To the chagrin of many a Chemikal Underground1 fan, the UK indie charts have always tended to contain many perfectly non-indie-sounding records that just happen to have an independent distributor. Glance at a recent chart, and next to your Seafoods and Brassys, there's the Backstreet Boys. But, ten years ago, the House of Loves of this world were actually outnumbered in the indie charts by the likes of Jason Donovan, Kylie Minogue, Hazel Dean, Sinitta, Sonia and Rick Astley. And yet, such records have as much in common with the spirit of cheap British DIY indie pop as the likes of Bis or Hefner. These were records with a definite, unique and immediately recognizable sound; nurtured, ruthlessly controlled and hermetically sealed within its own world.
Stock, Aitken and Waterman (SAW) are names synonymous with late 1980s chart pop. To the media snobs it was seen as Thatcherite, disposable chip shop Britain fodder, targeted at bored teenagers in Bromley shopping centres with bad perms and worse denims, which is a shame, because in truth it's joyous, uplifting, perfect bubble gum pop.
There was Pete Waterman, the ideas man from a poor working-class background who was the trio's lyricist (despite being illiterate until his 40s) manager and general wheeler-dealer. Between making records he found time to present ITV's late-night club programme, The Hitman and Her, arguably the trashiest TV show of its time, as well as a precursor to the world of Ibiza Uncovered2. Getting on with things in the studio were the multi-instrumentalists Mick Stock and Matt Aitken, writing, producing and playing the actual music.
Waterman had a history as a Northern Soul DJ, following its development in US clubs into disco and then Hi-NRG, and had a vision of a British equivalent of Motown, producing uplifting, working-class dance music; female factory worker-type music in a production line style. The Motown in-house writers and producers, Holland Dozier Holland, were his role models. He even nicknamed SAW's own label, PWL, as 'The Sound of a Bright Young Britain'. Waterman boasted he had 'Woolworth's ears', a knack for spotting trends in clubs and recycling them as catchy, mass-market pop.
He took what was then the most modern sound of New York gay clubs - pumping sequencer bass lines and relentless Linn drum machines3, and married it with the world of Smash Hits (a British teen and pop magazine) and the perennial teenage hunger for colourful, glamorous poster stars. And by golly, did SAW have some hits. Starting off in 1984 with gay-targeted singles like Hazel Dean's 'Whatever I Do, Wherever I Go', Divine's 'You Think You're a Man' and Dead or Alive's 'You Spin Me Round', they then turned Bananarama from scruffy dungaree-wearing mopers to, yes, glamorous gay male-friendly divas, complete with the ubiquitous sexy boy dance troupe in every video. Then in 1986 they came up with the genius hairdresser duo of Mel and Kim and their four absolute classic singles: 'Respectable', 'FLM', 'Showing Out (Get Fresh at the Weekend)' and 'That's the Way it is'. Mel and Kim were camp, sure, with their whiny songs about dumping crap boyfriends and the joy of shopping, dancing and dressing with attitude, but they directly appealed to the average teenager of the time that just wanted to have fun, even if love and money were in short supply.
SAW discovered and groomed new singing stars like Sinitta, Brother Beyond and Rick Astley, or took already famous faces from the world of TV and tabloids like Kylie Minogue, Jason Donovan and Samantha Fox and crowbarred them into a processed vocal sheen that soon became as much part of the trademark SAW sound as the out-of-control drum machine, melodic synths and frantic bass lines. Kylie Minogue's debut single, 'I Should Be So Lucky' represented the zenith of the SAW story, dominating the charts and irritating and delighting the nation in equal measures with its brazenly banal approach to pop songwriting. By this time SAW were notorious enough to have their own sketches on 'Spitting Image', with them operating a huge conveyor-belt machine with two settings: high vocals for Kylie, low vocals for Rick and Jason and the rest of the music entirely interchangeable between artists. They did release a few singles as SAW themselves, the super-cool 'Roadblock' being one, but for all intents and purposes every record was really just SAW featuring Kylie, or Rick, or Jason.
Their reputation made them highly sought producers for anyone after a guaranteed hit. By 1989, Donna Summer, Cliff Richard and even Sigue Sigue Sputnik required their services. In 1990 their sound evolved along with Kylie's new 'sexy dance diva' phase with 'Better the Devil you Know', which was officially SAW's 100th hit, 'Step Back In Time', 'What Do I Have To Do' and 'Shocked'. But the new sound, though suave, complex, and more timeless, lacked the SAW homogenous identity, and for the first time a SAW artist upstaged her producers.
When Aitken left the partnership in 1991 and Stock followed suit a year later, their hegemony of the charts was over. Factors for the break-up included Stock and Aitken's frustration that their sound no longer seemed relevant to the changing pop market place. Their last creation, an all-girl group called Boy Krazy, failed to deliver the kind of success they were used to. Moreover, disagreements between the musical duo and Waterman over division of royalties and major label business deals, had reached a head. High Court legal battles worth millions of pounds ensued throughout the 1990s, and the collaboration as a trio was over.
Separately, they continued to make trashy pop records. Stock and Aitken, when not producing bill-paying mum-pleasing atrocities like Robson and Jerome, went back to their gay disco roots with their own label, Love This Records, and produced '90s club classics like Newton's 'Sky High' and Tatjana's 'Santa Maria4'. In 1997, Mike Stock took part in Roger Cook's attempt to expose the illegal hyping of singles to gain chart hits, using Debbie Currie, daughter of the politician Edwina Currie, as the singer for their test single. The scam backfired and failed to result in a hit. The following year saw Stock launch a sizable compensation lawsuit against London Underground, whose nearby tunneling for the new Jubilee Line Extension had allegedly ruined the soundproofing of his studio and damaged his livelihood. However, the duo returned to making chart hits in 1999 with the Steps-like group, Scooch.
Waterman, meanwhile, used his millions to fund his boyhood dream of owning a private railway company, before returning to the world of pop in the late 1990s with his immensely successful creation, Steps. He also produced a number of chart-topping singles for the group Westlife, and even worked with Mark E Smith of The Fall. In October 2000, he published his autobiography, I Wish I Was Me.