Simon Cowell is a name synonymous with some of today’s biggest pop hits, boasting a net worth of around $550 million and annual earnings in excess of $95 million – but that wasn’t always the case.
In the early ‘90s, Cowell’s rise to the top hit a snag following the collapse of Fanfare Records, the label he had created which helped launch the career of Sinitta, with the hit “So Macho”.
The song, produced by 1980s hit makers Stock, Aitken and Waterman, reached no.2 in the UK back in July 1985 and was supposed to be the start of big things for Cowell. However by 1989 Fanfare Records had gone under and Cowell, close to bankruptcy, was forced to move into a role as an A & R Consultant with BMG.
There he was tasked with putting together novelty records for the likes of Big Breakfast TV puppet duo Zig and Zag and the Power Rangers. Yet the most bizarre was still to come. Having attended the 1992 edition of SummerSlam at Wembley Stadium in London, Cowell found himself captivated not only by the turn out, but the sheer scale of the production put together by Vince McMahon’s company.
Out of nowhere, a lightbulb went off in his head. Few would have known it, but that night the seeds were sown for what would come to be known as WrestleMania: The Album; the first and only WWE album to feature real pop tracks recorded by real wrestling stars.
It’s an album that has garnered a cult following since, though not necessarily for all the right reasons. Across 12 tracks, fans were ‘treated’ to some of the most bizarre wrestling recordings of all time. Recordings that have been all but erased from history, save for a few YouTube clips.
There was Bret ‘The Hitman’ Hart‘s weird power ballad “Never Been The Right Time To Say Goodbye”, a track in which the Canadian steadfastly refuses to even attempt to sing a single word of a song about breaking up with someone in vague and unspecified circumstances.
The late ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage provided one of the few highlights, flexing his MC Hammer inspired rap skills on “Speaking From The Heart”. It’s a track that finds the WWE icon rambling on in his signature growl about some of the most random things ever put to record including climbing mountains, partying and the…er…solar system.
And let’s not forget The Undertaker and his own effort “The Man In Black”, which finds the Phenom on predictably stoic form, ‘encouraging’ fans to “Do The Taker” – a new dance craze taken up by precisely no one.
Serving as executive producer on the 12-track album, Cowell enlisted the help of two thirds of his 80s hit making trio, Mike Stock and Pop Idol cohort Pete Waterman, to produce the majority of the album’s songs
“Simon proposed it initially to Pete who didn’t have any idea what the point was. My son was about 12 years old at the time and mad for WWE, so I knew all about it! So when Pete and Simon asked me what I thought, I said yes right away,” Stock recalls to loaded.
“Like I mentioned, I was forced to watch it with my son and so I knew the main characters. I liked the spectacle. The show was pretty fantastic.”
The first challenge faced by Stock and Waterman was composing the album’s songs, with both acutely aware of these WWE Superstars’ limited vocal abilities compared to previous collaborators like Rick Astley.
“Writing for the wrestlers was a unique experience,” Stock freely admits. “Singing, as a skill, was not the point really. Putting across emotion, fun, aggression, hype, power, passion and larger than life characters was the challenge.”
Then there was the process of recording with the wrestlers themselves, who were often coming off the back of a busy night in the ring and, like the finely tuned method actors they were, remained in character throughout the process.
It wasn’t just the “characters” of Bret Hart, Macho Man and The Undertaker that the production team had to contend with either. Other album luminaries included “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan, The Nasty Boys, Mr Perfect, Crush, Tatanka and the late Big Boss Man – with the latter channelling his inner Neil Young on the album banger “Hard Times”.
“They all came at separate times but were always in character,” Stock remembers. “They normally came to me at around 10:30pm, straight from a show. So I never had much time with them. Also they were absolutely wiped out most of the time.”
“I don’t think going into a studio after being thrown around the ring for hours was really their idea of relaxation. They really needed time to recover between shows, not mess about singing songs!”
That gruelling recording process appeared to pay off in the UK though when lead single “Slam Jam” – Stock’s personal favourite – reaching number 4 in the UK Top 40. That success helped the album climb to no.10 in the UK charts, This was the era when Noel Edmonds’ best inflatable mate Mr Blobby reached number one at Christmas.
“Slam Jam is my favourite, because it was the lead track from the album and getting my head into the project and coming up with an approach was the hardest part [of the recording process], as it is for any writer/producer. But with that song we had our ‘hit’ and that for me meant job done!”
Other songs, like The Undertaker’s effort “The Man In Black””are perhaps better remembered for performer Mark Calloway’s apparent reluctance to perform compared with his co-stars, though Stock appears to suggest that may have had more to do with his busy schedule.
“Typically the Undertaker came late evening. I remember having to provide a high stool for him to ‘prop’ himself up whilst behind the microphone,” he said. “They were all dead on their feet. I remember thinking this is a tough way to earn a living. Those men earned every dollar!”
Despite Stock and Waterman’s best efforts and that initial UK success, however, WrestleMania: The Album failed to chart in the US Billboard 200. That proved fatal to Cowell’s hopes of bringing music by wrestlers to the mainstream.
To this day, Stock does not know whether the X Factor chief’s interest in the project was motivated by money or a genuine interest in sports entertainment either. “I guess Simon saw an opportunity to sell some records,” he tells loaded. “Not sure if he was a fan, can’t recall now. But it wouldn’t surprise me to learn he was obsessed!”
Cowell’s foray into the world of novelty records would eventually bear fruit though. In 1995, he succeeded in convincing actors Robson Green and future Game of Thrones star Jerome Flynn to sign for him at BMG and record a version of “Unchained Melody” – a song they had performed together on the hit ITV drama series Soldier Soldier.
The recording went on to become the biggest selling single of 1995 with the duo going on to score the best selling album of the same year. They went on to sell seven million albums in total and five million singles with Cowell, successfully banishing the memory of songs like “Slam Jam” in the process.
Well, for some people at least.
Thanks to Mike Stock for speaking to loaded. You can keep up with all the latest goings on in WWE over at the official website.