Retrocon 2024

Interview with Barry Harris of Kon Kan

(This interview was originally published June 27, 2013 on the now-retired Kickin' it Old School blog. It is one installment in an incredible series of interviews we are republishing on Rediscover the '80s for posterity and your enjoyment. These are more than just interviews in a way; they are more like '80s timelines or oral histories on their respective subject matters. Please keep in mind the original date because some content could be specific to the time of the interview, though the majority should be timeless and totally rad.)  

When the opportunity presents itself to ask a few questions to someone who contributed to the awesomeness of the '80s, I will continue to share those answers with you right here. Again, lucky for me (and hopefully you), I do get to share a little more awesomeness with you.

This time that awesomeness is Barry Harris. He is best known by 80s fans as the man behind the Canadian group Kon Kan and the 1989 synthpop international hit “I Beg Your Pardon“. It is a brilliant dance track demonstrating Harris’ DJ talents, featuring some interesting sampling choices and is another underrated gem from the '80s. Kon Kan is definitely considered a one-hit-wonder, but Harris has taken his musical and remix/DJ skills to further success. Find out about him, Kon Kan’s big hit single and more as we get on to some selections from my interview with Barry Harris

Q: When did you know you wanted to be a professional musician? When and how did you get your own start in the music industry? Please tell us a little about what you did earlier in your career prior to Kon Kan.

BarryAll my life, I wanted to be a musician as far back as I can remember. I played guitar in a few garage bands as a teenager. I started DJing in 1983 hoping one day to remix records and perhaps eventually make my own record. I worked part-time as a DJ and part-time in an import record store off-and-on as well from 1983 up to 1988 before Kon Kan blew up. We originally put it on Revolving Records which was a label this record store (Starsound Records in Toronto) created.

Q: Which came first, Kon Kan or “I Beg Your Pardon”? How did Kon Kan come to be? Where did the band name come from and is there any particular meaning behind it? How did Kevin Wynne come to sing the verses in your song?

BarryBoth the name Kon Kan and “I Beg Your Pardon” were created at about the same time. My intention for “I Beg Your Pardon” was that it would be like S-Express or Bass (How Low Can You Go), kinda like a DJ record. I hired Kevin to sing on the song originally as simply a session singer. I recorded the song 60 miles outside of Toronto in Hamilton, in a MIDI studio. MIDI [Musical Instrument Digital Interface] studios in those days were rare. I worked weekends at Tom Gerencser’s studio which was in the basement of his parents’ house. He knew of a singer who he’d worked with in the past named Kevin [Wynne]. He suggested I let Kevin give the song a try, so I did, and the rest became history.

I titled it Kon Kan hoping that Canadian radio would notice the record. There is a term in Canada called “Can Con” (Canadian Content) where Canadian radio stations have to play 30% Can Con to ensure they support Canadian artists. I thought it was a bit bold and cocky to name a band Kon Kan, but said to myself, “f##k it maybe they’ll notice me”. Which by the way, as an indy artist at the time (before we were signed to Atlantic Records) they did not.

Q: Please take us back to when “I Beg Your Pardon” was written and recorded. What is the back story about how that particular song was conceived and written? How did it evolve? What inspired the lyrics? They seem personal, are they?

BarryIt kind of grew as I made it I guess. I had the idea for the main instrumental hook. I knew I somehow wanted to incorporate “Rose Garden”. I had all these other '80s influences that I loved at the time. Pet Shop Boys’ “Always On My Mind” was one of them and I thought, “hmmm… what if I were to take that idea (of doing a dance/pop/alternative song and merge it with a country classic) but interpret it differently than simply doing a cover version”. As I always wanted to make my own record, I was exploding with ideas and influences especially because I was a DJ and working at a record store. You can hear all of those influences from beginning to end. Even the “Awwwwwww YA!” crowd at the beginning was Chic’s “Le Freak” only stretching that …awwwwwww (at least in my mind at the time). The lyrics were about my first love relationship. As I had never really attempted to write lyrics seriously before, I already had the melody of the verses in my head so I simply started with a “Once Upon A Time” idea… “there once was a time and there once was a way…” and it pretty much flowed from there.

I Beg Your Pardon” was originally released in 1988, but then re-released in Spring of 1989. It was a worldwide hit reaching the Top 20 in at least six countries including reaching #15 on the Billboard Hot 100 and became one of the biggest dance club hits of the late-80s. It was written and mixed by Harris with, as he said, vocals provided by Kevin Wynne. It includes many interesting samples but most notably country artist Lynn Anderson’s 1971 hit “(I Never Promised You a) Rose Garden”. It also includes samples from The Magnificent Seven theme and “Get Up and Boogie” by Silver Convention among several others. It all comes together to create a fun dance track (despite its sad lyrics). Here is the music video for “I Beg Your Pardon” by Kon Kan

Q: How/why did you choose to sample Lynn Anderson’s “Rose Garden” and the other unique choices for that song?

BarryAs I mentioned above, I chose “Rose Garden” firstly because of Pet Shop Boys’ “Always On My Mind” [1987 cover reached #1 in 7 countries including Canada and the UK as well as #4 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100]. As I only knew of the Willie Nelson version of that song before them, I thought of using a different Country song and using it in a different way. I also liked the contrast of the negativity of the verses vs. the positivity of lyrics like “smile for a while and let’s be jolly”.

Q: Did you have a feeling that “I Beg Your Pardon” was going to be something special when you wrote or recorded it?

BarryOf course I thought it was something special. It wasn’t finished until I felt it was done and “special”. My hopes at the time were that it would be a European hit somehow. I felt it was very Euro-Pop and should do well over there, at the very least as an import and perhaps get picked up by a European or UK label. When I shopped it to a few promoters in the UK, I remember it was turned down as they said it was very American which was very discouraging and kinda stunning (still am to this day) that he’d think that. Remember I was also working at a Canadian import record store at the time, so (now in hindsight) I really had my “finger on the pulse” in many ways of what was American, what was Euro, Freestyle, House, UK house… everything I guess.

Q: What are your memories of making the music video for “I Beg Your Pardon”? Who came up with the concept for the video? How about the phone booth and you carrying that synth around on a strap? What are your thoughts on the impact that music videos and MTV had on music in the '80s, especially in America?

BarryHa! That video cost $3,700 to make and you can tell. It was the director’s idea to do most of the crowd, etc. I’m sure I probably brought up the telephone booth idea. I can’t remember now. It was certainly a fun day!

MTV was huge of course and crucial. I’m sure if we had “I Beg Your Pardon” on MTV it would have been ever bigger. As it was, Atlantic Records didn’t feel the video was good enough for MTV and wouldn’t pay for another one to be reshot as the first L.P. wasn’t finished.

Q: What are your feelings regarding “I Beg Your Pardon” now 25 years later?

BarryI’m very proud of it. I’m stunned of its impact and could never have dreamed that SO many people around the world would love it so much and have so many fond memories. I used to think hit music was a temporary fad and only lasted a few years. Now I know music is forever. Certain songs are forever. I simply had no idea I’d be talking about it to anyone 25 years later, nor did I ever think anyone would care. I guess it was simply inconceivable to even daydream that! I’m thrilled to see via YouTube just how many lives we touched with that song and even with some of the other songs in various different countries around the world.

Q: What do you remember best about the decade of '80s music? What lasting impact do you feel music from the '80s has made?

BarryEvery decade has an audience it touched deeply. There is something about one’s teen years and 20’s that music really affects for life. Perhaps it’s their party years that everyone fondly remembers and years later reflecting on those years puts everyone in “their happy place” when life was uncomplicated. The best thing about '80s music is the melodies and hooks in my opinion. Each decade also has its own fashion and culture.

Q: Please tell us a little about where your music career has taken you since the '80s.

BarryAfter Kon Kan, later in 1998, I teamed up with Chris Cox and we accidentally created Thunderpuss. We became one of the few “it” remixers in the U.S. that many came to from 1998 – 2003. Our biggest accomplishment was the remix (pretty much musical re-write) of “It’s Not Right but It’s Okay” by Whitney Houston [The mainstream radio airplay and sales for the single were actually given to their Thunderpuss remix which became a 1999 hit reaching the top of the Billboard dance chart and peaking at #4 on the Billboard Hot 100]. After that we remixed everyone from Britney Spears, Madonna, Christina Aguilera, Celine Dion, Cher, etc. It was quite the wild ride!

Q: Please tell us about Sick Seconds and what you have going now with this new band.

BarrySick Seconds is me going back to my roots, back to my playing in a rock band again. As I love so many different kinds of music, it’s currently refreshing to do something I haven’t really done before. It feels fun, fresh and exciting. It’s great being in a group now with a lot of other talented musicians, writing songs and performing them. It’s fun starting from zero and building from the ground up. It’s fun doing the bar scene. I never did that before. I’m having a lot of fun simply doing what I love to do, writing, producing, performing, singing, creating songs!

Q: What else is Barry Harris up to nowadays? Any remaining ambitions or regrets? What is the current status of Kon Kan?

BarryNo regrets. Just having fun. As for Kon Kan, Kevin and I are considering getting back together, doing some rehearsals and we’d like perhaps to do some '80s festivals or club tour dates. Nothing is planned for certain yet though.

I am so pleased that Barry was able to take some time to answer some questions so I could share them with you here. You can keep up with him on Twitter @KonKanOfficial or his personal Twitter @BarryHarrisProd. Kon Kan also has an official Kon Kan Facebook pageI want to take this occasion to again thank Barry Harris for his contributions to '80s pop culture especially through Kon Kan’s “I Beg Your Pardon” and, even more, for going back to the '80s with us here for a little while as well.

Follow @OldSchool80s on Twitter for a daily dose of '80s nostalgia and read more Retro Interviews on RD80s.

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