Never gonna give you up: The Hit Factory returns
Reach for your ra-ra skirts, prepare your peroxide and set the flux capacitor to 1988. London is going back to the past this summer with a time-travelling reunion concert that will be "a celebration of the hit single" or, in the words of one pop commentator, "a real heart-string puller... or a car crash".
The stonewashed jeans may need to be taken out a couple of inches as Stock, Aitken and Waterman (SAW) re-deploy the acts that helped them record the popular soundtrack for the decade. Jason Donovan, Rick Astley, Bananarama, Sinitta and Dead or Alive are among those who'll perform at Hyde Park in a one-off concert on 11 July.
Pete Waterman, who formed the SAW writing and producing trio with Mike Stock and Matt Aitken in 1984, and whose own PWL label is 25 this year, revealed yesterday: "I've been saying no for years to a Hit Factory concert but now the timing feels right. It's time to celebrate the hit single." These are singles such as "You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)" by Dead or Alive, a No 1 hit in 1985 and "Never Gonna Give You Up", which fired Astley to the top of singles charts in 25 countries two years later, including the UK and the US.
The Hit Factory, as Waterman's production line became known, scored more than 100 top-40 singles in the late 1980s and early 1990s, churning out 40 million records and bringing in an estimated £60m. Paul Gambaccini, the veteran music broadcaster and "professor of pop" remembers their impact. "When I first hosted the Ivor Novello Awards 25 years ago, the songwriters of the year were Stock, Aitken and Waterman, and George Michael. They were huge, and stood at the very top."
But an assembly process that often recruited singers as decorative after-thoughts did not win universal acclaim. The Guardian newspaper renamed the trio "Schlock, Aimless and Waterdown" and they once placed not far below Chernobyl on a poll of the worst things about the 1980s. They were critical enough about themselves; after acts fled a label that began to appear hopelessly uncool in the 1990s, SAW's artistic differences (and rows about money) lead to a nuclear fallout that was only recently capped. Before they made nice, Stock called Waterman "a buffoon" who "thinks talent is blond hair and big tits".
Is an audience described by SAW in 1990 as "ordinary people with Woolworth ears" ready for a big park concert that will feature Steps as its headline act? Gambaccini admits to being "intrigued" rather than excited by the prospect, before giving the "car crash" warning. "The mere fact we haven't heard from most of these people in recent years indicates there's a curiosity here," he says. The line-up for the concert, tickets for which go on sale on Friday, also includes Hazell Dean, Sybil and Lonnie Gordon. "If anything it shows how the stars of the Hit Factory were Stock, Aitken and Waterman. Unlike with Motown singers, many of whom went on to incredible achievements on their own, these artists couldn't stand up on their own."
There is an exception and she is one of the few omissions from the initial Hyde Park line-up. Kylie Minogue was a mere Neighbour and unknown to Waterman when a friend asked him to work with her as a favour. In half an hour and a flurry of trans-Atlantic faxes, he and Stock then wrote "I Should Be So lucky". Later, on Jason Donovan's hit album in 1989, Ten Good Reasons, we were given "Especially For You", his duet with Minogue, released in the UK after the couple's on-screen wedding in Neighbours. The Australians' trajectories led Minogue to riches, Donovan to rehab and, lately, a string of reality TV shows. Perhaps Minogue is ready to show him again that her "heart is oh so true"; hopes of a reunion would not be misplaced judging by Waterman's promise of a "very special duet" in July.