Kim Wilde: Hangin’ on to conquer America

After five years of not being able to buy a hit in America, Britain’s Kim Wilde is finally making some noise with a remake of an old classic, “You keep me hangin’ on”

For the last five years, pretty British pop fave Kim Wilde couldn’t get arrested here commercially, though she’s racked up a dozen international hits spread across the UK and Europe during that same period. Since her first hit “Kids in America”, which sold an impressive two million copies here and abroad, she’s had to content herself with chart success confined to the other half of the world’s record market, unable to tap into the lucrative and sometimes stubborn stateside market.

Perhaps taking a career cue from those fun-Ioving girls in Bananarama, who resuscitated their sagging commercial fortunes last year with a disco-fied remake of Shocking Blue’s “Venus,” Kim and her brother-producer Ricki Wilde dusted off that old Motown chestnut, the Holland-Dozier-Holland composition, “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” with a modern synth-dance arrangement. Now Kim’s riding the crest of a smash worldwide hit, and with the promotional strength of her new record company, MCA, firmly behind her, she’s finally making some chart waves here in the colonies.

Kim cites the reason why it took her so long to regain a commercial foothold in the American market as benign record company neglect. (She was signed to RAK Records, veteran Sixties producer Mickie Most’s record label, distributed by EMI in the UK. And on EMI worldwide, a company known for its stronger European and British promotional arms).

“As you well know, if a record company decides to go all out on an artist, that makes all the difference to their career,” explains Wilde. “At the time, EMI was not disposed in that direction. This is really the first time I’ve been in a position where the record company has been prepared to do that. I mean, I know “Hangin’ On” is a great record and it’s gonna go all the way because MCA seems pretty serious about putting the muscle behind us that’s necessary here. But you are in a very different situation if you haven’t got a record company that’s prepared to kick ass for it.”

They say that hindsight is always 20-20 (whoever “they” are, maybe there’s a group of scholars somewhere making up cliches for us other mortals to make sense of our lives), but with Kim’s career paying off handsomely after signing with a new record label, it makes you question EMI’s wisdom in their complacency toward Kim in America. “It takes a lot of money and commitment to get an artist off the ground here,” offers Wilde, “and I don’t think that they looked at me as a long-term artist. I think they decided, ‘We’re not willing to put this kind of commitment, this kind of money, into an artist we think is gonna be here today and gone tomorrow.”

While Kim’s definitely “one fabulous babe,” the same beauty and sex appeal that are assets to her career, Kim also feels served to pigeonhole her in the eyes of her record company. “I think that they just thought, ‘She’s cute and she’s pretty and she’s not gonna last. You sometimes can’t tell how serious someone is about their music. I was always telling them, and anyone else who cared to ask, but they really didn’t seem to understand why I’m in this business. And it isn’t to get famous, or to make films, or to find an actor to marry, or live in Malibu. It isn’t any of those things. It’s to make music.”

Though Kim’s recordings have made the UK and European record charts on a fairly regular basis (“If I wasn’t doing particularly well in the UK,” says Wilde, “I would have a hit somewhere else in Europe”), there have been some peaks and valleys. “It wasn’t always like it is now. My career prior to ‘Hangin’ On’ was pretty non-existent for a year or so while we were making the album and taking time to write. I think a lot of people were sort of thinking that maybe they’d never see me again.”

The idea to remake “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” (courtesy of Kim’s brother Ricki) was an inspired career choice. With Motown a virtual treasure chest of potential hit covers and the song an already proven winner (besides the 1966 version by Diana Ross & the Supremes there was a drastically altered, psychedelic, Young Rascals soundalike version a year later by the Vanilla Fudge), all that was needed was a contemporary arrangement to set a good song down in. Before recording her vocal (which leans more toward the pop feel of Diana Ross; Wilde only became aware of the Vanilla Fudge version after the fact), Kim made it a point to not be influenced by the old Supremes version. “A lot of times when people do covers, there’s a lot of reverence attached:’ explains Kim. “They love the original so much that they just basically do a pretty faithful cover. I made it a point of not listening to the old version. With Ricki’s backing track making it sound like a new song anyway, I was in the position of being completely fresh to it, and that’s why it’s worked so well.”

Does Kim think that the younger segment of record-buyers – the ones who were still in diapers during those swinging Sixties versions – actually realize it’s a remake and not an original composition of hers? “There’s been so much publicity about it being a cover of a Diana Ross & the Supremes song, and with every person that I’ve spoken to about it, that obviously comes up, so I think they must know.”

Kim’s strong family ties have been very apparent throughout her career, and they continue on her latest album, Another Step. Her relationship with her brother Ricki, who co-wrote half the material and produced most of the album, has been maturing over the years after the usual sibling squabbling and adolescent shenanigans. “When we were younger, we didn’t get on very well”, Kim recalls. “You know, it was like the typical brother and sister. I wanted to be this sophisticated girl and Ricki’s grubby friends used to come ’round and just be horrible. They used to have parties and they’d throw food around and act like the Beastie Boys.”

Likening their creative relationship to that of the Eurythmics, Kim doesn’t see a parting of the musical ways with Ricki anytime soon. “I can see that in years to come,” projects Wilde, “but musically we’re very much on the same wavelength and we’ve got a long way to go yet before we’ve exhausted that. I think we’ll both know one day if it ever comes to that. I would certainly never stop him and he would never stop me. But we have a few more good albums to make together, I know that.”

Kim’s father, Marty Wilde, also wrote some material for the album (including a song called “Brothers” that he collaborated with Ricki on, that could be about Kim and her brother). Marty, or “M” as Kim likes to call him, had a successful British pop career during the late Fifties and early Sixties doing covers of American hits like “Sea of Love” and “Rubber Ball,” until his career declined when the Beatles came along and blew everybody out of the water.

With this tight familial nucleus surrounding her career, Wilde admits that some creative in-fighting is inevitable. “There’s always tension, but I think if there wasn’t then it would be pretty dull. We all want to make great records. We have the same goals, but we don’t always have the same opinions about how to reach those goals. Most of the time, I’m happy to say we do, but there are definitely times when we are of very different opinions.”

Kim took a fIrmer hand in her career on Another Step, co-writing a lot of the material and even co-producing one song, “Missing”, with her brother. After years of wanting to compose, the time was finally right. “The only reason I didn’t start writing sooner was just lack of confidence and lack of time. I wanted to write songs so badly and just be so good”, confesses Wilde, while also betraying a certain impatience for sweating to get to that level of craft. “You know, when I started playing piano the first thing that I wanted to play was Mozart and Beethoven. I didn’t want to learn how to play the scales. I just wanted to go right to the top.”

Contrary to the images of wild abandonment that her name conjures up, Wilde is basically a rather shy, introspective personality off stage. Though she’s willing to play the pop star game – doing promotional work like an interview with yours truly – she sometimes finds it hard adapting to the high-profile star-making machinery.

“I get in very difficult relationships with radio stations,” Wilde admits, “because they want me to do the ID’s (radio promo spots for the station). I don’t mind doing them, but they want me to do them in a very high-powered, very aggressive way-all the things that I’m not. All those things come out onstage but not when I’m talking. It’s very false and I don’t like being phoney.”

Kim was also a little apprehensive about the canned music appearance she was scheduled to make at the Palace nightclub in Hollywood, the day of our interview. Set up by her record company and KIIS-FM radio station (a very important station in a very important market), she would be singing live to a pre-recorded backing track. “It’s a strange thing to sing to a playback,” states Kim as she takes another sip from my glass of orange juice that she’s been unwittingly drinking from for the past half-hour. “It’s something I don’t do anywhere else apart from TV. Mostly when I play live I go out with a band and rock the town. This is a sort of club dance-oriented direction, doing this club appearance, and it’s not something that I particularly want to encourage my record company to do.”

For some performeres, no matter what their degree of success in other countries, America is still the promised land and the career validation (besides the considerably monetary value) that some artist egos crave. (Just ask that Latin lover Julio Iglesias about the two-million dollars that he bought his American success with.) Though Kim’s courting the American market, it is not an all-encompassing burning ambition.

“After working really hard for six years, sort of ‘hangin’ on’ in there, just keeping at it, you have to have some- thing to drive you on,” reflects Wilde. “And it’s wanting to get better, to keep at it. It hasn’t been because I wanted to be a huge star in America or any- thing. But now that this possibility is within reach, it’s very tempting. Still I approach it with mixed feelings. Just the way that it could envelop my life, because of its vastness and what it might demand of me. So I’m kind of wary of it. I just want to keep it a little bit at arm’s length. I want to have success here, but it’s not something that I’m greedy for.”