.L.A.D.' was released in February 1991 so myself and Ian Curnow were still working at PWL then - we left in 1992 - so that was a good fun one to work on but also a weird atmosphere with Kim coming back into the PWL building without Mel and not working with Stock, Aitken and Waterman. Obviously, EMI thought it would be good if we had a PWL mix there, maybe with Phil and Ian. Our reputation through the late 80's and early 90's grew and grew as producers who could commercialise and remix other people's records so we did it for lots of artists including Jermaine Stewart and many others. Kim had used that 'F.L.M.' format with 'G.L.A.D.' so that was interesting.
Do you have a favourite track of Kim's that you worked on?
That's tough to say ... I particularly enjoyed doing 'Breakaway'. We were good friends with the A & R guy at EMI – Julian Close - and it was good to keep that relationship with Kim going because I hadn't gotten to know her really that well in the early days of PWL, it was just kind of in passing. When you are mixing for people you tend not to meet them and get to know them as well as if you are recording with them so that's the way it went.
When you think of Mel & Kim are there any memories that stand out above the others that you could share?
It is funny how certain moments stick in your mind, but the first memory would be their arrival in the building and everybody getting excited about these two energetic, young east end girls. They were very loud; you knew when they were in the building (laughs). They would arrive and unless you were blasting something loud in one of the other studios then you definitely knew they arrived. Then there was the excitement of achieving 'Showing Out', hearing it on the radio and it going into the charts! There is nothing better for a producer and a mix engineer than hearing the results of many hours of studio labour being played on the radio and you are thinking - God I know this track inside out and here I am hearing it at the same time as thousands of others. It's a great feeling because you feel that all those hours that you've spent working on it in the studio – that there's a just reward. Then of course the real reward beyond that is if it sells and charts. My second memory would be that time in Ibiza when I heard my remix of 'Respectable'. I had literally just finished that mix, so it was great to realise that it was already in the clubs and not just in the UK but internationally. Then the final thing is the time I remember meeting Kim and Craig Logan, I think it might have been after an East 17 concert. We went to the aftershow party and they were both there and it was great to see them after all that time. I think Kim did great to come out of what was a difficult situation creatively, personally and business wise with Mel & Kim and Supreme Records and get her career back on track, she can only be applauded for that. I know she is still out there and still active, I've seen her interviewed a few times on TV recently and she looks well.
You can read many more of Phil's fascinating insights into the technicalities of mix production and his recollections of he characters he has encountered over his successful career in his fantastic book – Phil Harding – 'PWL From The Factory Floor' which is available in it's original format and as an amazing 'Expanded Edition'.