There are three words that bring dread to my pop heart. They signify the death of pop music like a cold, surgical scalpel driven into the heart.
Stock. Aitken. Waterman.
They were three British music producers and 1987 was the beginning of what I call, perhaps a touch over-dramatically, their REIGN OF TERROR. Their rise both coincided with and hastened my move away from pop music and into rock and metal. I was probably ready for a change anyway, but the sound of Kylie Minogue singing about luck helped give me a hurry up. By the time Jason Donovan joined in I was long gone.
An interview in Smash Hits in 1987 reveals the backgrounds of the three, and those backgrounds explain a lot.
- Pete Waterman: DJ for a club and ballroom company, and an A&R man
- Matt Aitken: Played guitar on ocean liners
- Mike Stock: Played in a band in swanky hotels
Mike and Matt wrote the hits, and Pete was the ideas and promo man. Pete has a lot to say about the meaning of what they do which is to make music people want to have fun to. And money. (He has 18 cars, but is not really interested in money. Apparently.)
Pete explains his philosophy:
The industry that we all love – that we all grew up on, pop music – has been hoisted by its own petard by people being too clever, university students who want to write glowing political songs about how depressing it is in the north of England…. If Stock, Aitken and Waterman do anything it’s write songs for people to buy…. We write songs about life as we see it and as the kids see it.
About life as we see it and as the kids see it? I Should Be So Lucky? Never Gonna Give You Up? What the fuck is he talking about? Also he makes fun of The Smiths. So, you know: dick.
Pete’s tirade against the boring, serious music of the previous five years of pop music in the UK would include the ponderous, dreary politics of Wham!, Duran Duran, Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Culture Club.
The thing I realise now about Stock, Aitken and Waterman is that their actual sound was borrowed from the gay clubs of the 80s. Borrowed and modified. The musically new in popular music always seems to come from the margins. SAW gave songs that certain sound but they often did not write the songs themselves. When they did write the songs they were overwhelmingly bland, and thin sounding, often – but not always – with singers who were not much chop.
On any 80s best of playlist a few of their songs will pop up and the very best of their songs give a nice dose of fun, and a chance for an ironic sing-a-long. That’s as far as it goes though. If you thought: “Mel and Kim! They were so great!” and then you went and listened to their whole album you would get the same feeling you would get listening to Kylie’s whole first album, or Rick Astley’s debut smash, or Jason Donovan or Bananarama. What is that feeling? It’s the feeling of eating a whole giant-sized candy floss: the first mouthfuls are great, the middle period feels empty with decreasing sweetness, and the push to the end makes you hate yourself.
I did like some of their songs at the time. I liked Never Gonna Give You Up. I liked Respectable. But that was when those songs were brand new and, remember, those first mouthfuls are great. Now, 30 years later, those songs can make me smile, and I can sing a long, but I don’t love them.
There’s an exception, of course. Well, two.*
She was more popular in Aotearoa than anywhere else in the world. Her first three singles went to number 2, 6 and ll. I liked her second single too – After the Love Has Gone – but Say I’m Your Number One is the great track. It’s the solitary SAW song that I still love. Both of those first two singles are slower than a typical SAW song. Slowing down made everything a bit funkier. The bass sounds better, it lopes, there’s an actual guitar involved, and Desiree Heslop (Princess) can really sing.
Taking things back a notch and adding a good voice was not what SAW did in general. In general they made brisk music with a reedy voice. Their drum sequencing ran like a sledgehammer right through the track often with no change in the bridge or the chorus. It was a bit like they just hated drummers. Actually, like they hated musicians in general: wankers who wanted to make music they cared about (or political songs about the North or something).
A few times in the interview Pete Waterman compares SAW to Motown. “Look”, he says, “they were a factory churning out singles, we’re just doing the same”. He’s right. They were a factory churning out singles, and any record company is just a business. You can talk art as long as you want, but you do need to pay the bills. Also, there was a generic Motown sound like there is a generic Stock, Aitken and Waterman sound. But. Well, watch Standing in the Shadows of Motown. At the bottom of Motown’s factory were musicians. There are a few issues with that, including pay rates and recognition, but having musicians instead of sequencers and synthesisers means you have something with feel on which to build your reputation. Not that Motown were taking a moral stand – the technology didn’t exist – if it had they would have used it. Paying two guys to play with a sound desk is cheaper than paying a full band when it’s all about bottom line and profits.
A SAW song, unlike a Motown song, has all the feel of someone hitting you just below the knee over and over with a little rubber mallet. “Look!” Pete cries, “you’re tapping your foot!”
Fuck off, Pete.
*I owned Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know, and loved it at the time. In my defence, SAW didn’t write their songs and Pete Burns could sing. Anyway, You Spin Me Round, is a good track. Pete Burns died last year: bankrupt and evicted from his rented flat. His appearance post a 2006 plastic surgery on his lips is pretty sobering. Something that it might be tempting to make fun of, but which makes me feel very sad indeed.