Treasures of Stock, Aitken and Waterman – The Not So Perfect Ten

The definitive ten tracks ever to have been produced by Stock, Aitken and Waterman

February 1987: a month on from starting the Ewing School. Not least the (oft-mentioned on this blog) fringe benefits of listening to Piccadilly Radio on my 30 mile round trip. At around that time, I started to gain a greater interest in chart music, looking at a long dog-eared copy of Chez Vall’s Guinness Book of British Hit Singles (second edition, 1978). I used to enjoy listening to the songs of the day since my formative years, though never too interested in the record labels and chart positions.

Then came my first half term holiday of The Ewing Years®. Half term meant Wacaday. School holidays also meant another outlet for chart music. Besides ‘the chart that counts’ – aka BBC Radio One’s UK Top 40, Top of the Pops and Piccadilly Radio, this meant the odd music video on TV-am. Being we were only a few months away from MTV Europe’s début, any pop video was a bonus.

Well in to the new term before the Easter holidays, two sisters from Hackney got to Number One with Respectable: Mel and Kim. The next three years of singles chart would be dominated by their producers: Stock, Aitken and Waterman.

In the next three years, they would be loved and loathed in equal measure. Among the purists, using the words ‘puppet’ and ‘manufactured’. To the great record buying public (especially the sort who would watch Wacaday or Going Live – myself included) – well, they were loved. Or rather, the acts were (maximum kudos for getting Newton-le-Willows on the map – take a bow Rick Astley).

Just to irk the purists, this month’s Not So Perfect Ten focuses on ten musical treasures of Stock, Aitken and Waterman. Just to irk them even more, I would say their songs, which were universally derided as cheesy and tacky, have aged pretty well. One or more may have the obvious 1980s feel, but so what?

Our Ten Treasures of Stock, Aitken and Waterman:

  1. The Upstroke, Agents Aren’t Aeroplanes (1984);
  2. Whatever I Do (Wherever I Go), Hazell Dean (1984);
  3. You Think You’re A Man, Divine (1984);
  4. My Heart Goes Bang (Get Me A Doctor), Dead or Alive (1985);
  5. Venus, Bananarama (1986);
  6. Respectable, Mel and Kim (1987);
  7. Never Gonna Give You Up, Rick Astley (1987);
  8. I Should Be So Lucky, Kylie Minogue (1988);
  9. Too Many Broken Hearts, Jason Donovan (1989);
  10. This Time I Know It’s For RealDonna Summer (1989).

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1. The Upstroke, Agents Aren’t Aeroplanes (1984):

In Smash Hits, future Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant derided the track as a poor version of Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Relax. The cover art was inspired by the Liverpudlian group’s 12″ version, so I could see the connection. The group, Agents Aren’t Aeroplanes, was sisters Diana and Julie Seabrook, Mike Stock, Matt Aitken and Pete Ware. (The other Pete, Waterman, had yet to join: he had produced for Musical Youth and Nik Kershaw). A competent first effort I would say, though the 12″ version surpasses their 7″ radio edit.

2. Whatever I Do (Wherever I Go), Hazell Dean (1984):

For our second entry, it was a toss-up between Searchin’ (Gotta Find Me A Man) or this one which I chose, written and produced by SAW. As a five year old, I loved the fast hi-energy beat and the pitch changes in Ms Dean’s bombastic chorus (needless to say, I still do thirty years on). By that point, SAW and Hazell Dean amassed their second Top Ten chart single, peaking at number four. Hi-energy music started to enter the mainstream.

3. You Think You’re A Man, Divine (1984):

Fact: it is exactly 30 years and 2 days since the late Harris Milstead appeared on Top of the Pops and upset the Daily Mail with this number. As Divine, Harris Milstead was a cult figure, having appeared in a number of John Waters’ films (including Pink Flamingos and the original Hairspray). By July 1984, his single You Think You’re A Man peaked at number 16, thanks to Barry Evangeli who took on Stock, Aitken and Waterman. The song was written by Geoff Deane, who was hitherto in Modern Romance and the Leyton Buzzards.

4. My Heart Goes Bang (Get Me A Doctor), Dead or Alive (1985):

I could have been totally unoriginal and added You Spin Me Round (Like a Record) from late 1984. This one from September 1985 is worthy of listening, though parts of the song are reminiscent of their breakthrough number one hit. Our promotional video sees Pete Burns don the motorcycle leathers and associated vehicle. This tune, co-written by the group, was co-produced by SAW and peaked at number 23.

5. Venus, Bananarama (1986):

The second stage of Bananarama’s career would emerge on the release of this cover version of a Shocking Blue track. Our first version of Bananarama began on the 2Tone label with the Fun Boy Three, before continuing with Cruel Summer, covers of Really Saying Something and Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye and Rough Justice. Version two of Bananarama emerged in sassier form.

The threesome wanted a more dance orientated version of Venus, though with resistance from then producers Tony Swain and Steve Jolley (whose other works include Body Talk by Imagination). They approached Stock, Aitken and Waterman, having expressed admiration for their treatment of You Spin Me Round (Like a Record). The start of The Hit Factory sound was well and truly up and running. It got to number eight in the UK, though reached the top spot in South Africa, the USA’s Billboard chart, Switzerland, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

6. Respectable, Mel and Kim (1987):

On a personal level, the rise of The Hit Factory coincided with the most seminal part of my formative years. My three years and seven months at the Ewing School. For my eighth birthday, I received a personal stereo. Another present I received was the CBS Records compilation album The Holiday Tape. Our fifth entry was the third track on side one. This entry, second track in, side one.

I had already enjoyed their début 45 Showing Out (Get Fresh At The Weekend) in the September of 1986. Respectable was no exception to me, thanks to its singalong qualities. A quality which my young sister recognised (she later bought Mel and Kim’s eponymous début album – well worth a listen now and then). Part of the chorus could have been both the sisters’ celebration of difference and an affirmation of Stock, Aitken and Waterman’s Hit Factory:

‘Like us, hate us, but you’ll never change us…’

In other words, affirmation that the record buying public put Mel and Kim on the top spot, and not the newspapers. And they went to Woolworths with their pocket money in great number in the March of 1987 with Respectable hitting Number One on the 28 March 1987. Musically, it has slight leanings towards the Chicago house scene and the Italo Dance style popular in 1989.

7. Never Gonna Give You Up, Rick Astley (1987):

Rick Astley’s number reminds me of the summer of 1987: big style. It reminds me of my week’s holiday in Guildford, Surrey and returning to the Ewing School in September. For me, it marked the high water mark of The Hit Factory sound, and another Number One smash, later becoming the UK’s biggest selling single of 1987. Written and produced by all three, it was a vehicle for the Newton-le-Willows born singer and tea boy/tape operator at PWL Studios, to overcome his shyness.

And it worked: successive hits included Whenever You Need Somebody, Together Forever and his Christmas hit, a cover version of Nat King Cole’s When I Fall In Love. Being in Granadaland, it was great to see Newton-le-Willows being famous for anything besides the world’s first train crash (William Huskisson being run over on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway by Stephenson’s Rocket, 1830).

8. I Should Be So Lucky, Kylie Minogue (1988):

Have I ever forgiven the BBC for not commissioning another series of Masterteam? Yes, I would say, thanks to the first Victorian I had a soft spot for. Stock, Aitken and Waterman’s timing with Kylie Minogue was immaculate. Neighbours would have a second showing on BBC One at 5.35pm and, thanks to concerns by Michael Grade over skipped lessons from students, this move paid off.

Having been flown in to the Hit Factory from Melbourne to London by Mushroom Records, Mike Stock offered some studio time for Kylie. Then, written and produced her first UK single in two hours. Though a cover of Little Eva’s The Locomotion was her first hit in Australia, I Should Be So Lucky was a Number One smash. In both Melbournes, Victoria and Derbyshire. It was also the first release on Stock, Aitken and Waterman’s PWL Records label.

9. Too Many Broken Hearts, Jason Donovan (1989):

In 1989, you could safely say that Stock, Aitken and Waterman were at the height of their powers. Jason Donovan became the second Malvernian (that’s the suburb in Melbourne VIC, not Great Malvern of spring water fame) to reach the top ten of the UK singles chart in the 1980s. (Steve ‘Tin Tin’ Duffy was the other, from Worcestershire). After the success of Especially For You, his duet with Kylie Minogue (months before Scott and Charlene’s wedding in Neighbours on our shores), Jason Donovan was very much SAW’s success story of 1989.

The spring of 1989 saw Too Many Broken Hearts reach the UK top spot. Taken from his début album Ten Good Reasons, it was his first solo number one. In the UK, it topped the charts for a fortnight. It is probably the only Stock, Aitken and Waterman song to have been covered by a punk band. That honour belongs to Peter and the Test Tube Babies, on their 1990 album, The $hit Factory.

10. This Time I Know It’s For Real, Donna Summer (1989):

By 1989, Stock, Aitken and Waterman’s higher profile became a subject of ridicule. However, it didn’t stop the good, the great, and the not-so-great from turning to SAW. In good company with Cliff Richard, the 1988 England Football Team and Sigue Sigue Sputnik is Donna Summer. Her first SAW produced single, This Time I Know It’s For Real, was the first of a brace of Top Twenty hits in 1989. Her first of the three was her biggest UK hit single since the 1970s, outselling She Works Hard For The Money and Unconditional Love (with Musical Youth).

Her comeback was breezy, unmistakably a SAW production, but LaDonna Gaines’ vocals were resurgent throughout. It got to number three in the UK, charting in the start of March. The follow-up, I Don’t Wanna Get Hurt was equally good, peaking at number seven.

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The Hit Factory sound would be seen as derivative and tacky by some commentators. I beg to differ. Not least because they formed the soundtrack to my youth. The Hit Factory was pretty much in the tradition of Motown, which I would say inspired Stock, Aitken and Waterman. Particularly with Pete Waterman’s background DJ-ing and his love of soul music.

Each SAW song conforms to the rules of any good pop song: draw the listener into the track with a memorable hook; say what you need to say in three minutes; add a decent narrative; and, make sure the subject in each song is timeless. Sometimes, a bit of narrative and the self-referential does a world of good. No computerised object can take away personal experience, boy/girl meets girl/boy or good writing abilities.

Sadly, in the age of downloaded music, the joys of holding onto a three minute 45 is lost on many younger generations. For me, Respectable or You Think You’re A Man is best enjoyed on 12″ vinyl rather than MP3. Likewise with I Should Be So Lucky on a 7″ 45 single. Have I missed something in this digital age?

S.V., 21 July 2014.

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2 thoughts on “Treasures of Stock, Aitken and Waterman – The Not So Perfect Ten

Add yours

  1. As always, an education Stuart! i was one of the purists who LOATHED ‘SAW’ … but yet – looking over your list I see that I was ignorant to some of the earlier ones (Hazell D) which I rather liked!

    (By the way – we still haven’t rifled through my collection of ‘Smash Hits 193-1991, have we??)

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  2. Hi Tina,

    The 193 editions of Smash Hits would be a right hoot: the only group likely to have been around that year (193 AD, the Year of the Five Emperors) would be Roman Holliday.

    No, wait, I think you meant 1983, the same year when the aforementioned group had a Top Twenty hit with ‘Don’t Try To Stop It’ (and about this very same time 31 years ago)!!!

    I too love the early SAW stuff, though enjoy some of the more commercialised stuff from the late-1980s. I’m not above listening to Rick Astley every now and then: ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ will still be played ten years from now because the subject matter is timeless. There’s no cultural references which would pigeonhole this song as an ‘eighties song’.

    Amid the classics, there was some clunkers, particularly their song for England’s 1988 European Championships campaign. Even Holland/Dozier/Holland or George Martin probably have the odd clunker, and don’t get me started on David Bowie’s ‘The Laughing Gnome’!

    Right now, listening to Hazell Dean’s ‘Whatever I Do (Wherever You Go)’. Just the thing for dinnertime.

    Bye for now,

    Stuart.

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