dispatches from the pop scene...minus the corn syrup.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Chart Rigger Archives: An Interview With Roger Ferris Of PWL Act Shooting Party

PWL has been on a roll with remastering and releasing much of their old back catalogue on iTunes worldwide. One such item that popped up at the online digital retailer last week was Shooting Party's unreleased self-titled 1990 album.

Though Roger "Sprout" Ferris and Gary Strange—the twoseome behind Shooting Party—worked mainly with Stock Aitken Waterman's right-hand-men Phil Harding and Ian Curnow rather than the famed production trio themselves, the duo still cranked out a couple highly-regarded singles ("Safe In The Arms Of Love" and "I Go To Pieces") in 1989 that radiate with the classic PWL sound.

Fast forward to September 2005, when I was working on a feature story on PWL for Instinct Magazine. The three-disc Stock Aitken Waterman Gold set was due to be released in a few months, and the online station PWL Radio had become a major guilty pleasure of mine that year.

I'd already interviewed Pete Waterman, and began tracking down several of the old PWL stable's artists to round out the piece—including the extremely pleasant Roger Ferris, who was now working behind the scenes in the music biz, and who shared some great anecdotes from those days about recording at the Hit Factory, and touring around with Kylie Minogue, Jason Donovan, Sonia and Big Fun.

Anyway, to commemorate Shooting Party's unreleased album finally seeing the light of day this week, I thought I'd put the full interview I did with Roger—conducted on September 30, 2005, over the phone with me in L.A. and him in London—up here on Chart Rigger. Enjoy!

ROBBIE: Hi, Roger!

ROGER FERRIS: Hello, mate!

Basically, I'm doing an article on Pete Waterman, and have lined up some interviews with your old PWL stablemates. A mutual friend of ours told me you'd be a great person to chat with.
Oh, wonderful. My time in the music business, they were the happiest three years I ever had. I didn't earn a lot of money, but [those years] just paid back with love and music. It was a wonderful, wonderful time. I also saw everything that was going on—like with Rick Astley, Kylie Minogue. I was very much there when it was all happening.

Going back before all that, how did you and Gary come to form Shooting Party?
Back in the late '70s, we were with a rock band called No Dice, and we were signed to Capitol Records. We were touring America coast-to-coast. It was a bit strange, because we went from rock music to dance music with PWL. But that's how I met Gary. We lived out of each other's pockets, really, for a good few years. Then we needed to change direction, so we heard about all the things that were going on with Pete [Waterman]. We waited outside the doors of the studio for him to come in each day. We handed him a tape each day—this happened for about a good three weeks, so we were running out of tapes fast. In the end, he invited us in, I think because we were bothering him so much! [Laughs] But he was great with us. He put us in with Ian Curnow and Phil Harding, and that's when the writing started.

In Mike Stock's 2004 autobiography, he describes somewhat of a backlash within the industry against them at about the same period you went to record at PWL. Did you have any sense of that, at the time?
No. Not at all. They were riding the crest of a wave. We were pointed in their direction by different record companies. We were taking in lame demos, and they were saying, "No, you've gotta get in touch with these guys. They've got in-house producers. They can turn your songs around." And, they did! I was so pleased when "Safe In The Arms Of Love" was produced. Good vocal performance from myself, if I may say so! [Laughs] It was a wonderful, wonderful record, and it just springboarded us up, our reputation. That was all down to Pete—he was the svengali behind it. We kept on going for two years on that song alone. People would book us on that song. So, Shooting Party were there—a big pop band—but never really broke into the charts.

Original "Safe In The Arms Of Love" video clip.

I have to admit, my favorite Shooting Party song has always been "I Go To Pieces."

I like that, because it was more with Gary's writing instead of Phil and Ian. They let Gary have a bit of a play with the lyrics, and I really like the lyrics. I based it on [Gene Pitney's] "24 Hours From Tulsa," that particular song—it's about being away and trying to ring home, and everytime I go away I miss you so much that I go to pieces. So they let Gary and myself have a play with that one. I'm as equally as proud with that.

So, it's safe to say you were happy with how your songs at PWL turned out?
Absolutely! I was knocked out with it. With our old records—with No Dice and the first Shooting Party records, which were nothing to do with Stock, Aitken and Waterman—I was reluctant to play them to my family. [Laughs] When I rushed home to play [the PWL] stuff to my family, they loved it. They really, really did.

Mike Stock, Matt Aitken and Pete Waterman.

Stock Aitken Waterman staged a show in December 1989 at London's Royal Albert Hall with a bunch of their artists, and you guys were there. Can you talk about that night?
We'd done about three tours—one with Kylie, one with Jason Donovan and one with Big Fun. We were an integral part of the tours, because we'd open and get the show going. Sometimes, when Pete couldn't make it, I'd be doing the compèring for the show. So, being asked to do the Albert Hall was the pinnacle. And opening that night was just wonderful, beause it was a packed house, great theater and, all in all, it was just a truly memorable night.

Did you get on well with Kylie and Jason?
Oh, yeah. We shared the bus together. Even on my birthday—I remember, I was living in Shepherds Bush. I had a birthday party, and the girls brought Jason along. I was knocked out. He's just such a lovely guy. He lost it at one point, but he's back on track again.

I'd read an interview with you where you'd stated that Sonia was a really fun person in those days. Even Mike Stock wrote in his book that she was the only artist at that time to ever thank him for producing a hit for them. What was Sonia like to be around?
She was the most down-to-earth person you can ever imagine. She's from Liverpool, and they're lovely people from Liverpool, anyway. She was just incredibly nice, just unaffected by the actual things that were going on around her. I mean, she had a #1 hit, for God's sake, and she was just going to the pub with me or whatever. She could have been riding around in limos, but she wasn't.

She was pretty young then, too.
She was very young. In fact, on the tour she had to be chaperoned by her sister—who was equally as nice!

Stepping out of the fact that you were in the PWL stable, did you have any favorite artists or songs that either SAW or Harding and Curnow produced?
I loved Dead Or Alive. That sound, it just stands up today as a classic pop sound. Ian and Phil, they had so many hands in different production pies—with Hazell Dean and stuff like that. We'd do our songs in the middle of the night, because they were so busy during the day with major artists. So, we'd turn up around one o'clock in the morning, and I'd do a vocal at two in the morning and then go home. But before we'd start, they'd play us what they'd done [earlier] with Sybil and other acts, and it just blew us away. These guys were working 24 hours. I don't know how they did it! [Laughs] It was purely adrenaline. There wasn't anything else involved. It was just the love for music.

I know! Reading about that just makes you wonder how they got through on no sleep for six years straight.
Yeah. And there's no real duff stuff. At that particular time, it was all really good songwriting.

Have you listened to Pete Waterman's online station, PWL Radio?
I haven't. When Pete was doing his radio station in Liverpool, he invited me up to go on the show. I think he was trying to get me to cover for him, but it just didn't work out. I couldn't really hack it on the radio. But, he was so naughty, because he'd play all his own stuff! [Laughs] He wouldn't play anybody else's stuff but his own. But he had great things in Liverpool, for a local station. That just tells you the strength of the PWL sound.

You should check out PWL Radio. I heard "I Go To Pieces" on there yesterday!
Oh, wonderful! I'll tell you what, I'm gonna go home this evening and I'm gonna tune in.

I don't know if you listen to music at work, but I've got everyone here at work listening to it online.
We do listen to music at work. We get all the new stuff that's in—some bad, some bad, some indifferent. But I love the new Sugababes record ["Push The Button"]. It's just great music, and it reminds me a bit of PWL—a bit theatrical. And the girls carry it off well.

It seems to me that a lot of British pop now is trying to sound like American R&B. But as an American, for instance, one of the reasons I traditionally liked British pop is because it stood apart from American music.
I think, here, there are a lot of bandwagons—once a sound comes out, everybody wants to sound like that, and it just kills it to death. One of the instances was Busted. Now, their very first song, "What I Go To School For," is a great record. It's a great pop song. Everybody jumped on the bandwagon. We got this band now called McFly. Where does it end? They're just flogging a dead horse. It's such a shame, because it does stifle out the real good music. I think radio stations have caught on to it now. There's a few in London—like Capital–that play that rubbish. But there are stations like Radio 1 that carry the banner of young, good acts.

Just a few more questions for you, Roger. In the end, were you disappointed that you didn't work directly with Mike Stock and Matt Aitken?
A little bit, but I was in awe of them. I don't think I could have given a real good vocal performance with them because I would have been too nervous. [Laughs]

Oh, come on! I love how you sound on "Safe In The Arms Of Love" and "I Go To Pieces." You would've been great.
I was in awe of them. Phil and Ian, I felt at home with, and they treated me really well. But with Mike and Matt—sorry. [Laughs] It would have been nice, but I think I wouldn't have been giving it a hundred percent.

Ian Curnow and Phil Harding (courtesy Neil Vance).

Do you still keep in touch with Phil and Ian?
I do, with Ian. I haven't heard from Phil for awhile, because I know he's distanced himself from music, production-wise. But Ian and I do, as well as the girls over at PWL. And, I've often bumped into Rick Astley in the deli counter at Sainsbury's in Chiswick! [Laughs] He's doing a gig in Shepherd's Bush just up the road here next month. I'm looking forward to going to that.

Yeah, he's got an album of cover versions coming out soon.
When Rick was first happening, I remember driving to PWL the first week that we started recording. "Never Gonna Give You Up" was being played to death on the radio, and I was saying to Gary, "This person's voice is marvelous." We both thought he was a black soul singer. I didn't realize it was PWL. Then when we got there and met him, I was in shock! [Laughs]

I remember thinking it must be Luther Vandross or someone. Then you see the video, and it's this skinny little British kid...
With a quiff! [Laughs]

What do you think the PWL and Stock Aitken Waterman legacy will eventually be, when all is said and done? Do you think they'll ever get their just desserts?
I'm not too sure about that. They were hated because of their success, especially by the press here—they were not high heaven for their sound. But, how can you knock success? Having been there and been behind the scenes, I can appreciate what great music it was. But I don't know. I hope they will.

Finally, since you'd mentioned those years being some of the happiest of your life, mind telling any particular stories from that time?
Well, the first Jason tour—that was the very first one we went on—we were playing quite small clubs. Turning up on the tour bus and seeing the crowds just serpentining down the street as far as the eye can see, just coming along for this package—seeing us, and the likes of Kakko and Sonia, and Jason, of course. Inside the club, it was so hot—it was like Beatlemania all over again. There were girls fainting, people fainting, and being passed over by the security there. That was a great buzz—not the people fainting [laughs], but the whole thing of it! It was a wonderful experience. The second was appearing at the Albert Hall. But first and foremost was the release of "Safe In The Arms Of Love," which I think is a milestone that I'll always remember for the rest of my life.

Well, Roger, thank you so much.
Cheers, mate. Keep the faith! [Laughs]


Special thanks to Mr. Brady, who put Roger and I in touch four years ago, and without whom this interview wouldn't have happened.

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