THE JUDGE AND THE JURY: STOCK, AITKEN & WATERMAN
Stock, Aitken and Waterman then? Purveyors of a golden age of chart dominance, a Motown for the late 80’s. Or formulaic trash peddled by some Aussie soap stars and also rans. Will you ever stop loving them? Or did they just get lucky (lucky lucky)? Like a lot of things in life, when they’re good they’re very very good. And when they’re bad, they really are bleedin’ awful. We take a look back at their 10 best moments.
10. The Harder I Try – Brother Beyond
Chart Position: 2
SAW’s lofty ambitions to be a modern day Motown were undercut by the fact that where Motown could call upon Martha and the Vandellas or The Miracles as mid-ranking stable horses, the SAW equivalent was Sonia and Big Fun. However, “The Harder I Try” pushes a lot of Motown buttons and was as Detroit as they ever got. It features some great call-and-response backing vocals straight out of 1964. And it has some very cheesy ‘here it comes’ rhyming couplets (…..”I call you on the TEL-E-PHONE/ But they tell me that YOU’RE-NOT-HO-OME””). Genius. There’s a breezy lightness to this song that is quite endearingly sweet and I have a lot of time for it. But a mark off for clearly not bothering to write a middle eight.
9. You Think You’re a Man – Divine
Chart Position: 16
I don’t know if this was the first Hi NRG record to make it onto Top of the Pops, but it certainly had the most impact. You could argue that straight, white men taking gay underground music and bringing into the mainstream was exploitative of a particular culture. I’m not going to argue that. After all, Madonna essentially did the same with “Vogue”. Reaching its zenith with Dead or Alive, there were some great records to come out of that subculture and this is one of them. Proving that early SAW were pretty out there, and clearly knew their way around the early 80’s club scene.
8. Whatever I Do (Wherever I Go) – Hazell Dean
Chart Position: 4
A quick Wiki of Hazell (Wikideania if you will) tells me she’d been releasing records since 1975. And she was still having hits in 1988. That’s quite some under-the-radar hit making. You can join the dots from the backing on this record to the aforementioned “You Spin Me Round” (in that they’re essentially the same) and the smoothing over of the Hi-NRG sound to something more mainstream is clearly in evidence here. The harshness of the backing is softened by a nice bridge to the chorus however, and all in all, it’s a solid performance. Well done Hazell.
7. That’s The Way It Is – Mel and Kim
Chart Position: 10
This was recorded pretty much on Mel’s death bed (hence no actual video for it) and – although not their biggest hit- there’s a great big shrug of the shoulders to the verses, and a nagging sense of urgency to the chorus that make it a fitting epitaph to a career short in length but big on smarts.
6. What Do I Have To Do? – Kylie Minogue
Chart Position: 6
She did her best stuff after leaving them, and they did their best stuff before she turned up, but like a pop Venn diagram, there was an alchemic cross-over where they hit pop genius for a year or two. After two perfunctory albums that were hung around some big, obvious singles (and a load of pretty ropey filler), they needed to up their game in 1990 with the one pop star on their roster that – it emerged – had staying power and real star wattage. There was an obvious ramping up of quality in the singles they produced for Kylie in this period, and “What Do I have To Do” sounds the most “1991” of them. Underpinned by an on point housey piano, it almost sounds a bit ravey in places (check the ‘crowd noise’ sample in the intro). And of course, the video cements the butterfly-from- a cocoon transformation into the iconic “SexKylie” era.
5. I Heard a Rumour – Bananarama
Chart Position: 14
Bananarama are an interesting side story in the history of SAW in that they’re one of the few acts that came to them as ready made ‘pop stars’ rather than as a blank page waiting to be crafted into something new. This – according to Watermen legend – brought its own set of challenges as they were apparently not the easiest to work with. They’re also a bit of an anomaly in that – commercially – they were a bit hit and miss in terms of chart positions. This isn’t their biggest single from their SAW years, but it’s clear that there’s song writing effort going on here (in that they’ve actually bothered to write a half decent verse rather than just using it as a holding place to get to the chorus). Although this being Bananarama there’s moments of brilliantly shoddy amateurishness, especially at 2:08 when they do the most laughable half- arsed will this do? ‘whoo!” moment in recorded history. Got to love the ‘Ramas. Also: note the endearingly literal dance routine, complete with “hand on the ear like a hearing trumpet” move.
4. Respectable – Mel and Kim
Chart Position: 1
Part of the key to SAW’s success was that they understood the relationship between pop star and public. Mel and Kim were the true examples of holding up a mirror to your audience and reflecting back what they see. They were the ultimate “relatable” pop stars. They wore clothes you could afford. They had dance routines you could copy. They said the things you thought in your head (but you probably shouldn’t voice). They swore. They laughed. They were on your side. You don’t necessarily need bags of talent for this to work, but you need personality. Where SAW started to fail was in their cynical boast of being able to make literally anyone a pop star. If you don’t have talent, you need personality. And that’s where you get a situation like The Reynolds Girls.
But back to “Respectable”. It wins on a lot of fronts. For an industry built on artifice, it’s supremely honest. “Take or leave us…like or hate us”…Probably only “Wannabe” has that same degree of natural ringing confidence in itself, confidence that comes entirely from the performers. And so it also wins on that other great pop trick that everyone tries to pull off (but most don’t). Authenticity. You believe in it and you believe them. If you were really analysing this, you could say that the repeated vocal tricks of emphasising “tay-tay-tay-tay-TAKE!” is a comment on the greed of Thatcherite Britain. All taking and no giving. But that would be a load of bollocks as this is SAW, and this is Mel and Kim, and ‘Respectable’ is all about generously giving back to the audience. sharing the experience, putting an arm around your shoulder, and inviting you into the party.
3. Never Gonna Give You Up – Rick Astley
Chart Position: 1
Ah. Remember “Rick Rolling”? Well, who’s having the last laugh now, eh?
There’s a lot of Pete Watermen induced myth making around SAW and he never lets a good story get in the way of the truth. I don’t believe they wrote “I Should Be So Lucky” in five minutes whilst Kylie was waiting in reception (…it surely took at least a quarter of an hour?) And whilst he probably did make a cuppa at one point, Rick Astley wasn’t “the tea boy” who they just accidentally discovered had a great big voice.
But if you do have a great big voice, you need a great big tune to go with it. This is said big tune. We’ll gloss over the fact that it’s a re-written version of “Trapped” by Colonel Abraham, because it’s got that universal quality that anyone from a four year old to a Grandma can grasp. Namely, that this is so obviously A NUMBER ONE RECORD. It just is. Rick Astley worked (first time around) because he was unthreateningly nice, couldn’t dance, was quite handsome but not intimidatingly so, and you felt you had already seen him somewhere - probably as an apprentice for his Dad’s plumbing business. And on that basis, was there ever a pop star who you don’t begrudge having a second (very successful) wind? No! We love Rick!
2. Better The Devil You Know – Kylie Minogue
Chart Position: 2
The pinnacle of the SAW/Kylie output, this is where they put some real effort in, upped their game considerably to deliver for the Golden Goose that is oor Kyles, and in doing so, meld a swirlingly camp vision of pop perfection. It has one of those defining intros (a bit like Whitney’s ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody) that can cause a ‘wilder beast at the Serengeti’ stampede onto the dancefloor. The intro then cleverley wrong-foots you into minor chords before the descending piano fills kick in (which is a total nick from Abba, but if you’re going to steal, steal from genius.) And then we’re in. Game on.
Lyrically, it’s worryingly subservient to the nefarious philandering of a wrong ‘un, to which Kylie 1950’s housewife-like response seems to be to roll her eyes and carry on making the tea. (“I’ll take you back again…if you say you’ll never go”). Nope, there isn’t a huge amount of empowerment going on here. But – as Kylie says herself – we’ll forgive and forget. Because this is fab.
Fun pop fact: Kylie is the Queen of Number 2’s (snigger). She’s racked up 11 of them, second only to Madonna (12) and equal with Cliff (who I believe is familiar with going straight in at number 2)
1.You Spin Me Round (Like a Record) – Dead or Alive
Chart Position: 1
WHAT. A. RECORD. Not just SAW’s best single but one of the best singles of the 1980’s. It’s probably the one instance where a record sounding so cheap actually works in its favour. It’s the sort of track that’s best heard at ice-rinks, roller-discos and on the Waltzers at the summer fairground…. a big, echoey, clattering, dangerous beast of a thing. I was 7 when this was a hit and even then I remember having a feeling of….”oh…hang on…..?” when this was on TOTP. The song itself is still completely mad, thrilling and sounds like it’s often about to flip over into insanity at any moment. And it’s really fast (and therefore impossible to dance to). The keyboard runs are so quick they almost trip themselves up, the chords flash in and out like a pulsing migraine, and the whole thing gallops along like it has taken a hit of speed. It’s also the record that Pete Burns was born to sing, coming across like a predatory Fagin, dramatically bellowing out the ends of the verses…which – lyrically - wouldn’t pass the censor police in the #meetoo age. It’s a completely brilliant fusing of HI-NRG and pop, and like a lot of great pop music, flashes by too quickly and has you asking ‘what the fuck was that?!’