Sophie Heawood: Plastic does decompose but we just won't bury it

Stock Aitken Waterman churned out hit after hit in the 1980s, and a revival concert will show their enduring appeal. Our writer can't kick the habit


I was nearly 12 years old, standing in Woolworths with my pocket money, about to buy a Kylie Minogue record. There she was on the sleeve, in a little red dress and a ditzy pose, one leg kicked girlishly away like she was trying to shake all thoughts from her head. The song was "Got to Be Certain": three neat minutes of catchy electronic pop, all written and produced by her Svengalis Stock, Aitken and Waterman.

My mum suddenly stepped in and said, "You can't get that. It's too much." In an instant, I knew what she meant – and it wasn't about the price. This wasn't pre-teen rebellion; I wasn't buying something punk or avant-garde or rude. I was just buying the work of Mike Stock, Matt Aitken and Pete Waterman, a three-man production team that presided over British pop in the 1980s. And my family had already endured two years of me obsessing over their work, making myself late for school on the morning Smash Hits came through the door, desperate to know every new detail from their so-called Hit Factory. Kylie and Jason, Bananarama, Rick Astley, Mel and Kim, Sinitta. Even Sonia. Even Hazell blimming Dean. My mother looked at the Kylie single and uttered those two little fateful words. "It's crap."

"Short is the joy that guilty pleasure brings," wrote Euripides. Well, if that's the case, why are all those guilty pleasures coming back in a greatest hits album, Pete Waterman Presents the Hit Factory, to be released on Monday? And a concert in Hyde Park on Wednesday, HitFactory Live, featuring the aforementioned Donovan, Astley, Sonia and Sinitta, as well as Brother Beyond, 2 Unlimited, and the duet that Bananarama have become? Rumour even has it that a certain Australian pop heroine is going to be duetting with Jason. This is huge! Surely they all hate each other? All the stars who gave SAW more than 100 hits in the Top 40, more than 250 million singles sales, and gifted Pete Waterman with the feeling that their work was "comparable to Motown". (The Guardian begged to differ, calling them "Schlock, Aimless and Waterdown".) Will they be looked upon fondly, where once people like my parents reviled them, their "evil" made tepid by comparison to the Simon Cowells of now? Or is it just one comeback show too far?

Of course it isn't. What's interesting, in the age of artists "manufactured" by X Factor and its ilk, is what a bald, capitalist honesty the Hit Factory had. Their brazenness was inherently 1980s, almost worryingly Thatcherite, compared with the New Labour-style spin of Simon Cowell's shows. To win now, you tend to need a voice that can span the octaves, adding emotion into every top note you can find, then adding in melismas to triple the number of notes per syllable. X Factor asks you for extremes of emotions to put into cover versions of songs whose originals were often far less overwrought. Now, it's all about piling on the emotion like a 1980s Pizza Hut salad bowl, as much as you can before the song topples over and all the croutons fall off. Then there is the backstory, where the recent or imminent tragic death of a loved one is necessary to win over the audience's tearful votes.

When SAW stars did press, it was the opposite. The questions were wonderfully inane; the answers were nonsense; everybody seemed to enjoy it. The songs were fantastically two-dimensional, with their tinny electronic drums. It's inaccurate merely to say that production values have moved on since – they had moved on before then too. But SAW didn't care – and, it must be said, they threw in some unlikely musical influences too. For all the Reynolds Girls stuff (I must admit, "I'd Rather Jack" was cheese too pungent even for my forgiving young ears), there were some genuinely interesting collaborations where they worked with people they admired: Donna Summer, Georgie Fame, Cliff, Errol Brown, Malcolm McLaren etc. They also gave Youth and Jimi Cauty from the KLF a huge break with the act Brilliant. Neneh Cherry fans are often surprised to discover that her fantastic song "Buffalo Stance" began as a track called "Looking Good Diving with the Wild Bunch", released by her partner Cameron McVey's other act, and produced by SAW.

Yet SAW didn't try to make themselves cool – they were grumpy men who spoke of their studio work as if their stars were just fodder for their treadmill. They were rude. "We wrote 'I Should Be So Lucky' for Kylie in 10 minutes when we heard she was about to arrive at the studio, expecting a song," they said in an interview. "She should be so lucky, we thought." This story was later queried. Similarly, they said Rick Astley was only the tea boy who'd been allowed to record a song, although this later turned out to be untrue. Still, it was clear who was in charge – and for some reason, we young fans liked this. We didn't question artistic credibility: pop music felt safe in their hands. Photos did not reveal the production trio giggling and dancing about like their protégés – not for them the jaunty hat poses of Mel and Kim or the wide-mouth screams of Sonia. No, they were hard-nosed businessmen, sitting in their chairs like bank managers.

And yet, having been demigods in the late 1980s, the 1990s seemed to turn against them almost overnight. SAW's golden touch was becoming corrosive. In 1989 they had seven No 1 singles, including "Hand on Your Heart" by Kylie, "Too Many Broken Hearts" by Jason Donovan, as well as two charity singles. "Ferry 'Cross the Mersey" was recorded a month after the Hillsborough disaster, then another version of "Do They Know It's Christmas?" came about – also produced, of course, by SAW.

Yet by 1990, it was all slipping away. Jason left. Kylie left. Eventually, after further ruptures, Stock and Aitken would try and fail to sue Waterman for royalties which they claimed they were owed. Waterman went on to launch other ventures and work with Steps, also playing at the show. But the holy trinity of 1980s pop was no more. He told The Independent last week that he was doing this show without them: "I don't think they're even turning up. I'll be sad not to see Matt and Mike, but it's up to them."

Other bands, such as Take That and the Spice Girls, rose up as Cool Britannia approached. They were clearly the heirs of the SAW legacy, but a hundred times less naff (Interestingly, Carl from Brother Beyond has gone on to work with Beyoncé - as her publicist, while his bandmate Eg writes songs for Adele and Will Young. Sinitta is Simon Cowell's best friend and works for him on X-Factor.)  

I often listen to what my friends call Cab FM – those stations like Magic or Heart that belt out fabulously cheesy hits when you're drunk, at 2am, in a minicab home, with the driver trying to work out if you've asked him to stop at a cashpoint or at a kebab. And yet they don't really play these songs. You'd be more likely to hear Glenn Medeiros than a bit of Brother Beyond. They have been wiped away, as something just too tinny and cheap to last the years. And yet, I hear about this album, I run through the tracklisting on iTunes, waiting for it to be released. I find myself hunting down those songs elsewhere. The concert is coming. Excitement mounts. The royal park will be filled with the sound of Sonia.

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