With a staggering 72 weeks on the UK album charts to date, Wet Wet Wet’s debut album, Popped In Souled Out, was the 12-track manifesto that helped four young men from Glasgow secure a decades-long career in the music business.
Graeme Clark, Neil Mitchell and Tommy Cunningham had formed a group at Clydebank High School and approached another local lad, Mark McLachlan, to front them. With Mark renamed Marti Pellow and the band called Vortex Motion, their early sets of Clash covers revealed little of the musical mix that was to underpin Wet Wet Wet’s future success.
“Your formative years are very important,” says the group’s bassist, Graeme Clark, today. “That experience shaped us as a band. We might have wanted to be like The Clash but, by trying to imitate something, you create something that is unique to you.
“We were eclectic and there were people like The Isley Brothers and Earth, Wind & Fire that we loved as well. When you try to imitate all these people, you end up with something totally wrong but unique in its own way – and totally great.”
Listen to Popped In Souled Out right now.
That pop-soul fusion seemed better billed under the name of Wet Wet Wet (taken from a line in a Scritti Politti song) and, with the addition of manager Elliot Davis in a new business venture called The Precious Organisation, the group was developing a strong live reputation in Scotland across 1984.
“We were cowboy rock’n’rollers when we started”
This early evidence of the band’s determination to make this set-up work was no accident. “We were focused because of the environment that we came from,” says Graeme. “Bands like Orange Juice had some success in the early 80s. Now ‘success’ can be a dirty word, but we came from the Red Clydeside and it was a fairly deprived area, so this was our chance. We left school and, of course, there were no jobs then. There was a focus with us because there had to be.
“We were cowboy rock’n’rollers when we started,” Clark continues. “We sensed very quickly that we had something and, if we wrote some decent songs, we could have as good a chance as anyone. We weren’t careerists, though. We were lucky because we had people around us who could steer the business side of things, while we concentrated on writing the songs.”
The band sent out a demo tape to the London record labels and 1985 saw them with six potential deals on the table. “We spent a week in the city and went round each of the companies,” recalls Graeme. “We were offered more money elsewhere, but we felt that we needed to go somewhere where we could have the best relationship.”
Phonogram offered that opportunity and the band signed on the understanding they would be given time to develop their live experience and work on songs for their debut. But the following 18 months would be challenging, with the four-piece struggling to find a producer who suited their sound. “It did get a bit frustrating in the end,” says Graeme. “We aborted the album twice, abandoning work with two very different producers.” One of those who fell by the wayside was Pet Shop Boys and Erasure producer Stephen Hague, and tracks from those canned sessions with him made their debut, alongside others, on a deluxe five-disc box set reissue of Popped In Souled Out.
Eventually Wet Wet Wet were allowed to travel to the States to record with Al Green producer Willie Mitchell, but the 1986 material was eventually also shelved (only emerging as The Memphis Sessions stop-gap album at the close of 1988).
“The advice we were given was that we needed to do a more commercial album,” recalls Graeme. “What we made was a discovery record, and we do feel it would have been a hard album to sell. It was a fairly dark record. We loved it, but we needed a more pragmatic approach. And what we eventually released gave us the platform we needed to launch the band.”
With patience wearing thin on both sides, a demo of ‘Wishing I Was Lucky’ was dusted down for commercial release in spring 1987, several months in advance of Popped In Souled Out. “This was a demo that we had recorded in Edinburgh for a couple of hundred quid and had taken us just a day and a half,” says Graeme. “Still, Phonogram had told us to go away, do a college tour, grow up and become a band. It’s so different to how things are today, but they really stuck by us. Of course, we paid back the advance in the end!”
‘Wishing I Was Lucky’ was an immediate radio hit and began racing up the UK charts. “From the frustration of the previous year, suddenly life was in fast-forward,” says Graeme. “You’re in demand and your life speeds up beyond recognition. It was surreal and bewildering.”
“There’s a fine line to walk and we walked it pretty well”
Wet Wet Wet joined a tour with Lionel Richie and played arenas for the first time, while continuing work on the album with new producers Michael Baker and Axel Kroll. “They put the album together and were much more in tune with what we were trying to do,” says Graeme. “The previous producers had seen the band a certain way and it didn’t work. We knew absolutely what we didn’t want, and it just came together with Michael and Axel.”
The band made its first appearance on the BBC’s iconic Top Of The Pops TV show on 21 May 1987. “As teenagers, we would sit and watch the programme every week,” says Graeme. “It was a British communal experience. We arrived to do our dress rehearsal on our first show and Whitney Houston was there, singing ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)’.”
‘Wishing I Was Lucky’ peaked at No.6, while July’s follow-up, ‘Sweet Little Mystery’, went one place further and made No.5, buoyed by a memorable video promo filmed in The Gambia. The band’s photogenic appeal was, by now, making them a big draw for the teenage pop magazines such as Smash Hits.
“There’s a fine line to walk and we walked it pretty well, striking a decent balance,” says Graeme. “When people came to see us, they could see we could play and that we wrote all our own songs.
“There were times when we did photo shoots and they wanted to glam us up, but we always felt the music had to drive everything else. If you do that, people give you a chance. When we broke, we did everything offered to us because we thought we might not be here in a few months’ time.”
But the group had a “simple philosophy” for writing: “Every song a single. In that age of the 7” and radio play, we were steeped in that environment. We certainly had five or six songs from the album that could have worked as singles.” Those that were chosen to represent Popped In Souled Out were all big hits, with ‘Angel Eyes (Home And Away)’ also making No.5 in the UK and ‘Temptation’ peaking at No.12 in spring of the following year.
“The only template we had for writing those songs were what we listened to on the radio,” says Graeme. “A lot has changed in the music business, but radio still has a huge part to play. You really don’t know if a song is a hit until you hear it on the radio.”
“You’re always trying to write the ultimate song”
When Popped In Souled Out was released on 21 September 1987, it appeared to peak at No.2 in the UK, held off by Michael Jackson’s Bad. It wasn’t until January of the following year that the album reached the top spot, powered by the band’s biggest hit yet in ‘Angel Eyes (Home And Away)’, one of their standout ballads in a songbook stuffed with many other worthy contenders.
“There are always things you think you can do better,” reflects Graeme. “As Elton John says, you’re always trying to write the ultimate song and, of course, there’s no such thing.
“With tracks like ‘Goodnight Girl’ [the band’s chart-topper from 1992] and ‘Angel Eyes’, which I always see as sister songs, I can’t now learn much from them as they were so successful. It’s the songs that don’t get played as much that you go back to and try to understand better.”
With standout album tracks on Popped In Souled Out such as ‘East Of The River’ and ‘I Can Give You Everything’, it was no wonder that the album continued to sell so strongly into the next year, but Graeme admits its success hadn’t been anticipated. “We were adaptable and were lucky to get a lot of breaks,” he says. “As Glasgow began to take off, we became something of the city’s poster boys. A lot of things aligned for us at that time.
“When we signed the record contract, I recall a conversation that we needed to get the first album out of the way and then, if that didn’t happen, there would be a second album to work with. The assumption was that the first album wouldn’t be the be-all and end-all. We thought the debut might break the ice and then we could get it right on the second go!”
Of course, the multi-platinum success of Popped In Souled Out led to further hit albums and a string of classic singles, including the all-time domestic UK chart champion, ‘Love Is All Around’. Some markets remained immune to Wet Wet Wet’s charm, however, and the group never really made it in the US. “We were a UK band and people understood that. If you want to break the States, you have to go there and stay there, and we weren’t the sort of band that would tour there relentlessly. Nile Rodgers once said to us: ‘If you have a hit in America, you have a hit around the world.’ Well, in this band, we tend to do things the other way around. We were the band that had hits all around the world, apart from America! It didn’t make sense, but that’s just business, and I’m not complaining.”
“As we get older, we get better as a band”
After a lengthy turn-of-the-millennium hiatus, the band re-formed for more recordings and a steady touring schedule, including some recent dates that saw them perform Popped In Souled Out and tracks from The Memphis Sessions in a special series of concerts.
Ahead of Popped In Souled Out’s 30th-anniversary reissue, Graeme is proud of what it achieved. “Once you get to work revisiting all the tracks for the box set and rehearsing them to play live, the memories come flooding back as if it was yesterday. No one is as surprised as I am that, 30 years after its release, we are still talking about it. It’s incredible!”
He says relations between the band members are remarkably good, despite Marti recently announcing he is concentrating on his solo work for the time being. “As we get older, we get on even better as a band. But if we do have the odd argument, it’s almost always about songwriting and how to improve our work.”
Graeme says his favourite song from Popped In Souled Out is ‘Wishing I Was Lucky’. “We really meant it,” he says. “It was the song that opened the door for everything else to happen. To be honest, I went off it for years and years but, having come back to it in recent times, I began to see again why it was so successful. It has a great message and people warm to that.”
That demo was blessed with a touch of magic and remains one of the pivotal British pop songs of the late 80s. The strong songs on Popped In Souled Out have stood the test of time for a reason, and everything that’s great about one of Britain’s most successful bands, with sales of 15 million singles and albums to date, is evident in their debut. There’s no question that all success requires some good timing, but few can believe that luck had a significant part to play in the story of Wet Wet Wet. You don’t build three decades of success from that.
The 4CD+DVD super deluxe box set of Wet Wet Wet’s Popped In Souled Out can be bought here.