A Wilde way to keep hanging on to a song

We’re around two decades down the track since Motown’s Holland Dozier Holland songwriting team scratched out You Keep Me Hanging On, but the old girl’s weathered the years better, arguably, than even Diana Ross, who first brought it to life.

The song is now experiencing its third residency in the upper reaches of the European, American and Australian charts, this time as a vehicle for British singer Kim Wilde.

At first thought, such a classic piece of black American soul might seem a strange choice for an English girl from deepest Knebworth, who can’t have been much taller than a chairleg when the Supremes first used it to conquer the world. She would have been all of seven when Vanilla Fudge scored well with their version in 1968.

On the other hand, though, Kim Wilde’s themes have often come from that side of the Atlantic. Her first hit, in 1981 was called Kids Of America. “I don’t know why I like soul music”, she said last week, taking time out in Melbourne from a quick stop promo tour to talk to The Voice. “It’s got heart and it’s emotional. I like songs about emotion. I’ve always been influenced by people like Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin. America’s just got so much to offer musically. It’s great.”

That American attraction is clearly demonstrated on her latest album, Another Step, released recently by Warner Brothers. As well as the use of soul devices, she pulls in some pretty funky bass lines, and a few soft-disco feels in the slower numbers. Her accent is the only thing which marks the material as homegrown in England.

There is more internal coherence to the collection than was apparent in previous releases. Each number is labelled quite distinctively as her own, where in the past a patchy eclecticism was sometimes evident. Cambodia, for instance, her hit from the 1982 release, Select, seemed to draw heavily on the style cultivated by Marianne Faithfull for her Broken English set.

While her singing manner has developed a clear and mature identity, the same can’t be said for the way in which she is marketed. The front cover of Another Step features a photo of her, dressed in a long suit coat, short top and baggy trousers, midriff bare. Combine the attire with her blonde hair, dark eyebrows and large hoop earrings and one is reminded strongly of Madonna – so much so, in fact, that it is difficult to imagine the resemblance went unnoticed to the sleeve designers…

“Really? Maybe it’s just that she looks very much like me”, said Kim, sounding none too flattered by the observation. Fair enough, and all. On each of her five albums and associated promotional material, Kim’s attractive face and figure have featured prominently. She did not believe, however, that her records sold to any extent on the basis of her looks.

“Music is about personality”, she said. “There is a person behind the voice. I have a character, a personality, and I think people want to know about that. I’m sure they don’t buy my records just because of the way I cut my hair.”

For whatever reason, they bough Kids Of America by the bucket, more than two million copies in all, making the song a very impressive debut. It is axiomatic, however, that a successful first effort is often very difficult to follow-up. Kim works closely with her brother Ricky and father Marty, creating all of her material in the family studio in England. The period immediately after Kids caused problems for all of them.

“At the time it did, especially for Ricky and Dad”, she said. “The pressure was on. There was the expectation that we’d keep on churning out hit after hit. But we all share a passion for pop music, so we just went at it unitl we got it. Mind you, there were times when we were much less successful than we would have like to have been.”

Continuing to keep it in the family, many of the songs on the new album were co-written with her brother, and the whole project was very much a collaborative affair.

“I work very well with them”, she said. “We enjoy working together, because we share similar musical aims.”

At its current rate of sales, You Keep Me Hanging On, the first single she’s ever released that was not wrtten by a member of the Wilde clan, looks set to do even better than her debut. It is charting well around the world and sales show no sign of flagging. She said she was surprised by the reaction to her visit to Melbourne. After hosting the obligatory episode of Countdown, she went to a local record store to do what the music industry terms, with callous disregard for the English language, a “personal appearance”.

More than a thousand people turned up, exhausing very quickly the available supplies of the album. “If things keep going at this rate – or even if they don’t – I’d say a tour through Australia would be very viable”, she said. No firm timetable for such an occasion has been set, however. That will be another step.