From LP to PhD: 90s boy band producer is a hit at graduation
Phil Harding began his career in the music industry at the age of 16, at the famous Marquee Studios in London. Engineering for bands including The Clash and Killing Joke, Phil went on to join the legendary Stock, Aitken and Waterman production team throughout the 1980s and 1990s, engineering and mixing their first number one single, Dead or Alive’s ‘You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)’.
Phil produced many of the biggest pop hits of the 1990s, working with everyone from Bananarama to the Pet Shop Boys, Jason Donovan, Mel and Kim, Erasure and Sinitta.
Phil joined Leeds Beckett University in 2014, writing a PhD thesis which shares the secrets of his decades of success in producing ‘manufactured’ pop. His study, ‘Stay Another Day: A reflective and oral history of the culture and technology of the ‘manufactured’ pop and boy bands of the 1990s’, includes his tried-and-tested framework for the perfect pop songwriting and production team and 12-step mixing programme.
Reflecting on the ‘manufactured’ pop and boy band scene, Phil has written mainly about the 1990s but also considers the current marketplace. He breaks down the technology of the recording studio of the 1990s and reflects on his groundbreaking work during that time.
He commented: “It’s been very inspiring to reflect on the work I did in the 1990s.
Additionally, I have broken down and analysed some of the records I engineered, such as East 17’s ‘Stay Another Day’, and it has been interesting to revisit them. I also break down the number one single, ‘Words’ by Boyzone, alongside the original 1960s Bee Gees arrangement, to show what we did differently.”
The study includes interviews with some of the key players from the 1990s pop and boy band music scene, such as Tony Mortimer from East 17, the songwriters behind 911, boy band managers and a specialist pop journalist from the era.
Phil said: “The boy band explosion in the 90s was a phenomenon. The term ‘boy band’ didn’t really come into media use until this decade. People said you could have called Bros, the Bay City Rollers, or even the Sex Pistols, boy bands when you looked back – as they were all manufactured bands. However, it was only in the 90s that the term really came about.”
Whilst studying at Leeds Beckett, Phil also shared his skills and experience with music students at the University, running masterclasses and lectures. Getting masters students at both Leeds Beckett and the University of Oslo to try out his methods and theories, Phil developed a new service model for pop music creativity and commerce.
Phil explained: “A music producer navigates a specific role in between the creative artist and the commercial industry and I have developed this into a new theory. Beginning in the 1980s, songwriter and production teams became very much established in the 1990s and have remained so ever since. For example, acts from Boyzone to Katy Perry: when you look at their songwriting credits, there won’t just be one name but a whole team of songwriters. This might be a set of names or a production team name.”
Working with his production partner, Ian Curnow, at the Pete Waterman Entertainment (PWL) studios, Phil began the groundwork for his service model idea, which begins with a team leader at the head of a flow chart. In Phil and Ian’s company and studio, P&E Music’s case, this was manager Tom Watkins, who had previously managed the Pet Shop Boys and Bros. Phil then goes on to set out the ideal combination of team members for the perfect pop songwriting and production crew.
Phil has tested the framework and formula with student group projects to prove that it is a successful and repeatable model. He said: “The results have been really interesting. I set students the task of working in teams to write and produce a song. I set the tempo, arrangement and key, but each team produced a completely different result once human interaction came into play.”
Working with undergraduate students at Leeds Beckett, Phil also shared and evaluated his ‘12 step mixing programme’, setting the students the task of using this in their own degree projects.
Phil said: “The programme is the reverse of what has been industry practice for a long time. Normally, you start by mixing the drums and work up to the vocals; however, my system starts with the vocals and works down to the drums: ‘top-down mixing’.”
Phil’s 12 step mixing programme has now been published as a chapter in the book, Mixing Music, published by Routledge as part of their ‘Perspectives on Music Production’ series.
Following the successful completion of his PhD, Phil is now officially Dr Phil Harding and will graduate at a ceremony at Leeds Beckett University’s Headingley Campus on Thursday 27 July.
Phil said: “I am delighted to have been awarded my doctorate after three years of intense study and reflection. The experience as a postgraduate student at Leeds Beckett has been second-to-none and I would especially like to thanks Professor Karl Spracklen and Dr Robert Davis for their guidance and supervision throughout. I am looking forward to attending the graduation ceremony and celebrating the achievements of the students within the School of Film, Music and Performing Arts.
“I feel that I’ve just started my research journey. I’ve now been presenting my service model theory at conferences and I have been motivated to continue with my research work, after being asked to work on a new book proposal.”
Meanwhile Phil continues to work as a music producer with PJS Productions. He is currently working with acts including Belinda Carlisle, Joe McElderry and new pop punk band, 24 Club.
Phil is the author of the 2009 book, ‘PWL: From the Factory Floor’ and Vice-Chair of JAMES, the music technology industry course accreditation body.