By the dawn of the eighties the raw and aggressive angst of the punk rock scene had been replaced by the more polished and calculated sound of new wave and synthpop. The Sex Pistols had split following a self-destructive tour of the Unites States while The Damned had revamped themselves as a pioneer of the growing gothic movement. Even the most revered of acts such as The Clash would begin to lose popularity in a new decade whose focus had moved from guitar-driven rock to synth-based pop. Whereas in recent years young groups had emerged from working class pubs and night-clubs, now music could be created by one individual without the need for bassists and drummers. Gone were the angry political anthems that had spoken to the youth of the late seventies and in their place were synth-produced pop songs tailored made for the MTV generation. And arguably one of the most spectacular of these was Kids in America.
Kim Wilde was twenty-years-old when she was launched into the mainstream with her debut single and over the next twelve months her signature tune would dominate the charts the world over. A reluctant sex symbol and regular fixture of British magazines, she was soon hailed as the new Debbie Harry but in truth her success had come almost by accident. With both Madonna and Cyndi Lauper yet to make their grand entrance into the world of pop and Suzi Quatro struggling to remain relevant in the ever-changing musical landscape, young girls were desperate for a role model and adolescent boys eager for their first crush and so with only one song in her repertoire Wilde became the new sensation. With the media running such headlines as born to the wilde and wilde thing, the British public were soon obsessed with the fresh-faced singer and by the end of the year she had scored three more Top 20 hits.
In retrospect perhaps Kim Wilde had always been destined for stardom. Her father Marty Wilde was one of the first British rock ‘n’ roll stars and during the late fifties enjoyed a succession of hit singles that included popular renditions of Endless Sleep and Sea of Love. Her mother Joyce had been a member of the popular group the Vernons Girls and with both regularly appearing on the hit show Boy Meets Girls the two fell in love and were soon married with a highly-publicised ceremony. In 1972 Kim’s younger brother Ricky was being groomed for success as the new Little Jimmy Osmond and at the age of just eleven soon gained acclaim with his debut single I Am an Astronaut. Despite his rising popularity, being a pre-teen celebrity would prove to be a frustrating experience and by the time that he left school he was already attempting to reinvent himself as a serious musician.
Even as Ricky Wilde was enjoying his first taste of success his sister looked set to follow in the family tradition. ‘My sister Kim, she’s twelve, she also sings. But she’s not on my album,’ he told Disc in 1973. ‘But she’s making an album that will be out pretty soon.’ It would take eight more years before Kim Wilde would release her debut, during which time she had regularly performed backing vocals on her father’s records, while occasionally joining him onstage alongside her mother. But Marty was reluctant to allow his daughter to enter the music industry, having witnessed first-hand how many female pop stars were objectified and so Kim decided to focus on her academic aspirations by attending art college in St Albans. For the next two years Wilde would indulge in her passion for painting but it seemed almost inevitable that her musical heritage would eventually take hold of her.
I had high standards and wasn’t prepared to settle for second best
‘I’d tried to get a local band together when I was eighteen,’ she told Record Mirror in 1982. ‘I even taught one friend to play bass but even at that time I wanted a good sound. I had high standards and wasn’t prepared to settle for second best, so eventually I got into the studio and started helping Ricky out.’ Having attempted to distance himself from his early public persona by developing his writing talents and experimenting with modern trends and technologies, Ricky Wilde had also become a member of his father’s touring group and while the chart hits may have seemed like a distant memory Marty had remained a popular act on the pub and club scene. Despite having been classically trained on the piano in her youth, Kim had always felt that her musical skills had been somewhat overshadowed by her sibling and believed that if one of them was destined for the charts it was not her.
After leaving college Kim found work in a bar and even though she came from a wealthy family had never flaunted her father’s money, instead regularly buying her outfits from such local charity shops as Oxfam while cutting her own hair, a style that would ultimately become her trademark. ‘I’m basically scruff and have a sort of rough and ready look that’s pretty untogether but definitely uncontrived,’ she admitted to the Daily Express. ‘Scatty really, which is the way I am. Dad still has a lot of his original stage clothes. I’ve been right through his wardrobe but everything’s miles too big. I’d wear them if I could have them altered. And I wish mum had have left her old Vernon Girl gear. I’d have worn them too.’ Even after finding success with her breakthrough hit, Kim would continue to shop at her favourite Oxfam store and would even wear these clothes during her music videos and photo shoots.
While Kim struggled with what direction she wanted to take with her life Ricky had never given up his dream of becoming a star and while touring alongside his father would regularly retreat to his room to compose new material. And yet he still felt haunted by his earlier exposure to the public, having released a total of nine singles within a two year period. ‘I’m trying to forget all that,’ he admitted to the Sun during the promotion of Kids in America. ‘When I was about twelve I made a record. My picture was in all the teenypop magazines. It is all horrendously embarrassing.’ Marty had been very supportive of his son during his childhood career and had nurtured his songwriting talents throughout his teens and yet had given very little thought to his daughter becoming a star. Despite having spent time in the studio with Kim when she was sixteen the recordings had remained unreleased and he was somewhat reluctant to expose her to the sexualised attention that she would inevitably receive.
As Ricky pursued his dream Kim seemed more content with the traditional teenage life, paying little interest in the music scene and instead focusing on relationships and her minimum wage job. ‘Punk sort of passed me by. I had a steady boyfriend then and he meant more to me than any movement. I didn’t feel the need to be a rebel,’ she explained to Superpop. In a later interview with Look-In she added, ‘I used to be frightened by punk, seeing a lot of kids hanging round who seemed to hate everyone and everything. I don’t: I love everything. I have a family I love, I don’t want to rebel against that.’ Regardless, Wilde would still rebel to a certain extent, particularly with her unconventional image which at one point would include elaborate make-up and hair dye. During her time at Presdales School in her native county of Hertfordshire she would experiment with an unorthodox appearance, often in an attempt to overcompensate for a face that she felt was somewhat plain and lacking any beauty.
In between shows Ricky continued to record material that he sent out to publishers but events would soon take a turn when Marty was unable to attend a recording session and so instead offered the studio time to his son. ‘Ricky went in, demoed some songs he’d been writing and ended up taking them to meet with several record companies,’ Kim recalled to Louder decades later. ‘One of them happened to be Mickie Most’s RAK Records. Mickie recognised very quickly that he had a great talent on his hands with Ricky’s production, songwriting skills, energy and passion for pop music; they were all the things he recognised in himself.’ Most had first entered the industry around the same time as Marty Wilde and the two would become well-acquainted over the years and with Ricky Wilde he saw the same kind of artistic talent. It would seem that he finally had a second chance at becoming a star.
Having split from her boyfriend and growing frustrated with her life, Kim had begun to consider a career as a backing vocalist and so offered her services to her brother. ‘I was at a loose end after leaving art college at St Albans,’ she confessed to the Welwyn Hatfield Times. ‘I filled in the time doing backing vocals for some recording my brother Ricky was doing.’ With Ricky having been invited to a meeting at RAK Records to discuss the possibility of signing with the label he agreed to bring his sister along but the moment Most saw Kim his priorities soon changed. ‘Mickie noticed me straight away,’ she told the Guardian. ‘He asked Ricky, ‘Does your sister sing?’ Suddenly, Ricky was being asked to write songs for me. He wrote the tune for Kids in America with my dad doing the lyrics. Ricky came up with the melody on a Wasp synth, a little black and yellow thing that made a bloody irritating noise if you were the older sister in the bedroom next door.’
With Most eager to transform the young woman into a pop star Ricky immediately set to work composing a song that would serve as her calling card and so turned to his father for assistance. While he would develop the music using his synthesiser, Marty worked on the lyrics, taking inspiration from a television programme that had left him feeling traumatised. ‘I’d seen this TV show about teenagers in America, which frightened the life out of me,’ he would later recall. ‘It was like an X-rated movie. They didn’t seem to have any heart. I thought, ‘My God, what are they going to grow into?’ It was probably how the older generation had looked on me and all the other early rock ‘n’ rollers. The lyrics tell the story of these kids’ lives: ‘Kind hearts don’t make a new story, kind hearts don’t grab any glory.’ A lyricist’s job is a bit like a screenwriter’s, you’re painting pictures with words.’
The session for Kids in America would take place in the summer of 1980 at a studio known as the Lodge, a facility in Northampton owned by members of the progressive rock group The Enid, who had recorded their two most recent albums within its four walls. As with its writing, the recording of the song would be a relatively swift affair with Ricky creating the majority of the music through his trusty synthesiser. With The Enid having an ever-changing line-up that would result in each album featuring a host of different musicians, it would be their drummer of-choice Chris North that would be with the group when Ricky and Kim entered the studio and so decided to offer his services for the session. With Ricky drawing on a host of influences that would range from the punk rock style of the Sex Pistols and The Clash to the futuristic synth sound of Kraftwerk and Gary Numan, Kids in America would perfectly capture the sound of the rising new wave scene.
‘I did the melody fairly quickly, in about half an hour,’ explained Ricky. ‘Dad and I fancied it as the title track of an album with Kim in front of a New York skyscraper. We wrote it just for fun and it was great that it got as high as it did.’ For Kim the opportunity to finally record a song professionally was an experience that she would relish. ‘I love working in the studio because I love singing anywhere at any time,’ she told Jackie after the initial success of the song. ‘I suppose it can be a bit boring for producers and so on, having to listen to it over and over again, but I never get bored. I don’t mind listening to myself played back, though I’m usually very critical. You always know afterwards that you could have done so much better’ With Ricky acting as both the primary musician and producer, Kids in America was created without any outside interference but now they had to present it to the label in the hope that its influential owner would become seduced by its charms.
I immediately heard a hit,’ claimed Most in an interview with Now! soon after its release. ‘The public today is looking for a less polished, slightly do-it-yourself sound in records generally and I knew straight away that this could be the start of a huge record and a big career for Kim. It was the last thing on all our minds when she came in that day last August but the song had magic and we couldn’t fail. I think Ricky and Kim were surprised by my decision to put it out as a single but I knew from the first few notes.’ For Marty, the chance to finally collaborate with both of his children on a record would be one of the most satisfying experiences of his long career. ‘It’s like seeing the whole thing start all over again,’ he told the Evening Times. ‘Kim is a natural and she will go far. She is twenty times the entertainer I was. It has been all the more satisfying that Ricky and I supplied the words and music.’
I’ve seen what some of the girls in rock go through and I suppose I was over-protective
Yet despite the attention that Kim Wilde would begin to attract the moment that Kids in America was released in January 1981, Marty would confess that he had been reluctant to see her enter the music industry. ‘I openly encouraged Ricky to go into the business,’ he explained to the Sun. ‘But with Kim it was different. I’ve seen what some of the girls in rock go through and I suppose I was over-protective. I think I’ve underrated her. She’s sensible and treats it like a business. I didn’t realise how stunning she looks until I saw the video they made for the single. I’m so used to seeing her across the breakfast table that I never really thought about how beautiful she is.’ Thirty-five years later he would recall the impact that seeing his daughter transformed into a pop star would have on him. ‘I crossed my fingers and hoped it would make the Top 50,’ he said. ‘When the video appeared on Top of the Pops there was Kim with long blonde hair. I couldn’t believe it was my daughter, this girl I used to see lounging around the house.’
The moment that Most heard Kids in America he was determined to sign both Ricky and Kim Wilde to RAK Records. ‘I told Ricky, who will write the songs with his father for the album, that I needed some material for the LP and he said he would have them ready in a week,’ recalled Most on the speed in which the project would come together. The sessions that would follow, which would see Chris North resuming his drumming duties following his work on the single, would be completed in record time. ‘It took a couple of months to get the album written, recorded and mixed,’ Kim told Pop Pix. ‘What happened was I learnt the songs a few minutes before I recorded them. I vaguely knew what they were going to be because I heard them being written around the house, although I didn’t have the time to get in on some of the demo recordings of the songs.’
The success of Kids in America would transform Kim Wilde into a pop star overnight and while it would take a couple more years to break into the United States, in Britain she had become a pinup and sex symbol by the time that her debut album was released in the summer of 1981. ‘Success doesn’t awe me. I’m not over-excited by it,’ she told the Liverpool Echo. ‘It’s just given me an inner contentment. I don’t have to try to be a singer anymore.’ In an interview with America’s Rock Scene in 1987 she revealed the reluctant attitude that her international label had in seeing her as more than just another one-hit wonder. ‘It takes a lot of money and commitment to get an artist off the ground here and I don’t think they looked at me as a long-term artist,’ she declared. ‘I think they decided, ‘We’re not willing to put this kind of commitment, this kind of money, into an artist we think is gonna be here today and gone tomorrow.’’ While Kids in America may remain the single she will always be known for it is one of the most iconic pop songs of the early eighties and that is a legacy worth being proud of.