Honestly, I don’t really believe in “guilty pleasures” as a musical theme. I like it and so I have nothing to feel guilty about. But it is fair to say that there are certain records that you really have a soft spot for which run so counter to your customary taste that they do stand out like the proverbial sore thumbs amidst the rest of your Stones, Sprouts and Smiths albums, for instance.
Step forward, Mel And Kim.
I am proud to say that I loved this album – it was in fact one of the last cassettes I ever bought and I played it relentlessly having purchased it especially for a very long and convoluted train journey to Poulton-Le-Fylde.
Now, in your heads, you are doubtless thinking… Stock Aitken & Waterman, horror upon horrors. That is probably true if you’re thinking about 1989 and “The Sound Of A Bright Young Britain”, seven number ones in a calendar year and a world full of Big Fun, Sonia and Brother Beyond.
However, long before Kylie and Jason and all the charity singles and even Rick Astley, there was the Appleby sisters and they really were a bit special. Girl Power over a decade before anybody else had even thought about it.
But it might sound surprising now but in the mid-80s SAW were a hot underground dance production unit who were much admired and imitated by other such as Jam and Lewis. As we shall see the feeling was mutual.
I’ve always quite liked Pete Waterman and particularly so, since I read his autobiography. Of course, he was dictatorial and hard-headed but he was also a man who earned his fortune through sheer hard work and hustling – he couldn’t read and write until he was in his 40s- and yet never lost his love for the music industry. His pedigree was also impressive as he had very much championed Northern Soul and then was the manager of the Specials just before they actually broke. One of his key remixers and engineers, Phil Harding, had worked with The Clash. The Hit Factory to be had some exceptional credentials.
Their skill was in taking more underground dance genres and allying them with a pop sensibility that took the sound into the mainstream. The Hi-NRG sound so popular in Gay Disco had provided hits but – and I include the still-awesome “Relax” – felt rooted in that world. They however, built all the overblown drama and speed into Dead Or Alive’s “You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)” and created one of the defining singles of the decade. It goes at a million miles an hour and has every new synthesizer and sequencer technique known to man in 1984 injected into it. It was so different that it still holds the record for the longest ever climb to the number one slot which stands almost as a testimony to its growing assimilation into the mainstream.
So popular was it that they were called in to revive Bananarama’s then flagging career and whacked down the same rhythms for “Venus” at the band’s instigation because they wanted their record to sound like Dead Or Alive.
But this was a regressive step for a production unit that was always looking for the next movement in dance culture to bring to the fore and in 1985, they created a worldwide smash for Princess with “Say I’m Your Number One”. It was as good a demonstration of Soul/RnB as anything from Stateside or even the seemingly more cool local exponents, like Loose Ends.
SAW themselves would confound DJs across the land with their own release, the exceptional “Roadblock”, which twas sent out as an un-named white label and was then passed of as a previously buried treasure for Rare Groove fanatics. There were some red faces when it was revealed that the record was not a lost classic but fresh as a daisy. But at the time they could afford to play pranks with the Club DJs because their credibility with them was so high. A far cry from The Reynolds Girls.
Princess could have been a world-conqueror but thanks to the age-old story of rotten management, she lost her way quickly and the production team went looking for their next big thing. This came from their office mates at Supreme Records… Mel And Kim.
The Appleby sisters had had a tough upbringing in East London and with a somewhat checkered past, burst into their record company with bags of swagger, style and attitude. They were positive, hard-working and had a really good ear for what the clubs wanted to hear. It also helped that they hadn’t been hit with the ugly stick and created their own style that combined high-fashion with street-wear. They were very much the engineers of their own brand, which is probably why they came across as more credible than your ordinary pop mannequins.
They were big fans of RnB and Soul and their first single was slated to be the excellent “System” which was building on the more laid-back style that SAW had been developing with Princess. It is still great song but Pete Waterman felt it wasn’t fresh enough and had become really interested in the then nascent Chicago House sound which had been taken up in the UK. Lots of electro sounds and thudding based with very simple repetitive lyrics. As a sound, it was selling but not really sticking.
Waterman felt that they should develop Mel & Kim into a more contemporary act with a more contemporary sound and so their whole songbook was speeded up and what was briefly known as London House was born with the blistering “Showing Out (Get Fresh At The Weekend)” which would prove to be only the first of their autobiographical anthems. The girls sounded like nothing else and looked fantastic. Bedroom dancers all over Europe went crazy for them.
They would follow it up with the number one hit, the stuttering “Respectable” equally autobiographical for the girls after Mel’s earlier glamour modeling career had emerged in the news and also for SAW who had been taking a battering in the industry for trying to do things differently from the majors. Robert Smith of The Cure, no less, marks it down as one of his favorite records of the decade, without the merest whiff of irony.
However, interestingly, the rest of the album is far more RnB based with notable highlights such as “From A Whisper To A Scream” and the epic “I’m The One Who Really Loves You”. It is littered with Jam and Lewis references – especially in the remake of the latter and borrows heavily from Janet Jackson’s wonderful “When I Think Of You” as a tribute to their transatlantic compadres.
Interestingly, when a Mel & Kim single was released to DJs they would put out several mixes which borrowed basslines and rhythms from other big dance floor hits of the time so that they could easily mix in and out of whatever song they wanted to play. It was another canny trick to get the all-important club support.
But the essence of the act really came with the title track “FLM” which of course we know as their anthemic cry of “Fun Love & Money” but actually was a play on the girls regular response to anyone asking how things were going – “F***ing Lovely, Mate”. They really were much loved and admired by their production team and this was a fitting distillation of everything Mel And Kim were about.
This appearance at the Montreux Rock & Pop Festival (a staple of Bank Holiday viewing at the time) was actually the last performance they ever gave publicly as Mel was said to be suffering from crippling back pains. In truth she was undergoing chemotherapy and although they bravely went public about her cancer later on, she sadly never recovered and died of pneumonia in 1990.
There was no second album just one final single that Mel went into the studios to record despite her illness and undoubted strain which was a fitting finale, “That’s The Way It Is (Looking After Number One)” which oozed the positivity and energy that their briefest of lightning bursts onto the pop charts had already defined. It somehow seems more poignant now that I know its full story, which is strange for a high-tempo pop record but that was the beauty of the personality they brought to the recordings.
Funnily enough on that trip to Poulton-le-Fylde we ended up going to Blackburn to a nightclub – we knew how to live in those days – and Mel And Kim were burning up the floor. The crowd could not get enough of them and neither could I.
Pete Waterman always becomes quite emotional discussing Mel And Kim because perhaps more than anything they put his organization on the map but were sufficiently unmanufactured to make the process of pop still feel magical. It’s easy to see wy they felt the hole their personalities left. Kim, of course, did come back on her own and made some other good singles but it was always so difficult to divorce her from the tragedy of the loss of her sister.
Mel And Kim provided SAW with their last big breakthrough from the dance underground, fusing pop with House and creating a defined sound that they would unfortunately imitate on countless more less imaginative and sterile acts. They stopped innovating and literally became a factory. It is sad really because I think that if you look at their early work it has a huge influence on pop but like Motown before it, there’s a time and a place and eventually, the acts move on and your team might not be able to. They started basing their development on themselves not on outside influences so the SAW sound may work for a time but they just stopped innovating.
Mel And Kim’s “FLM” is a genuinely breakthrough pop-dance album and I believe that – possibly only “Youthquake” from Dead Or Alive apart – this album was the only one able to give them a sustained legacy at 33rpm rather than the three minute format.