Reproduced from The Guardian 3 December 2005
Return of the hitmen
With a string of 80s UK chartbusters, producers Stock, Aitken and Waterman were the kings of knock-'em-out-sell-'em-fast pop. Then the hits dried up, and they fell out. But has their time come again, asks Alexis Petridis.
Six years ago, music producers Mike Stock, Matt Aitken and Pete Waterman were all in court. Stock and Aitken claimed that Waterman owed them substantial royalties - a two-thirds share of a figure some observers estimated at £12m. They lost, and much mud was slung, largely, it has to be said, by Mike Stock, who branded Waterman "a buffoon" who "thinks talent is blond hair and big tits" and who had spent "a lot of time in Japan, importing koi carp" while he and Aitken had actually written and recorded their famous string of hits in the 80s.
And yet, here they are, the men who gave the world Kylie Minogue, Rick Astley and Jason Donovan, talking tentatively of a reunion. Aitken says the first thing he did when they lost the court case was to shake Waterman's hand. Waterman notes that "when I had my two tragedies" - one son, Pete Jr, was badly burned in a 1999 go-karting accident; another, Paul, died in January, aged 33 - "the boys were the first people on the phone."
Nevertheless, the entente cordiale requires some historical revisionism, and there is a slightly brittle atmosphere when we meet in Waterman's studio in County Hall, London. "I've always maintained with Pete that I thought he was a friend and I could go and have a drink with him," says Stock, which is partially true. Last year, he did indeed tell one journalist that he would go out for a drink with Waterman, but added, "There's no guarantee I won't grasp his throat."
He manages to restrain himself this afternoon, but it is still hard to see how the three ever got on. Their roles in the studio were strictly demarcated - Stock and Aitken wrote the songs; Waterman suggested titles, applied his DJ instinct for what would work on the dance floor, liaised with artists and took care of business - and their personalities seem utterly different. The trio still appear surprised by the loathing they inspired, but it's just as surprising, now, to find them all in the same room. Are they back together simply to make more money, or because, like it or not, they can't work with anyone else?
Security at Waterman's studio is tight. The doors have fingerprint-activated electronic locks. When the building's reception is closed, the only exit is through the basement, via a maze of cellars. "It's like The Count Of fucking Monte Cristo down there," barks Waterman, bullishly, by way of greeting; Stock and Aitken opt for the more conventional handshake. The rooms are vast, gleaming white and swathed in industrious silence. The only problem is the smell. Due to the close proximity of a branch of McDonald's, the studio is filled with the distinct whiff of Happy Meals and Chicken McNuggets.
The more waspish observer might suggest that fits perfectly. The statistics of Stock Aitken Waterman's late 80s success are mind-boggling - more than 100 Top 40 hits, 40m records sold, an alleged fortune of £60m - but popular wisdom says it was achieved by churning out records like fast food: cheap, disposable, unwholesome, identical. Beating off stiff competition from the Chernobyl disaster and the Ethiopian famine, they were recently voted the second worst thing about the 80s (Margaret Thatcher pipped them), which must put them among the most reviled record producers in history. Phil Spector may have recently garnered a similar level of opprobrium, but he had to be charged with murder first.
"We were going around cutting the legs off whippets and raping old women, that's what you would have thought," says Waterman. His delivery is never less than a bark, while his face naturally arranges itself in a slightly puzzled expression. If you thought he was being a bit brusque with the hopefuls on Pop Idol and Popstars: The Rivals, well, he always talks like that, as if he's permanently addressing a deaf and rather exasperating elderly relation.
Stock has a reputation for hubris: he has compared himself to Shakespeare, which even the most devoted fan of I Should Be So Lucky might think is pitching it a bit high. While friendly, he gets prickly about odd details. I jokily mention the trio's involvement with Cyprus's 1984 Song For Europe and he scowls. "When you say it didn't quite pan out," he demurs, "it came ninth."
Aitken sits quietly, smoking and interjecting the odd sardonic remark. These often come at the expense of Waterman, who seems prone to embroidering facts for dramatic effect. The Sex Pistols' manager Malcolm McLaren has admiringly compared Waterman to the great, showboating pop impresarios of the 50s, who never let the truth get in the way of a good story. In the past, he has variously claimed to have inspired much of the Beatles' early repertoire (which seems doubtful at best - his name certainly doesn't appear in any major Beatles' biography), to have "invented" disco (which he no more invented than the internal combustion engine) and to have started both the late 70s ska revival and the attendant 2 Tone label. (In fact, he briefly managed the Specials but, according to their leader, Jerry Dammers, was fired long before 2 Tone began, after demonstrating how the band should dance on stage.)
Today Waterman offers a relatively restrained performance, but still claims that Mel & Kim's 1987 hit F.L.M. was a kind of Marxist tract, "saying we can't carry on like this in a society of plastic cards and fripperies".
"Was it?" frowns a puzzled Aitken.
On a couple of occasions, when Waterman is in full flight, I fancy I see Stock rolling his eyes slightly. "We always used to argue," nods Waterman. "We're passionate. If one of us didn't agree with what the other one said, we weren't frightened to say it." Among the things they argued about was Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan's 1988 Christmas number one, Especially For You: the trio "nearly came to blows" over the technicalities of how the duet should sound.
Waterman was illiterate until his mid-30s, but his career as a DJ and A&R; man stretches back across five decades, save for a brief and baffling period in the late 70s when he quit the music business after an argument about his failure to sign Baccara's disco hit Yes Sir I Can Boogie and apparently became a miner in protest. Back from the pit and working as a producer in 1980, he came into contact with Kent-born musician and aspiring songwriter Stock, who approached him with a song about CB radio called One Nine For A Lady Breaker. Waterman cheerfully describes it as "the worst record I've ever made". Unsurprisingly, it was not a hit.
Four years later, however, Stock had palled up with Matt Aitken, a jobbing guitarist from Lancashire. Aitken had attended the same school as Pete Shelley of Manchester punk legends the Buzzcocks, and played on cruise ships and around US air force bases before being recruited for Stock's cabaret band, Mirage. The duo resolved to abandon the Park Lane hotel ballroom circuit and "try to make it in the music business". They called on Waterman. "We made up a dance called the Upstroke, that all the Sloane Rangers were supposedly doing in the clubs in Sloane Square," deadpans Aitken. "It was a scam, but Pete got it."
Alas, no one else did: recorded under the puzzling name Agents Aren't Aeroplanes, the Upstroke stalled outside the singles chart. Leaving aside Cyprus's legendary ninth place in the 1984 Eurovision Song Contest, the trio's first real success came that year with You Think You're A Man, by rotund US drag queen Divine, previously best-known for pretending to eat dog excrement in John Waters' 1972 arthouse film Pink Flamingos. "I've still got a review of that on my wall at home," says Waterman. "It says, 'For a man who started his career eating dog shit, this record is a step in the right direction.' I thought, we've made it! This is it! We've arrived!"
Initially, the trio specialised in a pop take on "hi-NRG", the electronic dance music that soundtracked early 80s gay clubs. Indeed, they were so closely associated with the gay scene that on their first meeting, Dead Or Alive frontman Pete Burns automatically assumed that Waterman was homosexual. Says Waterman: "I wore a red leather suit with a white stripe down the side, my hair was green and blue, and I had a great big golden ear stud. When Pete Burns came in, he thought Mike and Matt were my boys and I was the madam."
Despite the confusion, Dead Or Alive's spectacular You Spin Me Round (Like A Record) was Stock Aitken Waterman's first number one. The trio claim its success sparked their war with the press and the music industry. The press were horrified by their autocratic style of making records ("If you get too friendly with an artist," counsels Stock, "the next thing you know, they'll be asking to do their vocals again or change the lyrics or something") and their refusal to countenance anything other than low-budget pop aimed at an audience they proudly described in 1990 as "ordinary people with Woolworth ears". According to Waterman, the industry was "intimidated because we were independent, we had our own studios in south London, we started our own label [PWL] when no one would sign Kylie Minogue".
It's hard to tell how bothered the trio were by the constant criticism. They can quote 20-year-old reviews, deliver word-for-word accounts of conversations with record company bosses who dismissed Bananarama's 1986 hit Venus. Aitken points out that their 1989 version of Do They Know It's Christmas? has been quietly erased from Band Aid's history by Bob Geldof, Midge Ure et al: "The bastards." Waterman starts telling a story about Sonia's record label publicly disowning her first number one, You'll Never Stop Me Loving You (1989), and works himself into such a froth that he ends up comparing the chirpy scouse songbird to Jesus: "Please don't get me wrong, but it was like trying to deny you knew Christ when the cock crows."
And yet they positively ooze belligerent self-confidence. "We did a record with this band called Brilliant," remembers Waterman, "the reviews were phenomenal and it got to 58 in the charts. I remember saying to the guys, fuck that for critically-acclaimed music, you can't pay the fucking rent with that."
Indeed, it's hard to escape the notion that they enjoyed playing pop's pantomime villains. As their hits continued to mount up - Bananarama, Mel & Kim and Rick Astley, whom Waterman discovered singing in the glamorous environs of a Warrington hairdressers' Christmas party - their interviews seemed to become progressively more outrageous. In 1987, Waterman told Record Mirror that the trio would "do what they fucking wanted", unlike lesser mortals such as the Beatles, who he claimed had been "swayed by the critics". He informed a journalist from a trade magazine that the Smiths were merely a "record company hype" who were "blocking up the charts for records kids actually want". The following year, with Kylie and Jason in the ascendant, Stock told the NME "normal people don't want to listen to rap".
In 1989, they released the Reynolds Girls' remarkable I'd Rather Jack, which counts as Stock Aitken Waterman's God Save The Queen or Smack My Bitch Up - less a song than a kamikaze act of provocation, designed to upset as many people as possible in the space of three minutes. Everyone from the Rolling Stones to Radio 1 DJs and programmers - everyone, in fact, who isn't Stock, Aitken and Waterman - gets it in the neck over a thumping house beat.
"It just got to the point where there was so much old people's music on daytime radio that it was impossible to hear what we were doing," protests Stock. "There was all this talk about demographics - Capital Radio told their advertisers that people who want to buy their coffee liked the Smiths. You want to sell your coffee, we have to play the Smiths!" Them again. So you weren't just trying to wind people up, saying those things in the press? He looks surprised. "No. I still think there's truth in a lot of what we said. We were standing up for ourselves."
It was SAW's annus mirabilis: in 1989 they wrote and produced 19 top 10 singles, six number ones and the year's biggest-selling album, Jason Donovan's Ten Good Reasons. Their services were sought by everyone from Cliff Richard to Donna Summer to heavy metal band Judas Priest. The money was rolling in. Usually decried as arch Thatcherites, Stock claims the trio were largely apolitical - "I don't remember voting for anyone" - but they certainly enjoyed their wealth in the grandstanding style of the era. Waterman bought a helicopter and a class 24 diesel locomotive, and parlayed their success into media celebrity, co-presenting The Hitman & Her, a low-budget TV show that revelled in the more garish aspects of provincial club culture and was broadcast in the middle of the night. Stock and Aitken bought a jet, which the latter claims he used once. Their studios, named the Hit Factory and decorated with missiles at Waterman's behest, were open 24 hours a day, with 25 engineers working in shifts.
Within 12 months, however, their grip on the charts had irrevocably slipped. The trio received blackmail and death threats - one, Aitken says, from "a guy who waited outside the studio and sort of lunged at us, yelling, 'You took your songs out of my head!' " More seriously, their artists began to leave. Rick Astley simply gave up: "He wasn't a natural star," Stock says, diplomatically. Sonia departed after an argument over money. According to Waterman, Jason Donovan "literally started thinking he was the Happy Mondays", which sounds less like a source of artistic disagreement than a disturbing psychiatric condition. He, too, jumped ship, as did his former paramour, Kylie. Even the Reynolds Girls decided to strike out on their own: "You don't get rid of the Reynolds Girls that easily," they told Number One magazine, perhaps rashly.
Stock Aitken Waterman seemed incapable of finding replacements: there were few takers for Yell or the unpromisingly-named Kakko. They talk now about "losing focus" and "becoming victims of our own success", but in truth pop music was changing. They didn't understand hip-hop and were rigorously opposed to sampling - they sued MARRS for sampling them on Pump Up The Volume - but both were to prove pivotally important to pop music's progress in the 90s.
Their thundering lack of cool was starting to catch up with them. By now, there were stories, admittedly put about by Waterman, of record shop staff "intimidating younger buyers and mums by scoffing at them" if they asked for a SAW single. Meanwhile, the indie bands they so despised had suddenly started making records that appealed not just to "students and the unemployed", as Aitken sneers, but to the same people that bought Stock Aitken Waterman productions: the Happy Mondays' Step On, the Stone Roses' Fools Gold, the Charlatans' The Only One I Know. Here was pop music with no taint of naffness, nor of the fast-food production line.
Aitken left in 1991. The flashpoint was, curiously, an argument over Queen guitarist Brian May's song for a Ford car advert, Driven By You, but, he says, "I was burnt out. People say all our records sound the same, but it came to a point where they started sounding all the same to me." Stock followed suit two years later. All subsequently had successes - Waterman with Steps, Stock and Aitken with Robson & Jerome - but nothing to match those they'd had in the late 80s.
Now they're back. Though their plans are sketchy, Stock insists, "It's like riding a bike - but the bike needs a bit of oil on the pedals and a bit of air in the tyres first." There is also the faintest sense that pop music might need them. Compared with current teen idols, the SAW artists once derided as faceless puppets seem positively bursting with personality. You can't help thinking you'd like McFly more if they suddenly released an I'd Rather Jack-ish number about how decrepit and boring Coldplay are. Next to Westlife, Rick Astley - haplessly jiggling his legs in a blazer from Next - looks as characterful as Shane MacGowan. Manufactured pop is in a lull.
Waterman seems to recognise it's partly his own fault, that the reality shows he took part in demystified the star-making process, ridding pop of its glitter and glamour along the way. Aitken's theories, which he starts quietly to expound, involve producers being too clever for their own good, music being dishonest, and, curiously, the popularity of fusion cooking in restaurants. "They're not serving roast beef and Yorkshire pud," he protests. "They're serving wasabi with French cuisine."
Waterman, looking even more puzzled than usual, interrupts. "The great thing about us," he barks, "is we've actually got a mental age of 11 when it comes to music! We don't analyse it! Kids don't analyse it!" Incredibly, his voice starts to get louder. It's as if he's trying to intimidate the music industry once more, this time by sheer lung-power alone. "We love it!" he bellows. "We love it! WE LOVE IT!"
Stock Aitken Waterman Gold, a three-CD box set and DVD, is out on Sony BMG/PWL.