Building his career on productions of Jennifer Warnes, Malcolm McLaren and the Communards, Stephen Hague has found his greatest success with The Pet Shop Boys. David Bradwell talks shop.
The man most likely to break the Stock, Aitken and Waterman stranglehold over British pop is the young American behind The Pet Shop Boys, Stephen Hague.
THE BRITISH POP charts are increasingly falling victim to the aural onslaught of the Stock, Aitken and Waterman production team. Certainly they will be remembered as the producers of '87, as they ended the year with a trail of hit singles and more No. 1's than anyone seems to remember. Open hi-hats will never be the same, the drum machines and the basslines will be remembered long after the faces behind the "voices" fade. This has been the reality of producer monopoly, a winning formula with no sign of slowing down.
Other record producers, meanwhile, have been working increasingly hard at trying to break the trio's stranglehold. One such is a young American called Stephen Hague, who in recent months has found Top Five success with the Pet Shop Boys, New Order and The Communards. His name is being mentioned more frequently by the press and DJ's alike.
"Sorry I'm late", says Hague, on entering the reception of London's Advision studios, "I had a late night last night..."
Born thirty-four years ago in Maine, Stephen Hague graduated from Oceanside High School, California in 1971, with no formal musical training. At the age of 20 he turned professional as a bass and keyboard player, playing with a variety of bands until 1976 when he formed Jules and The Polar Bears with vocalist and guitarist Jules Shear. They made three albums for Columbia Records in the USA and supported Peter Gabriel on various dates across America.
From 1975, artists such as Stevie Nicks, Jackson Browne and Jennifer Warnes were clients at Hague's pre-production demo studio in California, and while working there he developed his craft as a producer.
His first chart success in Britain was in 1983 with not one but two singles for Charisma Records - 'Hey DJ' by the World Famous Supreme Team and the Rock Steady Crew's '(Hey You) The Rock Steady Crew'. His most notable work from this era, however, was the 'Madame Butterfly' single which he co-wrote with Malcolm McLaren and Walter Turbitt; taking over Mclaren's production duties from Trevor Horn. So why was he chosen for the project? The producer answers.
"Malcolm, like the Rock Steady Crew, was signed to Charisma, and had single-handedly been trying to do this thing he called Duck Ruck Two. Although he was getting a lot on tape, he'd been spending a lot of money without getting very far. Then he came up with the opera/hip hop idea. The managing director of Charisma put pressure on him to use me because it would save him some money, and at the same time inject fresh blood."
Two weeks after McLaren joined Hague in Boston the opera began to take shape, and 10 days later, 'Madame Butterfly' was finished.
At this time, Neil Tennant was still a Smash Hits journalist but had been spending time in America with musical partner Chris Lowe under the name The Pet Shop Boys recording with Hi-NRG producer Bobby Orlando. The resulting singles, 'West End Girls', 'Opportunities', and 'One More Chance', stirred little interest back home, although they were minor club hits in Europe. At this stage Tennant and Lowe started looking for a new producer, and inspired by 'Madame Butterfly', approached Hague.
"We met a couple of times", Hague recalls, "but I wasn't too thrilled with their material at the time. I did like 'West End Girls' though, because it seemed as though Neil was born to sing it - everything was working for his voice.
"I also like them personally too so when EMI secured the recording rights, we began work on 'West End Girls' and, with the bands blessing, I started to change the track. I wanted to slow it down, change the bar structure, and tidy up some of the lyrics. You can actually hear parts of 'West End Girls' on other records now - the string pads with the drum machine, and the attitude of the bass part; we brought back the Major seventh chord as well, which hadn't been on the landscape for a while."
The new-look single scored a No. 1 hit at the end of '85. The follow-up was 'Love Comes Quickly', earning co-writing as well as production credits for Hague.
"The bassline of that is interesting because, originally, it was going to be a down-beat set up as it is in the intro. I had programmed it on an MSQ700, but something got screwed up when it came back sync'd from tape and the whole thing was delayed by exactly half a beat. I thought it sounded really cool so I had to re-write the bass sequence with that in mind."
The Pet Shop Boys' debut album Please is littered with samples from the Emulator II which at the time Hague considered his workhorse. Yet with the current dispute between Pete Waterman and M/A/R/R/S over sampling from other peoples' records, the very respectability of sampling itself is once again in the spotlight. The line between creative use of a sampler and simple plagiarism is thin indeed, and an area in which Hague has a particular interest.
"Technology is beginning to infringe on people's performance rights because if you take a certain amount of a piece of music, no matter who performs it, you're beginning to talk about plagiarism. The actual technology used is irrelevant - you could have hired the same players and got them to play it again or used quarter-inch tape to spin in outside material.
"I can understand Stock, Aitken and Waterman hearing stuff and feeling someone had done them wrong, but I don't think it can possibly affect how many records they sell. If someone lifts a piece of a song and it works in a different environment it's a kind of back-handed flattery, but it's not as though someone's going to go out and buy the M/A/R/R/S record as opposed to 'Roadblock' because of samples.
"Personally, I've never sampled anything to that level, but in some ways I think the law should be clarified."
Hague does use samplers to a large extent but he tends to draw on the extensive sound libraries currently available.
"I think that things are really starting to get out oj hand regarding the position of A&R people on the recording process."
"As far as sampling drum kits goes", he explains, "I don't really get concerned with the person who hit the snare and how he's feeling today, and I'm not going to call up his lawyers or anything. You can get into trouble if you sample an actual musical phrase because, when you're stealing, you're stealing, but you can stop at a certain point and keep a clear conscience."
As well as the Emulator II, Hague favours the Akai S900 and is particularly interested in stereo sampling. Multi-layered sounds, like the bass on 'West End Girls' tend, however, to come direct from various synthesisers and be concentrated in one channel of the mixing desk rather than being sampled and used as a single sound.
ANYBODY WHO'S HEARD the original release of 'West End Girls' (available on a 1984 Epic album, Dance Mix Dance Hits, Volume 4) will recognise the clarity of Hague's production work. He brings an air of sophistication to the music whilst searching for a classic single. He cites a classic record as "something that endures", and while he says he finds it easy to make people dance, he's currently involved in film scores and may be doing a Broadway production in the spring, and there's a possibility of an opera too.
"I like the sporting element of the English charts", he says, "but I can't see a new musical movement evolving because people are beginning to discover how to make the charts work for them and produce singles much more quickly." Of his own work he says: "The fundamental guideline is that when the record is finished I'll like it and the artist will like it. I'm not one to go storming out of the studio because I can't have the strings go to a high C in the second bridge, although I can be very persuasive. One system I always adhere to is to have the song written before you start recording - written in that it has a verse/chorus structure and that everything is arranged in a certain way.
"The technology that's around today and which is available at a reasonable price lets you do an awful lot in pre-production before even entering a studio. The only danger is that, because you can make the sound amazing, you can lose sight of the song. People say 'if I had a Fairlight I could really make this bass part happen', but the fact is that if it's a bad bass part it's always going to be bad no matter how good the sound is."
Hague uses drum machines through choice, although he is capable of recording live drums. He claims to have no specific sonic trademarks (back to Stock, Aitken and Waterman's open hi-hats) but says:
"I hope the best of the records I'll make will have some effect on people aside from making them dance. There's lots of different ways to affect people and it isn't always the dancing shoes that are connected to the wallet."
Hague spends some of his time in clubs listening to how records are working and finding out why people are dancing, but is unsure of how well obvious dance records translate to radio. He believes it can be hard work to actually sit and listen to club records in a relaxed environment.
"When I started out I used to listen to records which had an effect on me and try to find out the reason they did - I would examine tempo, the lyrics, the mix and so on. I don't know anybody who ever questioned the mix of a Beatles record - they're just there. The advice I'd give to somebody who'd like to become a producer is to listen closely to your favourite records and then try stuff out yourself.
"The level of technology has made it a great time to start experimenting. Certainly being a producer is a much better job than being an artist. The idea of your career rising and falling on the basis of one major release every 18 months is terrifying to me. Production offers variety, which is exciting, and you can have a succession of records by different artists. Basically I'm not a pioneer. I'm a hopeless romantic; I like to try to get romance back into popular music, and it doesn't necessarily have to be the 'It's only you, baby' type of romance, it's more just a romantic ideal about how records can make you feel."
A SORE POINT at the moment for Hague is that of the remix and of A&R departments - interference in records with which both artist and producer were happy. Despite producing and mixing the album version of The Communards 'Never Can Say Goodbye', he was shocked to discover the 7" single version had been remixed - the first he knew of it was when he heard the single on Radio One.
"I think that things are really starting to get out of hand regarding the position of A&R people on the recording process", he says. "Increasingly, as singles are going off to have 12" versions made, the people remixing them are fielding requests from the record companies to off-handedly do a 7" mix as well, and this has led to some bad mixes of good recordings being released."
"If an artist hires a producer, and both are happy with a record, then that's the artist's record as far as I'm concerned. To assume that a producer knows exactly what he is doing every step of the way except on mix day, I think is really taking a liberty. My job is to decide when it's a mix and I know how it will sound on the radio, and I think that producer's rights concerning a recording that they've worked on really need to be clarified and protected in some way.
"If something needs to be reworked or if something didn't work in the studio and the artist wants to bring someone else in, that's an entirely different story, but for these other mixes to almost arbitrarily appear is a had thing. Once a record company accepts a record then they have to put a little faith in the team that made it and know that they didn't lose their minds when they were mixing it. I judge a mix on small speakers and gear things for the radio - that's my job."
As an antidote to the trials and pressures in working in so active a part of the music industry, Hague likes to take in a lot of films as a quick cure, and when time permits, he likes to go to a cabin on a lake back in Maine.
"I just paddle a canoe around and get away from it all", he says with a smile. "I don't really listen to music in my time off but I do have the radio on in the mornings. I read quite a bit, I like television, I like being back in New England in general, it's a great place."
As I write the Stock, Aitken and Waterman domination of the charts continues relentlessly. Of the few people in with a serious chance of breaking the monopoly, Stephen Hague could not be better qualified or more capable of doing the job. Tomorrow he's off home after another solid month in the studio. As he sets off to his cabin, I'm left with the impression that 1988 could be the year of Stephen Hague.