MUSIC TECHNOLOGY, JUNE 1987
The most successful production team in Britain is a trio - Mike
Stock, Matt Aitken and Pete Waterman. Their use of modern technology is
essential to their success, but equally important, they have a tough
view of the music industry that shows no sign of softening with
Interview by Tim Goodyer.
THERE'S NO ESCAPING it. The British pop world is a
mess. The buzzword now is nostalgia: the tactful way to market songs over
20 years old in the absence of anything new. Now, 'When a Man Loves A Woman'
and 'Stand By Me' are damned fine songs, but with no less than ten cover
versions currently amongst a lacklustre Top 75, something is definitely amiss.
And, as if that weren't indictment enough, single sales are actually in
It would be easy to dismiss pop as frivolous music meeting an overdue
end, but traditionally, the charts provide the music industry with money
to subsidise more "serious" areas of music, as well as being
entertainment for the masses. So where have all the pop songs gone?
The search for an answer led me to an examination of recent production
credits. Did you know that a trio by the name of Stock, Aitken &
Waterman are the only producers ever to depose themselves from the No. 1
slot? That was Ferry Aid seeing Mel & Kim's 'Respectable' off,
earlier in the year. They've also had a hand in the success of
Princess, Pepsi & Shirlie, Divine, Erasure, Depeche Mode ...
The list was long enough for me to think they might have a few of the
answers. Tucked away in a decidedly seedy corner of London I found PWL
Studios, the home of production team Mike Stock, Matt Aitken and Pete
Waterman. The partnership was founded in 1984, when musicians Stock and
Aitken approached Waterman with a demo.
"Mike walked in and played me this track, which was technically
excellent but not very commercial", recalls Waterman. "I'm not a
musician. I'm an ideas man. I know what sells. So I put the
commerciality and the money in, and we went out and got a deal."
Stock offers the other side of the story.
"Pete was the missing piece of the jigsaw. Matt and I had been playing
in bands for years and we'd run our own studio, but we didn't really
have any idea of how to market. As soon as Pete heard our track, he
knew what needed to be done to make it commercial."
The result was "The Upstroke", released under the name of Agents Aren't
Aeroplanes, which reached No. 50 in the singles charts. It was a
Waterman had previously enjoyed considerable success with his production
of Nik Kershaw, Tracey Ullman and Musical Youth. With Stock and Aitken
in tow, the gold discs have just piled up. Waiting for the three
producers to arrive at their studio, I found a list of their current
projects on the wall: Debbie Harry, Sigue Sigue Sputnik, Gary Moore,
Mandy Smith. If anyone could tell me what's wrong with the charts, I
was about to meet them.
"Pete, Matt and I had our own ideas about how British pop should be",
explains Stock, "and maybe the reason we're successful is because we're
right about our attitude. A single really is a three-minute throw-away
piece of plastic - nothing greater than that. But it's entertainment,
it's emotional, it can be heart-rendering - anything you like in that
three minutes. If you can get people dancing then that's the finest
thing you can hope for. It's also the most difficult thing to do.
"When we first met Pete, he was vehement about his dislike for certain
trends and attitudes of record companies and producers - something Matt
and I never knew anything about.
"Through the years we've found out he was absolutely right: people who
work in A&R departments know absolutely nothing, or they wouldn't be
working in A&R departments. Record companies waste so much money
doing silly things that they've forgotten what the point of pop music
is, that there's a 14-year-old girl dying to spend her money on
something, but you've got to give her something she wants."
FAR FROM ACCEPTING any of the responsibility for
today's decline themselves, the team see the record industry in general
slowly committing suicide. Waterman eagerly picks up the point.
"The industry cannot go on spending vast sums of money hyping records.
It's actually bringing record sales down. The Jesus and Mary Chain are
going to sell a quarter of a million records because they sell very
quickly and then die, exactly like the Smiths do with their 70,000
records every time before they go down the tubes. All they're doing is
blocking up the charts for records that kids actually want. Mel &
Kim's 'Showing Out' did 600,000 copies, and that was the first time that
had ever been released. If Five Star made a good record they'd be
fucking massive. It works because RCA make sure they're seen on
Television, in magazines. They're heard on the radio but they don't
deliver. Their records are just that far off being brilliant,
but they're always that far off. They've never had a killer
chorus. Give them a chorus and they'll clean up, they'll be the
"You have fabulous budgets to work with but you've forgotten who you're
selling records to. The point is, if you've got enough money to spend
on promotion you can make anything a top five single - ask RCA or Warner
"But most A&R guys have probably never heard a good pop song. I'd
be interested to go round the country to look at A&R men's record
collections. I bet they're all full of T-Rex, Gary Glitter, Led
Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Atomic Rooster. If you've got a rock record
collection, you haven't got any pop songs. Pop songs are R&B songs
written for women: 'She Loves You', 'You Make Me Feel Brand New', 'When
Will I See You Again?' ... Journalists from university killed pop music,
now we're bringing it back. With 4,000,000 people unemployed, we need
to be cheered up."
If Waterman is the excitable third of the partnership, Stock and Aitken
are more cautious. They disagree frequently, usually settling on a
mutually acceptable point of view, giving insight into their working
relationship. But they all have one thing in common: they make their
work sound very, very simple. The trio are currently enjoying more
success than any of their competition, but what makes the Stock, Aitken
& Waterman operation any different from anyone else's?
"I built this company on the philosophy of the film industry", announces
the excitable one. "They've got it right and the record industry have
got it totally wrong. The film industry give you enough money to make a
film, and if the distributors think it's brilliant they come back to you
and say: 'Hey, here's another £20m, we'll have another one, pal'.
If you have one hit in the record industry, they give you ten grand to
make another. If they don't like it they release it anyway because
they've spent their ten grand. It flops. Four weeks later they're
back. 'Here's another 15 grand.' You can work for six years on the
strength of one hit, spend £4-5m of bands' money, and not know what
"If you come to us you get quoted a price, say £15,000. If you
don't like what you get, we put it right. But that way, a £15,000
record can turn into a £30,000 record, and that's £15,000 of
our money. If every other record producer was told their records
would only be accepted when the record companies thought they'd got a
hit, there'd be a lot of bankrupt record producers around. In fact,
there probably wouldn't be any record producers around."
BETWEEN THEM, THE record companies and the record
producers would seem to have the suffering artist in a corner - and
suffering more than ever. After all, it's an artist's talent that
provides the industry with its most vital raw material. Or is it? For
many, Frankie Goes To Hollywood will never be more than the public face
of Trevor Horn and, despite their better looks, Mel & Kim would seem
to be in a similar situation with their production team. But does an
artist need a producer - or does the producer need an artist - any
"Some of the artists we work with are happy just to be singers, but some
of them want to be involved in the making of the record itself. I don't
know why. They think it's glamorous, creative or artistic or
something." The speaker is Mike Stock, his voice filled with genuine
"An artist should be content to be an artist unless they're going to
take responsibility for everything they do. Most of them don't want
that. They just want to dabble; they want it to say on the label that
they've done the production. But when it comes down to money - it's
going to cost you £10,000 to make a single and nobody's going to
bail you out if you get it wrong - most of them back out."
"Artists don't know what they want", asserts Waterman. "And that's why
they need a producer. They see their songs in a different light to
anybody else, which is not a bad thing, but they can't hear them the way
the punter hears them. Someone who's written a song is going to be
precious about it - they don't the disrespect for it that we have - but
you can't afford to be precious if you want a hit. When I worked with
him, Nik Kershaw was nobody. He was a brilliantly talented songwriter
but he didn't know why he was talented, he probably still doesn't know.
So I chose every song on that first album in the direction I saw Nik
Kershaw going - not the way Nik Kershaw saw himself going.
"When we try to teach an artist how to produce a record, it doesn't
work. It's not a thing you can explain. I can't tell you why a
difference of a couple of beats per minute makes me fell uncomfortable,
and Matt can't explain to a guitarist why a certain lick works one way
and not another.
"You get a band come to you and say 'we want to do this', and you have
to say 'I'm sorry, you'll never do that, that and that with that song'.
And sometimes you have to spend £10,000 of their money to prove it
"We already know it, that's why we're here. As Stock, Aitken &
Waterman we've had something like 50 hits, three No. 1 records in
two-and-a-half years. We've had nine records in the chart at the same
time, we've got two songs going in today, and one of them will be my
180th hit. So we do know what we're doing."
"A producer knows that certain things just don't work", elaborates
Stock, "but every new band wants to try all those things, the things
you've done a million times before. Why should you sit there while they
go through the whole repertoire of Things That Don't Work? If you keep
on dabbling, as bands tend to want to do, you get nowhere. If Picasso
had done that, he'd have ended up with a blank canvas. It's what you
leave out that counts."
Am I hearing arrogance or justified confidence? Waterman's answer is
"We always listen to the band and we always give the band what they
want, but it's under our guidance. We don't want people to buy Stock,
Aitken, & Waterman records. We want them to buy Mel & Kim
THE USUAL TRANSITION is from musician to producer,
but with Stock, Aitken & Waterman able to write, arrange, record and
produce songs themselves, the step to producer-as-artist seems almost a
formality. It has, as Aitken points out, been done before by people
like Quincy Jones, who remains better-known (and more wealthy) for
his production of Michael Jackson's Thriller than for his own
musical output. But it's Waterman who puts the roles in perspective.
"The girls' talent is a greater talent than ours, in that they have to
go out and perform in front of people, TV and video cameras every night
of the week. It sounds glamorous, getting mobbed in Italy, but it
ain't. They've been working for 11 months solid and they had their
first holiday two weeks ago. They've had to move home because fans
found out where they lived and it wasn't safe anymore.
"But it is important that the producers and tape ops get a credit for
their efforts. No matter what anybody thinks of the Mel & Kim
album, it represents three months of our lives. I was never very good
at anything at school. I never won a cup for playing football. But
walk into my studio and you'll see it's full of gold discs, because I am
good at one thing. There are people reading this that may become record
producers, and this may just give them the spur they need."
Our conversation has interrupted Stock's and Aitken's songwriting
activities. The target is seven songs in two days - a tall order by
most musicians' standards - but they must have every reason to be
confident: they're halfway there. They take turns behind the desk,
Aitken laying a guide keyboard line down from a Roland D50, and Stock
building a rhythm pattern with a Linn 9000 and a Roland TR727. Hi-tech
is the order of the day.
The PWL complex is well-equipped, no doubt about it, with two out three
studios identically equipped with SSL desks, Sony 24-track digital
machines, and generous amounts of outboard equipment. These are
supported by the most comprehensive collection of keyboards this writer
has ever witnessed in a studio: Fairlight III, Kurzweil, PPG Waveterm,
Roland JX8P, Publison Infernal Machine (which Stock describes as "a
Godsend"), Emulator II, DX7II, and so on.
The latest addition is the D50, already a month old. Waterman explains
the philosophy behind PWL.
"Our studio is probably the best equipped outside Trevor Horn's.
Whatever we earned over the first three years, we ploughed back into the
gear. When I teamed up with the boys I'd already got a LinnDrum and a
PPG, and I went out and bought a Waveterm for the PPG. If I provide the
technology, then I can whip the boys to go further and further with
"We were losing the warmth of analogue, so we're building that in with valve gear external to the desk. We have the clarity of digital recording without the coldness"
"We've also gone backwards recently. We've gone around the world buying
up old valve EQs and compressors. We keep telex contact with second-hand
dealers in America so we know exactly what's going. But it's getting
very expensive now, because people are catching on."
Stock: "With the digital mastering and the SSL desks we were losing the
warmth of the analogue recordings, so we're building that in now with
valve gear external to the desk. We have the clarity we want, but
without the coldness of digital recording."
Aitken continues: "We always purchase new technology aggressively,
because it helps us make records and it's exciting to work with. When
we first got the Emulator II we were almost at the end of an album, and
it inspired everyone in the studio. Suddenly we'd got these amazing
orchestral sounds, so we stuck them all over the album."
"But technology means absolutely nothing unless you get the first
ingredients right", asserts Stock. "You can have all the gear in the
world and it won't write songs. Even journalists who should know better
have said things like 'Of course, you use a computer to write songs'.
One even said: 'Don't you wish you actually played an instrument?'"
Play instruments Stock and Aitken definitely do. But program them, ah,
that's a different story.
"We work on presets because by the time everybody else has got the DX7II, we'll have made ten records with it. We'll be bored with it, and we'll be using something else."
"We always keep our ears open for new things because they give you a new
sound", says Aitken. "But rather than getting into too much heavy
programming, we use the presets."
Now hold on. Any self-respecting programmer is going to have to re-read
that last comment in disbelief. Many would say we've stumbled on another
of pop's afflictions, but Pete Waterman thinks not.
"We work on presets because by the time everybody else has got the
DX7II, we'll have made ten records with it. We'll have milked it, we'll
be bored with it, and we'll be using something else. That's the way we
approach all new synths. If you want to buy a Series III Fairlight, you
can have ours because we're bored with that, too."
Stock elaborates. "Because of the pressure that's on us, we haven't got
the time to sit down and get into the new DX7. Some Japanese geezer has
taken months programming the presets in there and it'd take us just as
long to come up with something better.
"We actually do our synths very, very thoroughly though. The JX8P has
just been repaired because of the use it's had, but we know exactly how
to get what we need out of it."
FROM A TECHNOLOGICAL standpoint, it all makes a
sad sort of sense. But there is another side to the form of MIDI, as
"If you imagine a sound in your head you can often build it out of two MIDI'd presets. You don't have to spend hours trying to get that whole texture from one synth."
"It's interesting to look at the number of permutations you can get
MIDIing two keyboards together without using anything but presets. If
you imagine a sound in your head you can often build it out of two
presets. You don't have to spend hours trying to get that whole texture
from one synth."
And to prove his point, the facilities at PWL include MIDI busses to
link all three studios together. That way, sounds can be called in from
equipment in another studio with the minimum of effort.
"With the Fairlight we only have to move the keyboards and the monitor",
points out Stock, before going back to the issue of programming. "The
only real programming we've ever done is on the DX7; we have a RAM of
DX7 bass sounds which we won't let you hear. In fact, when we have a
band in we have to hide it - Dead or Alive were after it last week
"We also have a set of samples of drum sounds that we've worked very
hard to get", says Aitken. We know that if we need a particular snare
drum, we will already have the sound, give or take a little bit.
"We're very fortunate because we have everything we want at our
disposal. We don't have to spend hours trying to get a convincing piano
sound from a DX7, because we can go to the Emulator or the Kurzweil.
We've been through that stage of programming where we'd spend 17 hours
getting a bassline into the PPG Waveterm, and we've been through the
Fairlight II, building orchestras with an eight-track sequencer. Now
we've found quicker ways to achieve the same ends, without going that
far into programming."
Mike Stock picks up the point. "When you've spent 17 hours programming
something you don't want to change it, even if it sounds awful. Working
quickly on sounds or songs you can be more objective, and it's far more
musically inspiring. The way we work is closer to the way live
musicians work. Pete's one for instant buzz - either it works or it
doesn't. If we spend all day on something and we lose sight of it, he
comes in at the end of the day and, if it isn't coming out of the
speakers, you've been wasting your time."
"The point is", concludes Waterman, "technology is there to help you and
nothing else. If it becomes 90% of your work then you've got it
And with that, ladies and gentlemen, there can be no argument.
Another subject for debate is drum machines and their programming - or
lack of it. But in many other areas, while the rest of the world
debates, Stock, Aitken & Waterman get on with it.
"The drum machine is the best thing that ever happened to pop music",
declares Waterman. "The greatest records of all time don't have drum
fills in. On all Stock, Aitken & Waterman productions you can hear
the vocalist over everything else, because the medley is the only really
"Drum machines have been responsible for altering pop music throughout
the world", continues Aitken. "There was a tendency with the drummers
in all the bands I ever worked with to not be able to keep steady time;
instead, they'd spend the whole gig practising the new fill they'd
"When you play dance music 90% of the time, all you want is a solid
beat. That's why Giorgio Moroder went to so much trouble to get a
consistent drum beat a few years ago. Now, with drum machines, drummers
have listened to how music works when it's in constant time. The result
is that the average drummer now is far more capable of holding down a
steady beat. Cameo's drummer actually plays like a drum machine, with
an 'inhuman' feel, because it's crucial to their music."
And the moral of the story? It has a familiar ring to it.
Aitken: "People who come into contact with modern instruments have a
tendency to get carried away with the mechanics of making a song, and
forget about concentrating on the song itself. We've gone through the
stage of thinking 'can we make this feel like a real bass player?' with
slurs and bends, and we know we can do it if we want to - but 90% of the
time we find we don't. If we're making a record that needs a loop of
two or four bars all the way through, then that's what we'll use. If
we're trying to create the feel of a real drummer playing fills
everywhere, then the technology's there to do that, too."
The last word is Pete Waterman's.
"If a kid buys a drum machine and a DX7 and expects them to make a hit
record he's got no chance. He's better off buying the Beatles
1962-1966 and Beatles 1967-1970 albums. In fact, I'd advise
everyone reading this article to go out and buy them and analyse why
they work. Then we might start hearing music again."