Re-evaluating Stock Aitken Waterman with Jason Donovan
Ahead of a celebration of The Hit Factory as part of Blackpool’s Livewire Festival, Banjo re-assesses the much maligned 80s pop trio, and chats to one of their biggest stars; Jason Donovan.
There has always been snobbery in pop music, maybe in all music.
Perhaps when the first primitive beats were drummed out on a hollowed log by a Neanderthal called Ug, one of those in attendance thought “I prefer it when Ag does it”. Or maybe not. Who knows?
But, moving things forward if I may, there has long been a divide between the more manufactured pop music and the more (for want of a better term) credible musics of the day, be they rock, indie, alternative pirate speed dub, or whatever it is you kids are listening to these days when you aren’t mainlining hastily bought baking powder. And no time in the entire history of the earth was this kind of tribal divide more keenly felt than the 80s.
The 80s saw tribalism at its absolute peak, with punks, goths, rude boys and NWOBHMers (look it up) all putting a fence around their creed and hurling rocks at all others.
Into the midst of all this came Stock Aitken Waterman, with a production line pop factory that had zero interest in credibility or art and where success was the only measure that mattered. The SAW sound was machine produced disposable pop featuring a raft of interchangeable poppets who were so wholesome, smiley and squeaky clean as to make Cliff Richard look like a crack smoking muthafucka on a mission to encourage kids to skin up and fall to frenzied sexual congress in front of the horrified eyes of their elders.
So could it possibly be time for a fresh look at Stock Aitken Waterman’s mass produced pop? Hell, why not. So suspend your disbelief and let us delve into the murky waters of the lightest and frothiest of 80s’ pop.
My first line of defense is to say that, whether you love them or loath them, it would be hard to deny that Stock Aitken Waterman were pretty much the defining sound of the mid-late 80s. Yes there were other scenes going on at the time that we all may have been involved in and preferred, but SAW’s sheer dominance of both the charts and the airwaves means that it is a hardened 80s soul who can hear even a few bars of Kylie Minogue’s I Should Be So Lucky without being transported back to those halcyon hairspray days.
Minogue’s signature hit opened the doors for her as a pop princess – a reputation that has led to her becoming something of a national treasure. Had SAW not made her a star, the world would have been denied Can’t Get You Outta My Head, and we are a better place with its existence.
Shockingly, I Should Be So Lucky was hurriedly written in 40 minutes as the team forgot that she was coming to the studio. It then took her less than an hour to record her parts, and she immediately left for Australia to continue recording Neighbours.
There are no doubt some smug readers right now saying in their heads “Yeah, it sounds like it was made in 40 minutes”. But au contraire! I Should Be So Lucky is far more complex than it sounds. Waterman has expressed that it was inspired by Pachebel’s Canon, while Stock defended it against its detractors by telling The Guardian in 2010; “Anyone who thinks I Should Be So Lucky is easy should try to play it. It’s in four keys, all of them really awkward, and you can’t even strum it unless you’re a really good musician.”
We may not have liked it at the time, but hearing a SAW production nowadays will guarantee a crystal clear vision of where we were working, who we were hanging round with or which pubs we frequented when the record in question was first smothering the airwaves. And yes, Guns n’ Roses, Terence Trent D’Arby or Fairground Attraction may perform a similar magic on some people, but I’ll guarantee you not as many as almost any record from the SAW hit factory.
Let’s not forget either that SAW’s first number one was You Spin Me Right Round (Like a Record) with Liverpool’s own Dead or Alive. Anyone with a passing history with alternative clubbing in the 80s will have come across this irresistible dancefloor stormer at some point. One of the first crossover records, You Spin Me Round finally made star of Pete Burns. And thank god for that.
There is also a claim to be made that without Stock Aitken Waterman, The KLF would never have existed.
Back when The KLF’s Bill Drummond was but an A&R man, Pete Waterman came to see Drummond, offering him cheap studio time. He asked if the future KLF man had any bands he was trying to have a hit with and Drummond played him a demo by a band called Brilliant.
Waterman hated it, but said he could give the band a hit record if they sacked everybody but the female singer. A compromise was reached where the band was sacked apart from the bass player, whose band it was, and the guitarist, one Jimmy Cauty, also bound for KLF infamy.
The slimline band were installed in Waterman’s studio, along with his engineers, Mike Stock and Matt Aitken. The SAW team set to work recording a version of the James Brown classic It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World that abandoned all conventional instruments. Drummond later said “The way Pete Waterman and his boys, Mike and Matt, worked was a total revelation to us – nothing to them was sacred. Everything could be scrapped or changed. Nothing could stop them”
The record was never a hit, but Drummond went on to say “What Jimmy and I both learned in those few months, in Pete Waterman’s studio, we were then able to use and abuse in our subsequent quest as The KLF and all the other names we chose to use”. So – no Pete Waterman, no KLF.
SAW also lucked out by championing music made by studio engineers rather than musicians just as Acid House was bubbling out from Detroit, to Manchester and London, via Ibiza. Not that I am claiming SAW had any influence on this whatsoever, but as the emerging dance music wrong footed a generation of guitar bands, making them seem old hat almost overnight, Stock Aitken Waterman’s sound still sounded shiny and new compared to the new sounds that were about to take over the world. It could be argued that they produced the pop equivalent of these scenes.
The Hit Factory – as they became known as a homage to Motown’s Hitsville – were quick to learn from this new music and the fact that here was another cultural starting point, a time that set a dividing line between the old and the new.
Their response was The Reynolds Girls singing “I’d rather Jack than Fleetwood Mac”. A record that is at once light frothy pop and an announcement of another cultural year zero is a difficult thing to pull off under any circumstances, but within the strict confines of SAW’s pure pop approach it seems almost revolutionary in more ways than one.
It makes it all the more ironic, therefore, that they chose to work with metal band Judas Priest.
The band almost certainly represented the old guard. Their first album came in the early 70s, and they hit their commercial peak during a number of years earlier.
Shortly after their more commercial sounding 1986 record Turbo, the band recorded three tracks with the trio. Two of these – Runaround and I Will Return – were originals. The third was a cover of The Stylistics’ 1971 hit You Are Everything – yes, that’s metal legends Judas Priest performing soul ballads. The material ended up not being used on their 1988 Ram It Down album, and the band went in a heavier direction (probably wise!).
Despite this, Waterman said in 2012 that they were “the best tracks we ever did…I occasionally dig the record out and play it to people, and they’re amazed that we made heavy metal.”
It’s worth noting that beyond the kids who bought their records, SAW made a significant impact among the LGBT+ community – which is perhaps part of the critical opposition in the first place. Sure, Kylie has become a gay icon, and Pete Burns took gender bending to a whole new extreme. But even in their earliest days they were champions in gay clubs across the country.
Among their first recordings in 1984 was the legendary American Drag Queen Divine. A muse of John Waters, starring in his most celebrated films from the gross out of Pink Flamingos to the later mainstream success of Hairspray. Divine had released two albums by 1984, but neither of them were particularly successful. But the Hi-NRG material produced for him by Stock Aitken & Waterman yielded a number of European hits, landing them all in the Top 20 for the first time with You Think You’re a Man.
Divine remains an icon in the LGBT+ community, and the mainstream commercial success of something like RuPaul’s Drag Race or Birkenhead-born Paul O’Grady‘s Lily Savage character may not have been possible without Divine‘s storming into the Top of the Pops studio with You Think You’re a Man.
You will more than likely not like all of SAW’s records, you may well not even like one of them. Even Mike Stock amusingly referred to their material as being of “varying quality“. But their place in the 80s pop firmament is assured. Did they create disposable, lightweight pop almost bereft of meaning? Almost certainly.
But we can surely say that about a great number of pop bands, from the 60s to the present day who manage to avoid the level of ire that SAW have seen aimed their way. And pure pop was never meant to be anything meaningful or sincere or credible, sometimes pop is just meant to be the soundtrack to a night out.
Pop is allowed to be almost devoid of the shackles of ‘real music’ (a nauseating term if ever there was one), and can be glorious fun as a result. Pure pop can be all surface, if you scratch away at it all you will find is more surface.
And long may that be the case.
Q&A with Jason Donovan
Planet Slop caught up with one of SAW’s main stars, Jason Donovan, and asked him about his time at The Hit Factory.
PS: Hi Jason, how are you and what are you up to at the moment?
JD: Life is pretty good for me right now, earlier in the year I finished a ten month long run in Million Dollar Quartet where I was playing the role of legendary record producer Sam Phillips, I’ve been playing a lot of festivals throughout the summer and I’m now preparing for my Amazing Midlife Crisis Tour which starts in October. It’s a new way of doing a show for me as it will be chat mixed with some audience interaction and a few acoustic songs thrown in.
PS: How does it feel to be part of the Stock Aitken & Waterman legacy?
JD: Working with Stock Aitken & Waterman was a fantastic experience and one that I’m very lucky and proud to have been a part of. They are responsible for so many hits and the eighties was such a great time for pop music. We used to work hard during studio time as their method in creating the perfect hit was proven to have brilliant results, they really were a Hit Factory.
PS: With the benefit of hindsight, is there anything you would have done differently?
JD: I don’t believe in regrets because everything that’s happened in my life has led me to where I am today with my beautiful family and lovely home. However, I would give the younger me some advice and say, ‘Pace yourself, take a few more risks, eat well, avoid self-indulgence and temptation of drugs and alcohol and try and keep a balance.’ I don’t know whether I would have changed my life much but I certainly would have been a bit more patient with things and I would have spent more time writing and developing ideas.
PS: How did your experience with SAW prepare you for the rest of your career?
JD: Obviously, I’d been acting prior to releasing records so having SAW as my music beginnings was an incredible experience. I learnt so much in those early days, especially as I’d just moved over to the UK from Australia so it was a real voyage of discovery in so many different ways.
PS: What is next for Jason Donovan?
JD: As I mentioned earlier, I have my Amazing Midlife Crisis Tour starting in October, I’m playing The Plaza in Stockport on 11th October and the Floral Pavilion in New Brighton on 25th October. I’m really looking forward to this tour and can’t wait to get out there and see the fans again, I’m so appreciative of the people who have stuck with me for so long and it’s always lovely to see the familiar faces.
Jason Donovan plays Livewire Festival in Blackpool with Pepsi & Shirlie, Go West, Sinitta, Sam Fox, Brother Beyond and Undercover on Saturday 26th August. Other headliners of the weekend include The Jacksons and Will Smith.