Remembering the music of Stock Aitken Waterman and its place in history.
If you’re a ‘product’ of the 1970’s, the likelihood is you will have been exposed to pop music in the 1980’s (the greatest decade of music!). And from the second half of that decade, the music and music style of Messrs. Mike Stock, Matt Aitken and Pete Waterman. For any teenager growing up in that period, their music was either engraining or infuriating. Many saw their dominance of the singles chart as an eyesore, but thirty years on, their songs have stood the test of time and are now even considered by those then non-believers as ‘respectable'(!)
I was one of those teenagers (not a non-believer I should add) that was certainly marked by their tunes and taken in with the likes of “Venus“, “Whatever I Do” and “Toy Boy”, songs I heard on the radio, watched on Top Of The Pops and spent my £1.50 pocket money each week on a 7″ vinyl single of my favourite song that particular week. Invariably, as the weeks plodded on by, there were more S/A/W singles creeping into my collection than I was first aware of. For me, 1987 was the greatest of them all for music, and it still is. My favourite song (and I make no apologies for this) of all, Starship‘s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now”, came out with many other notable and memorable 80’s anthems before and after it.
1987 was also the year of “I Heard A Rumour”, “Love In The First Degree” (can you tell I’m a big Bananarama fan?!), the aforementioned “Toy Boy” (SAW’s answer to “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”) and a tea boy from Newton Le Willows, who took on the world with his debut single “Never Gonna Give You Up” in the late Summer and early Autumn of that year. Stock Aitken Waterman were becoming a ‘hit factory’ that people all over were taking notice of, their catchy Euro-beat pop and dance anthems together with their unique hand and dance moves were becoming addictive to those of us of an impressionable age. Their response to the critics and all those non-believers was “take or leave us, only please believe us, we ain’t ever gonna be respectable”. Touche. Another number one and the record sales, along with the Gold and Platinum discs were piling up.
Earlier on they had teased us with “You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)”, and this is what was happening in the clubs and in homes across the globe as hundreds of thousands of sales turned into millions and very quickly. If 1987 had bettered 1986, then would or could 1988 better even 1987? Well firstly there was the completely awesome “I Want You Back” from a slightly new looking Bananarama. There was Hazell back with “Who’s Leaving Who?“. Sinitta was telling us what her best friend told her (“Cross My Broken Heart”) and “She” wanted to dance with Rick, who also wanted to be “Together Forever” with you! I’m sure there’s someone I’ve forgotten…oh yes, some Australian TV soap actor…what was her name?(!) Well, that sent record sales booming higher than ever and when you factor in another Australian (Jason Donovan), as Yazz reminded us that year, “The Only Way Is Up”. Now what if they had recorded a duet together…
1988 would deliver the biggest selling album of the year as well as the most successful debut album by a female artist (until Dido’s “No Angel” thirteen years later). 1989 began more promising than ever before with the first number one of the year (that duet!) and would proceed with new artistry in the form of 18 year old singer Sonia, who contributed to the record-breaking SEVEN number one singles on the UK singles chart that year, five of which came from Jason, including his sophomore “Too Many Broken Hearts”. Boy band Big Fun also made their mark that year with their cover of The Jackson’s “Blame It On The Boogie” as well as an original composition, “Can’t Shake The Feeling”. There was another top ten hit from Bananarama (“Help”), Sinitta (“Right Back Where We Started From”) and “Ferry Across The Mersey”, in support of the Hillsborough Stadium disaster. Yes, they were all cover versions, but that didn’t matter. It was PWL music!
1989 was the second consecutive year that a S/A/W act produced the biggest selling album (Jason’s “Ten Good Reasons“) and what could top the year off any better than to achieve the coveted Christmas number one on the UK singles chart with a second helping of “Do They Know it’s Christmas?”, with Bros, Cliff, Bananarama (again), Jason, Lisa Stansfield and…a few others from the pop music scene of the late 80’s. But as the 80’s turned into a new decade, there was a new fight awaiting. The fight to stay on top and stay cool. Music had changed immeasurably in the second half of 1989, veering away from the norm, which was being engulfed with club music, dance anthems and the emergence of indie bands likes The Stone Roses and The Happy Monday’s. Dance music had claimed the year’s biggest seller in Blackbox’s “Ride On Time” and it seemed that the music buying public’s interest had shifted within just six months. Look at the chart from early in 1989 and you’ll find seven or eight S/A/W produced songs at any one time there. By November, just two were present in any one week. Something had to change.
Mike, Matt and Pete began 1990 addressing the clubland style of their music with Sonia’s “Listen To Your Heart”. It was still fizzy and filled with candy floss, but the backing track told a different story. A much harder-edge bass and treble that would mature very quickly later that month in “Happening All Over Again”. Originally down to be recorded by Donna Summer, who had been one of the surprise stars of 1989 with her global smash hit “This Time I Know It’s For Real” and her album “Another Place And Time“, the song was ultimately given to newcomer Lonnie Gordon to perform. Gordon injected her power vocals into the fast-moving beat of “Happening All Over Again” that won the team more critical adulation than ever before. The song was a big hit on both sides of the Atlantic and it looked like S/A/W music was going to be assured into a second decade. Although more covers came with “Instant Replay” and “Rhythm Of The Rain”, the production trio seemed to concentrate all their efforts into the sound of the music instead of shovelling dozens of artists down the production line to win multiple hits every day that existed.
The zenith of that new mantra came that Spring with the incredible “Better The The Devil You Know“. Musical perfection and at last a rare acknowledgement from critics that a S/A/W song was perhaps really quite good! “Better The Devil You Know” heralded a new era of PWL music that was current and more risqué than ever before, the teen market was still important, but now so were the twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings. Jason seemed to lose out of this new momentum with his singles “Hang On To Your Love”, “Another Night” and “I’m Doing Fine” charting much lower than he was used to in 1989, the latter even failing to make the UK top twenty. Similarly, reaction to his second album, “Between The Lines”, was lukewarm and disappeared much faster than its predecessor. 1990 saw more ‘radical’ music with the Autumn hit “Step Back In Time”, although artists like Sonia and Big Fun had now fallen by the wayside as the team poured all their attention and creative skills into one artist.
1991 saw more decline, although Jason tried to ‘keep up the with Jones’ with his funky “RSVP” very much in the style of “Happening” and “Devil”, but was met with less commercial success. By now only top ten hits were coming from one artist, with three registering that year, “What Do I Have To Do?”, “Shocked” and “If You Were With Me Now”. Even albums had taken a hit with their two major releases, “Rhythm Of Love” and “Let’s Get To It“, both stopping way short of previous glories. With Jason releasing a greatest hits package that year (UK No.9) and the doomed attempt at bringing girl groups Boy Krazy and Delage to an anticipated audience, Matt Aitken left the hit making trio, leaving just Stock and Waterman to carry the PWL or PWL International flag flying into 1992 and beyond. 1992 was all about one artist yet again, with a number one “Greatest Hits” album and four top twenty singles chart hits, the year did bring some old friends back into the fold.
Having recorded their “Pop Life” album with Youth and now minus Jacqui O’Sullivan, Sara and Kera continued Bananarama as a duo and returned to the charts with “Movin’ On” that August (UK No.24) and recorded the album “Please Yourself” with the production duo. Bananarama saw Stock/Waterman into 1993 with “More, More, More”, a year which could be called their Indian summer. Two top five hits came from Sybil, “The Love I Lost” and “When I’m Good And Ready”, both of which appeared on the top 40 of the biggest selling singles of that year. But that was all. Mike and Pete went their separate ways soon after, with Mike producing Nicki French‘s 1995 smash “Total Eclipse Of The Heart” and Pete returning to chart success at the end of the decade with Steps, having spent a number of years buying old steam locomotives and running railways!
But the music lives on. Today, thirty and forty years later, the tried and trusted formula for producing simple and annoying pop songs continues works its magic and perhaps more than ever, with S/A/W fans now forty and fifty-somethings, younger generations are now listening to and aware of Mike, Matt and Pete’s music with the availability of downloads and streaming. Their songs appear on TV shows, adverts and even some of the stars have undergone a renaissance in recent years, with Rick Astley making a huge comeback with a number one album, Bananarama recording a chart hit (“In Stereo“, 2019) as well as touring almost constantly since 1993, and Jason finding success on the stage, as a radio presenter as well as still recording and performing his classic hits. Sinitta still pops up here and there and Hazell Dean is a veteran of many 80’s music festivals. Their biggest artist…well, she’s still going strong. She’s achieved number one singles and albums in five consecutive decades, played to millions of people across fourteen world tours as well as the coveted legends spot at Glastonbury. Her name…I don’t think you need me to tell you that!
“Today’s music, tomorrow’s technology” – long live the sound of Stock Aitken Waterman!
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