On a wet Thursday afternoon, Mike Stock, Matt Aitken and Pete Waterman are all but anonymous among the convening businessmen in the huge atrium of Marylebone’s Landmark Hotel. Even Pete Waterman’s latter-day incarnation as talent show judge seems not to attract any glances of recognition. With the passing of time, it seems mildly surreal that these three middle-aged men were voted in one newspaper poll below Margaret Thatcher but above the Chernobyl and Lockerbie disasters as one of the worst things that happened to the 80s. And yet, at their commercial peak, a certain section of the public – rock fans, students, music journalists, indie bands – loathed Stock, Aitken & Waterman. In 1987, they even inspired a parody single. With an ostensibly similar production, Morris Minor & The Majors’ This Is The Chorus suggested that anybody could get a top ten hit with this sort of superficial, anodyne pap. Except that, actually, they couldn’t. Unlike any of the 38 songs on the trio’s newly-released Gold anthology, This Is The Chorus barely charted.
Understandably, Stock, Aitken & Waterman like to be reminded about the barbs of their detractors. Far from muting them, the criticisms gave them extra focus. Mel & Kim’s
Respectable was written after the trio failed to make the shortlist for the Best Producer award at that year’s Brits. In a typically bullish retaliation, Waterman took out an ad in industry bible Music Week, which read, “You can love us. You can hate us. But you’ll never change us. We ain’t ever gonna be respectable.” By merging Waterman’s ad with some quotes attributed to them in a hostile NME interview, Stock and Aitken came up with a song to which even their critics ceded grudging respect.
Inspiration, they say, was taken from anything and everything. “It had to be that way, because the turnover of songs was so quick,” says Matt Aitken, a bluff Lancastrian who, prior to meeting Waterman, spent the early 80s performing in pubs alongside Stock. On the day that Kylie Minogue arrived to record he debut single, Waterman had forgotten to tell his colleagues that she was due in. With Rick Astley, Bananarama and Samantha Fox also in to record singles, Stock and Aitken asked her to go for a coffee and return in forty minutes – just long enough for them to write I Should Be So Lucky. Bananarama’s Love In The First Degree was a title stolen from an old country song. Stock remembers that the spur for Astley’s debut single Never Gonna Give You Up was a gold disc of an identically-named song by Musical Youth which Waterman had produced five years previously.
It was Astley, of course, who finally gave Stock Aitken & Waterman a profile across the Atlantic. Months before, a prominent placing for Mel & Kim’s Showing Out in Eddie Murphy flick Coming To America had the song poised to break the US. But when the record appeared showing two sisters of mixed race on the sleeve, Waterman recalls that neither black or white radio stations would go near it: “By the time Rick came along, we learned from our mistake. We didn’t have a picture of him on the sleeve.” Within ten months of leaving the family home in Lancashire and becoming the trio’s tea boy, Astley had given Stock, Aitken & Waterman their first American number one.
Spend long enough talking to Stock, Aitken and Waterman and – slowly but surely – an internal dynamic begins to emerge. In a previous century, you can imagine Stock and Aitken as chemists busily concocting their lucrative miracle cure-all, while the silver-haired Waterman donned blazer, straw hat and unleashed the patter to passers-by. Though Waterman’s lack of musical input prompted stinging words in Mike Stock’s 2004 memoir The Hit Factory – the two “proper musicians” spent the 1990s struggling to repeat the success of their late 80s imperial phase without Waterman’s populist touch.
“I’m a DJ,” explains Waterman, wielding his club sandwich like a weapon, “When you’ve been deejaying as long as I have, you know what works. If students were so upset by those Kylie records, well… it wasn’t anything I hadn’t seen before. I used to deejay to students over thirty years ago. I remember the first time I played Stevie Wonder’s Superstition and people were up in arms. Up! In! Arms! Can you imagine that? People talk about Motown in hallowed terms, but back in the 60s, it used to be known as Toytown.”
“Wherever you go, you always have to contend with perception problems,” says former double glazing salesman Mike Stock – these days, mercifully rid of the Loadsamoney highlights which sat atop his younger barnet. “In America it was the colour of Mel & Kim’s skin. In Britain, it was unthinkable that we could put our names to a record that was actually cool.” Most incredibly successful producers might have cackled contentedly to themselves as they threw another wad into the hearth. Stock, Aitken & Waterman took no small delight in teasing their persecutors. All of which brings us to Roadblock. Released shortly after M/A/R/R/S hared up the charts with Pump Up The Volume, this was the sought-after white label that blazed a trail across the clubs of Britain. NME raved about it. DJs loved it. Then, it came out – with “Stock Aitken & Waterman” emblazoned across the sleeve. “We weren’t trying to fool the public, you understand,” explains Stock drily, “We were trying to cock a snook to critics who were forever telling us how bad we were. So we thought we’d make something they’d like. And, um, forget to tell them it was us. Ha ha!”
In fairness, it must be added that – along with the Kylies, the Astleys and the Bananaramas – there were singles for which Stock Aitken & Waterman deserved all the ripe tomatoes the nation could throw at them. Despite her constant availability for reality TV shows, supermarket openings and, probably, children’s parties, no sane organism on the planet has yearned to revisit Londis Cilla schtick of Sonia. The absence of Sinitta has yet to make a single heart grow fonder. As for Cliff Richard’s I Just Don’t Have The Heart – well, it just didn’t have a tune. Waterman admits that there were problems when it came to doing The Peter Pan Of Pop™ justice. “The difficulty with us and Cliff,” explains Stock, “was that every song with which Cliff’s had a hit has first been played to his milkman. But we don’t have time to make demos, so Pete was cast in the role of persuader – getting him to come in and record the song without having heard it. I think he told him the cassette deck was broken.”
As with all successful songwriting teams, Stock Aitken & Waterman’s golden era began to loom more behind than in front of them. Having been able to keep his critics at arms length, Waterman bitterly notes that by 1990, the dissenting voices could be heard within his own record company. For that year’s Rhythm Of Love album, a maturing Kylie Minogue expressed an interest in working with Madonna collaborator Stephen Bray. Waterman didn’t agree with her choice although he reserves his harshest words for her management who, he alleges, were reluctant to include any of the trio’s songs on her album.
It’s worth pointing out here, that the quartet of S/A/W tunes that did make it onto the record – What Do I Have To Do?, Shocked, Step Back In Time and Better The Devil You Know – number among the finest pop songs of the era. As last hurrahs go, those songs took some beating. But in a world about to be swamped by grunge and Britpop, Stock Aitken & Waterman quickly became an anachronism. While Waterman gave us Steps and Stock helped mastermind the rise of Robson & Jerome, Kylie foundered.
Presumably, the trio kept tabs on Kylie’s plummeting career as she yielded to the whims of postmodern Hoxtonites on The Impossible Princess? That must have surely hurt? Pete Waterman is nothing if not philosophical about the singer’s Weird Years: “Well, if Kylie wants to be Kylie, you have to let her. It’s all part of growing up, isn’t it?”
As they’re quick to point out, it’s all water under the bridge now. The trio saw Kylie before she left for Australia to undergo treatment for breast cancer. While doing so, the trio found that their hunger to work with each other had returned. Nonetheless, when Stock, Aitken & Waterman’s reformation was recently announced, the news caught many by surprise – not least because of the lawsuit which Stock and Aitken launched against Waterman over allegedly unpaid royalties. Though the lawsuit was dropped in 1999, a Mirror interview in 2002 depicted an angry Stock, enraged by his former colleague’s participation in Pop Idol: The Rivals. “Who does Pete think he is?” Stock was quoted as saying, “He’s not qualified to ruin these kids’ lives. He thinks talent is blonde hair and big tits.”
It’s a view that Stock appears to have moderated dramatically this afternoon. Waterman – with his impressive ability to spin an angle – says the merely feud proves that he prefers to live “in a world where honesty still counts for something. You see, we never had a contract. We only ever shook hands. But that’s not the way lawyers like to work.”
Will there be a contract for S/A/W/ – Phase Two? “No,” insists Waterman, “We don’t need it. We live in a paper trail society – but you know what? There’s [ital] still [ital] honesty in this world.”
And will it be easy to pick up where they left off fifteen years ago? In these pop-savvy middle-youthy times, where grown-ups are allowed to buy Sugababes and Girls Aloud records, what’s left for them to kick against? “Oh, there’s always something, don’t worry about that,” says Waterman. Then he waves over to the musicians in the hotel bar. They appear to be playing some vaguely ambient take on Andean folk instrumentals. “They’re our first signing. Panpipe Sonia, anyone?”