Gone To A Rave #18: Phil Fearon on Brit Soul And Production House
Phil Fearon is widely known as the driving force behind 80s Brit Soul act Galaxy. Far less well known, however, is what Fearon did next.
As the 80s drew to a close, the singer was growing weary with the fickle machinations of the music industry, so he decided to build something for himself. He piled the cash he'd made from Galaxy into setting up a state of the art recording studio, determined to help young artists who – despite immense talent – couldn't get signed elsewhere. Fearon used this studio to form the back bone for his new label, which he'd titled Production House. Within the space of 4 years, the tiny independent had gone from an obscure house/ electro label to one of the greatest breakbeat hardcore factories of all time, churning out hit after hit over an all too short period. I've been trying to track Phil down for a few months now, and I'm incredibly happy to have caught him, just back from a tour of South Africa. Luckily, he was more than willing to talk about a part of his career that has, thus far, been barely touched on; transitioning from being a chart topping smooth soul star, to owning a rave label making some of the most futuristic pop music ever written…
With Galaxy, what were the first musical steps you took? Where did you first start putting things together?
If you really want to get into the chronology you’ll need to go back even further than Galaxy. When I was fresh out of school I was involved with a band called Kandidate.
Oh, I know Kandidate but I didn’t realise you were involved with them
Yeah, if you have a look at the old footage I’m the one with the big bushy afro! That was the first thing I was involved with initially. That’s where I got a lot of education about the industry in general – where the money is made, where the expenses are, pitfalls to avoid… All the terrible things that go on behind the scenes! That was like my ‘college years’ in a way.
How did Kandidate come together? Were you friends or…?
It depends how far you want to go back. In terms of music, as an individual I’ve always been crazy about music, I’ve always loved records. As a kid in Jamaica one of my favourite games was pretending to be a jukebox! I’d sit inside a cardboard box humming the tune! I’ve been involved in church choirs, school choirs and as a band, professionally, even before Kandidate I was involved in Hi-Tension when they were called Hott Wax.
I left Hott Wax because they weren’t really doing a lot of original material so I formed Kandidate with a bunch of friends locally. It was just a bunch of friends getting together because we loved writing songs. We had some success in the 70s, a couple of big hits.
When Kandidate started to disband, we went our separate ways because I wanted to do different things to the other guys, I set up a small production company with local friends of mine. In those days you couldn’t really make records, you needed to have a recording studio which was very very expensive. It would take you months, having to go in at 3/4am, paying the engineer a few quid and then the next weekend try again. It would take forever to make records. I eventually managed to make a hodge-podge homemade studio and make demos 24/7, send them to companies – who would then criticise it – and I’d try again.
I eventually managed to get a recording deal with Ensign Records in ’82 and that’s when the gap was crossed.
Your stuff ended up competing with American product – Was that the bar you had set for yourself?
Well I wouldn’t say I set the bar, I just loved listening to a lot of American stuff anyway. The stuff I was doing was influenced by a lot of reggae, which is pretty obvious, but American dance music and British pop back in the day, Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson… There’s a lot of very broad influences. For me, it was about finding a balance with a really nice, dance track that can also be commercially successful. A real early example would be some like George McCrae’s ‘Rock Your Baby’. That was a hit on the dancefloor and very emotionally powerful as well.
You were born in Jamaica, how old were you when you came over to England?
I’m assuming that the reggae influence is just ingrained in your musical heritage?
Yeah, a lot of the early stuff – early Galaxy records – when I was writing them I’d actually be writing them with a reggae backbeat and then break it down after that.
Are there any recordings out there of any early Galaxy tracks as reggae tunes?
No, those would have been at the demo stage – just at the writing stage I would tend to write a lot over that style and then adjust it.
English dance music has always had such a strong reggae influence, I guess it shouldn’t come as a surprise to me that yours does as well… With Galaxy you had chart success, how did you find being in the industry? Did you struggle? Did you get much support?
It’s a very hard industry to get into. Once you have success there’s a lot to bless but you need such a combination of skill, talent and luck – luck does play a part in it – and having the stamina to really be on your game when your lucky break comes along. It’s a strange business.
Do you remember any particular DJs getting behind your records in the early 80s?
Yes, there were a few DJs I used to know around the clubs – there are DJs out there called Mastermind who were very big on a street level, underground sound system. Also there’s CJ Carlos and Chris Hill who worked within Ensign, Chris was the one that offered me the original deal within Ensign. He was extremely useful in advising us on what to use, the tempo, just general ideas about how to fix a track. In the early days, before I got the deal, my brother used to DJ and run a thing called 6×6 Roadshow. He would always tell me what, in his opinion, was right. That did help to get the balance right.
I’m quite interested in these soundsystems that I don’t really know of because they tend to get written out of history. Whereabouts were they playing?
In North-West London there were loads of clubs, the reggae soundsystems were the one that were really happening – names like Java Hi-Fi are ones I’d recognise – but the only real big dance music ones that were more of a soul vein in North-West London were Mastermind Roadshow, they still do stuff these days, and my brother’s one. At the Notting Hill Carnival every year they were huge, especially back in those days. I did get a lot of advice because I was always going out with the guys. Herbie and CJ Carlos, these are huge names still, and with Galaxy, when they both said ‘this record is a hit, that hook there – THAT is a hook’ and they were proved right and it made me extremely happy.
Did you see a shift in your audiences? Did you feel a noticeable ‘oh, I’m popular now’?
Not really, it just seemed to evolve. You just go out there and perform. With the Galaxy success there were different audiences, obviously there was a UK audience, which I didn’t really notice a shift in. In the very early stages, late 70s to early 80s, dance music was a little bit specialist. To hear American imports of dance records you had to go to certain places, you couldn’t just go to the local nightclub. You’d go 100 miles out of your way on a Thursday night to something that’s happening in Dunstable or Birmingham. There were special nights and special clubs out there like The Ballroom or The Bird’s Nest, certain clubs played dance music on certain nights. Now dance music has become more generic and universal but before you had to go to certain places at night, it was still specialist.
Even the imports – you couldn’t really find them on the internet because it didn’t exist! You could hear them on the radio, there were certain shows like Greg Edwards or Robbie Vincent playing dance music- it wasn’t so universal, it was for the underground and you had to seek it out. When you had a big track you were the talk of the community.
I’ve just returned from Cape Town, I did quite a good show over there, and there was the same thing over there but even stronger because in those days they had apartheid going on. They were saying that the music I was making was quite popular in those days and one of the reasons for that was that in those days music was hard to get hold of, they had to seek it out and then get together at weekends which was the only time they could play music. It was far more special and precious to them. That’s why I’m quite fortunate to be ingrained in part of their heritage now because at that time it was really hard to hear that sort of music.
In the UK it was a job to get music that was fresh but now music has become a little bit disposable, there are so many people doing it and so many people can do it because of the technology. It’s a little frightening and in many ways it’s good for the artist because they have access to their public so much easier but in other ways the scene is so diluted, it’s very hard to make a good living out of it. It’s all about the gigging now.
Perhaps more than other artists, you moved with the times- you were making quite early house tracks in the middle of the 80s, weren’t you?
Yes, that was out of a sheer love of music. When I started moving into Production House it became quite big as an underground rave thing. It wasn’t necessarily intended to be that, I was working with some young musicians and they were coming up with some lovely stuff and I just could not get them a deal anywhere. Of all the record labels I’d known, I could not get a deal. I’d made a little money out of Galaxy and I had two recording studios somewhere else so I thought ‘we’ll put it out ourselves’. Bargain!
Initially we started out writing house stuff but we found our writers were gravitating more to the breakbeat type scene and we started having more success, it could have easily become a soul label or something else but that was the way that we were gravitating, towards that underground breakbeat sound that later on was slightly jungle-ish.
How did you first meet Floyd Dice? I feel he’s quite instrumental in the Production House set-up.
Very much so! He was good friends with my brother, they were at school together. He was one of the young musicians I was working we, we worked together for years and years before Production House. He used to help out with Galaxy records, when I used to do shows overseas I would often tell the promoters to pay me a little less money and buy me a few more airline tickets so I could bring people like Floyd and other writers for the experience of touring other countries. He was a family friend from many many years ago, the relationship has come quite a long way.
With the first releases on Production House you can still hear the soul music influence, they’re electro-y/breakdancing music, but then the label moved on to being stuff that still sounds like it’s from the future, it’s incredible! Did fans of your previous work relate you to Production House or was there a sort of cleavage in what people wanted to hear?
The opposite, there was definitely no connection and that was by design. I didn’t want the Galaxy scene and Production House to be related. Nobody knew I was involved in Production House until much later on, a few years later people began to realise who was actually behind it. I wanted a fresh start, not having people being influenced by the stuff I was going with Galaxy. I basically co-produced some of the stuff under a different name, the real big ones were largely done by people like Terry Jones, DMS… We had a great team, a phenomenal team. We had a couple of distribution deals with a couple of companies that let us down so we ended up setting up our own distribution as well – Production House became a real autonomous machine. We had studios and our own distribution, at some point we were thinking of maybe doing our own pressing but thankfully we didn’t go that far! Very very independent. We found, to our surprise, that we were competing with the big boys on their playing field! One year we made it into the top hundred dance labels, I think it was number 2?
And all these labels were being distributed by these huge giants like EMI and Sony… To see us, self-distributed, at the top, was one of our proudest moments.
At the time a lot of mainstream journalists levelled the criticism at rave music that it wasn’t musical and that it was made by people that didn’t know anything about music. Yet here you are, clearly working with a team of very skilled musicians. Did you ever feel frustrated that the representation was so far from the truth?
No, never frustrated me at all because luckily for me I had the education to know that you’ve got to move with the times to some degree. Because I happen to love all kinds of music – that’s really not hard to believe because if you walk past my house one day you’ll hear Bob Marley and the next you’d hear David Guetta or Calvin Harris or Shirley Bassey or The Beatles. It’s true that some of the artists we worked with didn’t have a musical background, and their starting points were samples. When you’d put a microphone in front of them they’d freak out and think ‘oh, so that’s how you get a vocal into the studio!’ At the end of the day, they were making music that felt good. It doesn’t have to be technically brilliant or anything, as long as it feels good and that’s a good start.
The other thing I’m interested in is that whole scene that you were supporting and enabling was seen as a threat to society in a way. I remember growing up at the time and there was a lot of panic about raves and rave music.
That was all blown out of proportion, that was old folk getting scared. It was silly. I didn’t get it at first, it was so different and new. It took a while before I was like ‘I see what you’re doing’. I think sometimes older generations love to spoil things, they’re just being fuddy-duddies. I always like to surprise people with this one, I was almost one of the original Sex Pistols.
Yeah, I was at school with Glen Matlock and he came to me telling me about this band called The Sex Pistols and asked would I join them on keyboards. I went down to the rehearsal, heard the music, not for me. I like all kind of music but I didn’t really get into punk. I said no thanks and afterwards they obviously blew up big time! To this day I keep wondering if I would have ever enjoyed that but it would have been a complete about turn when you look at what I eventually started doing.
So when you auditioned for The Sex Pistols, did you jam with the band?
I didn’t actually audition, I went to meet them to find out what they were doing and I realised that it wasn’t what I wanted to get into. If I’d have said yes, I probably would have been in the band but I don’t think I’d have enjoyed it.
What was Johnny Rotten like?
At that point I didn’t know who was who – the only one I knew was Glen, he was my schoolmate. I just sat there, said hi and eventually said not for me Glen.
It’s quite ironic -what you ended up doing with Production House was in some ways the punk music of its day.
It was, it was a little bit of an underground and rebellious thing. It did have that element to it.
And were you still pursuing writing the more soulful side of things at the same time?
Yes, I had other projects before Production House – the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, I was commissioned to write the theme tune for that. That was the year when there was a bit of a boycott so it didn’t work out as well as it could have… I also worked with The Wham Girls, Pepsi and Shirlie, we had a number 2 record that was, held off the number one spot because George Michael was number one, it was a song called Heartache. That was done in my studio, I co-produced that one. There was other stuff leading up to Production House.
The reason why Production House was so exciting was because there were no rules. I built it around my own dreams as an artist, basically having a studio 24/7 with unlimited times and unlimited tapes – that’s an artist’s dream. The ability to then put your records out there to the public at no expense to yourself is an artist’s dream. I basically tried to make it our dream, that’s why it was so successful.
The one thing that your label had that a lot of others didn’t was that there was a kind of quality to the releases in terms of mastering, pressing, artwork… It was a cohesive product.
Yes, Floyd Dice and Terry Jones were very fussy. They were very fussy about the mixes. We used to get everything pressed at EMI, they had the best pressing plant and cutting room in one.
Did you ever go and see the effect of any of your tunes in the raves? Do you remember going out and hearing any of them?
Absolutely! We made cutting at Abbey Road because they had such a good cutting room and sometimes we used to go out and it was really mind-blowing to see the reaction that we had. It was really satisfying.
The label dabbled in jungle for a little bit but it seems to have shut down by the mid-90s, what was the reasoning?
The reasoning for that was when we were struggling and making a name for ourselves it was really vibrant but when certain people tried to make really good money out of it it started getting silly. When they were getting huge cheques the chemistry started to change. People would suddenly get a new girlfriend and think ‘things are going to change around here’ and there were more and more demands. A lot of silly stuff started happening when money was good. The camaraderie broke down a bit and on top of that record sales started dwindling, which didn’t really matter because there was good income from performances. The cohesion had become hard work so at that point I wasn’t going to keep funding it, the whole thing fell apart. Some of our better known artists were going to approach other labels for better deals which would have been fine if they got a better deal but often the new label they would go to would be friends of ours who would say ‘look, so-and-so has asked for a better deal’ and then a few of the artists ended up in no man’s land. We were funding everything and they thought that now that they were a big name, they’d get a bigger deal but the new label they went to refused to fund them because funding is quite expensive and nobody would put the money behind them the way I did.
As soon as I closed down Production House, very few of the artists made records any more.
That’s the thing about Production House, there’s all this incredible music but few of the artists on it actually really did much after it.
Even before it died, we went to at least 2 huge, multi-million pound companies in an effort to get extra funding, the way I had, but they just said no. Some of the bigger names, at least 3 artists, who had done very well out of of tried to betray the company but discovered other labels weren’t going to give them 24/7 unlimited studio time like I did. They then came back to me saying ‘please forgive me, I want to come back’. Most of them I said no to, one I did welcome back in and they got a huge deal but within 3/4 months they were trying it all again. The money did seem to affect people, they’d be buying new cars, getting a bit flash and believing the hype. Luckily for me, I’d seen all the extremes of the egos before, that’s why when I started making good money from Galaxy I had learned from the mistakes I’d seen people make during Kandidate – that was my college years. It was unfortunate that the people at Production House didn’t have that education, they were young guys and suddenly they were famous in certain circles and they got carried away.
You look at someone like Dice, his discography, and you’ll see 60 records from Production House but when he went and did his own thing, you’ll see about 2 on his small label and then the whole thing ground to a halt. He’s still very talented but you need the backing as well, plus a bit of luck. The way I was doing it, from an artist’s perspective, made some of the artists think it was easy. It really wasn’t, in those days to make a record you needed tape and each tape cost £100 and that would hold basically 3 songs and, because I’d made money from Galaxy, I would give people unlimited studio time and unlimited tapes. I think they thought that was normal.
You must have loads of stuff still in an archive of things that didn’t get released – is there a lot of music there?
We have some, yes.
Have you ever thought of going through that? I’m sure there are a lot of people that would be very interested in the legacy.
I have thought about it but because I also know the politics, this is where it gets forced out of your domain because behind all that there’s the business. This is what I learnt through Kandidate, there’s so much stuff that goes on behind the scenes.The strange thing with Kandidate, I had a great manager who managed my pop side in the 70s and he warned me of the industry which I didn’t really get. I must admit, I was too young and naive. Strangely enough Eddie Grant would give me cheap studio time and a lot of advice and he also warned me about the industry and how it worked but once again I didn’t listen. It’s kind of strange because you really don’t believe it’s that twisted.
With Production House we gave people a lot of money but once they got famous, or well-known, they’d be a bit underhand and try and get better deals. You’ve got to realise that at one point all my income was stopped because someone, unknown to us, had lodged a complaint saying that a song was stolen from him. These are things that go on behind the scenes and for a few months it almost completely destroyed the company. If you heard the next George Michael hit and you said ‘I wrote that song’ they would stop his royalties until it has been logged or proved.
Who was the guy saying that they’d written it?
Just a guy called James Lloyd, never heard of him but he said it was his song. After many many months of that income being stopped it was proved that his song was written after our song so he had to drop the case. For a while, the company was in dire straits! All these things were going on behind the scenes. As you know, there’s the great side of music, making it and getting it out there, and then there’s the boring stuff, the mechanics of making the label actually work. We had a lot of stuff like that, at least 2 or 3 legal cases when we had to go out there and prove things. At one point our lawyer recommended paying a guy off but I said ‘Never!’ He wanted to pay him off just to get the bank account flowing again. The mechanics of running a label, the legal stuff behind the scenes, I’m not in a hurry to get involved again.
I feel that that’s understandable, it does make me feel sad to think about a period of such incredible creativity and having people’s petty-mindedness stopping things from seeing the light of day. It’s a shame.
Absolutely, it’s not just my label, I heard stories about several other people and all the squabbles – I even had them in Kandidate – I’ve seen it many times. When you’ve built something from the ground up and it’s really working… We even had some Kandidate ones when egos were getting out of control, I remember people saying ‘I want this member out, I want that member out’ and my manager, who was so smart, knew that the reason why we were successful was because we were a team. He said ‘if one of you goes, all of you go’, basically that stopped all the squabbles straight away! Obviously there are other boy bands and girl bands that go out there that have success and there’s in-fighting…
It’s a familiar story. Once you’d shut down Production House, what was next for you?
I just started concentrating on the Baby D stuff, we weren’t making any more music but she was doing a lot of shows, because she’s my other half. She’d be doing 2/3 shows a weekend. That was the main thing, there was a period of time when I took a back seat 4 or 5 years ago because my daughter was in a TV show. Remember that Lloyd-Webber thing when he was searching for a Dorothy? I was just helping support her on that which was good fun, After that I’ve been doing some production for an outfit called Straight Jacket, nothing really huge has come out but I’m also working with some new artists. The industry has changed so much now, you can’t make records the same way that you used to.
Obviously there are quite a lot of 80s reunions going on… I’d like to put some new music out, quite a few really good artists have asked me, but for now I’m considering it. I’m not overly excited because the industry is so different now but I still get involved behind the scenes in various projects every now and then.
Do you still keep up with what the kids are getting into?
The only reason why I’m a little bit knowledgeable is because when we go to shows for Baby D, although it’s an old school track, she does shows in very current clubs. My kids are also playing different music all the time and I’ll be like ‘that sounds good, who’s that?’ That keeps me a little bit in touch with what’s happening today.
If you were to look back over your career, I’d be interested to know what you think are the stand out tracks from the different periods. Say with Kandidate, is there a particular favourite?
Out of the records I’ve been involved in with Kandidate, I Don’t Wanna Lose You. With the Galaxy tracks it depends on the day, sometimes it would be Dancing Tight and other times it would be What Do I Do because of Africa, that gives me fond memories.
From the Production House era it would be obviously Fantasy, that’s a legendary track there are also more obscure ones, Superhero by the House Crew, one by Nino called The Gun, and Euphoria by The House Crew. Those are the key ones that stand out.