Playing the Blues
Pop hopefuls or Stock, Aitken and Waterman puppets? The men in Blue give David "newboy" Bradwell the inside story on the SAW production stable.
Pop stars or PWL proteges? Blue Mercedes talk about the pleasures of production by the Stock, Aitken and Waterman machine and the power of image in pop music.
Blue Mercedes, it must be said, seem to enjoy a laugh. In spite of being very serious musicians, their career so far has been plagued by a series of backfiring jokes. Take a look at the 1987 publicity photographs of the band in nasty cycling shorts and you'll know what I mean. As they readily admit, nobody who looked like that could possibly write a decent song. Or could they?
"I'd rather go for something "huge' than be too arty about it", says Duncan Millar, keyboard player and one half of Blue Mercedes, who have been strangely quiet since their Top 20 hit 'I want to be Your Property' last year. His partner is singer David Titlow, who first sprang to semifame while in an outfit called Duck You Sucker. The two met while recording the latter's near-hit 'Love is Criminal'. As Blue Mercedes, they teamed up with former Wham! manager Simon Napier-Bell, and after a long slog around dodgy London nightclubs, eventually signed to MCA at the beginning of '87. So much for their background; I've come here today to talk to them about the musical side of their activities.
Having found my way to the top floor of a block of flats in Brixton, I'm shown through to the nerve centre of the Blue Mercedes operation. On the floor is an American copy of Music Technology, in the middle of the room is a Seck 18:8:2 mixer, on the wall an Atari 1040ST, Akai S900, Roland MKS70... The Atari is running the ubiquitous Steinberg Pro24 sequencing software - a package with which Millar is immensely pleased and a convenient point to start talking equipment.
"There's nothing bad you can say about the Steinberg", he comments, "yesterday I arranged a whole song and at the end I realised it was in the wrong key - a bit too high for David's voice. But it was the easiest thing in the world to transpose the whole piece. It's been very useful because things like that don't interrupt your train of thought, although then the tendency is to get completely carried away."
Millar hasn't always had it so easy, however. He began his sequencing days on a hardware sequencer: the Yamaha QX7.
"It was really quick", he says, "the trouble was, you could only put down one thing at a time. I'd put a bassline down and save it to cassette, then work out the next bit and do the same... I probably don't use the Steinberg to its full potential but I use it enough to get what I want out of it."
What he wants is a series of songs on disk which he and Titlow can then take along to PWL Studios and transfer to 48-track tape. For those of you not in the know, PWL stands for Pete Waterman Limited, the same Waterman that founded the chart-dominating Stock, Aitken and Waterman production team.
"In a lot of ways we were a new concept for them", says Millar by way of an explanation. "They weren't just doing remixes for us, we aren't Bananarama. Our album, Rich and Famous, was produced by PWL's Phil Harding and Ian Curnow. I think they knew that there were likely to be some quirks, having spoken to them in a pub beforehand."
Titlow explains further: "We've just done a new track that's got a really irritating first line and when we went to PWL with it Ian and Phil said 'you can't sing that!'."
The line in question went something like "The very thought of doing you in" - very profound.
"It was a very 'up' commercial pop song", continues the singer. "My lyrics are a combination of TS Eliot and London street slang, but our producers consistently want to change them. There was another track called 'Treehouse' with a line 'Let's build a treehouse of love, let's build a treehouse on my head'. They said 'look, we are not doing the track until you change 'on my head' to something else'. In the end I had to change it."
So who's in charge, band or producer?
"It's just give and take really, and we went into it knowing what they would be like. You can imagine the arguments if Lloyd Cole had been in there, or the Blow Monkeys. I think it was good fun for Phil and Ian really. Another song was called 'Crunchy Love Affair' and they didn't bat an eyelid over that.
"They'd never worked with a band like us before but our working process is quite similar to theirs and we all got on really well."
Millar: "I actually like their production values but I suppose we're a bit more off the wall than they are."
Apart from their admiration for PWL's success as a production outfit, Millar and Titlow are impressed by Pete Waterman's equipment buying policy.
"You can go into any disco across the country and hear non-stop PWL productions all night because they're so clear and bright", says Millar. "PWL is just like an extension of somebody's bedroom studio but they've got fantastic up-to-the-minute equipment. As soon as something new that could be of use comes out, it's in their studio. In fact, it's in both the studios, which is unusual - most places get equipment for their main studio but they forget about the others. Pete Waterman doesn't and that's what I really like about him. Also, the atmosphere at PWL is the best of any studio I've worked in."
BACK TO BLUE Mercedes' own equipment, and keyboardsman Millar is voicing familiar complaints about DX7s: "They're fine for basslines and percussion sounds, but for anything else they tend to sound artificial. We tend to use a lot of Roland stuff like Super Jupiters - Ian's got about five of those. They're quite old fashioned really but they have a very warm sound. I must buy a programmer for mine because I'm quite lazy when it comes to finding new sounds - I tend to go for something which is approximate and then let Ian finish it off."
If you caught any of Blue Mercedes' TV appearances at the time of 'I Want to be Your Property', you will probably remember seeing Millar sporting a curious twin keyboard shaped vaguely like a double bass. What was not freely admitted at the time was that the instrument was a mock-up using two CX5 miniature keyboards - and wouldn't play a note. It was designed by a British company called Space Logic who are involved in (amongst other things) investigating less conventional forms of MIDI controllers. Typically, the situation backfired on Blue Mercedes.
"I wanted to get a portable keyboard because we were being asked to do loads of PAs around the country" recounts the keyboard player. "It was going to be impossible to go into all the clubs with a stand-up keyboard so I rang up the company and asked them if we could use one of their designs in the video and they agreed. At that time it was just a dummy prototype. I thought it was really funny and started using it all the time and now I'm having a real one made which contains two Yamaha DX100s which I'll use as a master keyboard."
Titlow: "People used to come up and touch it and say 'is it real, mate, does it work?'. If Sting appeared in a video playing one of those nobody would bat an eyelid - they'd just assume it was some obscure French instrument and he was incredibly arty. I like it because it reminds me of Star Trek - the Vulcan lute that Mr Spock played that looked like a bicycle wheel. Our problem was that people thought it was a joke - which it was - but that reflected badly on our ability to play live."
But now the joke has become a viable MIDI controller.
"I'm determined to become a master of it", announces Millar, "but our whole image has been beset with problems. People remember the cycle shorts and think 'oh yeah, nobody who wears shorts like that can write a song. And that bloke with the keyboard - they're obviously just a couple of puppets.'."
"We'd spent a year perfecting the songwriting and when it came to promotion we didn't realise that people would see first, not the album."
"We'd spent over a year perfecting the songwriting", recalls Titlow, "and when it came to promotion we'd do things for a laugh, not realising that people would see that first and not the album - and maybe only buy the album if they liked the look of us. I think we might have lost a lot of sales through that, but I don't want people not to buy the album just because they remember the clothes we wore."
Never underestimate the power of image... Back to the music, and in particular to the Akai S900 lurking in the studio. Millar readily admits that he doesn't sample himself - surprisingly it's the singer who is most enthusiastic about the controversial art.
"Yesterday we were doing a track, messing around with the vocal bit. It was a high note so we ended up doing it on the Akai and I thought we ought to try doing some more vocal samples. The thing I really like about sampling is in recording voices. Sitting downstairs with Ian Curnow in his studio is wonderful - I could sit there sampling voices all night, chopping up bits and making them sound weird. I love sitting with the Fairlight, taking one word apart, running the light-pen backwards...
Other Blue Mercedes production specialities include the (almost) legendary potato technique.
"We were going to mic a potato up once", announces Titlow, "and have it playing on track 24 to add a bit of ambience. The secret is not to hit it or anything - just put a Calrec microphone next to it and record it for the duration."
"I love the idea of all those gimmicks and tricks - doing things with toilet paper and seeing what happens."
There are no such frivolities in their home studio setup, however. Millar is wary of spending too much time working on demos at home.
"You can get carried away and make demos much more polished than they need to be. I suppose you may discover a new way of doing something if you carry on working with it, but generally speaking, you re-do everything in the studio anyway. I would advise anybody not to spend ten hours working out a single digital delay setting because you're never going to recreate 48-track digital in your home. It's much more important to spend the time working out how a song is written and what makes a good melody line. It works both ways with record companies - in some respects they expect better quality demos now that technology is becoming more accessible, but sometimes a tape can sound too good and they think it's been sent to every record company under the sun, which will naturally make them less interested."
Blue Mercedes' songwriting technique is interesting if only because they invariably start with a title. From there it goes to the piano where it is built up in stages, with Titlow writing the lyrics and melody lines while Millar writes the music. This way the songwriting credits are split evenly between them. From the piano the arrangements are worked out on the Pro24. Time to look more closely at their own studio.
"I started out with a four-track, a Juno 60, a Roland Drumatix and a TB303 Bassline", recalls Millar. "Then I bought an eight-track with a Studiomaster desk and that's what we used for our album.
"When we got our record deal we got an equipment advance so I changed the desk and bought some more gear. I used to do all the drums on an RX11 although I use the Steinberg rather than the drum machine as a programmer.
Now I mainly use the Akai for drum samples and bass sounds, although I haven't explored it nearly enough. I tend to use it as a songwriting aid rather than a sampler.
"The best thing about having a home studio like this is that you don't need to stand around rehearsing all the time, and spending a fortune on rehearsal rooms just to write your songs. The record company like it because it's so cost effective after you've dished out the initial capital - I don't know what they'd do if a band didn't have their own recording facilities."
A LOT HAS been said in the press about BM's debut single, 'I Want to be Your Property' - some of it good, some of it bad, a lot of it concerning aspirations of their management. The first single gained a fairly respectable chart position for a new band; its successor, 'See, Want, Must Have', fared much worse, reaching only No. 57. Titlow takes up the story:
"The first single was really commercial, and the second was an attempt to go against that and become more serious. The title was easy to understand to me, but it got everybody else confused... 'What was that record, 'See, Got, Want, I Want to Have What I See'?' Nobody could remember the title. It was a more sophisticated song in the respect that it had a more credible beat and the lyrics were more interesting. And more than anybody else, I was in favour of it being released as a single. I thought it would show everyone that we can write cred sort of songs, but it backfired."
The charts have always been about dance, and while Blue Mercedes' own brand of dance/pop is built around conventional song structures, that of artists like M/A/R/R/S and S-Express patently isn't.
"'Pump Up The Volume' and 'S-Express' I actually like", proclaims Titlow, "but Bomb the Bass and that 'Bass (How Low Can You Go)' were dreadful. It's really frustrating if you spend all of your time writing songs and somebody walks to No. 1 with a sampled Rose Royce loop - which is what that is with a few backing singers.
At the end of the day you have to have a song, if you don't you become S-Express."
We're about to see the release of single number three, 'Love is the Gun' from the Blue two. The release of Rich and Famous has been delayed in Britain, but it's already in record shops in the States. How do Blue Mercedes consider its ten tracks to have turned out?
"It's a collection of singles", explains Titlow, "which is a failing in a way. We never really thought about the effect they would have as an album. It's more the sort of thing you'd put on at a party. It sounds really demeaning in a way."
But as long as music is going to be played at parties somebody is going to have to make it.
The real trouble seems to start with the fact that there's money to be made out of pop bands - not necessarily by pop bands. And while the money's there to be made, somebody's going to be making it - usually record companies and artists' management.
Interview by David Bradwell
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