Phil Harding's recording life at PWL
Record producer Phil Harding was at the heart of the British pop and club explosion for 20years.
Record producer Phil Harding was at the heart of the British pop and club explosion for 20years. He tells Arts Editor Andrew Clarke about his days behind a mixing desk helping to make Kylie Minogue into a superstar and how Simon Cowell became known as the King of the Covers.
The X Factor style furore over the latest chart sensation, the opinionated pronouncements of Simon Cowell, the excitement of launching a new star, the mad scramble to get that all-important number one hit single - are all areas of the music business that record producer Phil Harding knows very well.
Phil, based in Walsham-le-Willows, near Bury St Edmunds, has just written a book covering his years working as a session engineer and producer with 1980s pop kings Stock, Aitken and Waterman - the people who defined the sound of a decade.
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During his time in the music industry Phil has either recorded or produced artists as diverse as Boyzone, East 17, Dead Or Alive, Kylie Minogue, Rick Astley, Toyah, Mel and Kim and Matt Bianco.
He said that he first thought of writing the book ten years ago when he first got off the boyband treadmill - as he calls it but it was the recent autobiographies by Pete Waterman and Mike Stock that provided the spur for him to put pen to paper.
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“Both Pete and Mike told similar stories, about similar incidents but told from their own perspective. Having read the books, myself and a few other ex-PWL employees said: 'This isn't how we remember it.'
“My book is not designed to set the record straight but perhaps cast an objective light on those PWL years in the hectic 1980s. My story is the view from the factory floor so to speak. Whereas Pete and Mike were two of the driving forces behind the company, I was one of the loyal foot soldiers tasked with making the grand ideas happen. My book is hopefully an objective view on the rise and fall of one of Britain's great pop labels from the golden years of pop and dance music.”
He said that he has been Pete Waterman's dream to create a British version of the classic Motown label and in Phil's mind, for a few glorious years, they achieved it.
Phil started off his career as a runner for the Marquee Studios, attached to the Marquee Club in Wardour Street. It was a world away from the club/pop dance floor sounds of Stock, Aitken and Waterman. Phil's Marquee days were spent getting to grip with the sound of The Clash and dozens of wannabe punk bands exploded onto the music scene in the late 1970s.
He said that he never started off wanting to be sitting on the engineer's side of the glass in a recording studio. Like many young lads he had dreams of being singer - songwriter, a pop superstar but realised after a couple of years that perhaps his talents lay in a different area of the music industry.
During his days as an aspiring pop star Phil had the good fortune of working as a runner for Elton John's producer Gus Dudgeon, who had a reputation for being a perfectionist and Phil credits Gus for instilling in him some good work practices which he still adheres to including his favourite maxim: “Never be satisfied with second best”.
Phil said: “In my day you were a runner, you were the tea boy and you learnt on the job. If you did well enough then in three or four
years you graduated to engineer. I went from runner to assistant to engineer and eventually to producer.
“It's a fairly typical path but because I came into the job as a musician and a songwriter, I got to the point after 10-12 years where I had to make a choice. I had been continuing to play in various bands and another engineer said to me: “Phil you have got to make a decision. You can't be a successful engineer with the possibility of becoming a producer and still be a performer. You've got to
be one thing or the other.'
Having made the tea for the likes of Elton John, David Bowie, Marc Bolan and Status Quo, he had shown enough promise for Dudgeon to allow him help engineer some sessions and knew that this was an area he enjoyed and displayed some skill when it came to mixing.
“So I chose to stop performing and started concentrating on the back room stuff. I have worked hard but I think I have also been lucky all along.
“The first thing I engineered was a guy called Bernie Flint - mid-70s, off Opportunity Knocks, the equivalent of X Factor, and then I moved onto The Clash and various punk bands in the late 70s before switching again to a lot of the disco stuff.
“The club was a wonderful area for seeing new talent and the studios which were attached to the club and we had a recording facility which could double up what was going to the PA in the club and re-route it to a different board in the studio.
“We used to do a lot of live recording and it was better than having a truck outside. My last year there was when Stock, Aitken and
Waterman first got together. In their first year together there were doing Divine, Toyah, Killing Joke and Matt Bianco, Dead or Alive. I think Dead or Alive was the turning point. Spin Me Round, the number one really did it for them.”
He said that it was Dead or Alive making number one which provided Pete Waterman and his colleagues with the impetus to strike out on their own.
Phil had been serving his apprenticeship for 12 years at the Marquee and found himself being easily persuaded by Pete Waterman that his future lay with their new label and studio set-up PWL.
He said that they established their Hit Factory persona very quickly. Mandy Smith was the first one of their stars and was the reason Pete Waterman started his own label PWL Records because no-one else would sign her.
“Having started a label, then Kylie came along and he said we'll put her on our label. I'll never forget the first time I met Kylie Minogue. She came to PWL at a time when we were riding high and although she was obviously a star in Australia and on our TV screens, we had no idea who she was because we spent all day in the studio. Also she didn't make her presence felt. She sat there in the corner with her curly hair and hardly said boo to a goose because she was a little intimidated by her surroundings.
“She'd been over nearly a week and had been sent out to see the sights, and her manager was becoming agitated and spoke to Pete and said: “She's only here for another day Pete, and you haven't put her in the studio yet,” and he replied: “Kylie in the studio? She should be so lucky.' And the rest, as they say, was history.”
He said it is amazing that the song became a huge hit as it was recorded line by line in complete isolation and was stitched together by Mike Stock and Pete Waterman after she had returned home to Oz.
“Mike was literally writing a couple of lines at a time and sending her into the studio to record those lyrics while he wrote some more. She had no idea what she was singing and it was all put together afterwards. There was no concept of verse, chorus middle eight. It was just odd lines sung on key and then it was mixed and stitched together later.
“It showed just how clever the boys were that they could construct a number one hit single from virtually nothing. I mean not even Kylie knew what she was singing.”
He said even before the arrival of Kylie the PWL team had plenty of success with artists like Mel and Kim and Rick Astley but he thought that Kylie was the catalyst taking PWL from a production house/studio into a really successful label.
“After Kylie, of course, was Jason Donovan. I engineered some of the Kylie stuff, although by that stage I was doing most of the mixing rather than recording.
“I formed a partnership with a guy called Ian Curnow and we became like the B team after Stock, Aitken and Waterman themselves - and we also became the specialists at remixing. And by the time that Kylie became big on the dance scene we were re-mixing most of her singles with the clubs in mind.”
He said one of the most revealing parts of the book is a recreated web-blog originally penned by a colleague which describes the day he spent in the studio as Phil's assistant re-mixing Hand On Your Heart - the first single from Kylie's second album.
“It's quite an eye-opening look behind the scenes because although it was recorded in a radio friendly format on tape, on land mark occasions Pete would insist we mix the club, six-seven minute dance version first. It gives the song a very different feel. We did that on several occasions, the first time I think was You Spin Me Round by Dead Or Alive.”
Phil says although it seems antiquated in today's digital age, even as late as the 1980s hard edits were still being done by slicing the session tapes with a razor blade and a block.
“It takes a steady hand and a lot of nerve,” he says laughing at the memory. “Once you've made the cut there was no going back. My scariest moments would be when a producer would want to edit the old multi-track two inch tapes. The real test of a good splice would be to edit a 24 track multi-track master tape and then record more overdubs over the top and no-one could hear the join. Would it allow clean recording without a glitch? Scary stuff.”
He said that the PWL era was a rich vein for enthusiasts and record collectors as it was the age of the rare club mix and the limited edition singles. “There are a lot of collectors who manage to track down even the rarest white labels that only went out to a couple of favoured clubs or DJs.”
He said that he still gets a buzz when hearing a track he produced or mixed. “Music has a strange capacity to take you back in time and when I hear a song I know exactly where I was and what I was doing when I was working on it.”
He said that although the bulk of the book deals with the PWL years, he does touch on the post Stock, Aitken and Waterman days when he went freelance and became embroiled in the boyband explosion which continues to rock British pop.
“Ian and I left PWL in '92 and set up our own studio and we went straight from being managed by Pete Waterman to being managed by a guy called Tom Watkins.
“It was out of the frying pan and into the fire because he was the guy behind Bros, Pet Shop Boys and we met him at the time when he had just signed East 17 and we did most of the East 17 stuff from '93 onwards including the number one single Stay Another Day.
“We could only cope with that for three years. He was a similar character to Pete Waterman but more so. After producing three albums we split with Tom and worked with Boyzone including their hit Words, also 911 and then ended up working with every bloody boy band from here to Belgium.
“By '98/'99 I couldn't cope with it any more. By the time we got to East 17's third album - it was a living nightmare. Tom came in and said there had been a dispute about songwriting so the new album would have 12 songs - four guys, three songs each - and that's with two band members who had never written a song before and couldn't play an instrument. At the end of that album we came to the end of the relationship.”
He said that PWL died when they turned their back on the club scene in favour of radio-friendly pop fare. “To be fair Pete did realise that they had made a mistake and tried to make amends but the club scene didn't forget the slight and from that time PWL was to all intents and purposes doomed.”
Seeing the rise of Simon Cowell on X Factor and Britain's Got Talent brings a wry smile of recognition to Phil's face. He said that Cowell cut his teeth at PWL during Phil's years there as an engineer and his memory doesn't always tally with Simon's when it comes to Cowell's role within the studio set-up.
“Simon claims that Pete mentored him but my recollection was that Simon was kicked out of building at every opportunity, simply because he was constantly interfering and would annoy Pete.”
He said an example that Simon's mentoring memories are perhaps not as reliable as some would wish can be found in the fact that it took him 18 months to persuade Pete to record a follow single for his then girlfriend Sinitta.
“To be fair once we started working with Simon we did do quite a bit of work with him but he was very much the office junior.”
He said that from the very beginning Simon Cowell always struck him as a marketing man rather than an A&R man. “Given the choice between a cover version and a new song, he would always opt for the cover version because it was a known quantity and therefore easier to sell. It may be great for commerce but it doesn't advance the music business.
He said that his nickname at PWL was King of the Covers was based on the fact that when he came in his first question would be “What are we covering today?' He had no real interest he working on new songs.
Phil said that in the early 1990s he was ready to move out of London and bought a house in Walsham Le Willows as a weekend retreat. Before long he was spending more time in Suffolk and was doing more teaching, principally at the West Suffolk College and spending more time on his songwriting and singing career.
“I have come full circle. It's great to be able to go back and pick up something like songwriting where you left off.”
PWL: From The Factory Floor by Phil Harding can be ordered from bookshops ISBN: 978-0-9563870-0-4 or online at www.philharding.co.uk