The legendary producer, Stephen Hague, started out making the most uncool music possible. As a member of La Seine, he shared responsibility for long-haired 70s guitar combos making mainstream rock. As a songwriter, he provided input to Ringo Starr. As a session musician, he programmed synths for Gordon Lightfoot. Hague’s real break came, however, from his time with Jules and the Polar Bears – the lead singer went on to write songs for Cyndi Lauper (“App Around the World”) and Alison Moyet (“Whispering Her Name”), while Hague became an in-demand producer.
Things started to look up with work on Ric Ocasek’s Beatitude. The Cars front man had decided to move in an electronic direction, and Hague’s keyboard experience was just what he needed. The fact that Hague had acquired a CS-80 didn’t hurt, either. Thus began a career making many of the hits of the 80s for OMD, Erasure, Pet Shop Boys, and New Order. That turned into a career making hits in the 90s for Dubstar, Blur, Robbie Williams and Electronic. And it continues, to this day, with efforts for Lizzo, Whitey, and the renewed Dubstar.
Hague’s reputation has come at a cost. Some bands have seen him as their record label’s attempt to impress them with a winning sound. Others have worried that his production – like that of Trevor Horn – is just a little too glossy. There is no arguing with the results, however: Stephen Hague productions have a technical quality that the labels are willing to pay for. He has writing credits on songs that have never lost their appeal. And he has helped UK bands to cross the Atlantic when they were struggling to get attention. There is no pleasing some people (looking at you, Peter Hook), but the songs speak for themselves.
10. Rock Steady Crew – (Hey You) Rock Steady Crew
Hip hop and electro had been taking shape for a few years before Rock Steady Crew appeared on the scene. This Hague-produced and co-written single was a global sensation. The track topped the charts in Belgium and the Netherlands, and it was a top ten hit in Sweden and the UK. The Crew were a breakdancing troupe, and this song took their b-boy/b-girl ethos from the streets of New York to the world.
9. OMD – Secret
In 1985, the band that had written “Distance Fades Between Us” was searching for the commercial success that had fallen into the laps of the bands they had inspired. Cue a call from Virgin Records to Hague to work with OMD, whose radio-friendly direction had been demonstrated by the previous year’s Junk Culture. Hague went on to produce two albums for OMD; the first being Crush, which yielded this classic single. It is sometimes said that OMD is a band of two audiences – one experimental, the other commercial – but the pop credentials of “Secret” must be something that both camps can agree on.
8. Malcolm McLaren – Madam Butterfly
Hague worked with the former Sex Pistols manager, Malcolm McLaren, on a number of projects. Their first connection was indirect: the World Famous Supreme Team had taken samples from “Buffalo Girls” for “Hey DJ,” which had been produced by Hague. That was quickly noticed by Charisma, McLaren’s label, who had known of Hague through an association with Peter Gabriel, and he was soon in the frame for McLaren’s Fans album. An LP full of cod opera merged with hip hop must have sounded mad on paper, but they managed to record elegant voices that still raise a shiver.
7. Pet Shop Boys – Love Comes Quickly
The first producer to work with the Pet Shop Boys was Bobby Orlando, the Hi-NRG pioneer who had created alternative dancefloor hits for the Flirts and Divine before Neil Tennant tracked him down in New York. Orlando gave his treatment to “West End Girls” and co-wrote “One More Chance,” but his studio was not big enough to contain the stars that the PSB were turning into. A change of labels led to an invitation for Hague to rework the PSB material for their first album, Please. It was a step ahead of Orlando’s octave-bouncing Hi-NRG style, and it gave the duo a string of hits. Hague got a writing credit on this single, which helped to establish their new sound and his credentials as the go-to producer for electronic pop music.
6. Erasure – A Little Respect
When Vince Clarke wrapped up Yazoo and started Erasure, it was assumed that his Midas touch would be revealed again. Instead, the first Erasure album almost sank without a trace. It is a good thing that he held his nerve and carried on, as the duo were able to establish themselves as one of the most enduring and entertaining acts to emerge from the 1980s. In 1988, Hague’s reputation as an electronic music producer led to an engagement that saw Erasure topping the UK album charts for the first time. It wouldn’t be the last time that Clarke and Andy Bell would lead the sales tables, but their change of fortune owes something to Hague’s ear. Vince Clarke wasn’t entirely happy with the experience, however, and the gig for the next album, Wild!, went to Gareth Jones and Mark Saunders.
5. The House of Love – I Don’t Know Why I Love You
In 1989, The House of Love were on the verge of becoming massive. Hague was called in to work some magic on this song, which was released as a single despite singer Guy Chadwick’s intuition that it wasn’t the right track for the times. It didn’t reach the top 20, but it became a hit among US college radio stations and the cool crowd. It is still one of the band’s best-regarded songs from that period.
4. James – She’s a Star
James were discovered by Tony Wilson of Factory Records and recorded their first release for the legendary label in the same Stockport studio used by Joy Division. They were concerned about using up their best songs in the studio, however, so opted to record what they took to be their three worst songs for their debut EP with Chris Nagle. No fear of that Mancunian logic being allowed when Hague got involved, but he was pulled in by Fontana while the band were in a shambolic state: the singer had another project to work on; Brian Eno was only half-involved with production work to date; and the studio set-up was a mobile arrangement in the drummer’s house. Retreating to Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios near Bath, Hague set about cleaning up the process and the songs, leading to a string of top-ten hits and critical acclaim. Nice one.
3. Sheila Chandra – Ever So Lonely/Eyes/Ocean
One of the greatest voices to emerge from Britain belongs to Sheila Chandra. The former Monsoon vocalist had a solo career that was tragically cut short when she developed “burning mouth syndrome” – a condition that makes even whispering painful. Hague was tapped to remix a medley of three of Chandra’s greatest songs, “Ever So Lonely,” “Eyes,” and “Ocean,” for the 2001 compilation, Gifted: Women of the World. The digital release had to wait until 2023’s Out in the Real World, but the sonic purity of Chandra’s voice is timeless.
2. Dubstar – Hygiene Strip
Hague’s work with Dubstar began in 1995, when the original line-up was still on Food Records. Disgraceful – which had a pencil case on the cover that was so sexy that Woolworths banned it from display – contained the classic tracks, “Not So Manic Now,” “St Swithin’s Day,” and “Stars.” Hague added accordian to the album, as well as a layer of glossy production that lifted the pop potential of the songs.
Fast forward to the Covid-19 lockdowns, and Hague was called on to work with the renewed Dubstar on tracks for their album, Two. Sarah Blackwood’s vocals had lost none of their innocence or classiness in the intervening years, while Chris Wilkie’s guitar playing had acquired a new sensitivity. Hague’s unpressured approach highlighted the self-assurance of the band, while adding to the playfulness of the enterprise.
1. New Order – True Faith
Peter Hook likes a whinge. The former New Order bass player became very upset when he felt that, during the recording of “True Faith,” Hague paid little attention to his contributions. Hague, to his credit, now says that he wishes Hook had made more of a noise when the single was being crafted. It certainly didn’t lead to him being vetoed as producer for New Order’s mid-career, difficult album, Republic, but Hooky’s unhappiness is featured loudly in his biography. New mind, Hague’s single-mindedness turned “True Faith” into one of New Order’s most majestic singles and got the band onto the soundtrack for American Psycho. Can’t complain about that.