Dave Balfe was so bowled over by demos from his old Liverpudlian arch rival Pete Wylie, aka The Mighty WAH!, that he ignored the old music industry maxim "don't work with your old mates", and signed Wylie soon after he joined Columbia as general manager and head of A&R.
As Balfe recalls, the man behind Eighties hits such as Story Of The Blues, Come Back and Sinful had kept in occasional contact since 1979, when Balfe and Bill Drummond started Zoo Records with Echo & The Bunnymen and The Teardrop Explodes while Pete Fulwell set up Eternal with Wylie's WAH! Heat. But it was only after Balfe had sold Food Records and retired from the business that Wylie sent him new demos.
"The songs were great, plus he'd sent a compilation tape of his old hit singles, which when heard together, make you realise just how good Pete is," Balfe says. "I wasn't thinking then of coming back to the industry, but when I came to Columbia, Ronnie Gurr in A&R was already talking to Pete and had paid for some more demos. I didn't want a reputation as a guy who spends lots of money on old mates but the demos were great and the next lot even better, and Ged Doherty [Columbia MD] agreed. I know Pete's getting on a bit but the material was so strong.
We ended up with 14 demos that we thought were all fantastic, so we cut a deal." Anyone who recognises the timeless, anthemic appeal of Wylie's old hits will instantly take to his new album, Songs Of Strength And Heartbreak, which is due later this year. From the racy Loverboy to the mid-tempo Hey Mona Lisa to the nine-minute Bill Shankly tribute ballad
Heart As Big As Liverpool (a Christmas number one in the making), the songs leap off the advance tape with huge terrace-friendly choruses.
Balfe says, "Pete went through the Eighties trying various production fads, with lots of dodgy synth sounds and electronic drums, but his new songs presented a vision of this epic rock'n'roll sound, like The Clash meets early Springsteen meets Phil Spector. Pete was initially worried that he should try and be more trendy but we decided it should stay that basic, that epic." Talking to Wylie during mixing stages (with Dave Bascombe) at West London's Eden Studios, it's clear that the Nineties as a whole have been an epic. Just months after releasing the Infamy album on Circa in 1991, he broke his back in a near-fatal accident and spent the ensuing years battling depression and getting back to full health.
His convalescence, he recalls, allowed him to reconsider his life. "You have to think about what you like and want to do," he says. "I had to get rid of what I didn't like about myself and do what comes naturally, which was writing songs, but I had to write a record that was a killer. And the big, anthemic stuff has always come naturally." In the mid-Eighties, Wylie's attempts to marry rock with synthesisers pre-dated the Balearic explosion but only gave him one Top 20 hit in Sinful. He played on stage and on record with The Farm just before his accident, but otherwise it's been a bleak 10 years.
"I knew I was best at playing in a band, which I hadn't done for 10 years, and I'd stopped playing guitar, but I've put both right," he says. Ex-Smiths drummer Mike Joyce has come on board, while Danny Lunt is on bass. Joyce's presence, says Wylie, certainly helped when it came to contacting record companies with his demos. In turn, says Joyce, he was revitalised
by Wylie's songs. "When Pete gave me a tape, the only fault I could find was that I wasn't on it!" The new trio got themselves on an unsigned bill at Dublin's In the City festival in 1995, which made Balfe even more adamant to sign Wylie.
The album was eventually recorded with four producers - Mike Hedges, who produced Story Of The Blues in 1984, Peter Collins, Steve Lironi and Ronnie Stone. "It was a bit 'don't put all your eggs in one basket' but every session worked," Balfe says. And as he well knows, re-launching an older artist has its problems. "You don't have the development period that you have with a new act. You have to bang in there big, and stay there, otherwise it'll be perceived as a nice little swansong for Pete. But if we can get the first song away, we have five or six genuine Top 10 hits to follow. Almost the whole album is made of singles. It's all a question of tying everything together. We're in the stage of handing it over to the gods but we're all very confident." "If Balfey is the man who makes Pete Wylie have two hits on the run, he'll be a legend forever in showbiz," Wylie laughs. Given the strength of material at his disposal, it certainly could be done.
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