Sunday, January 10, 2016

Stock Aitken Waterman: They Came, They SAW, They Produced Tacky Dance-Pop

And there sat dance music in the early '80s, so "innovative," so "underground," so "trendsetting." Who, oh who, could come along and render that dynamic club sound more "digestible," more "formulaic," more "assembly line"?

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you ... Stock Aitken Waterman.

"Stock Aitken Who-terman?" you say? The truth is, this lethal production triumvirate has had a deep and irrevocable impact on you pop music life, whether you've been aware of it or not. You heard their records as a child. Even though the team has been long-defunct, you're still hearing their records now. Like the pink bathtub ring in The Cat In The Hat Comes Back, conventional methods cannot get rid of their hits.

Stock Aitken Waterman were not a law firm, but they might as well have been. Unlike, say, Detroit techno contemporaries Derrick May, Juan Atkins, and Kevin Saunderson (do I know my shit or what?), Mike Stock, Matt Aitken, and Pete Waterman saw mid-'80s electronic music as a chance to make money - piles and piles of money. Who cares about generating endless good vibes amongst your fellow outcasts until the sun rises; producing electronic music is all about climbing the charts! Stock Aitken Waterman were like Motown, only without any redeeming social value whatsoever. They found the lowest common denominator, and aimed lower.

Like all great artists who ultimately sanitized an alternative scene for the masses, Stock Aitken Waterman scored their first hit with a single by camp icon Divine: "You Think You're A Man." According to Wikipedia, Divine performed the song on Top of the Pops, "which resulted in a barrage of complaints." Such as ...? At any rate, little did she (he?) know what she (he?) was unleashing.

Next came Hazell Dean's "Whatever I Do," which despite peaking at #4 in the UK, has escaped my attention until now. I feel like I've suffered cardiac arrest on a treadmill and gone to Aerobic Rock Heaven. Let's call it "New Order For Kids." Also, if you're thinking that Hazell Dean sounds like she was trying to be the next Laura Branigan, well, so was Laura Branigan; the Queen of Aerobic Rock recorded the song herself a couple of years later, in a version produced by ... Stock, Aitken Waterman.

But SAW, as they are known to their many fans, were just warming up. Their inchoate producing career was more dead than alive until they teamed up with Dead Or Alive, whose "You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)" hit #1 in the UK and #11 in the US. Based on the evidence presented in the video, it appears that lead singer Phil Burns managed to steal Cher's hair, Boy George's eyeliner, Adam Ant's eyepatch, and Vishnu's arms - quite the quadruple whammy.

Funny but, at this point, Stock Aitken Waterman still had a whiff of "alternative" or "club" about them, which would simply not do. No, what they needed to do was find was an act who was equally jazzed about trading any lingering indie cred for Billboard glory.

Enter, once again, Bananarama.

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