Incredibly it is almost a quarter of a century since Canada’s KON KAN recorded the classic ‘I Beg Your Pardon’, which was a massive worldwide hit single in 1989. It cleverly fused a popular country record with a contemporary dance track, and can perhaps be regarded as something of an embryonic mash-up – this was of course a few years before THE KLF’s slightly eccentric collaboration ‘Justified And Ancient’ with country star Tammy Wynette hit the UK charts. Still sounding fresh and relevant today, somewhat cruelly, this landmark record would be Kon Kan’s only hit single in the UK, and many people won’t be aware of a rich back catalogue that spawned 3 albums.
Inspired by DJ-turned-recording-artists such as Bomb The Bass and S’Express, Barry Harris conceived Kon Kan in 1988. The name was derived from the term ‘Can Con’ (Canadian Content), a rule that specified that Canadian radio’s playlists had to comprise 30% Canadian music. Harris was an experienced musician, having learnt guitar, bass and piano during his formative years. However, it was after hitting the discos in the late 1970s that he was inspired to become a DJ; starting off in College Radio, before progressing to the clubs of Toronto in the mid 1980s.
‘I Beg Your Pardon’ was inspired both by Pet Shop Boys’ cover of ‘Always On My Mind’ and an increasingly prevalent use of sampling in dance music; from early Chicago house music pioneers such as Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley to later exponents such as Todd Terry, Coldcut and significantly, M/A/R/R/S. And then of course there were other hip-hop acts such as Public Enemy and The Beastie Boys who were plundering the James Brown back catalogue for beats and pieces.
Incorporating a slightly lo-resolution sample of Lynn Anderson’s ‘Rose Garden’ (which had been cut up into four pieces to fit the rhythm), the fledgling songwriter created a driving synth-pop track that strongly resembled New Order with an end-of-relationship narrative. He then drafted in a fresh-faced, 22-year old session singer named Kevin Wynne to deliver a deliberately monotone vocal that would not only complement the melancholic verses, but also offer a contrast to Anderson’s sprightly vocal. To complete this pop mosaic recording, the track was punctuated with samples by disco acts such as Silver Convention (Get Up and Boogie) and GQ (Disco Nights (Rock Freak)); the pioneering track also contained hints of Chic’s ‘Le Freak’, Spagna’s Italo-Disco hit, ‘Call Me’, and even The Magnificent Seven theme!
‘I Beg Your Pardon’ had originally been released in June 1988 by Toronto’s (now defunct) independent Revolving Records label. In spite of Kon Kan’s ironic name, the single was seemingly too obscure to receive any significant local radio exposure. However, fate was about to intervene with the arrival of a New York-based Atlantic Records employee (and radio promoter) named Marc Nathan who was on vacation in Toronto. Whilst in a dance club he heard ‘I Beg Your Pardon’ for the first time and immediately knew the track had the potential to become a smash hit single. And he certainly had a proven pedigree, with artists such as Laura Branigan and Debbie Gibson achieving considerable success in the 1980s. He excitedly approached the DJ booth to find out what the song was.
Marc Nathan: It was the most immediate reaction to a song I had never heard (within a club context) to that point in my life (I was 33). Barry was actually DJing and spinning his own record at the time, so for me it was ‘one-stop shopping.’ I got to hear it, find out what it was, and meet the artist all at the same time!
There was a record store around the corner from the club that specialized in 12″ vinyl. Barry had pressed ‘I Beg Your Pardon’ on an indie local (white) label, and I bought 6 or 7 copies of it to bring back to New York. I gave one to my direct boss, one to the president of the company, and mailed four of them out to stations I had a close relationship with. Two of those stations were the Top 40s in Houston, TX (KKBQ and KRBE) and both added the record.
It was received particularly enthusiastically in Houston and was eventually picked up by Atlantic, despite their initial scepticism. Their first job was to organise the sample clearance with CBS for Lynn Anderson’s ‘Rose Garden’.
Marc Nathan: At the time I was still a promotion man for Atlantic (I later segued into A&R) so at the time I had nothing to do with the preparation for US release other than getting it ready to go on the radio. Between the legal department, the A&R department, and the management, it got worked out. To this day I don’t know what the actual arrangement was!
With the legalities sorted out, the record company then persuaded Harris to re-recruit singer Kevin Wynne (who had initially been paid a flat fee for his vocal), allowing them to market Kon Kan as a duo – with his boyish good looks, Wynne was perfect front man fodder. Harris had originally envisioned Kon Kan as a one-off solo vehicle, but eventually warmed to the idea. Their next stage was tracking down Kevin Wynne, who kindly discussed his involvement in Kon Kan:
What was your musical background prior to the ‘I Beg Your Pardon’ session?
Kevin Wynne: When Barry and I first met, I was a few years removed from a band that I formed with my best friend in High School. We were a 3-piece electro-pop act that got together back in ’82 and were called En Vogue [not to be confused with the R‘n’B act with the same name!]. We did covers of the early electro stuff out of the UK – for instance, all of Depeche Mode’s Speak and Spell and Broken Frame tracks, Yazoo, Heaven 17, Blancmange, Spandau Ballet, etc…
When I first started forming my tastes, I couldn’t get enough of the British imports of the late ’70s and early ’80s – I would spend hours in the local import record store looking to get my hands on anything new. I started with punk and spent the next several years loving the growth and change that always came mostly from the UK – Echo & The Bunnymen, Siouxsie & The Banshees, Depeche Mode, Classix Nouveaux, Duran Duran, New Order… the list goes on and on.
How surprised were you when you got the call to team up with Barry Harris for the promotion of the single and the subsequent recording of the Move to Move album?
Kevin Wynne: It was a few months after we recorded ‘I Beg Your Pardon’ that I got a call from Tom Gerenscer (owner of the basement studio that we recorded in, and also the keyboard player in En Vogue). He told me to stop by because he had a copy of my record. My first reaction was: “What record?!” I truly had forgotten about the session! After that day, everything started snowballing. It was fast becoming a local club hit – Toronto radio station CFNY were playing it steady, and then we started to hear about pockets in the US where we were charting: Houston, Texas of all places was mad about Kon Kan. The real surprise was in how this thing took off the way it did!
‘I Beg Your Pardon’, eventually re-released in the Spring of 1989 (and boosted by a cheap-looking, but effective promo video), was a worldwide hit, reaching the top 5 in several countries (including the UK) and the Billboard top 20 in the US. It deservedly earned Kon Kan a Juno Award (the equivalent of a Grammy in Canada) for Best Dance Recording in 1990. True to the times, it was released in an array of formats and versions (the instrumental version notably recalled vintage OMD, with its charming choral flourishes). The pressure of following up such a successful record was felt by Barry Harris:-
Barry Harris: Of course there was a lot of pressure, though at the time I had no idea just how far ‘I Beg Your Pardon’ was really going to go – remember, hindsight is 20/20. We had to finish an LP. We got asked to do Top Of The Pops while in LA but had to finish the LP, so I was forced to turn down that offer – something I now regret. It would be amazing to see something like that now on YouTube!
The resulting album, Move To Move was a diverse collection of tracks, showcasing a number of influences; including funk (Cameo), hip-hop (Grandmaster Flash), New Wave (Blondie) and rock (Led Zeppelin). Primarily, though, there were a number of synth-pop influences such as New Order, Depeche Mode and Pet Shop Boys, as Barry Harris confirms:
Barry Harris: All of these UK acts influenced me on the Move To Move LP. Erasure would have been an influence, even Kraftwerk, but also a few American ones as well. The Freestyle genre (Lewis Martineé – producer of Expose, Noel, Stevie B etc.); Cameo (‘I Can’t Answer That’); Sade influenced ‘Am I In Love’, combined with simple pop music and straight-ahead rock pop (which is what I felt the song Move To Move itself was).
And, testament to his 5-year career as a DJ, there was of course a strong undercurrent of dance music running through the album’s 9 cuts. Indeed there was a veritable onslaught of dance acts permeating the charts while ‘I Beg Your Pardon’ was steadily making its ascent to the UK Top Five in the spring of 1989. Amongst these acts were the highly influential Soul II Soul, a Marshall Jefferson-produced Ten City, Coldcut, The Beatmasters and De la SouL, who were bringing their own blend of humour and beats to the hip-hop scene.
Whilst Harris was seemingly unbound by formulaic constraints, there was an inevitable retread of the ‘I Beg Your Pardon’ cover/original blueprint included for good measure: Puss N’ Boots was another kitchen sink epic, which cleverly integrated a faithfully-recreated version of Nancy Sinatra’s ‘These Boots Are Made For Walking’ (Harris had drafted a Sinatra sound-alike in) and sampled elements of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Immigrant Song’ (interestingly, many hip-hop acts, such as The Beastie Boys, had sampled the same band’s track, ‘When the Levee Breaks’, which in those days was almost as ubiquitous a loop as James Brown’s ‘Funky Drummer’). New York rapper BX Style Bob, a member of Ice T’s Rhyme Syndicate, contributed the song’s rap. Puss N’ Boots later earned another Juno Award nomination for Best Dance Recording, but missed out to Jane Child’s ‘Don’t Wanna Fall In Love’.
In addition, there was an excellent cover version of ‘Bite the Bullet’ (originally recorded by fellow Canadian synth-poppers, They Never Sleep), and two ballads (both sung by Harris); one of which were co-written by renowned songwriter Jon Lind who had co-penned both Madonna’s ‘Crazy For You’ and Earth Wind & Fire’s ‘Boogie Wonderland’. Elsewhere there were collaborations with Dennis Matkosky, whose songs had been featured in films such as Flashdance, and Bob Mitchell (a name that would become familiar to fans of Kon Kan over the next few years).
Barry Harris: “When we first met, his biggest success was ‘The Flame’ by Cheap Trick. I can’t remember exactly how I met Bob I think it was perhaps through our publishers. I do remember where though: it was in LA I liked Bob immediately because he got me being more dance and European-influenced. No-one in the US that I worked with really understood what that influence meant. I think his publisher flew him in to write with me, perhaps to work with others in LA too in 1989, I’m not sure. I really liked his creativity and originality. He challenged me, took my ideas to a different place and l loved that. We got along well immediately and I learned quite a bit from him!
Another highlight of the album was the quirky ‘Glue and Fire’, which sounded like Bernard Sumner fronting Coldcut! Much of the album had in fact been mixed by Alan Meyerson, who had also worked on New Order’s Technique.
Whilst Barry Harris was undoubtedly the musical mastermind behind Kon Kan, Kevin Wynne’s contribution to the project wasn’t just restricted to lead vocals, as he confirms:
How much creative input did you have on Move to Move?
Kevin Wynne: We worked with a very talented bunch of people on Move to Move and I suppose everyone involved, including myself, had creative input on some level. I contributed lyrics in a few spots… but this was primarily Barry’s baby.
Was there a particular reason why you didn’t sing the ballads ‘Am I In Love’ and ‘Move to Move’?
Kevin Wynne: In fact I did originally sing and record ‘Am I In Love’… and there’s even a version somewhere of my vocals on ‘I Can’t Answer That’. But, for one reason or another, the tracks weren’t working with my vocals. Barry had done a great job with ‘Move to Move’ and we decided he was better suited for ‘Am I In Love as well’.
Whilst ‘I Beg Your Pardon’ was an undoubted masterpiece in editing, the album’s epic opening track is equally deserving of plaudits. ‘Harry Houdini’, which boasted an incredible 3-minute freestyle intro (pretentiously titled ‘Arts’ In D Minor’!), recalled Pet Shop Boys’ Martineé-produced ‘Domino Dancing’. An edited version was released as the second single but failed to emulate the success of its predecessor; perhaps due in part to the fact that it deviated too radically from ‘I Beg Your Pardon’s cut ‘n’ paste template.
Disappointingly, further singles ‘Puss N’ Boots/These Boots Are Made For Walking’ and ‘Move To Move’ equally struggled to make an impact on a fickle record-buying public, and Kevin Wynne also shared in this frustration:-
Kevin Wynne: It was a bit disappointing, but not altogether surprising. I think I knew from the start that we didn’t have another ‘Beg’ on that album – it was a very tough act to follow!
However, as a live act, Kon Kan did enjoy considerable success in South American and Asian territories. Kevin and backing singer Kim Esty who later had a several hit singles in her own right in Canada, reminisced about the Move To Move tour:
Kevin Wynne: I’ll always remember the Fall of ’89 for a number of what you might call ‘near misses’. After spending a few days in San Francisco (the most amazing city in North America), we flew out to Phoenix on a Monday afternoon. The next day, as I was relaxing in my hotel room getting ready for a show, I turned on the TV to watch a World Series game. It was the day the earthquake struck… the area immediately around the hotel we had just left was devastated!
We had a little time off between Phoenix and our next show in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Barry went back to Toronto, Skip Gildersleeve and I went straight to San Juan for a week’s holiday. A couple [of] days before we got there, Hurricane Hugo made a real mess of the island – another close call! Skip and I almost lost our rented Jeep that week when we tried to drive on the beach too close to high-tide… luckily, a tow truck came along and saved us!
We were in Houston, Texas, when there was a massive explosion at an oil refinery. It rocked the city like an earthquake… luckily for us we were on the other side of the city!
In November, we were off to Southeast Asia for 6 weeks and visited several countries. One night, as I’m watching the news in my hotel room in Jakarta, Indonesia, the headline story is of a coup taking place in the Philippines. Well, Manila just happened to be our next stop on the tour… in 2 days! I immediately called Skip into my room and just stood there pointing at the TV saying, ‘um, I don’t want to go there!’ So he gets right on the phone with the people from the label in Jakarta, who in turn contact our people in the Philippines [and] they say, ‘Don’t worry, this kind of thing happens here all the time – things will settle in a day or so, and we can go ahead with the schedule.’ That’s not how it went! It turned out to be a very dangerous situation and our trip there was cancelled. The good news was that we ended up with a few extra days in Jakarta, with a little time off, so I took advantage and hit the golf course! Overall, it was the trip of a lifetime, and I ended up going back to that part of the world several times over the next few years.
Kim Esty: It definitely was a surreal experience, especially for me. When we would walk off the plane, hundreds of kids were welcoming us at the airport. They would be in hysterics seeing Barry and Kevin, handing us gifts [and] notes. Many of the shows would stand out due to the energy and [the] love the audience had for Barry and Kevin – it was very sweet. A few shows were very restricted. I think it was in Malaysia where we were instructed not to dance, touch any of the audiences’ hands; also not to encourage the crowd to clap, scream, participate with us in any form, due to their rules. I just remember doing the show and it was a complete different energy from any previous show – all the kids sitting like well behaved children (some in a buffalo stance, some with hands perfectly placed on their laps), and also I remember seeing security guards near the doors – it was different; especially because we loved to interact with the kids during the shows.
What other memories do you have from this period?
Kevin Wynne: Simply put: all of it! But I can name a few – the friendship I formed with our tour manager, Skip Gildersleeve (he and I had some great adventures together, and he made the road a lot of fun); the fans around the world; and the wonderful way we were treated everywhere we went.
Kim Esty: I loved singing the hit ‘I Beg Your Pardon’. The crowd went insane when the first few chords played – very exciting! Its really surreal being on stage singing a song everyone knows and loves! It was such a great time in my life and I’m so grateful Barry gave me the opportunity – he taught me so much about the industry, about “always look like you’re a star.” The tour was definitely a defining period in my life where being on stage, singing hit songs was something I longed for! Plus being spoiled staying at 5 star hotels, dinners every night with so many interesting music executives. I felt like a million bucks and I was just the back-up singer!
How do you feel about Move to Move these days?
Kevin Wynne: I have a great sense of pride in the fact that something I did over 20 years ago is still enjoyed by so many people around the world. Since the advent of Facebook, in particular, it’s been fantastic over the last few years being contacted by fans who just send notes of well-wishes and to let me know they’re still listening.
Were you disappointed not to be involved with Barry on subsequent Kon Kan projects?
Kevin Wynne: Sure there was a bit of disappointment – I felt that we may have had some good music still ahead of us as a duo. That said, I was happy to move on with other things at the time. Barry and I came from two very different places, and it worked in that short window. There were never any long-term discussions – we just ‘rolled with it’. I had thoughts of a solo career at the time, and hooked up with a Toronto indie label to record some stuff. All that ended up coming out of it was one single Last Chance that the world never heard, but to this day it remains (to me) the best work I ever did. I worked on it with my best friend that I mentioned earlier.
What have you been doing since you left Kon Kan? Do you still sing?
Kevin Wynne: I’ve never been too far removed from the music industry. Right after Kon Kan I was in the club business for a few years. I then moved into the business of design, packaging and manufacturing of CDs and DVDs. That evolved into graphic design and print, which is where I am today.
Over the years I still get the odd opportunity to sing. In fact, a few years ago I got together with a few friends from the High School days and we put a set together for a friend’s 40th birthday party – it was the most fun I’d had in years! We contemplated taking it further, but that never came to pass.
Do you still keep in touch with Barry?
Kevin Wynne: We haven’t seen each other in years… the occasional ‘hello’ online is about the extent of it. Our lives have taken us each in very different directions, but the fact is we shared an incredible couple of years together and will always have that to look back on fondly.
And what of a possible Kon Kan reunion?
Kevin Wynne: I’m often asked if Kon Kan will ever perform again, and over the years I’ve always had the same answer: “Ya never know!” It’s not something Barry and I have ever talked about, but I’m sure he gets asked the same thing… it might be fun to add to the Bucket List!
The Electricity Club gives its warmest thanks to Barry Harris, Kevin Wynne, Marc Nathan and Kim Esty
Kon Kan Move To Move was released by Atlantic Records. It can still be purchased new from a number of online CD dealers.
Text and Interviews by Barry Page
Photos courtesy of Barry Harris and Kevin Wynne
18th February 2012