Stock Aitken Waterman, sometimes known as SAW, were a UK songwriting and record producing trio consisting of Mike Stock, Matt Aitken and Pete Waterman. They had great success during the mid to late 1980s and early 1990s. The three are 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 $103.78 million).
SAW started producing Hi-NRG underground club hits, but earned worldwide success with a mix of Hi-NRG-influenced sound, romantic Motown lyrics and Italian melodies. During 1987-1989, their music style was labelled eurobeat or hi-NRG, which had an octave bass going ‘boom-pah, boom-pah, boom-pah’. They also put swing shuffle element to their songs.
On 15 January 1984, shortly after meeting Aitken and Stock, Waterman asked them to work with him and his recently formed production company, Pete Waterman Limited (PWL). One of their first collaborations was the Cyprus entry for the Eurovision Song Contest in May 1984 where Greek singer Andy Paul performed the SAW song "Anna Maria Lena". Their initial style was in creating Hi-NRG dance music with a cover version of "You Think You're a Man" by Divine (#16 UK Jul 1984) and "Whatever I Do" by Hazell Dean (#4 UK Jul 1984). They struck gold in March 1985 when "You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)" by Dead or Alive reached number one on the UK singles chart. 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 unique 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, achieving the coveted number one spot on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart on September 6, 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 and mixer Phil Harding, who had defined a signature sound for himself on the debut Matt Bianco album, Whose Side Are You On?, in 1984. He was put under contract and made the chief engineer at the newly formed PWL studios. Harding was arguably the biggest single force in shaping the sound of a PWL record, and subsequent engineers Pete Hammond and Dave Ford would quite clearly follow his example. Harding's signature take on the House sound (in conjunction with Ian Curnow's keyboards and sequencing work) was an uncannily lyrical staccato programming of bass synth over the Linn kick drum. Harding and Curnow were much copied throughout Europe's dance underground. Their mixes and productions from the late 1980s suggest the duo were the primary influence on what would become the Eurodance sound. PWL managing director David Howells put together a dream team on the design side of the company, Photographers Lawrence Lawry, Simon Fowler and Paul Cox, Stylist Kelly Cooper Barr and Sharon Mcphilamy, Hairdresser Lino Carbosiero and Make up artists Kat and Charlie Green.
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. 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 mix master, working with various artists including Bananarama, Princess, Rick Astley, Hazell Dean, Haywoode, Brilliant and O'Chi Brown.
SAW's greatest success, not unlike Madonna's initial success in the U.S., 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 marry it to squeaky-clean light entertainment that could sell in large quantities, while keeping their hands firmly in the publishing of all they produced. In this regard, they were extremely similar to Motown, with SAW reportedly making use of the dubious "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 would obviously make 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 seemed solely focused on their young teenage signings (through PWL and the publishing arm of All Boys Music). PWL was initially championed by the music papers for their fresh sound and seemingly underground aesthetic, but not for long. They incurred the wrath of the British music press when they strong-armed the group M/A/R/R/S into a legal settlement over a 7-second sample of someone singing the single word "hey" that 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". Waterman's production company had even 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. For example, the British newspaper The Guardian described them as "Schlock, Aimless and Waterdown" (similar variations on their name included "Stop Aitken Waterman!","Lock,Stock and Barrel" and "Shock, Ache and Water Torture" ). Comedy group Morris Minor and the Majors' parodied the Stock, Aitken and 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".
In later years, one of SAW's most successful artists was Kylie Minogue, a young actress and a promising pop singer from Melbourne, Australia who was well known for her role in the soap opera Neighbours. 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. These tracks were never released, and are said to be in Judas Priest's possession.
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. 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.