Was it the inescapability of the ‘Rickrolling’ phenomenon that allowed us to get past the imagined guilty pleasures phase and just accept that, whatever their faults, the music production team of Mike Stock, Matt Aitken and Pete Waterman owned the British charts during the late 80s and wrote some classic pop along the way? Their Motown-inspired production-line process filled the dancefloors of thousands of clubs across the nation and soundtracked a million high school discos, leaving a legacy that is perhaps only now being taken a little more seriously.
Testament to the continued interest in their work is the release of Say I’m Your Number One, a 30 (!) disc set showcasing hits from the likes of Kylie and Rick Astley, but also deeper cuts and a multitude of rare remixes.
To mark the release, we sat down and picked out some of our favourite ‘Hit Factory’ productions; tracks that not only stand the test of time but hightlight S/A/W’s canny way with a pop hook. Occasionally cheesier than a month old lump of … cheese, but boy do they still sound fine.
Hazell Dean – Whatever I Do (Wherever I Go)
Dean tried out for the Eurovision Song Contest in 1976, but it wasn’t until 1984’s ‘Searchin’ (Looking For A Man) that she became a – minor – household name and perennial on the club scene. Her S/A/W-penned follow up was the production team’s first top ten hit – and still one of the best things they ever did – but things might have turned out different had she not insisted they re-write the lyrics. The tweaked result is a female-empowerment anthem that more than holds its own with ‘I Will Survive’. (DB)
Kylie – Turn it Into Love
Even those of us who pitch her as an arty-smarty pop genius struggle with the really early stuff. The then soap star’s eponymous debut was the UK’s best-selling album in 1988 (two million copies) – proper sales as well, none of your messy download business, either. (Alright, Adele?) Still, hidden amongst its hi-NRG fluff is this, its best song by some distance and a tune Kylie still sneaks into her live set. Don’t look for complex lyrical intrigues (um, be nice and don’t hate anyone) and instead focus on the verse, whose spiralling, deceptively complex melody is a joy. (GK)
The Reynolds Girls – I’d Rather Jack
At the time, it was fluff like ‘I’d Rather Jack’ that drew the ire of both the cognoscenti and ‘real’ music fans: gaudy cheese designed to annoy the oldies (S/A/W wrote it after supposed media snubs) but which now seems oddly rebellious. At a time when kids not only like the same music as their parents but their grandparents too, thumbing one’s nose at perceived classical wisdom was how it was meant to be, but instead we’ve fallen into an age of perennial nostalgia where everyone who ever got on stage is feted as a genius. Anyway, we’d rather jack than Fleetwood Mac, too – or at least some of us would. (DB)
Malcolm McLaren feat. Alison Limerick – Magic’s Back
McLaren’s name will always be associated with the Sex Pistols, but his ‘cash from chaos’ routine sometimes overshadows his genuinely groundbreaking musical endeavours. His theme to the 1991 TV documentary The Ghosts of Oxford Street mixes his taste for melodrama with Gregorian chants and none-more-current British street soul to intoxicating effect. All S/A/W needed to do was give it a polish and allow Alison Limerick (who’d worked with The Style Council and This Mortal Coil) to be effortlessly classy – as she invariably always was. (DB)
Kylie – Better the Devil You Know
A number two hit in 1990 and the highlight of her third album Rhythm of Love (though it had good company in ‘Step Back in Time’ and ‘What Do I Have to Do’), this is the Kylie single everyone likes. Pitching it as a shift towards a new, mature sound is slightly over-stating it: it would be a while yet before her split with S/A/W in favour of the Deconstruction label saw her start to properly experiment. Even so, ‘Better the Devil You Know’ is a sophisticated slice of avant club pop. When Neil Tennant talks about ‘tragi-disco’, he means this. (GK)
Bananarama – Last Thing on My Mind
Us purists prefer the later Steps version, of course, which charted about 50 places higher, but this 1992 original release nearly matches it for unbridled hauteur. With Bananarama a duo by this point, most YouTube commentators can’t help but slobber over the video’s alleged sapphic leanings. Obvious, really. Two women. In the same room. Wearing suits. Guilty as charged, your honour! (But, lordy, Keren’s hair…) Sharper minds will clock the processed beats that lift wholesale from Benny and Bjorn. Less sharp minds might spot a direct line into the future and Ladytron’s ‘White Elephant’. Pete Waterman reckons it was influenced by Mozart. We could all maybe do with a little lie down, eh, Pete? (GK)
Sigue Sigue Sputnik – Success
There are a few outliers in the SAW catalogue – Georgie Fame, Roland Rat, the England football team – but none more so that this slice of prime schlock. You imagine this was Tony James’ take on Andrew Eldritch roping in Jim Steinman, but the end result basically sounds like a typical S/A/W production with Martin Degville whining over the top. The Sputniks were a fantastic disaster – like a Palitoy JAMMS – so just sit back and enjoy the period video’s take on what success was supposed to look like in 1988 (Marbella, apparently.) (DB)
Donna Summer – This Time I Know It’s For Real
A strange one, this. Generally recognized at the time as the undisputed ‘queen of disco’, Summer should have had no worries with her 1989 album Another Place and Time, all ten tracks written and produced by S/A/W. Tell that to her US label Geffen, who binned it the moment they heard it. More fool them, as it’s probably the ‘hit machine’s most sophisticated long player. This, its biggest hit, is still a bone fide club classic. Enjoy the 80s video literalism as Donna mimes the ‘walk a tightrope way up high’ line. (GK)
Lonnie Gordon – Happenin’ All Over Again
The young American belter seemed set to benefit when S/A/W’s plans for a second album with Summer didn’t materialise and the label sent the songs her way. Enter the fickle British public. They quite rightly loved this cracking debut but turned their noses up at the follow-ups, each one performing worse than the last. There was to be no album: shame. But this is still an irresistible slab of soulful club pop. (GK)
Sonia – You’ll Never Stop Me From Loving You
The last S/A/W-penned number to hit the top of the UK charts, ‘You’ll Never Stop Me …’ was a blatant attempt to present the bubbly Sonia Evans as Skelmersdale’s answer to Kylie. And it worked to a degree – although the citizens of Wrexham are still waiting for the Aussie moppet to do a turn during panto season. Like the best S/A/W productions, it’s white pop soul of the highest order, though the lyrics are disappointingly submissive; it’s hard to believe they came from the same hands as Hazell Dean’s classic. (DB)
Say I’m Your Number One is out now via Edsel.