When “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” broke into the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 in 2002 — its spartan, subterranean groove fulfilling the promise of its title about as well as any song ever has — it felt like the debut single from a burgeoning dance music maven. Because unless you were an Anglophile supreme in the 1980s, binging on the era’s UK soap operas and pop hits, it was probably the first time you’d ever heard of Kylie Minogue.
It was the first time I had. And even though I’ve been a fan ever since, I’ve still been in the dark about Minogue’s pre-millennium work – there was that cover of “The Locomotion”, and … some other stuff, probably? More like a ton of other stuff. The record that capitalized off “Can’t Get You Out of My Head”, Fever, was her eighth LP, but only the third to see a U.S. release. The last time Minogue’s label gave America a shot was in 1989, with a record that went to #1 in the UK but did squat over here.
PWL Records, the label that put out Minogue’s early work, has attempted to educate us. They have re-released her first four albums in a variety of formats, all of them remastered and loaded with bonus material. And while they give a valuable snapshot of what was trending in pop music over in England and Minogue’s native Australia at the time, they also present their own evidence as to why they might not’ve caught on everywhere.
Produced by the massively successful team of Mike Stock, Matt Aitken and Pete Waterman (aka SAW) – the men responsible for Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up”, Bananarama’s “Venus” and Dead or Alive’s “You Spin Me Round” – all four of these albums are marked by a particular 1980s mainstream R&B milieu that has not aged well. Tinny synth strings tinkle soullessly. Synth bass lines plop like fart bubbles. And lyrics about the fun/not fun nature of love add a sickly scoop of vanilla. But then a really good melody crops up on the chorus, and tries to make up for all of that lost ground.
This is the situation on every track of 1988’s Kylie, Minogue’s smash hit debut. However, with that fairly loyal “Locomotion” cover as its anchor, the record mostly works, at least as far as hummable bubblegum goes. Several of those well-crafted melodies do transcend the production flaws. “I Should Be So Lucky” sticks in the memory despite it being a straight Astley knockoff. “It’s No Secret” has such an effervescent hook that you almost don’t realize that the chorus begins with “Our love was a lie.” “Turn It Into Love” is Flashdance-ready, and the best thing here. Its theme of processing hate into love is a prototype of the positive mentality that would infuse Minogue’s post-millenial work.
On the ensuing Enjoy Yourself, the productions get a bit more ambitious, and Minogue’s singing becomes notably stronger. Yet the waters are muddied. No longer merely bridging the gap between pop charts and dance floors, the artist tries her hand at earnest balladeering and doo-wop on top of breathing life into the still-Astley-rific SAW house sound. So even though that ballad, “Tell Tale Signs”, is a beautiful piece of light-McCartney schmaltz, it can’t keep Enjoy Yourself from sounding like a messy document of artistic maturation.
The mess clears up a little bit on 1990’s Rhythm of Love. Using Madonna’s “Express Yourself” as a template, SAW takes a big step in the right direction – crafting big, hooky dance songs that don’t try too hard, and letting their star’s natural charisma and underrated voice do the rest. “Better the Devil You Know” is Minogue’s best early single – a track that wrestles with a lover’s flaws over a shimmering dance-pop groove with a hint of worldbeat. She’s appropriating Madonna here, but is far from aping her.
1991’s Let’s Get to It was the artist’s final PWL release, and while its awkward takes on New Jack Swing, Disney duet balladry and Jock Jams make it sound more dated by half than Rhythm of Love, it’s a confident work marked by Minogue’s first official stabs at songwriting. “Right Here, Right Now” lifts a Jesus Jones title from 1990 and a CeCe Peniston groove from 1991, but the sincerity in Kylie’s refrain, “I want you to be right here, right now,” is purely original. And her cover of Chairmen of the Board’s “Give Me Just a Little More Time” complements this early ’90s collage way better than you’d think. Unlike “The Locomotion” or “Tears on My Pillow”, Minogue marks this R&B classic with a bit of her own personality, even when she’s replicating General Johnson’s trademark rolling r’s.
It’s easy to be tough on these early records, to hear what a hit-making assembly line sounded like in 1989 and scoff. But for Kylie fans, this is important stuff. Hearing her find her voice on recordings that often sound like they were written by focus groups, her eventual world-beating success feels even more deserved. So it stands to reason that despite all the cheap synths and bottom lines that suffocate these tracks, there are more than a few that I can’t get out of my head.