Released today in 1987: Best Kept Secret

Virgin VS926

Virgin VS926

Of all the productions teams working in the 1980s, none worked with more Smash Hits cover acts than Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley. They also worked with Elvis Costello, who appeared on the cover in the 1970s. Recalling their work together, he said: “I first met Clive as a fellow producer for 2-Tone records. By the time I had finished The Specials’ debut album, Clive and Alan had moved with Madness to Stiff records where they cut some of the best pop singles since the finest days of The Kinks. Despite making the most ‘English’ music on the planet, ‘Clanger and Winstanley’ even managed to get Madness to #1 in America with Our House. By 1983 they were pretty irresistible and unstoppable.” 1

Indeed they were: in the previous year, there was barely a week when the production team didn’t have a single in the UK chart due largely to their collaborations with Kevin Rowland’s Dexy’s Midnight Runners (two Top 10 hits from the platinum album Too-Rye-Ay) and the previously mentioned Madness, with whom they had placed an 11th single in the Top 10 by the end of the year. Accordingly, Elvis chose them to produce Punch The Clock, his 1983 album where he intended to reacquaint himself and The Attractions with pop. Of the duo’s working practices, Costello had this to say: “They favoured the ‘building block’ method of recording: retaining very little from the original ‘live’ take (often only the drums) and tailoring each instrumental overdub to best serve the arrangement. This system … yielded startling results when the last piece was in place.” 1

Winstanley, as a teenager, had “always wondered why some records sounded better than others, I figured that it must be down to the production and felt that was the direction I wanted to go in”. 2 He broke into the profession by persuading the owners of a record shop he frequented to build a demo studio on their premises and learnt his craft by engineering and producing for local unsigned bands. Langer had always wanted to perform, and early recordings by his group Deaf School (for which he played guitar) were engineered by Winstanley. When Langer decided to go solo, he asked Winstanley to produce for him. Langer himself had got into production too, helming Madness’s first single on 2-Tone (as noted by Elvis Costello above), but when Madness moved to Stiff to make an album he felt he didn’t have the right experience to produce a long-player, so brought Winstanley in to co-produce. This partnership would serve on all Madness’s albums until the group’s split in 1986.

Other pre-Punch The Clock work that had made them “pretty irresistible” to Costello included producing records for Smash Hits cover alumni Jennie McKeown (two singles for her group The Belle Stars), Pete Wylie (his Shambeko! Say Wah! phase) and Julian Cope (The Teardrop Explodes’ highest-charting hits). They also made notable singles with Langer’s former Deaf School band mate Bette Bright (who retired after marrying Suggs whom she had met through Madness’s association with Langer), comedian Alexei Sayle (whose 1982 single ’Ullo John! Gotta New Motor? was a hit on its reissue a couple of years later) and flash-in-the-pan pop duo Haysi Fantayzee. It was following these rather ad-hoc associations, and their work on the Punch The Clock and Too-Rye-Aye albums, that Langer and Winstanley began to promote themselves to interested record labels as a package deal. Between them, they believed they had the full skill-set any act needing a producer could want. In 1998, Langer admitted that they “disagree quite often but usually one of us backs off. It depends on how strongly the other feels. Sometimes I’m a bit off the wall and maybe not as sensible or commercial as I should be, and Alan’s good at pulling me back into line. I quite often disagree with the band as well. I don’t mind if things are ragged or out of tune, whereas Alan is much neater.” Of the organization of their working arrangements, he said “I concentrate more on the arrangements and rehearsals at the beginning of each project, but when we get into the studio it becomes much more equal … Alan spends more time at the desk than I do because he handles things like comping vocals and mixing. He’s definitely more of an engineer than me, because he has a very strong engineering background, so it makes sense for him to have that hands-on role. Having two sets of skills means we can do the whole package without anyone else – or we used to be able to, before remixing! We don’t get involved with remixing because it’s not where our interest lies.” 2

Post-Punch The Clock production credits in the 1980s included work with Lloyd Cole and the Commotions (the album Easy Pieces), Sandie Shaw (a superb version of Cole’s Are You Ready To Be Heartbroken?) and Northern Ireland’s The Adventures. There were collaborations with more Smash Hits cover stars too: various tracks for Marilyn (1983-1984), David Bowie & Mick Jagger’s Live Aid tie-in Dancing in the Street (1985), the China Crisis album What Price Paradise (1986, from which the single shown at the top of this article was taken) and standalone singles for Morrissey (1989). They also produced the soundtrack album to hyped 1986 movie Absolute Beginners which saw them work with Bowie again on the title cut, Patsy Kensit’s group Eighth Wonder (Having It All, which later appeared on the b-side to their single Will You Remember) and The Style Council (Have You Ever Had It Blue?, Paul Weller’s finest single since The Jam). Appropriately enough, also featured on this collection was the single Quiet Life they produced for Ray Davies: to quote Costello once again, having “cut some of the best pop singles since the finest days of The Kinks”, Langer and Winstanley finally got to work with one of them.

1 Costello, Elvis. “Liner notes”, Punch The Clock, Demon Records, 28 February 1995.
2 Sillitoe, Sue. “Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley”, Sound On Sound, SOS Publications, July 1998.

NEW SINGLES on sale from Jan. 12
CHINA CRISIS Best Kept Secret (Virgin VS926)


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