“If there are awards for sheer cuntdom in pop music, it has to go to Pete Waterman” – Jon Campbell of The Time Frequency, Facebook, 2023
Well, how time flies. It’s 40 years since Stock Aitken Waterman burst on the music scene and achieved their first flush of successful singles. Whether you regard them as pap schlockmeisters or pop geniuses, the SAW hit machine defined and divide the second half of the 1980s. Indeed, this may possibly the most contentious of the Perfect 10 series that we’ve listicled on stevepafford.com
All great fairy tales start with a “once upon a time,” and once upon a time in January 1984, that cantankerous Coventry motormouth Pete Waterman who was born exactly a week after Bowie. A backroom boy done good, he had been briefly involved in the business side of early careers for The Specials, Musical Youth, Tracey Ullman and even The Belle Stars and Nik Kershaw, and decided to form PWL and join forces with a pair of jobbing knockabouts — cruise ship musicians with an ear for a great melody — Mike Stock (lyrics) and Matt Aiken (music).
In a less than auspicious start, the trio kicked things off with a hasty, less than tasty rip-off of the (then-banned by the BBC) No. 1 single of the day, Relax by Frankie Goes To Hollywood. The record was called The Upstroke, a fictional dance that copped its “craze” concept from Adam & The Ants’ the Prince Charming. The act put together specifically to front the 45 was Agents Aren’t Aeroplanes, a faux female answer to FGTH.
You could be kind and say it’s a bit like the debut of that other Liverpool band The Beatles; a rough diamond that shows potential. But it’s not, because the track is appallingly derivative, and despite a modicum of airplay only made 93 in the charts. However, it did receive some crucial spins in the gay clubs, an area that was to play a big part in the SAW success story.
By the end of the year, the newly named Stock Aitken Waterman had achieved a top twenty and then a top ten hit and saw the release of a song that would bag them their first chart-topping classic in the early months of 1985. This often tawdry trio would go on to score 100 Top 40 hits, selling 150 million “units” (OK, pause and let that sink in for a moment) in a era when record sales were actually worth something. At one point in 1987 – 1988, a quarter of all records sold in the UK were from the PWL/Stock Aitken Waterman stable. Like Waterman’s other hobby-turned-business, the trains, they proved unstoppable. And in his words, “We knew we had to churn out another hit every five days.”
In those heady Thatcherite days it may have seemed to some like a golden shower of uncultured lowest common denominator records, but viewed from the pathos of hindsight, there is an argument that Stock Aitken Waterman are effectively the last of the great Tin Pan Alley songwriting teams… well, until the 2000s when Xenomania took on the mantle for Girls Aloud and Sugababes. As Bruce Forsyth would have said, didn’t they do well?
Working with everyone from Hazell Dean and Debbie Harry to Cliff Richard and Paul McCartney, and even Sigue Sigue Sputnik and the, er, England Football Team, SAW were Stakhanovite in their work ethic — and hit-and-miss in their quality control.[creatively more misses, George Michael once told me, conveniently forgetting he and his cousin Andros Georgiou once covered the epochal You Spin Me Round under the pseudonym Infamy. They’ve all got… oh, wrong article — Ed.].
But never kind because the self-proclaimed Hit Factory produced some of the greatest singles ever made, and a lot of shit, mentioning no names Sonia and Sabrina.
Let’s get listicle as we count down a Perfect 10 of the best.
Divine – You Think You’re A Man (1984)
The song before the storm. Every gay in the land loved this record. Written by Geoff Deane (Modern Romance, Kinky Boots), I had it on pink vinyl. Just as well it wasn’t brown considering the man born Harris Glenn Milstead had previously gained notoriety in John Waters’ “trash trilogy” of movies that began with the Day-Glo filth of Female Trouble, where they were amorally sanctified for eating very real, and very very fresh dog poo. I squit you not, it’s great after a few vodkas (the film I mean).
A true camp classic, this formidable 45 is a riot of congas, bongos and incessant arpeggios. A military kick drum and smattering of rim shots belie Divine’s gargantuan growl, and it worked a treat, bestowing SAW with their first chart entry, sweltering its way to No. 16 in July 1984 as FGTH spent two months in pole position with Two Tribes. Four decades on it still sounds fresh, and less dated than Frankie in many ways,
By virtue of its title, You Think You’re A Man is often paired with the portly female impersonator’s next single but one, a cover of the Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons ’60s chestnut Walk Like A Man, which was Divine’s only other UK hit, reaching 23 in the spring of 1985. Absolutely flabulous.
Princess – Say I’m Your Number One (1985)
A young Desiree Heslop gets a new name, because,, as her brother-manager explained: “You’ve had Prince, King, Queen, now here is Princess.”
To which Pete replied, “Princess? That’s the name of a fooking dog.”
The song Mike and Matt came up with, Say I’m Your No. 1, is a is a rare example of a SAW song that came together without a particular artist or project in mind. Legend has it the track was rejected by numerous acts including Bucks Fizz and the Style Council’s third member Dee C. Lee. Their loss, as when it ended up on Princess’ plate she devoured it from starter to desert and made it her own.
The Princess “sound” was an urban summary of old school Quiet Storm — the sort of slo-mo soul you’d expect from the sombre side of Smokey Robinson’s catalogue — but bang up to date in anticipating Jam & Lewis doing the business for Janet Jackson and the Human League, with a sprinkling of, say, Imagination, Working Week, or Loose Ends, who were already working with Waterman.
Either way, it’s a shame SAW didn’t pursue more of the R&B soul vibe, and this perfect summer breeze stormed to No. 7 for two weeks in August 1985 when the British charts were headed by a pair of covers by transatlantic duettists, namely I Got You Babe (UB40 & Chrissie Hyde) followed by Dancing In The Street (David Bowie and Mick Jagger).
Sadly, Princess failed to reach the top ten with subsequent releases. To put that into context, when PW’s namesake, the boxer Peter Waterman (brother of actor Dennis), passed in the third week of January 1986, her follow up, After The Love Has Gone, was languishing at 40, though Elton John & George Michael’s dire Wrap Her Up, which had been remixed by SAW, was a few notches higher. The No. 1 was Pet Shop Boys’ first 45, West End Girls. And talking of duos and girls….
Mel & Kim – Showing Out (Get Fresh At The Weekend) (1986)
“Tay, tay tay!” No, it’s not that one.
The SAW stable always had several ears on the dance floor, clocking what was happening in the clubs. PW was a DJ and at one point Pete Tong was on the books. This approach helped to make records that had great construction, with one foot in the now and the other in the capitalist populist.
With their striking feisty personas, Melanie and Kim Appleby, two streetwise sisters from Hackney, helped the team venture into a new, striking sound. Copping a feel for Chicago House (not to mention rewriting a concurrent single called Living Legends, also put together by SAW for, er, Roland Rat), they made what was not just a superb debut single in Showing Out, but a poptastic album in F.L.M and, just months later, a solid farewell single just before Mel sadly succumbed to cancer.[Clearly resigned to her fate, 1988’s tellingly titled That’s The Way It Is is indeed a bittersweet corker — Ed.]
It’s all the more tragic because the gals could have gone on to more wondrous records, and the snapshot of that cold November of 1986 when Showing Out bagged the bronze (behind Berlin at 1 and Kim Wilde at 2) was forever lit by these two sassy East Enders. Respectable in every possible way.
Dead Or Alive – Brand New Lover (1986)
Not a track everyone will be over familiar with, but you should. Brand New Lover is an epic slab of gothic high energy pop; effervescent and shamefully extravagant that shone on every dance floor — and it happened to be the first 45 taken from Dead Or Alive’s third album Mad, Bad And Dangerous To Know — and their second (and final) set with SAW after 1985’s epochal Youthquake.
Here, the synths swirl and the Linn Drum keeps the propulsive beat nailed down, its chorus is sent from on high, like a condensed bottle of poppers. With Liverpool legend Pete Burns’s voice in full-on throttle, he was also frustrated with his record company’s attitude to his single choices, complaining the label only relented on scheduling Brand New Lover after Bananarama had a huge hit with their DOA-inspired cover of Venus.
Oddly, while Pete and the gang did go on to become the proverbial big in Japan, BNL only peaked at 31 in the UK, and for me it’ll always be number one in heaven.[In September ’86, CBS/Columbia claimed there were mysterious “distribution problems” with some of their roster’s new singles — not only Dead Or Alive but Paul Young and Spandau Ballet. Far be it from me to suggest the label didn’t press enough copies for acts they deemed past their prime, at the same time concentrating on 45s from hotter, of the moment American acts like Jermaine Stewart, Run-DMC and The Bangles. Walk This Way and Walk Like An Egyptian were huge hits, as were other 45s that probably didn’t start with W — Ed.]
Bananarama – I Heard A Rumour (1987)
There was always something of the lovable amateurs about the pre-SAW ‘Nanas. The girls wanted to be credible DIY proponents, then thought, “No, lets hitch the wagon up to the hit factory and get ourselves a cheeky US chart-topper with Venus, which owes much of its success to the template established by You Spin Me Round and its sister act, You Think You’re A Man.
The girl group’s regular producers Swain and Jolley baulked at the idea of turning Shocking Blue’s country-rock classic into a dance ditty. But once the SAW single revived the girls’ fortunes, Team Waterman unsurprisingly took over the reins for Bananarama’s fourth LP WOW!, in 1987.
Both cultural triptychs had forceful opinions on what made a great Bananarama record, so the working environment was hardly harmonious. However, it did yield this beauty, I Heard A Rumour, which was the second in the trio’s run of classic SAW singles that continued with Love in the First Degree, I Want You Back and a cover of The Supremes’ Nathan Jones, until Siobhan Fahey jumped ship and and went all emo with Shakespear’s Sister.
But back to I Heard A Rumour [one of their sassiest 45s, and released three days after I entered adulthood, no less. So it’s a solid marker in time — Ed.]. The whole song and dance is so well constructed, from the epically shrill synths, to the joyous video where the gals, wearing French Can Can dresses, bend over to moon the word “Wow” — a tasty bit of album promo like no other.
With Thatcherite braggadocio, Pete said every time the ‘Nanas went top ten, he turned around to the others and exclaimed “There goes the sound of a new Ferrari!” Oh dear, the old sod seems to have been caught in traffic…
Stock Aiken Waterman – Roadblock (1987)
Artists — they always want credibility, don’t they. Yet as Waterman told future KLF renegade Jimmy Cauty when they recording his Brilliant album, “credibility won’t pay your gas bill.”
Still, I’m glad they chased the in-vogue fashion of The Wag Club, and Rare Groove, and came up with this wheeze of an idea to fool people it was actually a funk tune from the 1970s.
Roadblock is a unique record in Amy ways, and, sadly, readers, it would prove to be the last true innovation before the tawdry twin-headed tack that was Kylie and Jason became a pop juggernaut that ruined the Stock Aitken and Waterman’s reputation for ever more. After 1987 the motor went rapidly downhill. Take the ubiquitous “so macho” Sinitta for example, whose talent was so obviously in the self-promotion front she made Madonna look like an amateur.[You’ve hit the nail on her head there, though it’s a shame it wasn’t a sledgehammer. In August ’87 the silly sausage came to the canal-side pub where I was working to promote her new Toy Boy. When the Saturday night DJ asked if I was going to go over and meet her I point blank refused but told him I had plenty of out of date eggs and tomatoes I could chuck her way — Ed.]
Where once SAW looked like a genre-busting trio, by now it was starting to look depressingly formulaic. Now, it was all about sell, sell sell: it was Gordon Gecko with a keyboard, and believing your own hype.
But thank feck for Roadblock. Just put the needle on the record.
Rick Astley – Together Forever (1988)
From Rickrolling to national treasure — if you haven’t seen him guest starring with Foo Fighters or at singing Smiths classics at Glastonbury with the Blossoms then you haven’t lived. Because Rick Astley can sing like he always could, with that rich resonant baritone intercut with his humorous boy next door positivity. [He has a nice tight cut body too, at least he did when I knew him — Ed.]
The Cheshire lad was 18 going on 19 when he met Waterman and placed on a YTS scheme, swiftly becoming a “tea boy” tape op whose first recording session was for Dead Or Alive’s Youthquake in early 1985.
By 1987, mixmaster Phil Harding and engineer Ian Curnow were a significant part of the SAW sound, with many of the hit factory’s basslines conjured up by Curnow, who new his way round a pop chop melody having previously been part of Talk Talk. That summer, Rick exploded like a fire cracker, with a trio of trademark SAW singles that ripped up dancefloors from Aberdeen to Aberystwyth — Never Gonna Give You Up, Whenever You Need Somebody, and Together Forever, which famously topped the American Billboard chart but, across the pond, was held back by the production line’s very own I Should Be So Lucky by someone called Vylie.[Talking of number twos, never mind the smelly old Pogues, because the other UK single from Rick’s debut — a carbon copy cover of Nat King Cole’s old chestnut When I Fall In Love — was a dead cert to top the Christmas chart of 1987, only to be pipped at the post by the Pet Shop Boys’ far superior reimagining of Brenda Lee’s Always On My Mind. Waterman was seething, especially as he’d been forced to turn down producing PSB due because he “couldn’t work with their manager Tom Watkins.”]
Brother Beyond – The Harder I Try (1988)
This boyband quartet — two handsome, two heifer — won a chance to work with SAW in a raffle, which is odd because I’ve only won a box of Milk Tray without the Bond-like delivery man, and a lukewarm bottle of Blue Nun. Still you have to keep on trying, and Brother Beyond certainly did.
Limper than a biscuit in puddle, BB’s first four singles flopped, despite being touted alongside Curiosity Killed The Cat as the new hot thing of 1986.
Released in the summer of ’88, The Harder I Try is delicious in its derivativeness: it’s pure Philly Soul, evoking the magnificent drama of prime Detroit Spinners, and it has a sitar on it. It bounces better than a Duracell bunny and was only kept from the top spot by Yazz’s incendiary cover of The Only Way Is Up.
And talking of divas, here’s their star turn…
Donna Summer – This Time I Know It’s For Real (1989)
By the late eighties, SAW had kind of stopped making records just for the gay audience, as had the so-called “Queen of Disco” turned born-again Christian Donna Summer, no doubt hastened by comments that has been attributed to her mid-decade concerning god, gays and the spread of AIDS. [Tellingly, no evidence has ever been provided that she actually said the “revenge” quote” — Ed.]
What a renaissance though, because I remember being very surprised to walk into a gay club and find it pumping out of the speakers of Rockshots in Newcastle.
Taking its place in SAW chronology terms between Samantha Fox’s remould of Dusty Springfield’s I Only Want To Be With You and, er, The Reynolds Girls’ I’d Rather Jack (“than Fleetwood Mac” This Time I Know It’s For Real was co-written with the legendary lunged singer and was unbelievably ecstatic, exuberant, exhilarating, and lots more things with “ee”s too.
Melody Maker’s Jim Arundel declared the 45 as “gloriously driven, simple, joyous and just a bit sad too.” Music Week’s Jerry Smith described the tune as an “irritatingly catchy, lightly soulful dance tune that is sure of a high chart placing.”
Indeed, with its No. 3 chart placing the single was Summer’s biggest success in Britain since a duet with Barbra Streisand a decade prior. Moreover, the attendant Another Place And Time was a rarity in the SAW story, where the team made a decent album too — the last significant Donna Summer studio set to do the business around the world.
Lonnie Gordon – Happenin’ All Over Again (1990)
A new decade, a bit of a refresh but the wheels were starting to fall off on SAW’s seaside juggernaut. Stock and Aiken were getting itchy feet of Pete, and Harding and Curnow had already decamped for pastures new.
It was a sad decline, with the outfit becoming less Euro express, and more 10 o’clock Clacton station with recent signings: Big Fun were like Dame Edna meets Hinge and Bracket on acid, Sonia was like a Scouse Lulu with half the voice and Jason Donovan was an OK actor in Neighbours.
Happily, as he was preparing for the offski, Phil Harding mixed a new track that was shot through with SAW sensibilities, also emphasised Italo House, Hip Hop vibes and those tragically overdone James Brown yelps. The 45 zigged up to No. 4 for two weeks in February 1990 as Sinéad O’Connor was dominating the charts with her reimagining of Prince’s Nothing Compares 2 U.
In the last quarter of ’89, the record that dominated turntables was Black Box’s Ride On Time (sweetie), and Happenin’ was clearly wanting a piece of that pie, except that this girl could actually sing. American by birth, Lonnie Gordon relocated to England and waited patiently for that banger.
And in this 45 she found it. Though it was to be a career that didn’t quite meet expectations, it’s fitting that she gave SAW a fabulous farewell.
Adam Ant, Visage, Dead or Alive and the first singles I ever bought is here
Memorable Top Of The Pops moments: You Think You’re A Man and the Divine drag queen of the century is here
45 at 33: Band Aid II’s godawful Do They Know It’s Christmas? is here
Australia, Kylie and the case for equality (oh, and a bit of Bowie too) is here
Spaffing all over Sabrina’s Boys (Summertime Love) is here
Perfect 10: Donna Summer is here