Stock Aitken Waterman (abbreviated as SAW) are an English songwriting and record producing trio consisting of Mike Stock, Matt Aitken, and Pete Waterman. The trio had great success from the mid-1980s through the early 1990s. SAW is considered to be one of the most successful songwriting and producing partnerships of all time, scoring more than 100 UK top 40 hits, selling 40 million records and earning an estimated £60 million (about $104 million).
SAW started producing underground club hits, but earned worldwide success with a mix of Hi-NRG-influenced sound, romantic Motown lyrics and Italo-disco melodies. During 1984–1989, their musical style was labelled Eurobeat. They also put swing shuffle elements into their songs.
In January 1984, shortly after meeting Mike Stock and Matt Aitken, Pete Waterman asked them to work with him and his recently formed production company. Their initial style was in creating Hi-NRG dance music with “You Think You’re a Man” by Divine (No. 16 UK, July 1984) and “Whatever I Do” by Hazell Dean (No. 4 UK, July 1984). They achieved their first UK No. 1 single in March 1985 with “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)” by Dead or Alive. However, Pete Waterman has said in interviews that the trio were still in dire financial straits at the time.
This success and the trio’s sound attracted the attention of girl group Bananarama. Group member Siobhan Fahey wanted to record a cover version of Shocking Blue’s hit song “Venus”. The result was a pop/Hi-NRG reworking which became a worldwide chart hit, reaching No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart on 6 September 1986, and reaching the top 10 in the UK and many other countries. Bananarama went on to make Stock, Aitken and Waterman their main producers, and would collaborate with them on some of their biggest hits, including “Love in the First Degree”, “I Can’t Help It”, and “I Heard A Rumour”. SAW took early notice of the skills of UK engineer, remixer and producer Phil Harding and made him the chief engineer and remixer at the newly formed PWL studios.
Harding was another significant force in shaping the sound of a PWL record, and subsequent engineers Pete Hammond and Dave Ford would follow his example. Harding and co-producer/keyboard player Curnow became the club remix and production ‘B-Team’ of PWL Studios with many remixes and productions for internal PWL SAW Productions (Kylie, Bananarama, Dead Or Alive, Mel & Kim) as well as external record company clients (e.g. Diana Ross, Michael Jackson/Jackson 5, Holly Johnson, Pet Shop Boys, Eighth Wonder, Four Tops, Chic, Depeche Mode, Erasure, Jesus Jones, Voice of the Beehive, Gary Moore) which included many U.S. dance chart No. 1s (such as ABC’s “When Smokey Sings”, Imagination’s “Instinctual”, Blue Mercedes’ “I Want To Be Your Property”). They also produced the Princess hit “Say I’m Your Number One” (1985), the Mandy hit “I Just Can’t Wait” (1987), and Sinitta’s “Toy Boy” (1987).
The assembly line
Following their early success, their style evolved into a more mainstream synthpop, typically performed by attractive singers. Their usual method for creating the music was to first write the songs, although many of their early acts (such as Hazell Dean, Dead or Alive, and Bananarama) often wrote their own material; next they would record the music with extensive use of synthesizers, drum machines (drums were often credited to ‘A Linn’, a reference to the Linn brand of drum machine) and sequencers; and then finally bring in a singer solely to record the vocal track. The tendency toward interchanging artists and repertoire was well established when Rick Astley’s breakout album Whenever You Need Somebody got its name and title track from a minor hit the trio had produced a year earlier for O’Chi Brown. Evidently they thought the song still had some mileage, and it was even issued with an exact replica of O’chi’s club mix for the Rick Astley club mix.
Their prodigious, production line-like output and similar song structures led to them being referred to as the “hit factory” (not to be confused with the record label of the same name or the New York City recording studio The Hit Factory) and attracted criticism from many quarters, including the Guardian newspaper who unflatteringly dubbed the team, “Schlock, Aimless and Waterdown”. However, Pete Waterman defended their style by comparing it to the output of Motown in the 1960s.
SAW’s early work was recorded and mixed at Marquee Studios in Wardour Street, where Phil Harding and Rob Waldron worked with them on Youthquake, the Dead or Alive album which included their huge hit “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)”. Waldron went to work as an assistant engineer to Harding when Waterman opened his new studio in Borough (The Hit Factory). Waldron became the chief recording engineer and Linn 9000 programmer (A Linn) and Harding was the mixer/remixer, working with various artists including Bananarama, Princess, Rick Astley, Hazell Dean, Haywoode, Brilliant and O’chi Brown.
The youth, the press and the underground
SAW’s greatest success was in fully exploiting the underground music scene that was booming in Britain in the late 1980s. SAW’s goal was to harness the dynamic energy of club culture (and the sound of Hi-NRG music) and bring it to a mainstream audience. In this regard, they were extremely similar to Motown, with SAW reportedly making use of the “artist development deal” just as Berry Gordy had two decades earlier. Under such arrangements, all facets of a young artist’s career would be controlled and dictated by the record company, and often the artist’s publishing rights would be co-opted in the process and the record company would fill the role of manager on the artist’s behalf.
While SAW seem to have worked equally well with artists under their control and with those more established and independent acts, it obviously made more business sense for them to focus on the development of new talent under the terms that gave them the most control. As the 1990s rolled in, they increasingly focused on their young teenage signings (through PWL and the publishing arm of All Boys Music).
PWL was championed by the music papers for their fresh sound and seemingly underground aesthetic, but not for long. They incurred bad reviews from the British music press establishment when they strong-armed the group M/A/R/R/S into a legal settlement; M/A/R/R/S had taken from SAW’s own recording, “Roadblock”, and used in their surprise hit “Pump Up the Volume”. Pete Waterman wrote an open letter to the music press calling such things “wholesale theft”. The press fired back that Waterman was currently using the bassline of Colonel Abrams’s “Trapped” in Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up”. Indeed, “Roadblock” itself could be described as inspired by the classic Average White Band hit “Pick Up the Pieces”. Waterman’s production company later lifted the entire basic rhythm arrangement from “Pump Up the Volume” (complete with the chorus) in a remix for a Sybil record (wisely titled the “Red Ink Remix”). As a result, relations between PWL and much of the UK’s music underground were for a long time acrimonious. Waterman said it was a matter of principle rather than profit and promised to donate all royalties from the court case to charity.
As the epitome of creating very popular teen-pop music, the trio were often satirised or criticised. Comedy group Morris Minor and the Majors’ parodied the Stock Aitken Waterman style on This is the Chorus, specifically referencing Kylie Minogue’s hit song “I Should Be So Lucky” as well as Mel and Kim’s “Respectable”. The popular satire puppet show Spitting Image also parodied Kylie Minogue, depicting the Australian singer as being brought to life by a big headed scientist. Stock, Aitken and Waterman also appear as puppet heads with their bodies forming a tape machine with arms who sing along with a SAW-style song about how ‘lucky’ the singer has been. Comedians French and Saunders also parodied “I Should Be So Lucky” in their television show in 1990 where the song features as an opera.
In later years, Kylie Minogue became one of SAW’s biggest artists. Her first 13 singles reached the UK top ten and her debut “I Should Be So Lucky” spent five weeks at number one in the UK. The album Kylie was the highest selling album in Britain of 1988, and fifth highest-selling album of the decade. They were also responsible for 1987’s highest-selling single, Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up”. At the height of their fame, SAW also had a top twenty hit as themselves with the largely instrumental “Roadblock” (from which M/A/R/R/S would lift the offending sample for “Pump Up the Volume”).
In 1989, SAW wrote and produced the highest-selling album of the year, Jason Donovan‘s Ten Good Reasons. Donovan had been Minogue’s co-star in Neighbours, and his success for a time equalled hers. In 1988–89, SAW recorded three tracks with Judas Priest, a cover and their own tracks “I Will Return” and “Runaround”. These tracks were never released, and are said to be in Judas Priest’s possession. Pete Waterman also owns a copy of the recording, commenting to Drowned in Music: “I occasionally dig the record out and play it to people, and they’re amazed that we made heavy metal.” and also “They’re probably the best tracks we ever did, but quite rightly their manager said no”. In 2015, a snippet of their cover version of The Stylistics hit “You Are Everything” was posted on the hard rock news site blabbermouth.net
In 1989, SAW also recorded and produced Donna Summer’s Another Place and Time album, as well as writing or co-writing all the tracks including the hit “This Time I Know It’s for Real”. Summer, a legendary American disco and pop singer, hired SAW in order to revive her career, just as an earlier European pop music producer (Giorgio Moroder) had launched it. However, a followup to Another Place and Time was never to be realized, reportedly due to difficult contract negotiations between Summer and SAW.
Another of SAW’s most successful hit singles was the 1989 number-one single “Ferry Cross the Mersey” (a charity single featuring The Christians, Holly Johnson, Paul McCartney and Gerry Marsden). They also produced the 1989 edition of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”.
Being the top producers in 1989, with seven number one singles, SAW started the 1990s with high hopes. February 1990 brought their last UK No. 1 single, Kylie Minogue’s cover of “Tears on My Pillow”, and a top 10 hit with new recruit Lonnie Gordon. However, by mid-1990 SAW artists were having problems placing singles in the top 10 (with the notable exception of Kylie Minogue), and the week of 13 October 1990 became the first with no SAW-produced singles in the UK top 75 in over two years. In mid-1991, Matt Aitken left the team due to stress, and Stock and Waterman carried on. With their sound no longer in vogue, they still had notable hits with Jason Donovan (who left them in 1991) and Kylie Minogue (who left them in 1992). 1993 saw a slight resurgence with two top 10 hits from Sybil, and top 40 hits from Bananarama, Bill Tarmey and the WWF Superstars. They also had a top 20 hit that year in the U.S. market with American female group Boy Krazy. In late 1993, Mike Stock ended his partnership with Waterman.
In 1994, Stock and Aitken worked together again, forming Love This Records and achieving some success in the UK in the 1990s (notably Robson & Jerome and Nicki French), while Waterman kept running PWL Records.
In 2005, the three producers reunited again and released a CD+DVD album, Stock Aitken Waterman Gold, with some of their best known singles. Despite their reunion, Aitken soon left. 2007 saw the release of a new Stock/Waterman produced single, the first in 14 years. It was The Sheilas’ single “(I’m So) Happy Happy (You’re Mine)”, which reached No. 91 in the UK.
A reunion concert event called Hit Factory Live, was scheduled to place in Hyde Park, London in July 2012 featuring many of the acts associated with Pete Waterman’s record labels but was cancelled due to safety concerns caused by the ongoing heavy rain during that summer. The rescheduled concert took place on 21 December 2012 at London’s O2 Arena.
Following on from the cancelled summer event, Cheer Up, a night dedicated to the music of Stock Aitken Waterman was created by partygoers who had arrived at London that July meeting up in a bar near to the venues grounds. The event, which has played in London, Manchester, Liverpool, Brighton, Newcastle, and Birmingham, has featured Sinitta, Sonia, Hazell Dean, Lonnie Gordon, Nathan Moore, Scooch, Nicki French, and Chloe Rose.
In December 2015, Stock, Aitken and Waterman made a return as a trio to their Hit Factory roots, producing a remix of the Chris Martin-written Kylie Minogue song “Every Day’s Like Christmas”.
One of Stock Aitken Waterman’s first collaborations was the Cypriot entry for the Eurovision Song Contest 1984, “Anna Maria Lena”, performed by Andy Paul. The song finished 15th, with 31 points.
Stock and Waterman collaborated on the UK Eurovision 2010 entry, “That Sounds Good To Me”. It was first revealed in the final round of Eurovision: Your Country Needs You on BBC One, in which Josh Dubovie eventually earned the right to perform the song at the contest. He finished in 25th in the Eurovision Song Contest 2010, receiving 10 points in total.
UK number-one hits
The following SAW produced hits made it to the top of the UK pop chart:
- 1985: “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)”, Dead or Alive
- 1987: “Respectable”, Mel and Kim
- 1987: “Let It Be”, Ferry Aid, a cover of the 1970 Beatles’ hit
- 1987: “Never Gonna Give You Up”, Rick Astley (also hit No. 1 in the U.S.)
- 1987: “I Should Be So Lucky”, Kylie Minogue
- 1988: “Especially for You”, Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan
- 1989: “Too Many Broken Hearts”, Jason Donovan
- 1989: “Hand on Your Heart”, Kylie Minogue
- 1989: “Ferry Cross the Mersey”, Christians, Holly Johnson, Paul McCartney, Gerry Marsden and SAW, a cover of the Gerry and the Pacemakers’ 1964 hit
- 1989: “Sealed with a Kiss”, Jason Donovan, a cover of the Brian Hyland single
- 1989: “You’ll Never Stop Me Loving You”, Sonia
- 1989: “Do They Know It’s Christmas”, Band Aid II
- 1990: “Tears on My Pillow”, Kylie Minogue’s cover of the 1958 song by Little Anthony and the Imperials
In addition to these, Bananarama’s “Venus” and Rick Astley’s “Together Forever” both held the number one position in the U.S. pop charts, although they were less successful in the UK.
Parodies of Stock Aitken Waterman
- “This is the Chorus” by Morris Minor and the Majors.
- “Kylie is So Lucky” (spoof of “I Should Be So Lucky” by Kylie Minogue) on Spitting Image.
- “Lock, Stock & Barrel” by Star Turn on 45 (Pints) was a 1988 medley of SAW hits.
Acts that have worked with S/A/W throughout the 1980s and Beyond-
- Agents Aren’t Aeroplanes
- Alison Limerick
- Andy Paul
- Austin Howard
- Band Aid II
- Barrio Boyzz
- Big Fun
- Bill Tarmey
- Boy Krazy
- Brother Beyond
- Carol Hitchcock
- Cliff Richard
- Dead or Alive
- Debbie Harry
- Dolly Dots
- Donna Summer
- Edwin Starr
- Edwina Laurie
- E. G. Daily
- England Football Team
- Errol Brown
- Ferry Aid
- Georgie Fame
- Girl Talk
- Grand Plaz
- Hazell Dean
- Jason Donovan
- Jeb Million
- Josh Dubovie
- Judas Priest
- Kahal & Kahal
- Keith Washington
- Kylie Minogue
- L.A. Mood
- La Toya Jackson
- Laura Branigan
- Lisa Fabien
- Lonnie Gordon
- Malcolm McLaren
- Mandy Smith
- Mel and Kim
- Michael Davidson
- Michael Prince
- Mint Juleps
- Mondo Kané
- Nancy Davis
- Nicki French
- Objectivo Birmania
- O’Chi Brown
- Pat and Mick
- Paul Lekakis
- Paul Varney
- Pepsi & Shirlie
- Phil Fearon
- Precious Wilson
- Reynolds Girls
- Rick Astley
- Rik Le Vay
- Rin Tin Tin
- Roland Rat
- Romi & Jazz
- Sabrina Salerno
- Samantha Fox
- Sigue Sigue Sputnik
- Spelt Like This
- Steve Walsh
- Suzette Charles
- The Cool Notes
- The Danse Society
- The Fat Slags
- The Fizz (Bucks Fizz)
- The Lewis’s
- The Sheilas
- The Three Degrees
- The Twins (Gayle & Gillian)
- Worlds Apart
- WWF Superstars
Love them or hate them, Stock, Aitken and Waterman were a huge part of the 1980s.