Critics called it homogenised pop but history has been kind to the producers who had stars from Kylie to Bananarama queuing up for their magic touch
In May 1984, a new English group called Agents Aren’t Aeroplanes released a pulsating dance-pop tune called The Upstroke. If the name of group and song means nothing to even the most dedicated pop fan, fear not: despite the endorsement of the taste-making BBC DJ John Peel, the single only reached number 93 in the UK chart. Agents Aren’t Areoplanes disappeared soon after.
But the duo and their song is significant for one reason. It marked the first time that a fledgling trio of songwriters and producers would work together. Mike Stock, Matt Aitken and Pete Waterman reckoned Agents Aren’t Areoplanes could be a female version of Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and they devoted their collective talents to a high-energy song they hoped would be a hit in the gay clubs and grow from there. The Upstroke was, indeed, a club success, but the great record-buying public didn’t seem to notice.
Stock, Aitken and Waterman weren’t deterred. They sensed that, together, they could fashion an exceptionally commercial sound. They weren’t to know it at the time, but that first effort with Agents Aren’t Areoplanes would propel them into the stratosphere and shape the sound we associate with 1980s pop.
It’s a decade that delivered wonderfully enduring pop songs and many of them will be aired at the Forever Young Festival at the Palmerstown House Estate in Co Kildare in a fortnight. But no appraisal of the pop thrills of that era is complete without acknowledging the impact of Stock Aitken Waterman (the ‘and’ being dropped as the trio became a super-busy pop production factory).
If The Upstroke wasn’t the huge hit they had been hoping for, they didn’t have long to wait. Just a couple of months later, in July 1984, they wrote and produced Whatever I Do (Wherever I Go) for Hazell Dean. It reached number four. A fast-pasted, propulsive, relentlessly catchy number, it was part of a new genre of dance-pop that the music media would dub HI-NRG.
The three hit-makers were keen to discover larger-than-life figures and they found them in the in-your-face American drag queen Divine — who enjoyed a pair of hits in the middle of 1984 — and in Pete Burns, the flamboyant leader of Dead or Alive.
It was the latter band that would really signal the arrival of Stock Aitken Waterman. Burns and future Mission frontman Wayne Hussey had written a smart demo called You Spin Me Round (Like a Record). But it was the producers who transformed it into a song that makes an impact from the first couple of seconds.
First released in November 1984, it was 17 weeks before it reached the top of the charts, becoming one of 1985’s most enduring songs.
Despite scoring their first number one, cash was tight. “There was no money coming in for a good 18 months,” Mike Stock later recalled. “I don’t want to plead poverty, but we were struggling back then, living on nothing. If I had £2 in my pocket to go and buy a sandwich, that was about it. Any money we did make was fed straight back into forming our own studio, equipping it and getting a team around us. It was hand to mouth but we were so fixed on where we were going, we got carried along by the excitement of it all.”
And it was an exciting, heady time, as one artist after another sought out their now trademark sound: super-clean production, fast beats and copious use of synthesizers. Bananarama were among them.
The female trio led by Siobhan Fahey had enjoyed modest success with their first two albums, and although Stock Aitken Waterman would share production credits with their existing producers, Jolley & Swain, on album number three, it was the new boys who took the band to the next level thanks to their work transforming a 1960s pop curio.
Venus had been a significant hit for the Dutch group Shocking Blue in 1969, but it was an even bigger triumph for Bananarama. Although it failed to top the chart in Britain, it did huge business in America and reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100.
The group had been playing around with Venus for years and sought out Stock Aitken Waterman to sprinkle it with the sort of gold dust that had elevated Dead or Alive from wannabes to household names. But relations between Bananarama and Waterman, in particular, weren’t always cordial. Later, he claimed they were difficult to work with. Fahey et al countered by saying they were never going to be passive cogs in a hit machine.
After Venus became such a big hit, there was considerable scrutiny of Stock Aitken Waterman’s style of production — and many critics were dismayed by what they felt was a cynical and calculated approach to delivering hits. Just a few years after they became a going concern, they were being accused of helping to deliver homogenised pop.
And the acts who went into studio with them had to dodge the brickbats too. The next Bananarama album, 1987’s Wow!, was entirely produced by Stock Aitken Waterman. It was harshly received by the critics, many of whom questioned the band’s credibility, especially when, on the other side of the Atlantic, the all-female Bangles could do little wrong.
Tensions between Fahey and Waterman were high during recording — she felt her artistic input wasn’t being considered — and she departed just five months after Wow!’s release. Her new act, Shakespears Sister, was her push for artistic credibility.
Criticism of the producers didn’t seem to bother Waterman in the slightest. Always the gobbiest of the trio, he was a tabloid journalist’s dream, forever on hand with a soundbite, not least when he claimed to have written Jason Donovan’s Too Many Broken Hearts while sitting on the toilet.
It was Waterman, though, who helped turn the trio’s focus away from established (and, presumably, opinionated) acts and to more compliant newcomers desperate for their shot of fame.
The Australian soap Neighbours would provide Stock Aitken Waterman with a pair of huge stars — Kylie Minogue and Donovan, then in a relationship together.
Stock remembers Minogue as the complete package. “A great little singer, a great-looking girl, a great little dancer,” he told the Guardian on the publication of a Stock Aitken Waterman photo book.
“Unfortunately, we’d insulted her when we recorded I Should Be So Lucky: she’d been hanging around all week and Pete forgot to tell us. We had to get the song together in about 40 minutes and she left not having had a happy experience. We didn’t know we had a hit on our hands and so when it went to No 1 for five weeks, someone said: ‘What’s the follow-up?’We didn’t have one.
“So I went out to Australia at the start of 1988 and met her in a bar with Jason and her manager. I basically crawled 100 yards on my knees and apologised profusely. She took it well and we did some more recording.” They certainly did. Her later success owes much to the exposure she received while in their stable.
But by the time Minogue was ripping up the charts, Stock Aitken Waterman was a byword for safe, anodyne and over-glossy pop with little soul. Even naturally talented singers such as Rick Astley were having to sacrifice a bit of their soul to satisfy the new pop rules. While the fantastically popular Never Gonna Give You Up, with its distinctive syncopated bassline courtesy of Mike Stock, made him a star overnight, he soon felt shackled by the producers’ insistence that it was their way and their way only.
A comeback single in the early 1990s, Cry for Help, surprised many who had pegged him as yet another pretty-boy Stock Aitken Waterman product and not one gifted with rich, soulful vocals.
If the trio were despised by critics and musicians — a can of urine was flung at them at a London awards show at the height of their fame — history has proved to be far kinder. There’s remarkable craft in many of the early songs they produced. You Spin Me Round and Venus are especially well-honed — and while they sound of their time, their pop brilliance is timeless.
And the producers’ insistence that each second of a three-minute pop song should grab the listener’s attention has been taken to the next level by people like Max Martin, the Swede who has scored number ones for Britney Spears and Taylor Swift.
The Forever Young Festival is at the Palmerstown House Estate, Co Kildare, on July 15-17. foreveryoungfestival.ie