‘Stock, Aitken and Waterman’, the very mention sends shivers up the and down the spines of some, but, to many they represent a ‘golden age’ of pop. Epitomising a period when to think deeply about pop culture was the predominant language throughout the land at odds with today’s disposable ‘all-face no grace’ popsphere. Most importantly, humour lay at the heart of their work.
To commemorate and celebrate the trio’s output author Mark Elliott has written The Sound of a Bright Young Britain an extensive and exhaustive anatomisation of the ‘Hit Factory’, a history of pop being top, of underground sounds transported to the overground of primetime television and cultural discourse.
Can you tell me a bit about yourself, background etc?
Spent nearly 30 years working in magazines. Used to be MD of Time Out London and was publisher of Empire for a stretch. Worked on a number of magazines including ELLE, Red, The Face. Today, I publish magazines for tourists – Where, London Planner, IN London. I was originally a local newspaper and then magazine journalist and have always been a huge record collector. In the last few years, I been doing some freelance work for Record Collector, Long Live Vinyl and Universal Music.
I live in Greenwich, am married and proud dad to Battersea Dogs & Cats’ Home pug.
Why SAW? Why are they and the phenomenon worthy of such scrutiny?
Statistically, they are one of the UK’s biggest writers/producers. Their songs have lasted and their acts – Rick Astley, Kylie – continue to dominate pop music. Not everything they did was brilliant, but the same can be said for comparable outfits working at such a pace like Motown. As a young man, I loved these songs and play them to this day. It’s time to look at the bigger picture and there’s a wealth of their material that’s been overlooked. They were mavericks and experimental – that’s what makes them interesting.
SAW were unfairly maligned and are criminally likened to ‘Irritable Cowell Syndrome’s Sweatshopping Karaoke PLC’, whereas like Motown they took the sounds of the underground and clubland and took it to the masses.
The best pop subverts and repackages the underground and makes it palatable. Madonna is a good example of someone who does this brilliantly. The ability to reinvent and reinterpret is a skill. In their early years, SAW were on top of the dance scene and helped drive it.
The SAW sound veers between sounding dated and sounding contemporary; is that a sign that things haven’t really moved on in the audio-sonicverse?
I think that’s a sign of a classic song and production. People love these sounds – strong, emotive melody with a dance foundation.
Do you think the intervening years have allowed for a clearer reflection on the pop-ularity and cultural dominance/prominence of the charts, a shared cultural event every week (school)? That unifying moment has disappeared via the ubiquity of ‘now-tech and with it the loss of a pop-centre?
I think it would be hard for a production brand to dominate popular culture like this again. People are able to filter far easier now than they were in the 1980s. While DJ brands like Calvin Harris, Guetta etc are, for example, everywhere with a signature sound, no one has that sort of overwhelming exposure to single musical channels any longer.
The Guardian termed them “Schlock, Aimless and Waterdown” yet arguably would now herald its cultural relevance and all round ‘poptimism’. Do you think there’s a case of ‘yesterday’s dross is today’s kitschy cool’ to repackage and re-sell’?
I don’t particularly like reappraisal. The stuff I liked at 10, 13 and 20 is largely the stuff I like now. I enjoyed The Smiths, but less than I liked Sinitta, so I would champion both to the same degree today as I did in heated debates at my student union in 1987. I think the idea that you like something with hindsight suggests you probably weren’t being honest about it at the time. That’s true of individuals and the wider media.
Were you a fan at the time or do you now see them as worthy of higher appraisal?
No I loved them. I would buy everything they did whether I had heard it or not. The production credit on the record sleeve was good enough for me. I loved the early Divine and Hazell Dean releases without having any particular awareness of the producers but, by 1985 and Dead Or Alive, I was starting to make the connection.
How involved were SAW in the book?
I decided to work mainly with Mike Stock – the book is about their work and he was the songwriter. He was generous with his time, wrote the foreword and helped me check some of the detail.
Phil Harding and Ian Curnow the ‘Spector of the 80s’?
They had a pivotal role in the way many of the tracks sounded and have produced some excellent, although highly technical, testimonies of that time, but Mike created the recipes. It’s a shame there is still so much bad feeling between them all, but I understand why.
Artists like Divine and Dead or Alive were exuberant and extravagant transgressive artistes given teatime airtime.
Absolutely. It was a highly colourful and creative time – much more interesting than the acts in our charts today. It’s considered a golden age of pop music for a reason.
The roster included Kylie, Jason, Donna Summer, but also the ‘World’s First Rodent Superstar’ Roland Rat’s Living Legend?
Kylie has an amazing pop voice and has matured over the years into an enduring artist. I feel I grew up with her – my first visits to gay clubs at the dawn of the 1990s coincided with her getting more experimental too. She and Jason are about my age so Jason was someone I tried to physically emulate. I enjoyed Rick’s music a lot, but have always preferred female vocalists. Roland Rat had an odd relationship with SAW (read the book!) and, in truth, I didn’t much care for it, although as Pete told me, you can hear early Mel & Kim in some of this.
The importance of the music press, seemed to be a symbiotic relationship between SAW and Smash Hits, seeing the joie de vivre and superficiality in pop and also the ability mock it.
Barry McIlheney, who edited Smash Hits during some of SAW’s years of dominance, is a friend and a former boss of mine. He was able to share some useful insight and, absolutely, the tone that Smash Hits had in that time blended perfectly with the SAW acts. The way the magazine wrote about The Reynolds Girls, for example, builds brilliantly on their public profile.
Have you heard the Judas Priest SAW songs?
Only the clips online. Pete tells me they are lost from his archive. We’ll see …
(Sigue Sigue) Sputnik Aitken and Waterman, post-modern provocateurs meets the prevailing populists. A match made in heaven?
A great idea but, as Mike says in the book, creating a song with a band with a peverse perspective on what constitutes a melody probably wasn’t a match made in heaven.
Why do you think the magic ran out? Natural lifespan of phenomena?
I think the pace of work was too great and the business structure around the core SAW team started to get in the way. Both Mike and Pete managed to create new, highly successful projects after the split.
The artist Scott King has argued ‘I still think that pop music is potentially the highest form of art, even though – or perhaps because – most of it is utter rubbish’. What’s your take?
I’m fascinated by the blend of pop music that makes you feel something and the way it impacts on wider public awareness and culture. Getting that mix right is rare and usually doesn’t last for long. I don’t have time for anyone that rubbishes anything. Your reaction to something is always going to differ to someone else’s.
Why do you think most of the songs have endured?
Definitive SAW song? Act?
Donna Summer – ‘This Time I Know It’s For Real’
Probably Kylie, but I love the Wow-era Bananarama for their spirit, styling and fabulous songs
Would you agree that a SAW makes you nostalgic for simpler times or is that simply wistful thinking?
For me, personally, I was a young man and that naturally induces a sense of nostalgia. Glance back fondly, but make sure you’re as interested in what comes next. I think the era was actually a blend of terror and hardship alongside experimentation and positive energy. Again, that’s what makes it interesting in part.
Top 10 SAW tunes?
Now this is hard. Today, I’d say in no particular order:
Donna Summer _ ‘This Time I Know It’s For Real’
Kylie – ‘Better The Devil You Know’
Bananarama – ‘I Heard A Rumour’
Cliff Richard – ‘I Just Don’t Have The Heart’
Laura Branigan – ‘Shattered Glass’
Dead Or Alive – ‘Brand New Lover’
Mel & Kim – ‘That’s The Way It Is’
Rick Astley – ‘It Would Take A Strong Strong Man’
Hazell Dean – ‘Whatever I Do (Wherever I Go)’
Brother Beyond – ‘The Harder I Try’