❉ A nicely packaged collection, highlighting a very different sound for PWL.
“Can’t Forget You, Listen to Your Heart and Counting Every Minute all run with the heavier bass, synths and samples common of the club styles of the time. And all are excellent examples of a modernised PWL sound led by a singer with a great set of lungs… The remixes on each CD are where the club influences really stand out, however, as they strip out some of the additional production and lean into something more frenetic production-wise.”
If we’re honest, Sonia Evans was one of the last great Stock/Aitken/Waterman superstars. This is not meant to disrespect other artists of the era, but she had a very strong run of chart success and her debut album Everybody Knows remains a firm favourite amongst fans of the hallowed Hit Factory. One reason for this is that every single track on the album cries out to be a single.
Criminally, one not selected was the album’s title track – but it does, however, lend its name to this box set of her five solo singles. A sixth disc contains her collaboration with gay-as-a-daisy threesome Big Fun, which was a charity single for Childline.
Obviously the first disc is her debut single You’ll Never Stop Me Loving You. Sonia, famously, is the only artist to ever ring Mike Stock up and thank him for a number one hit and it’s easy to see why this was. While it has the obvious PWL production polish, it doesn’t quite sound like anything else S/A/W produced before: the emphasis is much more on staccato bass-lines, club-friendly drum loops and stabby synths. It’s a great arrangement and Sonia’s powerhouse vocal makes it an absolute classic.
Interestingly, it could have been so very different. The “Demo Version” also included on this CD has the same vocal, but that arrangement is a much more standard bubble-gum pop affair which wouldn’t be out of place on the first couple of Kylie albums. This is not a criticism, by the way – it’s still a very polished production so calling it a demo is doing it a disservice – but the decision to go with a different style was one well made.
Following this, the die was cast: subsequent singles Can’t Forget You, Listen to Your Heart and Counting Every Minute all run with the heavier bass, synths and samples common of the club styles of the time. And all are excellent examples of a modernised PWL sound led by a singer with a great set of lungs.
The remixes on each CD are where the club influences really stand out, however, as they strip out some of the additional production and lean into something either darker or more frenetic production-wise. And nowhere is the latter more evident than the Listen to Your Heart extended mix. This mix has always been a personal favourite and I was delighted to find it was a regular turn on the decks at G-A-Y when I moved to London.
In fact there are so many great mixes here that it’s hard to single any one out. The only one that does find itself on my radar is only because it’s a bit of a blot on the copybook. You’ll Never Stop Me Loving You’s “XXX Kiss Mix” has an instant red flag in its name – while the standard “Kiss” mixes are excellent, the “XXX” version features what became at the time a very overused sexual groaning sample which even now makes this reviewer wince a bit. But you know… least said, soonest mended.
As you’d expect, the B-sides from the various singles are included, and the instrumental versions of both A and B-sides also make an appearance on each CD. As a bonus, a couple of the rejected original mixes of these songs and their accompanying instrumentals make their way on board too.
The problem with this set, however, is that all of Sonia’s solo PWL output was released to iTunes years ago and those were, frankly, more comprehensive releases. Instrumental mixes are all very well, but one of the draws for all the PWL iTunes releases were the never-before-released backing tracks. These tracks, featuring the backup-vocals of Miriam Stockley, Mae McKenna and Mike Stock featured harmonies that were invariably gorgeous and highlighted their importance to the Hit Factory sound. Sadly, not a single backing track has made it to this release which is a major shame.
It’s also odd because some other tracks from the iTunes releases – ones that have no relation to the singles – have inexplicably made the cut. One of these is the random inclusion of Everybody Knows (plus instrumental). Obviously, I am firmly convinced it should have been a single and had a plethora of club versions, but it didn’t – so these two additions seem mainly to be there to justify naming the box after them.
The last two CDs get even more disjointed. The aforementioned charity single You’ve Got a Friend is the only CD in the set that has any hard-to-find material. These – the extended mix, instrumental and extended instrumental – piqued my interest at first since I’ve never managed to get hold of them before. Having heard them now, however, I’d say that unless you’re desperate for an extra 15 minutes of saxophone noodling courtesy of Gary Barnacle, they’re hard to consider a selling point.
As it happens, You’ve Got a Friend was a Stock/Aitken/Waterman original which had to replace the originally planned cover of the Carole King classic of the same name. That cover version is also included on the disc and will be considered either a non-essential version or utter sacrilege depending on your point of view.
The last single from the ‘Everybody Knows’ album was a cover of Skeeter Davis’ ballad The End of the World. It’s a lovely production and it really highlights the strength of Sonia’s voice. I may be committing heresy here, but I must say that I prefer Sonia’s to the original as it’s a much warmer affair by far. Coincidentally, it attained the same UK chart position as Skeeter’s version, hitting #18.
It’s also not the first time the song was a cover for a PWL act, the previous attempt being with the band Brilliant, a mid-80s project featuring Killing Joke’s Martin Glover and KLF’s Jimmy Cauty. (That’s worth checking out too – it’s a very different ‘80s power-ballad vibe, if you like that sort of thing.)
Two mega-mixes of Sonia’s dancier tracks are included as well, but again both were released to iTunes a long while back so it might have been better, if you are going to pad a disc out with unrelated material, you might at least put Sonia’s spirited rendition of Elvis Presley’s Let’s Have a Party in their place. Yes, it’s available elsewhere, but does at least hint towards the more retro sound she would adopt shortly after departing the Hit Factory.
On the plus side, the booklet is – as you might expect for Cherry Red – gorgeous. Overall context is provided by a detailed essay by PWL historian Tom Parker, and it’s obviously lavishly illustrated. Most glorious of all, however, are the handwritten notes on each track submitted by the siren herself. Her enthusiasm for each song just shines through and is an utter delight.
So, it’s mixed release this one. There are many positives – aside from the saxophone noodling, I do genuinely love every track on here – but some inclusions just don’t seem to fit the remit you’d expect of a singles collection. It is, however, a handsomely presented set, the tracks are cleanly mastered and it includes a booklet of the high standard we’ve come to expect. For die-hard Sonia/PWL uber-fans – especially those who prefer physical product to digital – it’s pretty much perfect.
I just wish someone had asked Matt Pop to do a new mix of Everybody Knows. I’d give my right arm for that. (Well, someone’s right arm anyway.)
❉ Sonia: ‘Everybody Knows – The Singles’ 6CD Box Set (Cherry Pop CRPOPBOX227) released 14 May 2021 by Cherry Red Records. Click here to order directly from Cherry Red Records.
❉ Rob Morris is a regular contributor to We Are Cult. He is also the writer of several audio dramas for Big Finish Productions and What Noise Productions, and was one of the contributors to the bestseller 1001 TV Series You Must Watch Before You Die.