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5 songs producers need to hear by… Stock Aitken Waterman

(Image credit: Tim Roney / Getty)

UK production trio Mike Stock, Matt Aitken, and Pete Waterman utterly dominated Britain's charts in the mid-'80s to early '90s, notching up more than 100 hits. 

So, despite SAW being almost universally derided for their cheese, disdained for proudly running a ‘Hit Factory’ and – it has been claimed – being guilty of actually killing music, isn’t it time you gave the world’s most successful songwriting and production team a second chance?

You probably know them for their prime-time pop output but how about their soul? Their R’n’B? Their groundbreaking Hi-NRG and… um… their reggae?

Forget the cowboy boots, the preoccupation with working exclusively with non-talent, and wipe Big Fun from history, as we SAW away your prejudice to reveal the PWL gold that every producer can learn from.

1. Princess – Say I’m Your Number One

Back in 1985 the Stock Aitken Waterman hit factory was still very much under construction and the trio still malleable to whatever new style was arriving in the clubs. Keen to show their range and fearful of being typecast by the harsh hi-NRG sound they’d devised for Divine and Dead or Alive the year before, this US-influenced R’n’B electro groove might come as a SAW surprise.

The track also marks the first appearance by the fictitious A.Linn on drums

Desiree Hislop (wisely re-named Princess) was a regular backing singer for SAW’s early productions, most notably for the should-have-been-massive–but–weren’t band Brilliant. Stock and Aitken hastily had Desiree vocalise the track with the intention of hawking around their new sound to more famous performers. 

However, Waterman was so proud of the track that he showed it off to his friend Nick East who had just founded Supreme Records and begged for it to be their first single. Supreme was subsequently to become the home for the entire raft of ‘SAW Soul’ output from the likes of Lonnie Gordon, O-Chi Brown, The Three Degrees and, most famously, Mel & Kim. 

The track also marks the first appearance by A.Linn on drums, who receives a credit alongside the other musicians on the sleeve. This fictitious drummer (named after the Linn drum machine used on the track) was in fact a pseudonym of Pete Waterman who realised that by taking the credit as a drummer (while Stock and Aitken got paid for keyboards and guitar) he would hoover up the requisite musicians union fee as a featured musician. 

He went on to repeat the trick on practically every one of the trio’s records after that and  Mr Linn still gets his share of the residuals today.

2. Mel & Kim – Respectable

Almost missing our top five due to its sheer popularity and obviousness but quite simply too good to leave out, this overtly ‘Lahn-dahn’ UK House banger provided SAW with their second number one (the first being Dead or Alive’s You Spin Me Round). 

Is this the most ear-grabbing 20 second blast-off of any track ever? Quite possibly, with the sampled title line giving way to the ‘Tay, tay, tay, tay’ vocal hook which is now the stuff of legend, before dumping your brain into the first verse while you’re still wondering what happened.

Regular SAW engineer Mixmaster Phil Harding outlines the ‘Tay’s origins as a by-product from a typical SAW session. Stock and Aitken would work at breakneck speed, quickly loading the digital 48-track tape with endless options of takes and sounds, many more than would ever appear on the finished track. 

The engineer tasked with the mix – often Harding or fellow Mixmaster Pete Hammond – would then cherry pick from the smorgasbord on offer, muting and soloing on the automated SSL desk throughout the track. 

However, such was the pressure to start writing their next hit rather than actually finishing the one in progress, the boys would simply leave the middle eight either completely blank or with a basic placeholder repeat of the verse. It was left to the engineer to come up with something to fill the hole. 

Harding’s go-to fix in this situation would be to sample off sections of vocal into their Publison DHM89 B2 ‘Infernal Machine’ – a miraculous, little known digital delay/sampler of French origin that – incredibly for the time – could pitch shift samples without affecting their length. 

It’s this machine that gives the unique sound to all of SAW’s quirky sampled vocal fills. Thus – for Respectable – Harding found himself playing with the word ‘Respectable’, pitching it down (while preserving its length) for the intro then having fun with the phrase ‘Take or leave it...’ from the chorus. The hook proved so strong that he placed it right at the start of the track. 

Mike Stock, however, was not impressed. He took exception to this new “corny” refrain and ordered it removed, sparking a stand-off between himself and Waterman. Waterman however, loved the new riff and – after correctly predicting their second number one – persuaded Stock to tay, tay, take a backseat. 

Harding, along with engineer/musician Ian Curnow also injected the track with all manner of loops, hits and bits from the emerging Chicago house scene, sampling white labels the team had around the studio for inspiration. The idea had been to create something similar but the result is a bizarre hybrid, clearly UK-derived thanks to the cleanliness of the recording and the cost of the gear involved, but shot through with grit that belies a nod to ‘street’ without actually delivering the goods.

Note we’ve gone for a pure audio version of the 7” rather than the video which – criminally – features street noise and Mel daring to TALK over that intro.

3. Brilliant – Love Is War / This Is A Man’s World

Brilliant were the hi-tech, world-dominating, designer band that never was, so it’s highly likely that this trio greets you as complete strangers. However its two male components would later become better known, guitarist Jimmy Cauty becoming one half of The KLF alongside Bill Drummond and ex-Killing Joke bassist Youth going on to enjoy success with The Orb and his own production career (remember Blue Pearl’s Naked In The Rain?).

Love Is War is a fascinating pop R’n’B jam designed as the sequel to their similarly excellent SAW-produced dub reggae reimagining of James Brown and The Famous Flames This Is A Man’s World. Both tracks extensively feature the tipping-and-tapping of Linn’s Linn 9000 drum machine + sequencer that is all over SAW’s output at the time. 

Similarly, thrill to the fat and funky synth stabs from Roland’s fresh-out-the-box analogue-meets-digital JX-8P. Reggae never sounded so modern and digital and both tracks are bold moves from producers determined not to be pinned down. 

After debut deep dub This Is A Man’s World failed at number 58, the more soulful Love Is War was sent into battle, tooled-up in double-12” form, the bonus disc now featuring a safer, reggae-free, double-tempoed version of This Is A Man’s World (AKA The Night Train Mix) as a freebie. 

This emergency reworking had been mooted for a re-release but instead was teamed with Love Is War as a loss leader, such was the determination for WEA to bag any kind of hit for the band. However, despite the two-for-one deal, Love Is War + the new This Is A Man’s World stiffed at an even worse 68. 

Two flops further, HMS Brilliant limped into the breaker's yard but fans should seek out the band’s state-of-the-art SAW, and always arresting, Kiss The Lips of Life album which – miraculously – achieved a release (climbing to number 83…) and which features all of their superb singles and SAW tech-workout B-sides.

Get Love Is War in glittering extended 12” form above. This Is A Man’s world in well-roots dub original here. And emergency, 2 x tempo, non-reggae re-release form here.

4. Boy Krazy – That’s What Love Can Do

Time for an oddity – and one of SAW’s best tracks... that inexplicably wasn’t a hit. By 1991 SAW were ever so slightly on the slide. Keen for American success to replace their dissipating UK presence they agreed to work with a new ‘five-piece female New Kids On The Block’. 

Rumour has it that much of the SAW output that was channeled BK’s way were in fact songs intended for Kylie’s fourth album, but after Kylie insisted on some fresher producers on her 1990 third, Rhythm of Love, tracks earmarked for their biggest star found themselves looking for a home. 

(It's worth saying at this point that Rhythm of Love DID include the SAW ‘Sex Kylie’-era belters Better The Devil You Know and What Do I Have To Do both of which are criminally absent from our top five.)

Musically That’s What Love Can Do has ‘Especially For Kylie’ written all over it. Lead vocalist Johnna Lee Cummings is heavily double tracked using the same Calrec Soundfield Microphone (SAW’s go-to-mic which featured FOUR capsules allowing the recording of four slightly different vocal tones at the same time for mixing later) so this really is close-your-eyes-and-it’s-Kylie.

Amazingly the song flopped in 1991, reaching a less than stellar 84 in the UK. However, US pop radio play kept the it alive until 1993 when it limped to a ‘respectable’ number 18 Stateside.

Worth noting that Waterman was so enamoured with the song (and mystified by its failure) that he produced a (far inferior) version by girl group Tout Les Filles in 1999 which (criminally) climbed higher (though stalled at number 44). And as for the version shoe-horned onto Samantha Fox’s Just One Night Album, the less said…

Enjoy the definitive, original 1991 UK extended version here and realise that for the first 51 seconds you’re basically listening to that Linn 9000. Again. 

5. Brother Beyond – The Harder I Try

Despite having the looks, the suits and the willingness to get up early enough to make Saturday morning TV, Brother Beyond just couldn’t get a break from ‘86 to ‘88, with four flop singles on the bounce. However, when Stock Aitken Waterman offered their services to the highest bidder for charity, EMI stumped up the wedge for one last go at shoving ‘The Yond’ under our noses.

The result is this razor-sharp Motown sound-alike that – other than Nathan Moore’s vocals – features zero input from the band. In fact, the track is almost 100% Roland D-50, the hot synth of ‘88, famous for grafting short digital samples of real waveforms onto ‘Linear Arithmetic’ synth tones. 

The results were zingy new digital sounds, unimagined bright metallics and super realistic horns and strings. Never ones to cuddle up with the manual, SAW leant heavily on the D-50’s presets and the same sparkling digital chimes are all over Kylie & Jason’s Especially For You in the same year.

‘Harder’ is also remarkable in that it features SAW’s only fessed-up instance of sampling. While the boys thought nothing of stealing styles from elsewhere (and most frequently from themselves) they were fierce opponents of any kind of sampling, most famously taking M.A.R.R.S to court for their appropriation of a single vocal adlib from SAW’s own Roadblock on their number one hit Pump Up The Volume. The version of that track available for streaming today has the offending vocal – transformer scratched at 2:25 on the original – replaced with a siren and is all the worse for it.

For The Harder I Try the trio lifted the drum intro from The Isley Brothers This Old Heart of Mine and – credit where credit’s due – made a big play of giving the original a full credit on the sleeve. And do check out the sequel by the way – the near identically styled (though lesser) hit, He Ain’t No Competition.

6. Jason Donovan – Another Night

OK. We’ve sneaked in a sixth. We wanted to close with the song that Pete Waterman himself has described as SAW’s best, and we agree. It’s little known, reviewed badly and – as it was Donovan’s first failure to pierce the top ten, reaching only number 18 in the UK charts – officially marks the start of Donovan’s diminishing returns and his rockist dissatisfaction with the SAW machine and subsequent departure from PWL.

Musically it stumbles between too many stools. Wantonly downbeat and wistful, it’s designed to evoke the musical maturity that Donovan was desperate for (while his ex-girlfriend Kylie was living it up with the Rock God Donovan wanted to be – one Michael Hutchence of INXS) and with Donovan on Waterman’s own PWL label, Pete’s favourite song was pressed into service as a single. 

However, despite the stab at a new maturity, the track itself is actually as accurate, sterile and mechanical as production line SAW at their ‘best’ and as such the whole exercise comes across as cold, robotic and gloomy, catching his frothy fans on the hop.

It remains therefore a moody curio. See-sawing major to minor, never repeating and always evolving, it’s quite the journey and burden for the reliably ‘pitchy’ Donovan to get a fix on. 

Sadly it seems that just as SAW hit their songwriting peak, their hits dried up. However, Another Night remains a firm favourite for SAW connoisseurs, if not Jason Donovan fans.

Extended Remix! Want more SAW? The hits just keep on coming:

 Divine – You Think You’re A Man
Hazel Dean – Whatever I Do (Wherever I Go)
Dead or Alive – You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)
SAW’s ground-breaking Hi-NRG trilogy. It’s hard to explain how fresh these tracks sounded in ‘84. All are the products of Relax-era Linn Drum-meets-cold, digital clangorous PPG Wave 2.2 synth and early Waveterm sampler. 

Bananarama – Venus
Just as Dead Or Alive came gunning for SAW after hearing Hazel Dean, so Bananarama snagged SAW for that DOA sound. This cover put the girls on the map and all the way to number one Stateside.

Rick Astley – My Arms Keep Missing You
Wot? No Astley in the top five? Of all his output it’s this hidden B-Side on ‘for the grans’ single When I Fall In Love that you’ll be thanking us for. 

Kylie Minogue – Made In Heaven
Wot! And no Kylie!? Of course Better The Devil You Know just skimmed our six but it’s this thrown away extended remix B-Side for Je Ne Sais Pas Pourquoi that you’re really missing.

Mandy Smith – Boys & Girls
Waterman created PWL Records in order to sign Smith, convinced he could flip the 16-year-old’s tabloid notoriety into pop stardom when majors refused to bite. While prolific in (entirely flop) output, it’s this stunning last gasp that should have been a smash.

The Three Degrees – The Heaven I Need
Early Princess-era non-hit SAW Soul from Prince Charles’ favourite band. Owes a shameless debt to Mai Tai’s equally excellent History. 

Dead or Alive – Brand New Lover
Yup, were foregoing all of DOA’s better known output in favour of this criminally overlooked nine-minute-plus, rock guitar remix tour-de-force (with uncredited Matt Aitken on guitar).

Donna Summer – Love’s About To Change My Heart
While the entire Another Place And Time SAW-produced album (and it’s raft of singles) are classics, this ever-building homage to Summer’s own cake-anthem MacArthur Park is our cream of the crop.

Morgan McVey – Looking Good Diving
NONE MORE EIGHTIES! OK. So it’s two models more accustomed to pouting than singing but do you recognise the tune? That’s because (future All Saints and Sugababes producer) McVey’s girlfriend (to be wife) Neneh Cherry (who mimes guitar in the video) flipped her rap on the B-side ‘Wild Bunch’ version into her global smash Buffalo Stance. Listen closely…

Phil Fearon – Ain’t Nothin’ But A Party
While we’re not ones to diss the tangible talent of a Galaxy-free Phil Fearon, any fool can see that this flop jack-track would have been a monster in the hands of Mel & Kim. 

John Alford – Smoke Gets In Your Eyes
Yes. If we’re going to sneak in one post-SAW breakup tune, we really are going to forgo Waterman’s ENTIRE output with Steps in favour of Stock & Aitken’s audacious one-off reggae re-work by the star of ITV fireman drama London’s Burning… Smoke Gets In Your Eyes… Geddit?

Shattered Glass – Laura Branigan
Debbie Harry – In Love With Love
Carol Hitchcock – Get Ready
Hi-NRG: The Return! A closing trio of second-wave SAW-NRG classics from the era when Yamaha DX7 synth bass and clattering Roland 727 percussion were king.