As one of PWL's leading in-house 'mixmasters', Phil Harding's production talents were a major factor in crafting and honing Mel & Kim's sound, and he has produced countless classic remixes for many artists within - and outside - 'The Hit Factory'. Today, Phil 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 sound engineering fields. Despite his hectic schedule, Phil found the time to sit down and chat with melandkim.com about his memories and thoughts on the Mel & Kim productions.
Hi Phil, thank you for agreeing to share your recollections.
It's a pleasure.
The Chicago House vibe used with Mel & Kim (or 'London House', as it was dubbed) stands out from the more familiar style used with many of the later PWL artists. What influenced this direction for the girls?
You know, I’ve only recently discovered that some people ended up calling our commercialised hybrid of the Chicago House sound,'London House'. That sound was introduced into the building by Pete Tong, and it was Pete Waterman who picked up on it as a great vehicle for Mel & Kim. The first track the guys did with the girls was called System, which had an RnB/Soul sound, but Pete persuaded Nick East (MD of Supreme Records) that we should do a fresh track using this Chicago sound - even though System was at the manufacturers being pressed, ready for release! People often think there was only one sound (in PWL) but in the early days, we used to flit between doing the HI NRG sounds at 120 bpm-plus, on the Divine & Hazell Dean records, then we were also doing some RnB/Soul stuff at around 96 bpm, with people like Princess. That Chicago House sound that we used with Mel & Kim was a new sound for PWL, and it added a great energy.
Pete's decision to change the girls' debut at such a late stage was a risky move, not least as Showing Out is far from typical in it's construct.
Yes, Showing Out is an unusual song. It’s not really a verse, bridge, chorus pop song. Its lots of bits, and sections with quirky melodies, put together, which was really unusual. When something like that [the London House sound] came along, Pete would always encourage all of us - and in particular, Mike and Matt - to be more commercial than the records we might have been listening to. 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, only two weeks or so after it came out of the studio, which was an incredibly fast turnaround for those days.
Showing Out was one of the first house tracks to really crossover onto commercial pop radio, and it led the way for many others, yet it still has a sound all of its own.
Definitely. I would call Showing Out ‘quirky pop’. Its almost a novelty record. The synth line sounds almost like a kid's toy tune, but it’s very effective. Some of those early Chicago House records were just designed for the clubs, and I think that’s why Showing Out really stands out from what came before it - and even what came after it. I don’t think that the early Chicago house records 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. Of all the Mel & Kim tracks I mixed, Showing Out is definitely the standout - more so than Respectable, and I still think it's a good sound now.
Regarding Showing Out, can you help to shed some light on the online rumour that it was originally written for Bananarama?
No, it was definitely written for Mel & Kim and, as I said, 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 that label. London Records would have probably hoped that Pete would have done his first Chicago House style sound record for Bananarama, but that's the only connection that I can think of. Talking of rumours connected to Showing Out, 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 apparently, one of the girls asked him what he was doing at the weekend, and he replied, ‘I’m showing out!’ Whether Mike and Matt really took the title from that is a good question. You should 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 that 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 the case with Respectable. Mel & Kim had had a hit with Showing Out, and the media were saying that they were looking sexy and possibly showing too much flesh, and whatever. Also, they were very loud, lovely east end girls, so that would have been Mike Stock saying 'take or leave us – we ain't ever gonna be respectable – as a bit of a message for the girls, which I am sure they would have loved. That is a good example of how Mike wouldn't just write a song that isn't related to the artist.
Were you present at the girls' recording sessions?
Unfortunately, I wasn't. 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. 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. It's a real regret of mine, 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. Some artists would come and some wouldn't, but Mel & Kim would always come down for a drink and a laugh with the team, and that was fantastic!
Showing Out, contains a plethora of vocal effects and sounds, running simultaneously, and you guys really pushed the envelope. Was that always the plan or did this evolve through the production process?
Showing Out went from being fairly light, to Pete [Waterman] getting me to sample some of the heavier sounds that were on the early Chicago House records. So that brass stab and the claps that you hear, 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 demand it (laughs). So, the combination of being encouraged by Mike and demanded of by Pete, would tend to make you 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 to create the final mix?
What happened with Respectable was that it got mixed, and remixed, six or seven times, just for everybody to be happy with the radio version and the first 12” version. That meant that it got to the point where 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 Waterman, he would generally prefer to start from scratch, but my attitude was, if Pete Waterman was almost happy with the last mix that Pete Hammond, or whoever, had done, and he just wanted some adjustments, then I would get the assistants to recall the previous mix, and work on it from there. When you are trying to do the follow up to a big first single, everybody tends to get panicky and wonder if it is good enough - and that's what happened with Respectable. 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. We used to call it 'follow up-itus'. 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').
Do you have a favorite of the Respectable mixes?
I did a specific remix of Respectable, called The Tabloid Mix, and what I specifically remember is that, sometime after it had been done, I was in the Pasha Club, in Ibiza, and hearing it being played in the main dance room. I was 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 It is only credited to me. We had a strange cross over period in PWL where people forgot to credit Ian, as they were so used to just putting my name on things. Really, from Respectable onward, wherever Ian is credited as the keyboard player, he would also have been as involved in the mixes as I was. So, a little shout out to Ian, as there are a number of records out there where he is not fully credited.
Are there any tracks that, if you could go back, you would mix differently?
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. At the time, we felt it 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 those 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!
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?
G.L.A.D. was released in February 1991, so myself and Ian Curnow were still working at PWL then (we left in 1992). That was a 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 had thought it would be good if they had a PWL mix there, so they asked myself and Ian, as our reputation through the late 80's and early 90's, had grown and grown. We were viewed as producers who could commercialise and remix other people's records, and we did that for lots of artists including Jermaine Stewart, and many others.
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. The first memory would be the girls arrival in the building, and everybody getting excited about these two energetic, young East End girls. They were very loud! I mean, you always 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 had 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. Then of course, the real reward, beyond that, is if it sells and charts. Another 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, after an East 17 concert. We went to the after show 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'.