I might be better known for playing dancefloor remixes in the 90s, but my passion for the 12-inch single and the art of the remix began the early 80s. Synthpop artists such as Human League, Depeche Mode, Pet Shop Boys, Heaven 17 and Erasure were among those who drove the 12-inch remix format along with record labels such as Factory, Mute and ZTT. When the latter Trevor Horn imprint sold almost four million Frankie Goes To Hollywood singles in the UK alone in 1984, almost half of those were on the 12-inch format.
By the time Pete Waterman launched PWL Records in the latter half of the 80s, with a single by Rolling Stone Bill Wyman's teen girlfriend Mandy Smith, I was hooked on the extended remix, the club remix, the dance remix, the mega-mix and more. One of my favourite producers of this era was Mixmaster Phil Harding, who regularly worked in partnership with Ian Curnow. They were two of the most crucial cogs in the PWL Hit Factory success story. By the time Kylie's I Should Be So Lucky chart-topper put the PWL train firmly on track, I was feeding my 12-inch habit at Beat Records in Dublin's Abbey Mall. Owner Tony Bugay, manager Dave Kearns and DJ Tony Murray were all hugely knowledgeable and passionate about remix culture. Abbey Discs is widely name checked as the most influential DJs' record shop in Ireland, and rightly so, but Beat Records paved the way first.
My abiding memory of the PWL era was the Stock, Aitken and Waterman 12-inch version of a single would come out in week one, and the usually tougher and edgier Harding & Curnow rework followed in week two or three. I would quite regularly buy both, often without hearing them and just on the recommendation of Kearns, such was my trust in his opinion. He fed my taste in a way that an online algorithm never will.
Fast forward more than three decades and I jumped for joy landing the opportunity to meet Phil Harding last month in Dublin. What an absolute privilege and pleasure it was to chat for an hour to this hero from the golden era of both classic pop music and remixing.
“12" singles were hugely important to Pete Waterman,” Harding recalled of his era at The Hit Factory. “I think it was because of Pete's background as a DJ. It was important to him that we were making records for the clubs as much as for pop radio. Pete knew records could be broken in the clubs, that it was important to get the mix right for DJs. So there would be a huge difference between the 7-inch radio edit of a Kylie track and the approach taken with the dancefloor version Ian and I would produce for those limited edition DJ mixes on the 12-inch.”
One of the best examples of Harding's craft is the eight-minute epic Murder Mix of Dead Or Alive's No. 1 smash, You Spin Me Round (Like A Record). Seventy percent of the sales of that hit single were on the 12-inch. It's a masterpiece that has stood the test of time. He also sprinkled his magic on tunes by Michael Jackson and The Jackson 5, Rick Astley, Pet Shop Boys, Holly Johnson, Bananarama, Diana Ross, Mel & Kim and Sinitta, to name but a few.
Ironically, Harding had no DJ experience himself. He had actually started his career working with punk heroes such as The Clash and Killing Joke when he was a teenage engineer at the famous Marquee Studios in London. He's in Ireland tonight to pass on his knowledge to students at Temple Bar's Sound Training College. The appearance is part of a tour of universities and colleges promoting his second book, Pop Music Production, which is part memoir and part educational guide to the music industry.
It came about after Phil joined Leeds Beckett University in 2014 and wrote a PhD thesis. His study, 'Stay Another Day: A reflective and oral history of the culture and technology of the 'manufactured' pop and boy bands of the 1990s', included his tried-and-tested framework for the perfect pop songwriting and production team and a 12-step 'top down' mixing programme. The new tome is Phil's second memoir. The first, 'PWL From The Factory Floor', is one of the best books on 80s pop culture you will ever read. Go get.
In Conversation With Phil Harding takes place tonight at Sound Training College at 7pm, hosted by John McFadden. Tickets from Eventbrite. Pop Music Production by Phil Harding is on Amazon for 33 Euros.