Before Thunderpuss, turntablism, and techno became part of the dance floor lexicon, club deejays were demanding records labeled “Hi-NRG” to carry their shifts from the late night through the early hours of a new day. These ‘Hi-NRG’ eurobeats were absolutely platinum, poking dancers of all genres to bust a Molly Ringwold move fueled by an octave bass and a string of monotonous synthetic hand-claps that are still prevalent in electronic music today. ‘Hi-NRG’ was by no means a fad term used casually by deejays driving the turntables; to the industry, this label was just as significant as an “Idaho potato” seal is to grocery consumers. The ‘Hi-NRG’ label assured listeners that the finest sound-techniques were right in the mix. These techniques were the result of slavish hours of experimenting with sound programs using the latest in computer-audio equipment, all generated inside the walls of a single sound factory in London called PWL (Peter Waterman Entertainment). Within the PWL labs, the art of mixing became a theology, pioneering a profession that thrives today in dance music cloned as pop music. These techniques, such as programming of bass synth over the Linn kick drum, are still utilized today as pop/dance music continues to dominate the charts on both sides of the Atlantic.
Sound engineer Phil Harding, a former member of the PWL team, takes us inside of the PWL studios, where no-name artists like Rick Astley and Kylie Minogue were advocated to levels of recognition incomprehensible to the artist struggling to pay their dues in hopes of reaching similar fame and success. Selling millions of 12’’ inch records across the world, the PWL partnership is still considered one of the UK’s most inspiring rags-to-riches stories. Revealing some of his most memorable moments in the newly published memoir titled ‘PWL: From the Factory Floor’ (Cheery Red Books), Harding exposes the intricate details of PWL’s then state-of-the art recording technology that made the team internationally famous while sharing personal stories of mixing some of the greatest dance records for some of the most iconic artists of the decade. In conjunction, a double-CD release (both CD & memoir are now available at Amazon.com) collecting some of Harding’s most prominent mixes including Dead or Alive’s ‘You Spin me Round (Like a Record) – the Murder Mix’, accompanies the memoir, which is the perfect gift for fans of the Eighties in hopes that their stockings will be filled with retro bliss.
In an exclusive interview with Jeremy Kennedy, Atlanta’s profound Eighties enthusiast, legendary mix-veteran Phil Harding is unmasked as he prefaces his memoir to an American perspective.
Jeremy: How has mixing changed over the last 25 years or so? Is it an easier process today or more difficult in your opinion?
Phil: Technology has changed the mixing process tremendously, allowing us to mix entirely ‘in the box’ on computer systems with no real need for hardware like mixing consoles and outboard effects whatsoever. Having said that, I personally prefer to use a combination of both for my current mixing, software and hardware.
Jeremy: What was it about your production abilities that made your work so attractive to artists in the Eighties?
Phil: I think the combination of creative and musical sensibilities towards artists songs and direction, this was largely due to my production partner Ian Curnow, who is a fantastic musician and programmer. Also the fact that PWL Studios was always one of the best and most up-to-date equipped studios London during the 1980’s. As soon as new technology came onto the market, we would be amongst the first to try it then purchase it, if we liked it…
Jeremy: In the U.S.A., the presumption was that mixes were relatively hidden gems, heard only in clubs & discos which were far less popular in America than in the UK. Did you ever go into any of your mixing projects with a focus on achieving American appeal with a great mix to boot? In hindsight, is there any particular track that you mixed that exceeded your American ambition?
Phil: Thankfully for all of us at PWL in the 1980’s, our mixes were very popular in the in the American clubs and I regularly attended the New Music Seminar in New York each summer and was astonished to find how popular my mixes were. Therefore, I did do a lot of mixes with the USA club scene in mind and the Blue Mercedes song ‘I Want To Be Your Property (Street Latin Wolff Mix)’ was a good example.
Jeremy: As a fan of your work, your mixes were often identifiable because of the organic way you developed instrumentation. Whereas other mixers gravitated to a whirlpool of looping choruses and rhythms, a Phil Harding mix was often built in dub -fashion, unlocking key components of a 7-inch track then integrating each component with the latest club beat. Is my analysis over zealous? How would you describe a Phil Harding mix in comparison to the other profiles (Julian Mendelsohn, Shep Pettibone, Tom Lord-Alge) that had their hands in mixing production like you?
Phil: You hit the nail on the head really. I would spend a long time stripping down chorus sections of a track, look at the interesting musical and rhythmical variations and would often mix 8 – 16 bars at a time, then do an edit back across the same section with a build up of instruments and rhythm. It was always therefore a delight when a tape came in with a large amount of choruses looping at the end…
Jeremy: Can you describe the selection process for us? In other words, from a business perspective, how soon is the mixing engineer brought into the recording project? How long does it take to generate a great mix?
Phil: A mix engineer is often the final element before mastering and manufacturing and it’s a good thing that they come in fresh to the project as therefore there should be no prejudice towards a particular instrument or overdub. Sometimes you could be the second or third to be mixing the project. A great mix will normally take at least 2 days, allowing an overnight ‘rest’ for the ears. Although it can be done in one day if under time pressure, 2-3 days is always great…
Jeremy: Now that 25 years have passed since your mixes were rocketing up Billboard’s Dance & Club-Play Charts, would you take an introspective reflection and give us an idea of which of these (in general, not specific unless you care to share) were the most difficult to work with and why: 1) The artist; 2) The artist’s management; 3) The record label. By the way, who fit the bill for a nourishing Harding mix in the 1980s?
Phil: The toughest artist was Dead or Alive because SAW would often leave me alone with the band to complete a mix – especially on the second album we did with them ‘Mad, Bad & Dangerous To Know’. They were lovely guys and Pete Burns is a great laugh but I was on the pink ‘Stress Less’ pills throughout the whole of those mixing sessions! The toughest manager was always Tom Watkins (Pet Shop Boys / Bros / East 17). Everything was always 100% brilliant or 100% shit – nothing in between. Toughest label had to be London Records – Tracy Bennett and Pete Tong were always tough guys to please, especially on projects like Bananarama and East 17. Great fun to mix in the 1980’s were the American projects like Information Society (‘Lay All Your Love On Me’) and Tricia Leigh Fisher (remixes) because they were always well recorded and the labels, managers and artists always trusted us to deliver without any harassment or intervention.
Jeremy: Of the hundreds of tracks you mixed in the Eighties, what was the one track that proved to be the most difficult and why? Did any of your mixes meet with discontent by the author / artist? Which one?
Phil: The most difficult and longest (36 hours straight) was ‘You Spin Me Round’ by Dead Or Alive. The mix started with the whole band and Stock and Aitken in the room and finished with just Pete Waterman and me overnight (after Pete threw everyone out of the studio). Many mixes are unreleased due artist discontent – Wet Wet Wet’s ‘Sweet Little Mystery’ – Harding/Curnow club mix is one example. Roger Daltrey also disliked a mix I did (‘Take Me Home’) but it was still promoted to the clubs…
Jeremy: Is it common for the artist to be directly involved with the mixing process? Did you ever do any mixes for an artist yet never met them personally?
Phil: No, generally most pop artists are too busy to attend a mixing session, although exceptions to the rule in the 1980’s included Matt Bianco, Basia, ABC and the Pet Shop Boys. I’ve done many mixes for Sir Cliff Richard over the years - including mixing 11 tracks on his new album ‘Soulicious’ - but I’ve never met him...
Jeremy: What was like to be a part of the PWL team of Stock-Aitken-Waterman? What is the relationship with Mike, Mark and Peter like today?
Phil: Being part of the PWL team was great fun, and at the same time, a lot of hard work and long hours. Generally, we all worked very well together under the leadership of Pete Waterman, ‘Captain of the ship’. I believe the relationship between the three of them to be good these days, after some disputes were settled some years back. They have done some work together in recent years and Pete Waterman and Mike Stock collaborated on a recent UK entry to the Eurovision Song Contest.
Jeremy: What is about Eighties music, in your opinion, that defines the decade? With all of the revivals, reunions and resurgence in new wave, do you feel connected with the Eighties or is it a chapter that you wish would just close forever in the book of pop culture?
Phil: Due to my recent book ‘PWL From The Factory Floor’ and CD compilation ‘Phil Harding Club Mixes Of The 80s’, I feel very connected to the 1980’s still, though I am glad to have moved into more acoustic and rock / pop style projects these days, which I am enjoying tremendously. I think 1980’s music is defined by great artists, great songs and the evolution of integrating modern technology and music for the first time, to the extent that the only ‘live’ recorded thing on a record would be the vocals... I think the pop ‘enthusiasm’ of the 80s will live on forever and I have many fond memories of the era.
Jeremy: What influenced you to write PWL From the Factory Floor? Will the book be released domestically in the States? How involved were you with the selection of mixes for the double-CD release?
Phil: After Pete Waterman released his autobiography, which was followed by Mike Stock’s book about The PWL Hit Factory. I felt that the view ‘from the factory floor’, i.e. a member of the team like me rather than one of the ‘leaders’, would be an interesting viewpoint for a reader. In the first section of the book I write about the rise and fall of PWL from 1984 – 1992 in chronological order, which the other two books didn’t do. So by 2008, I put most of my other projects and work on hold and wrote the book. I was hands-on in the selection of songs for the CD and we only used two of the majors labels to license the tracks from (Universal and Sony), so maybe there will be a volume 2? There is no specific release or publisher for America, but both the book and CD can be ordered from the Amazon USA site.
Jeremy: What is your greatest accolade as a mix-master? By the way, who coined that term ‘mix-master’ and what is your impression of the title today?
Phil: Pete Waterman coined the phrase ‘Mixmaster’, which sounds a bit corny now. It’s hard to pick one accolade, though I was very flattered the first time I came to The New Music Seminar in NYC (1987), and was applauded when my mix credits were read out in the Remixers’ Panel Seminar.
Jeremy: Do you keep in contact with any artists that you worked with in the Eighties? Some like Jermaine Stewart and Simon Climie (Climie Fisher) have sadly passed on. How would you want to be remembered in generations to come?
Phil: I’m not really in regular contact with many of them, Julian Close from Redbox is still a good friend and occasionally I see the guys from Matt Bianco and Basia. It would be nice to be remembered as a ‘nice’ person and one of the first ‘non-DJ’ innovative mixers of the 1980’s and 90’s.
Jeremy: Breaking out in the 1970s, you witnessed several audio format changes over the years. From vinyl to 8-track cassette, compact disc to digital files, which format does Phil Harding fancy and why?
Phil: I still adore vinyl and have a very good vinyl deck and hi-fi system, designed to get the best out of the format. Most of my music these days is played off CD still, in the car or the studio. For me, digital files are for work purposes (WAVs) or easy-listening (MP3s).
Jeremy: In an honest revelation: Have you ever broken into dance listening to your own mixes? How frequently does this happen?
Phil: Pretty much never. One is always self-conscious of something you’ve worked on to just let yourself go spontaneously, especially in public. I’d have to be very drunk!...
Jeremy: As we close, would Phil Harding be so kind to share your outlook on each of these big U.S. dance floor hits that you mixed and how you perceive their quality and durability today?
Phil: Obviously the quality of all of these is still good, must be all of those analogue tape machines back in the day...
Breakaway (Tracey Ullman / 1982): - Not sure what to say on this choice, it’s an early mix for the clubs and she was a great artist but much better was to come from me...
Question of Time (Depeche Mode /1985): - Wow, I really enjoyed mixing for Mute Records and Daniel Miller - still sounds great today.
Digging Your Scene (The Blow Monkeys /1986): - A classic that sounds best with the remastering done for my new compilation CD.
Certain Things are Likely (Kissing the Pink / 1986): - Fond memories of this great track and great band - very artistic and still sounds good now.
Sugarfree (Wa Wa Nee / 1986): I don’t have an accessible copy to comment on unfortunately...
For America (Redbox / 1986): - Classic / classic / classic – enormous production and mix and I still love it…
Always on my Mind (Pet Shop Boys / 1987): - This still stands up and is often the version played on UK Radio.
Boom Boom (Paul Lekakis / 1987): - Oh dear…..
Brand New Lover (Dead or Alive / 1987): - Sounds great but it makes my teeth grind...
I Want to Be Your Property (Blue Mercedes / 1987): - Always brings a smile to my face - they had a great sense of humour.
Love Changes Everything (Climie Fisher / 1987): - Still sounds classy – they always were.
When Smokey Sings (ABC / 1987): - Still very pleased with this from my current CD and it has had quite a few plays during some recent UK radio interviews and sounds great as a radio edit.
I Only Wanna be With You (Samantha Fox / 1988): – Ooer, this doesn’t really stand the test of time for me!
For more information on PWL: From the Factory Floor, please visit www.pwlfromthefactoryfloor.com
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