Matthew Denby tells why it’s time to reassess the legacy of much-maligned 1980s hitmakers Stock Aitken Waterman.
History has traditionally been written by those in charge – and in the ’80s, that definitely was not fans of pop music producers Mike Stock, Matt Aitken and Pete Waterman, known collectively as Stock Aitken Waterman (SAW).
The controversial trio, who took edgy gay dance sounds into the mainstream and launched the careers of pop icons like Kylie Minogue and Rick Astley, were derided by a rock establishment that hated pop and dance music.
Now the time is well overdue for a reassessment of the production team who pushed back against the tide and changed music forever, first with their embrace of the underground, then by matching cutting-edge sounds to teen idols who would go on to effortlessly convert suburban kids who were sick of the status quo.
When 140kg drag queen Divine stormed the Australian top 10 in 1984 with his hi-NRG crossover hit, ‘You Think You’re A Man’, the track’s mere existence was seen as so offensive there were calls to ban it from youth TV. As Divine touched down in Australia on a promo tour, local newspapers feverishly reported that Countdown host Molly Meldrum was seriously considering banning the performer from the show.
Already coasting on a reputation for extreme transgression with his much-talked-about eating habits in John Waters’ cult film Pink Flamingos, the prospect of Divine singing a sexually aggressive song about a spurned male love interest was too much for the Australian media to cope with. At a time when Boy George was presenting himself as the cuddly and asexual face of gay life, supposedly spending his evenings enjoying “a cup of tea and a good conversation”, Divine was telling listeners his ex was “not man enough to satisfy me”.
Confected tabloid drama aside, Divine did appear on Countdown. And the outrageous performance, complete with a chorus of flamboyant dancers, became legendary.
But behind the stage theatrics was something far more substantial. The stabbing brutality of the song’s hi-tech backing track was more primally gay, more sexually aggressive and more in-your-face than any lyric or stage act could ever be.
Born from the underground club scene and honed by the likes of New York producer Bobby O, hi-NRG was the successor to disco, but it was much more informed by a dark and pounding take on male sexuality. The Divine track represented an evolution; infused by SAW with a pop sensibility and a strong sense of melody and fun, it took hi-NRG to a vast new audience.
Then came a succession of game-changing local hits by the British trio, their ear for breaking club sounds quickly becoming legendary. The team showed their versatility with Princess’ sublime soul-pop classic, ‘Say I’m Your Number One’, another top 10 single and the furthest possible departure from Divine’s hit, with its classy, slow burn production and singer Desiree Heslop’s gorgeous vocal.
But while teen fans lapped up instant classics like Dead Or Alive’s eternal favourite, ‘You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)’, the music establishment – made up in Australia by an impenetrable wall of mullet-sporting, bomber-jacket clad FM radio programmers – could barely contain their fury.
At the time, music in Australia was overwhelming judged by one metric: the pub rock test. If it wasn’t guitar-led, preferably fronted by a ‘Barnesy-esque’ straight white male, the Australian music industry rarely wanted to know. The monotonous, dead end musical scene that produced a string of archaic rock dirges wasn’t thrilled about the intrusion of new sounds, different kinds of faces or the return of dance music.
But to me, SAW’s music was a revelation. While Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway to Heaven’ was relentlessly held up as the indisputable high point of music, the bloated straight boy histrionics left me feeling dead inside. Put on Dead or Alive’s Youthquake album, though, and I would be jolted into another realm; this was something visceral, forbidden and real.
This sound was also something that made me know I was not alone; that there were others like me outside of the bleak suburban ordeal of my youth – a place marked by violent homophobia and a suffocating culture of conformity. That hard, electrifying Dead Or Alive beat was driving me onwards to somewhere else.
Not surprisingly, these new sounds were now also increasingly drawing the wrong kind of attention. Dance music had famously been the subject of a furious homophobic and racist backlash before, culminating in the violent public spectacles of America’s ‘Disco Sucks’ movement, which saw records associated with the black and gay dance scenes burnt on pyres and crushed under steamrollers.
While dance music had been thoroughly driven from Australian radio by the mid-eighties, it lived on in youth culture and in the underground club scene, where it spawned new innovations; first hi-NRG, then house music. And it was from here that SAW drew their inspiration – not the stultifying backwardness of FM radio or pub rock.
The first to commercially capture the energy of the Chicago house scene, SAW invigorated record buyers in 1986-1987 with the genre’s first chart major hit, ‘Showing Out (Get Fresh at the Weekend)’ by Mel and Kim. I’ll always remember the jolt of hearing it for the first time. Recalling his first encounter with the record, one friend described it as like “hearing music from the future”. Indeed, it felt that music was now suddenly going places – and in 3D.
When Mel and Kim grew too big to ignore, with their poppier follow up track, ‘Respectable’, topping the charts, a backlash began. Songs that weren’t fitting any radio format in Australia were now regularly becoming top sellers, showing that the self-perceived taste makers were no longer in control, and a full-blown youthquake was in progress.
Bananarama’s seven-week stay at number one with ‘Venus’ had shown that electronic beats and dance club energy were striking major chords with the kids.
Seemingly alone in the local industry in its ability to keep up, Australia’s Mushroom Records was agile and young enough to sense the change. It produced a string of soundalike releases, one of which, Kylie Minogue’s ‘Locomotion’, hit paydirt in 1987.
‘Locomotion’ was so huge it immediately became apparent that any locally produced follow up would pale into insignificance. It was then decided that Kylie should be sent to London to work with SAW – a fateful move that would change the course of the young Neighbours star’s life and alter pop music in this country forever.
The product of Kylie’s first meeting with SAW, ‘I Should Be So Lucky’ became a global number one smash in 1988 and ushered in a decades-long career as an international superstar. And underneath the sugary surface of that shamelessly pop-infused single lay grimy club roots steeped in driving electronic beats and a propulsive, bubbling synth track. Those who had been paying attention knew that Divine was Kylie’s secret musical godmother.
The success of this track crystalised an ugly backlash that had been building in Australia for a while. “I hate Kylie Minogue” t-shirts became a hot seller, and open disdain for Minogue and SAW became the standard position in the Australian media, amid reports the star was privately buckling under the strain.
She was soon to leave the country behind, only returning here to tour. It took the Covid-19 pandemic to get her to return to these shores to live, decades after she left.
Like the Disco Sucks movement before it, the anger and loathing that Kylie’s rise to superstardom inspired seemed to be fuelled by something far deeper and uglier than a simple difference of music tastes. This was the rage of a class of people who once controlled culture and taste, lashing out as the charts embraced music beloved by teens, gay men and dancefloor denizens everywhere.
This hatred was the rage of people losing their long-held control.
Like all pop cultural waves, SAW’s big splash was to ebb as the ’80s came to an end. A string of bad records and alliances with awful acts like Big Fun and the Reynolds Girls, combined with changing popular tastes, saw the producers’ sound fade from view in the early ’90s. But not before a few belated moments of sheer brilliance, like Kylie’s transcendent ‘What Do I Have To Do’ and Sybil’s ‘When I’m Good and Ready’.
While a fading SAW were derided and their music dismissed as trash by cultural gatekeepers, many of their songs have lived on long after those that disdained them have fallen into irrelevance.
Rick Astley’s ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ has topped one billion views on YouTube, ‘You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)’ is still guaranteed to instantly pack any dance floor, and Kylie has outlived the visceral hatred that once stalked her in her homeland, establishing herself as one of the greatest pop stars this country has ever produced.
Radio began to play dance music as the ’90s progressed, no longer able to ignore the tide of cultural change. And we have SAW to thank for helping smash the stale old guard into oblivion.
It’s now time to give SAW their due. That’s why my friend Gavin Scott and I are chronicling the team’s remarkable rise and fall in a new podcast, A Journey Through Stock Aitken Waterman. Speaking to the artists and the producers – those who changed the world with their contribution to a pop culture phenomenon – we are rewriting the story that was for so long controlled by the haters.
Without SAW, music would be very different today, and a lot less fun. Their classics live on, as does their legacy of bringing pulsating new sounds from the dancefloor to the mainstream. And for that, as a former suburban kid who longed for music that made me feel seen and alive, I’ll always be grateful.
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