Stock, Aitken & Waterman
The words "Stock, Aitken & Waterman" have adorned 50 hit singles in the last two years. Tim Goodyer finds there are two secrets to their success: determination and new technology.
The most successful production team in Britain is a trio - Mike Stock, Matt Aitken and Pete Waterman. Their use of modern technology is essential to their success, but equally important, they have a tough view of the music industry that shows no sign of softening with age.
THERE'S NO ESCAPING it. The British pop world is a mess. The buzzword now is nostalgia: the tactful way to market songs over 20 years old in the absence of anything new. Now, 'When a Man Loves a Woman' and 'Stand By Me' are damned fine songs, but with no less than ten cover versions currently amongst a lacklustre Top 75, something is definitely amiss. And, as if that weren't indictment enough, single sales are actually in decline.
It would be easy to dismiss pop as frivolous music meeting an overdue end, but traditionally, the charts provide the music industry with money to subsidise more "serious" areas of music, as well as being entertainment for the masses. So where have all the pop songs gone?
The search for an answer led me to an examination of recent production credits. Did you know that a trio by the name of Stock, Aitken & Waterman are the only producers ever to depose themselves from the No. 1 slot? That was Ferry Aid seeing Mel & Kim's 'Respectable' off, earlier in the year. They've also had a hand in the success of Princess, Pepsi & Shirlie, Divine, Erasure, Depeche Mode...
The list was long enough for me to think they might have a few of the answers. Tucked away in a decidedly seedy corner of London I found PWL Studios, the home of production team Mike Stock, Matt Aitken and Pete Waterman. The partnership was founded in 1984, when musicians Stock and Aitken approached producer Waterman with a demo.
"Mike walked in and played me this track, which was technically excellent but not very commercial", recalls Waterman. "I'm not a musician. I'm an ideas man. I know what sells. So I put the commerciality and the money in, and we went out and got a deal."
Stock offers the other side of the story.
"Pete was the missing piece of the jigsaw. Matt and I had been playing in bands for years and we'd run our own studio, but we didn't really have any idea of how to market. As soon as Pete heard our track, he knew what needed to be done to make it commercial."
The result was 'The Upstroke', released under the name Agents Aren't Aeroplanes, which reached No. 50 in the singles charts. It was a promising start.
Waterman had previously enjoyed considerable success with his production of Nik Kershaw, Tracey Ullman and Musical Youth. With Stock and Aitken in tow, the gold discs have just piled up. Waiting for the three producers to arrive at their studio, I found a list of their current projects on the wall: Debbie Harry, Sigue Sigue Sputnik, Gary Moore, Mandy Smith. If anyone could tell me what's wrong with the charts, I was about to meet them.
"Pete, Matt and I had our own ideas about how British pop should be", explains Stock, "and maybe the reason we're successful is because we're right about our attitude.
A single really is a three-minute, throw-away piece of plastic - nothing greater than that. But it's entertainment, it's emotional, it can be heart-rending - anything you like in that three minutes. If you can get people dancing, then that's the finest thing you can hope for. It's also the most difficult thing to do.
"When we first met Pete, he was vehement about his dislike for certain trends and the attitudes of record companies and producers - something Matt and I never knew anything about.
"Through the years we've found out he was absolutely right: people who work in A&R departments know absolutely nothing, or they wouldn't be working in A&R departments. Record companies waste so much money doing silly things that they've forgotten what the point of pop music is, that there's a 14-year-old girl dying to spend her money on something, but you've got to give her something she wants."
FAR FROM ACCEPTING any of the responsibility for today's decline themselves, the team see the record industry in general slowly committing suicide. Waterman eagerly picks up the point.
"The industry cannot go on spending vast sums of money hyping records. It's actually bringing record sales down. The Jesus and Mary Chain are never going to sell a quarter of a million records because they sell very quickly and then die, exactly like the Smiths do with their 70,000 records every time before they go down the tubes. All they're doing is blocking up the charts for records that kids actually want. Mel & Kim's 'Showing Out' did 600,000 copies, and that was the first time that had ever been released. If Five Star made a good record they'd be fucking massive. It works because RCA make sure they're seen on television, in magazines. They're heard on the radio but they don't deliver. Their records are just that far off being brilliant, but they're always that far off. They've never had a killer chorus. Give them a chorus and they'll clean up, they'll be the Jackson Five.
"You have fabulous budgets to work with but you've forgotten who you're selling records to. The point is, if you've got enough money to spend on promotion you can make anything a top five single - ask RCA or Warner Brothers.
"But most A&R guys have probably never heard a good pop song. I'd be interested to go round the country to look at A&R men's record collections. I bet they're all full of T Rex, Gary Glitter, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Atomic Rooster. If you've got a rock record collection, you haven't got any pop songs. Pop songs are R&B songs written for women: 'She Loves You', 'You Make Me Feel Brand New', 'When Will I See You Again?'... Journalists from university killed pop music, now we're bringing it back. With 4,000,000 people unemployed, we need to be cheered up."
If Waterman is the excitable third of the partnership, Stock and Aitken are more cautious. They disagree frequently, usually settling on a mutually acceptable point of view, giving an insight into their working relationship. But they all have one thing in common: they make their work sound very, very simple. The trio are currently enjoying more success than any of their competition.
"We work on presets because by the time everybody else has got the DX7II, we'll have made ten records with it. We'll be bored with it, and we'll be using something else."
But what makes the Stock, Aitken & Waterman operation any different from anyone else's?
"I built this company on the philosophy of the film industry", announces the excitable one. "They've got it right and the record industry have got it totally wrong. The film industry give you enough money to make a film, and if the distributors think it's brilliant they come back to you and say: 'Hey, here's another £20m, we'll have another one, pal'. If you have one hit in the record industry, they give you ten grand to make another. If they don't like it they release it anyway because they've spent their ten grand. It flops. Four weeks later they're back. 'Here's another 15 grand.' You can work for six years on the strength of one hit, spend of bands' money, and not know what you're doing.
"If you come to us you get quoted a price, say £15,000. If you don't like what you get, we put it right. But that way, a £15,000 record can turn into a £30,000 record, and that's £15,000 of our money. If every other record producer was told their records would only be accepted when the record companies thought they'd got a hit, there'd be a lot of bankrupt record producers around. In fact, there probably wouldn't be any record producers around."
Between them, the record companies and the record producers would seem to have the suffering artist in a corner - and suffering more than ever. After all, it's an artist's talent that provides the industry with its most vital raw material. Or is it? For many, Frankie Goes To Hollywood will never be more than the public face of Trevor Horn and, despite their better looks, Mel & Kim would seem to be in a similar situation with their production team. But does an artist need a producer - or does the producer need an artist - any more?
"Some of the artists we work with are happy just to be singers, but some of them want to be involved in the making of the record itself. I don't know why. They think it's glamorous, creative or artistic or something." The speaker is Mike Stock, his voice filled with genuine bemusement.
"An artist should be content to be an artist unless they're going to take responsibility for everything they do. Most of them don't want that. They just want to dabble; they want it to say on the label that they've done the production. But when it comes down to money - it's going to cost you £10,000 to make this single and nobody's going to bail you out if you get it wrong - most of them back out."
"Artists don't know what they want", asserts Waterman. "And that's why they need a producer. They see their songs in a different light to anybody else, which is not a bad thing, but they can't hear them the way the punter hears them. Someone who's written a song is going to be precious about it - they don't have the disrespect for it that we have - but you can't afford to be precious if you want a hit. When I worked with him, Nik Kershaw was nobody. He was a brilliantly talented songwriter but he didn't know why he was talented, he probably still doesn't know. So I chose every song on that first album in the direction I saw Nik Kershaw going - not the way Nik Kershaw saw himself going.
"When we try to teach an artist how to produce a record, it doesn't work. It's not a thing you can explain. I can't tell you why a difference of a couple of beats per minute makes me feel uncomfortable, and Matt can't explain to a guitarist why a certain lick works one way and not another.
"You get a band come to you and say 'we want to do this, this and this', and you have to say 'I'm sorry, you'll never do that, that and that with that song'. And sometimes you have to spend £10,000 of their money to prove it to them.
"We already know it, that's why we're here. As Stock, Aitken & Waterman we've had something like 50 hits, three No. 1 records in two-and-a-half years. We've had nine records in the charts at the same time, we've got two songs going in today, and one of them will be my 180th hit. So we do know what we're doing."
"A producer knows that certain things just don't work", elaborates Stock, "but every new band wants to try all those things, the things you've done a million times before. Why should you sit there while they go through the whole repertoire of Things That Don't Work? If you keep on dabbling, as bands tend to want to do, you get nowhere. If Picasso had done that, he'd have ended up with a blank canvas. It's what you leave out that counts."
Am I hearing arrogance or justified confidence? Waterman's answer is reassuring.
"We always listen to the band and we always, always give the band what they want, but it's under our guidance. We don't want people to buy Stock, Aitken, & Waterman records. We want them to buy Mel & Kim records."
THE USUAL TRANSITION is from musician to producer, but with Stock, Aitken & Waterman able to write, arrange, record and produce songs themselves, the step to producer-as-artist seems almost a formality. It has, as Aitken points out, been done before by people like Quincy Jones, who remains better-known (and more wealthy) for his production of Michael Jackson's Thriller than for his own musical output. But it's Waterman who puts the roles in perspective.
"The girls' talent is a greater talent than ours, in that they have to go out and perform in front of people, TV and video cameras every night of the week. It sounds glamorous, getting mobbed in Italy, but it ain't. They've been working for 11 months solid and they had their first holiday two weeks ago. They've had to move home because the fans found out where they lived and it wasn't safe any more.
"We were losing the warmth of analogue, so we're building that in with valve gear external to the desk. We have the clarity of digital recording without the coldness."
"But it is important that the producers and tape ops get a credit for their efforts. No matter what anybody thinks of the Mel & Kim album, it represents three months of our lives. I was never very good at anything at school, I never won a cup for playing football. But walk into my studio and you'll see it's full of gold discs, because I am good at one thing. There are people reading this that may become record producers, and this may just give them the spur they need."
Our conversation has interrupted Stock's and Aitken's songwriting activities. The target is seven songs in two days - a tall order by most musicians' standards - but they have every reason to be confident: they're over halfway there. They take turns behind the desk, Aitken laying a guide keyboard line down from a Roland D50, and Stock building a rhythm pattern with a Linn 9000 and a Roland TR727. Hi-tech is the order of the day.
The PWL complex is well-equipped, no doubt about it, with two out of three studios identically equipped with SSL desks, Sony 24-track digital machines, and generous amounts of outboard equipment. These are supported by the most comprehensive collection of keyboards this writer has ever witnessed in a studio: Fairlight III, Kurzweil, PPG Waveterm, Roland JX8P, Publison Infernal Machine (which Stock describes as "a Godsend"), Emulator II, DX7II, and so on.
The latest addition is the D50, already a month old. Waterman explains the philosophy behind PWL.
"Our studio is probably the best equipped outside Trevor Horn's. Whatever we earned over the first three years, we ploughed back into the gear. When I teamed up with the boys I'd already got a LinnDrum and a PPG, and I went out and bought a Waveterm for the PPG. If I provide the technology, then I can whip the boys to go further and further with it.
"We've also gone backwards recently. We've gone around the world buying up old valve EQs and compressors. We keep telex contact with secondhand dealers in America so we know what's going. But it's getting very expensive now, because people are catching on."
Stock: "With the digital mastering and the SSL desks we were losing the warmth of analogue recordings, so we're building that in now with valve gear external to the desk. We have the clarity we want, but without the coldness of digital recording."
Aitken continues: "We always purchase new technology aggressively, because it helps us to make records and it's exciting to work with. When we first got the Emulator II we were almost at the end of an album, and it inspired everyone in the studio. Suddenly we'd got these amazing orchestral sounds, so we stuck them all over the album."
"But technology means absolutely nothing unless you get the first ingredients right", asserts Stock. "You can have all the gear in the world and it won't write songs. Even journalists who should know better have said things like 'Of course, you use a computer to write your songs'. One even said: 'Don't you wish you actually played an instrument?'"
Play instruments Stock and Aitken definitely do. But program them, ah, that's a different story.
"We always keep our ears open for new things because they give you a new sound", says Aitken. "But rather than getting into too much heavy programming, we use the presets."
Now hold on. Any self-respecting programmer is going to have to re-read that last comment in disbelief. Many would say we've stumbled on another of pop's afflictions, but Pete Waterman thinks not.
"We work on presets because by the time everybody else has got the DX7II, we'll have made ten records with it. We'll have milked it, we'll be bored with it, and we'll be using something else. That's the way we approach all new synths. If you want to buy a Series III Fairlight, you can have ours because we're bored with that, too."
Stock elaborates. "Because of the pressure that's on us, we haven't got the time to sit down and get into the new DX7. Some Japanese geezer has taken months programming the presets in there and it'd take us just as long to come up with something better.
"We actually do use our synths very, very thoroughly though. The JX8P has just been repaired because of the use it's had, but we know it backwards, we know exactly how to get what we need out of it."
"If you imagine a sound in your head you can often build it out of two MIDI'd presets. You don't have to spend hours trying to get that whole texture from one synth."
FROM A TECHNOLOGICAL standpoint, it all makes a sad sort of sense - business sense. But there is another side to it in the form of MIDI, as Aitken explains.
"It's interesting to look at the number of permutations you can get MIDIing two keyboards together without using anything but presets. If you imagine a sound in your head you can often build it out of two presets. You don't have to spend hours trying to get that whole texture from one synth."
And to prove his point, the facilities at PWL include MIDI busses to link all three studios together. That way, sounds can be called in from equipment in another studio with the minimum of effort.
"With the Fairlight we only have to move the keyboard and the monitor", points out Stock, before going back to the issue of programming. "The only real programming we've ever done is on the DX7; we have a RAM of DX7 bass sounds which we won't let you hear. In fact, when we have a band in we have to hide it — Dead or Alive were after it last week ..."
"We also have a set of samples of drum sounds that we've worked very hard to get", says Aitken. "We know that if we need a particular snare drum, we will already have the sound, give or take a little bit.
"We're very fortunate because we have everything we want at our disposal. We don't have to spend hours trying to get a convincing piano sound from a DX7, because we can go to the Emulator or the Kurzweil. We've been through that stage of programming where we'd spend 17 hours getting a bassline into the PPG Waveterm, and we've been through the Fairlight II, building orchestras with an eight-track sequencer. Now we've found quicker ways to achieve the same ends, without going that far into programming."
Mike Stock picks up the point. "When you've spent 17 hours programming something you don't want to change it, even if it sounds awful. Working quickly on sounds or songs you can be more objective, and it's far more musically inspiring. The way we work is closer to the way live musicians work. Pete's one for instant buzz - either it works or it doesn't. If we spend all day on something and we lose sight of it, he comes in at the end of the day and, if it isn't coming out of the speakers, you've been wasting your time."
"The point is", concludes Waterman, "technology is there to help you and nothing else. If it becomes 90% of your work then you've got it wrong."
And with that, ladies and gentlemen, there can be no argument.
Another subject for debate is drum machines and their programming - or lack of it. But as in many other areas, while the rest of the world debates. Stock, Aitken & Waterman get on with it.
"The drum machine is the best thing that ever happened to pop music", declares Waterman. "The greatest records of all time don't have drum fills in. On all Stock, Aitken & Waterman productions you can hear the vocalist over everything else, because the melody is the only really important thing."
"Drum machines have been responsible for altering pop music throughout the world", continues Aitken. "There was a tendency with the drummers in all the bands I ever worked with to not be able to keep steady time; instead, they'd spend the whole gig practising the new fill they'd learned."
"When you play dance music 90% of the time, all you want is a solid beat. That's why Giorgio Moroder went to so much trouble to get a consistent drum beat a few years ago. Now, with drum machines, drummers have listened to how music works when it's in constant time. The result is that the average drummer now is far more capable of holding down a steady beat. Cameo's drummer actually plays like a drum machine, with an 'inhuman' feel, because it's crucial to their music."
And the moral of the story? It has a familiar ring to it.
Aitken: "People who come into contact with modern instruments have a tendency to get carried away with the mechanics of making a song, and forget about concentrating on the song itself. We've gone through the stage of thinking 'can we make this feel like a real bass player?' with slurs and bends, and we know we can do it if we want to - but 90% of the time we find we don't. If we're making a record that needs a loop of two or four bars all the way through, then that's what we'll use. If we're trying to create the feel of a drummer playing fills everywhere, then the technology's there to do that, too."
The last word is Pete Waterman's.
"If a kid buys a drum machine and a DX7 and expects them to make a hit record he's got no chance. He's better off buying the Beatles 1962-1966 and Beatles 1967-1970 albums. In fact, I advise everyone reading this article to go out and buy them and analyse why they work. Then we might start hearing music again."
Interview by Tim Goodyer
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