No more excuses: 30 years of “Better The Devil You Know”
Can it really be possible? Kylie Minogue‘s ground-breaking entry into the 1990’s, the one that really changed everything, forever, turning thirty? Of any retrospective write up I’ve ever written, this is the one I fear and relish more than any other. Why fear? Well, just where have the last thirty years gone? I was 13 years old when this song came out (you do the math!) and yet it feels like only yesterday that all of us stood up in awe on first hearing of this absolute zenith in Kylie’s discography.
So where to begin with this appraisal. Well, and you’ll have to forgive (and forget, maybe?!) me if I seem a little biased with this one. It is my favourite! Put quite simply, Kylie has never topped “Better The Devil You Know”. “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” may be bigger in size, but in terms of everlasting quality and sheer reinvention, nothing has ever, and I doubt, will ever equal or top this one for musical style, vocal dexterity and the confidence that oozes from Kylie in both the execution of the video and the cover artwork for this one song.
Kylie’s career, until now, had been bubblegum, factory produced power-pop that generated number one singles and albums the world over, from “The Locomotion” to “I Should Be So Lucky”, “Especially For You” and “Hand On Your Heart”, Kylie took the charts, and indeed, Stock Aitken Waterman themselves by surprise. We all simply fell for Kylie’s girly looks, her sometimes bizarre dresses and the curly blond hair as she tempted us with lines like “dreaming’s all I do, if only they’d come true” and “it’s never too late, we’ve still got time”. BANG! By the turn of the decade, Kylie was dating INXS lead singer Michael Hutchence and suddenly she was none of this. Gone were the frilly dresses and the curly locks, in came a young woman with pouting lips, straightened hair and a new fashion sense. Just what would this do to her music? We didn’t have long to find out.
Pete Waterman has gone on record as saying that he thought this would be the end of her career. And maybe, sometimes, it is better the devil you know. Well it worked. Stock Aitken Waterman had entered the 1990’s to do battle with the new dance craze that had dominated the chart in the second half of 1989. Their music, which was the most successful of all that year and had achieved seven UK number one singles and the year’s biggest selling album, was in danger of being cast aside in the new decade. As well as dance music, indie music through groups like The Happy Mondays, The Stone Roses and The Inspiral Carpets were making big dents in the music charts and pushing out the sound of the 80’s. Almost overnight, PWL drastically overhauled its product to combat annihilation. It began at the very end of 1989 with Sonia‘s “Listen To Your Heart”, a much more serious affair than her debut, “You’ll Never Stop Me Loving You”, only two singles earlier. The sound was irrefutably Stock Aitken Waterman, but the soundtrack was moving into a more mature, dance orientated genre that was their take on the Italian club music that was beginning to take over.
Press release for “Better The Devil You Know”, April 1990
“Listen To Your Heart” was a top ten hit and within weeks, Mike, Matt and Pete took things to the next level with newcomer Lonnie Gordon‘s recording of “Happenin’ All Over Again”, a song originally intended for Donna Summer, who had provided one of the biggest SAW/PWL songs of 1989, “This Time I Know It’s For Real“. It was difficult, on first hearing, to identify “Happenin’ All Over Again” as a Hit Factory production. The ‘tell tale signs’ were there but suppressed within a heady mix of bass and beats not previously associated with the label. The song was a huge critical and commercial success on both sides of the Atlantic and allowed Stock Aitken Waterman‘s entry into the 1990’s without losing their grip on the record buying masses. What was needed now was to apply that new formula to their biggest artist of all and seal that position unreservedly.
Although Kylie attended the studio to record “Better The Devil You Know”, that was as far as PWL’s involvement went. With her newly ‘installed’ confidence, Kylie now began to take control of her career. And it began here. Firstly with the cover photography and artwork and then with the video. Out went the Stock Aitken Waterman norm of great dance moves and all smiles at the camera and in came sexyness, serious looks and smoldering yearning against a backdrop of flames and fire. At one point, Kylie is embraced by one of her dancers while she wears Michael’s ring! Announcing to one and all that she had been converted, and that this was the shape of things to come.
“Better The Devil You Know” was released at the end of April 1990 and was met with astonishment from both the music industry and Kylie’s fans. Stock Aitken Waterman‘s reinvention had reached its climax within the boundaries of both their willing and ability to take things. The song was an instant smash and anyone thinking that this new Kylie was done and dusted was quickly cast aside as “Better The Devil You Know” anchored itself in the upper reaches of the charts across the globe. The song annoyingly spent two weeks at No.2 in the UK, held off the top by Adamski’s “Killer“, but one could argue that some songs are just a little too good to be number one. This wasn’t just a new decade or a new sound, this was new Kylie, the first new music following her hugely successful album “Enjoy Yourself” and gave a taster of what was to come at the end of the year.
Kylie continued her own personal journey later in 1990 with the funky “Step Back In Time” before releasing her third studio album, “Rhythm Of Love“, in November, which included, for the first time, four tracks not only written by Kylie herself but written and recorded away from the claustrophobia of the PWL machine and with producers of her own choosing. The album cover says it all. Change. Confidence. Competence. And perhaps Kylie knew herself if that hadn’t of happened, when it did, her own longevity was at stake. The Stock Aitken Waterman machine did, inevitably, slow and fade by the mid-90’s but it didn’t take Kylie with them.
She completed her contact and moved away at the right time to forge new alliances. But those alliances and those that followed were all possible from this one song. I would argue that had Kylie not of taken control at this point with such a monumental new recording, she may not be afforded the success or even the opportunity as a recording artist today. “Better The Devil You Know” is an iconic masterpiece and although it was covered at the end of the decade (which we will pretend never happened) the song stands tall today, ageless, but above all, loved and revered as one of Kylie’s finest hours. So I can confirm that yes, it is true what they say, it IS better the devil you know!
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