Date: 1 December 2021
Originally published in: Record Collector (UK)
Written by: Chris Roberts
Kim Wilde was our Debbie Harry, the prototype Madonna, the UK’s biggest-selling domestic female artist in the 80s who enjoyed hits on both sides of the
Atlantic as well as ironic credibility in the music press. Then she became really interesting. Chris Roberts meets her to talk Moon landings, aliens and Lawnmower Deth.
“I think I always knew, as a very little child, that music was going to be my destiny,” affirms Kim Wilde. Her father, she recalls, would have the radio or records on and she’d hear “special, special songs” like Gene Pitney’s 24 Hours From Tulsa, Cilla’s Anyone Who Had A Heart and The Beatles’ Penny Lane.
“Then my true pop awakening happened around ’68, when Dad had written three hit songs in the charts — one for Lulu [Pm A Tiger], one for Status Quo [Ice In The Sun], and, of course, Jesamine for The Casuals. That time really opened the ears of eight-year-old Kim.”
Her new greatest hits box set, Pop Don’t Stop, is a reminder that pop has rarely stopped for Chiswick-born, Hertfordshire-raised Wilde aka “the girl who was Madonna before Madonna’, as Just Seventeen magazine wrote in 1986. Of course, her own Pop was Marty Wilde, first generation British rock’n’roller (who had another chart album himself as recently as 2020, aged 81). Her Mum was Joyce Baker, member of The Vernons Girls, the Oh Boy! house band on ITV in the late 50s, who had hits of their own. Yet in January 1981 Kim emerged from any parental shadows with a song, simultaneously punky and synthy,
which caught the temperature and timbre of a new decade, a new generation. Sure, we all shimmied angularly to Soft Cell and Human League, but if you never punched the air on a sweaty dancefloor while zealously yelling, “We’re the kids!” you weren’t there.
Initially tagged as a “British Debbie Harry”, Wilde parlayed this breakthrough into an enduring, ebullient career, which only took time out when she chose it. If it looked like her rocket was running out of steam, she’d simply deliver an American No 1. Her stats stand up: 30 million records sold, 30 UK hits (more than any other UK solo female across the 80s), a BRIT award and multiple European awards (the Germans adore her). Her songs have been covered by everyone from Dave Grohl to Tiffany (for good measure, she’s been the subject of a song on a Charlotte Hatherley album and portrayed as an icon of rebellion in the acclaimed Iranian graphic novel Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi). Kim Wilde is both a star emblematic of a moment and an abiding national treasure. Even when she got herself back to the garden, she was never less than stardust, golden.
Pop Don’t Stop celebrates 40 years since Kids In America blasted her to transatlantic success as a 20-year-old. Recorded in a Hertford studio run by prog band The Enid, instantly championed by radio, it sold so quickly in its first few days that chart regulators thought something fishy was going on. Can she believe four decades have passed since she “searched for the beat in this dirty town”?
“There have been so many surreal events in my life that nothing surprises me anymore,” she laughs, wearing cool blue shades. “It’s wonderful to be 60 and still be excited about pop music, isn’t it? And when I say pop music, I’m talking about the whole umbrella, where those three little letters — pop — cover ALL the genres.”
Her first plan was to find work as a session singer, as her mother had. “In those days you got paid well for that. Not everyone could sing harmonies, but Mum and Dad taught us from a very young age: we’d be singing along to the Everlys or Beach Boys and very rarely would we sing the straight melody. Everyone would pitch in with a third below or above, or contribute something interesting. I thought that line might be for me, and was quite happy about that.”
Yet Mickey Most had other ideas when he signed her to RAK. How did that come about? “He signed my brother, first. Ricky went there as a singer/writer/producer, and predominantly Mickey recognised his talent and potential. RAK was a perfect destination for Ricky to peddle his brand of pop. Mike Chapman — who, of course, produced Parallel Lines for Blondie — had, with Nicky Chinn, created a whole raft of incredible hits there with Suzi Quatro, Mud and Racey. Mickey was known at that time as the man to go to. So, Ricky did. And I was back at home; I’d just finished Art College. I thought: maybe I could worm myself in as a session singer? I’ll do backing on Ricky’s demos, and hopefully get the ball rolling. But very quickly, he wrote Kids In America, in the bedroom next door to mine, with Dad adding the lyrics — and changed the course of our lives.”
Was that sudden success a giddy, disorientating trip? Or was becoming a pop star overnight simply great fun? “Exactly that — just incredible fun,” she says. “Certainly, to begin with. And I was on Top Of The Pops! Which I’d always watched since I was a kid, and was still watching every Thursday night. Then before I knew it, there was a lot of travelling. Mickey had a strong international reputation, so I found myself rushing all over the world. Having the time of my life, to be honest. Being taken to lovely restaurants, served champagne… I mean, you’d be crazy not to enjoy that kind of attention at that. age! Of course, the pressure did then pile on,” she adds. “It wasn’t all just a big jolly. On the work side, it was interview after interview and TV show after TV show in different countries, and for Ricky and Marty there was intense pressure to keep coming up with hit after hit. Having to follow up Kids In America. Then Chequered Love, then View From A Bridge, and so on. At the beginning of my career, they mostly succeeded. And then there was a time when they didn’t succeed so well.” She pauses to consider if my use of the cliché “rollercoaster” is apt. “Yeah, a while, after that initial thrill of going to the top, there was a big crash down. But it was just a question of getting your head around that and trying to elevate again. It took its toll a little bit, probably, on our emotional well-being. It would on anybody. Sometimes you’re everything, the next thing you’re nothing, y’know? And that takes some getting used to. But we got to 87 and You Keep Me Hangin’ On, and everything started going really well again…”
That must be so testing in your twenties, even in a time before social media nastiness. Yet Wilde seemed to come through it smiling. “I think,” she muses, “that was because I’d got into the music industry for the right reasons — I genuinely wanted to be a musician. I wanted to be a songwriter, and eventually I emerged as one I’m happy with. I wanted to perfect my craft. So, everything else — pop star fame, the charts — was either a distraction or a gift. Sure, it was rather lovely to turn up at a photo shoot and everyone makes you look fantastic in make-up and dresses. And to float around in videos. The fantasy of that really fit parts of my psyche. And yet, y know, growing up in your twenties is tough for EVERYONE. In that sense, it’s not a decade I would joyfully choose to go back to. But if I did, I’d say to that girl: don’t worry quite so much. Trust your instincts. Just go with the energy.”
Did her father give her the benefit of his experience with regard to the peaks and pitfalls of the business? “Probably. He was hugely enthusiastic and a true believer in my career. Even during the times when perhaps not so many people were. And he still is. You can say, well, every dad thinks that about his little
girl, but it was more than that. Sometimes he talks about me in the third person!” She laughs at this oddity. “As if ’m not his daughter, but this “Kim Wilde’ person. Which is… interesting. So, he does see my professional life objectively when he needs to. He’s not completely caught up in it emotionally.”
She chose to use “Wilde” and not “Smith”. What was her reasoning there, apart from it being an awesome pop star name…? “I remember thinking: there’s no getting around the fact that these early hits are written by my Dad and my brother,” she replies. “There had been a time, a little earlier, before I got famous, when I’d become weary of being ‘Marty Wilde’s daughter’. At school, I spent the whole time feeling I was being looked at. Y know — ‘That’s Kim Smith — she’s Marty Wilde’s daughter.’ And when you’re a teenager you don’t want to stand out, or I didn’t. But I always had, more than I wanted, and not for the right reasons. So, I had a short period, at Art College, where I wasn’t “Marty Wilde’s daughter’, and it was very freeing.“
“Then, when Kids In America happened, I had a lot to decide very quickly. So it was: yep, he’s my dad, this is how it is. It probably doesn’t look very ‘cool’, but I’m just going to have to style that one out. Hard, but I’ll do it. And I did. Also, I was sat with Mickey in his office, and he said, ‘So, Kim, what’s it to be — Kim Smith, or Kim Wilde? What do you reckon?’ And he had a smirk on his face — it was so obvious which I should be. I thought: here we go, then — in for a penny… I’m gonna get it in the neck anyway, so I might as well just embrace it. And as you say — it’s a GREAT name for headlines!”
Her self-titled debut album still sounds rousing (we agree that You’ll Never Be So Wrong was the track that got away, even when Hot Chocolate released it as a single: “One of Dad’s favourite songs he and Ricky ever wrote”). Back then, punk had been superseded by new wave, and pop music was vibrant, thrusting, twitching with attitude. Wilde lists the bands she and Ricky were listening to around that time — Depeche Mode, OMD, Gary Numan, The
Stranglers, Human League, Heaven 17, ABC ~ and praises “the evolving synth sounds”, namechecking producer Martin Rushent. “It was exciting to hear
musicality come back into pop, after it had been trashed to pieces by all the punk rockers.” She chuckles. “Although actually, if you listen to, say, Holidays In The Sun by the Sex Pistols now, it’s a very tuneful little melody!”
Punk had done its damnedest to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but by 1981 people were going, “Uh, wait, not everything before punk was bad, let’s
cautiously open a few doors again…” After a brief eulogy to glam rock (“Ferry! Bowie! Sweet! Mud! Alice Cooper!”), Wilde concurs. “Yeah, everyone had had time to go: hang on! Although punk was amazing and just what was needed. When pop gets complacent, well, there’s nothing more offensive to me than a mediocre pop song. So, punk did us all a favour.”
There is generally some levelling out period following instant success, but Wilde’s “difficult second album”, 1982’s Select, was pretty victorious. Was she flying? “Literally,” she says. “At that time, with Kids… going stratospheric everywhere, my feet hardly touched the ground. It was rare that I was home at all. So, Ricky and Dad had to get to it, keep writing… and that resulted in Cambodia. Which. Was. Amazing. They were on a creative high. And all the feedback,
these No 1s all over the place, and gold discs coming in… well, with that kind of energy, you’d be in the wrong business if you didn’t feel elevated by it…” When things “started stalling just a little, around the third and fourth albums”, she “kept my head down and kept going. Maybe I was an insecure twentysomething at times, but I always had faith things would even out.”
Cambodia (inspired by the Operation Menu bombing during the Vietnam War, pop kids) wasn’t an obvious hit single. Was there some pushback from the label at her choosing to release such a dark, mysterious song? “Not at all! That was one of the great talents Mickey had. As soon as he heard it, he said, ‘That’s going to be a smash in France.’ And it sold a million there. He had the knack; he kept himself up to date with different countries’ tastes, which wasn’t that easy when you didn’t have access to music at the tap of a finger.”
Another Step (1986) saw Wilde (now relocated to MCA) working with Rod Temperton and Bruce Swedien among others. Her taste for soul-funk resulted in a career resurgence when that cover of You Keep Me Hangin’ On gave her a Stateside No 1. Did she have any sense when recording it that it was going to go boom?
“That’s the magic of being involved in pop music — things like that can just happen, without you having any idea that they would,” she ponders. “It’s that excitement, that unpredictability, which draws people in. That’s the drug, the holy grail! Ricky and I made a point of not listening to any other version of that song while doing it. I said: Right — fresh ears. We tweaked the lyrics, in fact; added stuff. We were very irreverent, which worked. After it went to No 1, [the song’s writer] Lamont Dozier sent me a telemessage, which I still have here by my desk, thanking me for ‘making him look good… again.’ It was the third time it’d been a hit, he said. The Supremes and, I guess, Vanilla Fudge?”
Another side effect was even more off-the-wall. This refreshed profile led to the love blonde supporting Michael Jackson on the European legs of his enormous Bad tour in ’88. How was that experience? “It was over 30 shows, mostly around mainland Europe. Seven nights at the old Wembley Stadium. So, yeah —a few months of my life just got completely taken over by that incredibly exciting but professionally demanding time. I’d done tours, but now I learned a lot about live music, very fast. Like how to perform in front of a huge crowd who weren’t there to see me! So, I had to work at who I was onstage. And find the confidence to do that. It was the making of me, as an all-round artist.”
But can she describe how it feels, to be an element in such a pop-cultural phenomenon, with the global media going crazy? “What I find amazing is: you can have 80,000 people and this one solitary person can walk onstage and make those 80,000 people come alive. Once you know you have the power to do that, you’re in a sink-or-swim situation. When you hit the stage, you can t argue with yourself over whether you can do this or not. Because if you do, you will fail. So, you have to go on believing you’re the best thing since sliced bread. And to get yourself to that state, it takes… I mean, I found it, and I never let it go after that. Onstage. But the big mistake some people make is believing that it’s still that way when you walk off the stage. It’s one thing to believe you’re all that when you walk on, but when you walk off’you’ve just got to make sure you leave it all up there. It’s a fascinating phenomenon, it really is; a challenge. It’s not for everyone.”
The consummate Close album (1988), co-produced by Ricky with Tony Swain (of Swain and Jolley of Spandau, Imagination, Bananarama hits), yielded glories like You Came and Never Trust A Stranger. (Not to mention — keep those incongruous curveballs coming, Kim — a faithful take on Todd Rundgren’s Lucky Guy from Hermit Of Mink Hollow). As we moved into the 90s, pop changed shape again and the Brit-Lad culture rather marginalised Wilde as she pressed forward with her underrated left-field soul/R&B phase (Japan’s Mick Karn guested on a track on 92’s Love Is).
“By now I was 30-something, and I’d always been quite a soul girl. I’d loved Diana Ross, Dusty In Memphis, Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan. Gradually, that part of my love of music manifested itself. Of course, it didn’t fully marry with the public’s perception of me, of who they wanted me to be, and so… we sort
of ‘fell out’ for a while. But that was all right.” More than all right, as it transpired. “It became an interesting time in my personal life, as a result,” she reveals. “I got to be a girl at home, having boyfriends, hanging out with my girlfriends, having fun. And finding out who a 30-something could be. On a personal level I had a lot more fun in my 30s than in my 20s, when I’d been working so hard. I now had time to travel for pleasure: I went to Thailand, Australia, America — just took a rucksack and went with close friends. I discovered what it was like to live, and not be ‘Kim Wilde with an itinerary’. It was very liberating; I loved it.”
There has to be a(nother) twist. In 1996- 7, Wilde joined the cast of Tommy, the West End musical production of The Who’s pinballing rock opera. She sure played a mean Mrs Walker (the role Ann Margret had played in the Ken Russell movie). How did she adapt to that new identity? “Well, of course, The Who album had been in Dad’s record collection. And I’d grown up knowing Elton John’s and Tina Turner’s blazing versions. The timing was perfect. I was just thinking about stepping outside of my pop career anyway — I didn’t want to be the last person left at that party! I got the request directly from Pete Townshend, which was irresistible. So, I went to the audition, determined to get the part, sang Smash The Mirror for all my life’s worth, and got it. And then I spent a year being Mrs Walker. To sing those songs was just fantastic. It was hard doing seven shows a week; that did take its toll on my health. But it was an amazing time. I got married then, and my life took a different direction entirely.”
For Wilde, family life became her priority, before she came back to music. “I did take a decisive step right out of the music industry, initially,” she admits. “We had our two children, Harry and Rose. But then pretty quickly I got lured back into 80s concerts like the Here And Now tours. I guess I had an
itching to get back into it that perhaps I hadn’t fully comprehended. And there was a big audience who still wanted to see Kim Wilde sing Kids In America! I’d just thought the 80s were ‘then’ I hadn’t realised nobody wanted them to go away. So; it was fantastic. I thought: Wow, they don’t mind that I’m not 21, or that I’m not a Size 8 anymore, or that ’’m married with kids — they love it! The audience gave me back my career.”
She’s duetted with Boy George on the new song Shine On from her greatest hits release. It’s a lush, broody ballad, which may surprise some… Yes, she aprees, its an unexpected road for me to go down, especially with George. It was an expression of the freedom we feel we have now. I hope people are finding the understated beauty in it that we both feel is there.”
Have the pair been pals since the 80s? “I mean, we don’t phone each other every week, ha-ha! But I consider all the artists from that time my friends. Maybe we don’t see each other often, but when I do, I just want to throw my arms around them. Especially now, after the pandemic. They’re a good bunch. They’re all a little bit crazy, which I love. And they all recognise and understand the crazy in me.” When her peers meet now at 80s events, “We celebrate being what we are. Everyone’s chilled out. It’s not all sharp haircuts and big shoulder pads! And all the hard punk rocker types were always closet soul fans, by the way.
Across the years her choice of collaborations has shown a bizarre range: every branch on the tree from Mel Smith to Junior to Kim Wilde vs Lawnmower Deth on the striking 2017 single F U Kristmas! (her 2011 covers album, Snapshots, saw Wilde interpreting songs by The Cure, Suede, Buzzcocks, Bowie, Erasure and Black…). “I like to keep people guessing,” she says. “The craziest one was definitely with Lawnmower Deth. They’d covered Kids… and one thing led to another. Appearing with them at Download, woah. I never figured I’d be on a Download line-up. Such fun!”
As the new century arrived, she became a top pro: first a Channel 4 then BBC TV presenter of gardening shows, popularising the subject nationally, then writing books and even winning a Chelsea Flower Show award in 2005… “It’s a very spiritual thing for me, being in a garden,” she considers. “Without
sounding pretentious — although, OK, I am going to sound pretentious — I’d say this: I’m not a religious person, but a garden is my church. It’s somewhere I pray, where I receive spiritual enlightenment, and where I’m taught endless lessons about the beauty of our planet and our connection with it.”
Wilde has other extracurricular — you might say extraterrestrial — interests. Her last studio album, Here Come The Aliens (2018), flagged up her staunch belief in out-there forms of life. Can she tell us more about her own UFO sighting?
“Look, I was catapulted into a whole other world as a kid, by the moon landings,” she explains. “I remember Dad sitting us all on the sofa to watch this incredible thing unfold on TV. That inspired the song I wrote called 1969 on that album. So, I’ve had a fascination with space since then, as has my dad. We’re deeply into flight and the cosmos. We also share a belief that there is life elsewhere. I’ve grown up believing that. So when, in 2009, we saw something that didn’t seem to me to be of this Earth, from my garden — which sounds ridiculous, I know, but there you go — there I was, staring up at a huge light, dancing in the sky with another smaller light, in a way that I’ve never seen before or since… it has profoundly changed my life.”
Has it changed her thoughts about the future, about mortality? “Well… the only thing I do feel for certain is that, before I shuffle off this mortal coil, there will be proper disclosure,” she says, enigmatically. “And we will have confirmation of life, however small. Even if it’s microbial. And it won’t be something that’s just out there as a thought any more. And we will have to deal with that. And that will be HUGE.”
On a ground control level, you’ve been returning to live stages for the first time since we all first heard the word “Covid” …
“Yes!” she says, virtually bursting through the screen. “We need to get the music industry back on its feet. Sure, we want to live in a world before the pandemic. But guess what? We don’t. It’s not an ideal world. But this is where we are. So, let’s get on with it, I say. I’m over the moon to be seeing my band and playing again — I’m beside myself. My heart breaks when I see an audience’s faces now! Let’s heal some cold and tired bones…”
Pop’s not stopping. It may have been Oscar Wilde who said, “Youth is the lord of life” but it was Kim Wilde who sang, “There’s a new wave coming, I warn you.” That call of the Wilde is evergreen. Everybody live for the music-go-round.
Pop Don’t Stop is on Cherry Red.
WILDE AT HEART: KIM’S FIVE BEST ALBUMS
Kim Wilde (RAK, 1981) £8
A family affair, with Ricky producing and Marty co-writing, but with band members drawn mainly from proggers The Enid. A new wave classic, equal parts synth-pop and punky attitude, it went gold.
Select (RAK, KIM WI 1982) £8
The “difficult” follow-up got grumbly reviews but presented the broody magnificence of Cambodia as well as the urgent View From A Bridge. Ricky’s synths leaned into the paranoia of Japan or YMO.
Another Step (MCA, 1986) £8
Despite having Jacko allies such as Temperton and Swedien on board and Junior Giscombe guesting, Kim’s slinky soul-funk phase struggled to launch
until You Keep Me Hangin’ On (“a brutal massacre” — Smash Hits) went super-stellar.
Close (MCA, 1988) £8
An underrated release, with You Came, Never Trust A Stranger and Four Letter Word among her finest hits and a match for anything by Madonna or Kylie. Fantastic pop productions by Tony Swain and brother Ricky.
Here Come The Aliens (Wildeflower, 2018) £30
Her 14th album was her highest-charting for two decades. Loyal Ricky produces, her sister and niece guest and co-write, and it rocks like Pat Benatar on steroids. Inspired by that UFO sighting in her back garden. A true British eccentric.