Backtracking is our recurring look back at the pop music that shaped our lives. Friends may come and go, but we’ll be spinning our favorite albums forever.
It’s hard to explain Dannii Minogue’s glitter-strewn place in pop culture to Americans. After all, the younger Minogue is yet to crack the Billboard Hot 100. But to Australian children of the ’80s, she was Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato rolled into one as the star of a hugely popular children’s TV show where pre-teens belted out the latest hits by Prince and Madonna in sequined leotards and bubble skirts.
To British teens of the late ’90s, she was ultimate party girl — ruling the social pages of the tabloids a decade before Paris Hilton turned it into a viable career path. Those worlds finally collided in 2001 when an international club smash established Dannii as a full-fledged international pop star. A year later she knuckled down to record what would turn out to be the best album of her career and one of the greatest dance-pop albums of the noughties.
Head below as songwriters Ian Masterson and Hannah Robinson join us in a look back at Neon Nights, 10 years after its release.
Let’s get the Kylie talk out of the way. Dannii’s big sister is relevant to the Neon Nights conversation in so far as her then-inescapable celebrity revitalzed the Minogue brand. In 2001 the KM juggernaut reached critical mass when “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” topped the charts in over 20 countries and sold 10 millions of copies (to date). It was inevitable that eyes would turn to her glamorous, raven-haired sister and the younger Minogue was soon approached by dance outfit Riva to lend her breathy vocals to a moody club track called “Who Do You Love Now.”
Riva feat. Dannii Minogue — ”Who Do You Love Now”
The diva’s edgy new sound resonated with fans and the song became a global hit. (It even peaked at #15 on the Billboard club chart.) That success prompted London Records to offer the now-hot singer a six-album deal in 2002. Only one of those would ever reach shelves, but what an album it turned out to be.
Writing for Neon Nights commenced in 2002 in Stockholm with Swedish producers Korpi & Blackcell, best known at that time for their work with Sophie Ellis-Bextor, and English pop star turned songwriter-for-hire Karen Poole. Dannii was after a club-friendly sound that would capitalise on the overwhelmingly positive response to “Who Do You Love Now” and, no doubt, to tap into the dance-pop explosion that her sister engineered with Fever.
Songwriter Ian Masterson, a seasoned Dannii collaborator, tells Idolator, “The whole album grew quite organically from happy accidents. There were also some tracks that started out as trance productions. The ballad ‘It Won’t Work Out’ was originally a banging 140 bpm Paul Oakenfold type thing, which [was inspired by] ‘Who Do You Love Now,’ as the trance sound of that single was the original direction for the album.”
The original brief was soon thrown out the window and the album eventually veered towards early ’80s pop and the French house movement. The Korpi & Blackcell contributions are great examples of the rich Neon Nights sound palette. “For The Record” still sparkles like freshly poured pink champagne, while the album’s official lead single proved you could revisit the 1980s without sounding dated and derivative.
Dannii Minogue — ”Put The Needle On It”
The raunchy “Put The Needle On It” (hint: it’s not about working the decks) built on Dannii’s sexy image — she did, after all, bare it all twice for Australian Playboy in the ’90s! — and the slick synths and heavy bass had more in common with vintage Donna Summer than anything on the radio at the time. The song peaked at #7 on the UK chart — her first Top 10 single in five years — and #11 in Australia. The refrain “dirty hands, I demand” became a popular catchphrase. A Middle Eastern diva even covered the song in Turkish (below). Dannii was officially a chart force to be reckoned with.
If “Put The Needle On It” was Dannii’s nod to the American dance scene, she had European EDM on the mind while recording “I Begin To Wonder.” Produced by Italian house producer Jean-Claude Ades (or JCA), the nuclear-powered dance anthem started life as a club instrumental before being retooled into a dark and gritty pop tune.
Ian Masterson, who produced the vocal for the track, remembers, “We spent quite a lot of time getting the vocals down as it’s such a particular sound, and Dannii was determined to give it her own personality. We had to write lyrics for a second verse as it didn’t exist. When we finished ‘I Begin To Wonder’ there was definitely a feeling that this could be a big record for her. The JCA production is really simple, but clever, and her vocal pushes the chorus to soar.”
Dannii Minogue — “I Begin To Wonder”
Masterson’s suspicion turned out to be correct. The irresistibe second single evolved further when spliced with Dead Or Alive’s 1985 classic “You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)” and promptly became a club sensation. “I Begin To Wonder” peaked at a career- high #2 in the UK and returned the dance diva to the Australian Top 20.
JCA would prove to be a great foil for Dannii. They also recorded “Come And Get It” during the Neon Nights sessions. It follows the “I Begin To Wonder” blueprint, but has a dreamier club soundscape. Curiously, it was omitted from the album, but released as a single in Germany and remained a hugely sought-after collectible until it was included on the 2007 re-release of Neon Nights. Hannah Robinson, whose songwriting resume now boasts Icona Pop, Lana Del Rey and Ladyhakwe, co-penned the track along with another Neon Nights contribution, the irresistibly perky disco revisit “Hey! (So What).”
“Barry and Jules [producers Jewels & Stone] are very good friends of mine, so that session was a lot of fun,” Robinson tells Idolator. “We wrote the track specifically with Dannii in mind, and not long after it was finished, I happened to bump into Phil Faversham, her A&R person at the time, and played it him. He thought the track was great for her and we cut it with her a few weeks later.”
Hannah Robinson & Dannii Minogue writing for Neon Nights (photo courtesy of Robinson)
It wouldn’t be the last time the pair worked together. “Another session I remember was for [stand-alone 2004 single] ‘You Won’t Forget About Me’,” Robinson says. “The backing track was already big in the clubs, so we just added to it. It was summer and Dannii wanted to write about a holiday romance, so that’s what we did. By that time we’d written together a few times, so working together was fun and easy.”
In many ways, Neon Nights is defined by the brave choice of collaborators, many of whom, like Masterson and Robinson, were largely unknown at the time. Take Neïmo, the French electro-rock band that contributed the gorgeous slice of retro-kitsch “On The Loop” and the Daft Punk-esque electronic ballad “A Piece Of Time.”
The Frenchmen imbue the album with sheen of European sophistication that is still popular in clubs today. “Some of the songs on Neon Nights like ‘A Piece of Time’, which was produced by Neïmo, could almost fit in with the whole Madeon/current French house/Calvin Harris sound,” muses Masterson.
Neïmo also produced the album’s glorious third single, “Don’t Wanna Lose This Feeling.” The cheesy chunk of pure-pop finds Dannii at her most confident and alluring. She had finally found her niche and she knew it. The cherry on top was getting Madonna’s approval to mash the song with “Into The Groove,” which propelled it into the UK Top 10. The single cover sums up the Dannii’s quirky headspace at the time. There she is looking smoking hot in a barely-there skirt, eating a packet of crisps.
Dannii Minogue — “Don’t Wanna Lose This Groove” (Madonna mash-up)
Despite the impressive success of all of its singles and Neon Nights’ Gold status, no further singles were released off the album, which seems ludicrous in retrospect. The cute disco adventure “Mighty Fine” would have been the campest song to hit the airwaves since her sister raised that particular bar with “Your Disco Needs You,” while words fail to adequately describe the delightfully low-brow “Vibe On,” an obvious ode to plastic self-love that Dannii explained away as a song about sitting on speakers. Sure. And Khia’s “My Neck My Back” is about remedial massage.
It wouldn’t be a Dannii album without a contribution from long-time collaborator and friend Terry Ronald, who first worked with the diva a decade earlier on her cover of Melba Moore’s “This Is It.” He teamed up with Ian Masterson to craft superb dance-pop gems “Mystified” and “Push,” as well as most of the project’s excellent bonus tracks (“Goodbye Song” and “Nervous” are well worth hunting down). The former was particularly popular with fans and bandied about a potential fourth single at the time.
“Terry and I always had a massive love affair with ’80s synth sounds and that whole French house thing. We were really just mucking around in the studio when we came up with the backing track idea for ‘Mystified’,” Masterson recalls.
He continues, “We wrote the song with Dannii really quickly. She has always loved that sort of stylised pop, as well, and we had a lot of fun in the studio just bunging bits of vocal down, chopping them up and re-arranging them in a sampling, DJ way. It was one of the first tracks done for Neon Nights and sort of became the template for the electro-pop sound of the album.”
Neon Nights was eventually released in North America on in October 2003, and peaked at #17 on the Electronic Albums chart. Singles “I Begin To Wonder” and “Don’t Wanna Lose This Feeling” performed well on dance radio, but Dannii had to settle for cult status in the States. It’s a shame, because Neon Nights is a remarkably sleek and chic pop album bursting with cheeky, vibrant dance tracks that seamlessly mix eras and influences.
It’s one thing to create an excellent three-and-a-half-minute dance-pop song, but another to sustain the appeal over an entire album. Kylie managed it with Fever, Madonna followed suit on Confessions On A Dance Floor. Dannii’s contribution to the genre is every bit as good as those classics.