One particular reason why Stock has been chosen as the subject for this paper, is that it also allows the paper to redress the lack of academic research on Stock, while highlighting his significant contribution to the popular music canon. This contribution places him in line as a contender for achieving auteur status, as Shuker observes, “there is a strong case for according auteur status to other key figures involved in creating the music in its various forms: the songwriters, the producer” (2001: 119).
Stock clearly approached songs in terms of production and as such was one of the few producers (Phil Spector included) whose work was recognised in terms of their sound. This paper proceeds with a short history of Mike Stock, detailing his route towards the SAW partnership. It will then continue with an analysis of Mike Stock’s SAW sound. The contribution of the sound and Stock’s production style, to the overall commercial success of SAW’s operation, will also be examined. In turn this commercial success and the impact it had on the record industry, as a whole, will be analysed.
In 1984 Stock decided to retire from playing hotels and built himself a basement studio in his home. His guitarist Matt Aitken decided to join him and they set up their own company ‘Sticky Label’. Stock’s first venture was a record called ‘The Upstroke’ which he and Aitken recorded. The next step was to enlist two female singers who would front the band, which was to be called Agents Aren’t Aeroplanes. This production method was the blueprint for the SAW recordings, which would follow the same pattern of marrying pre-recorded songs to artists.
The song was taken around various record companies with the only real interest coming from Pete Waterman, a former northern soul DJ who managed to get it recorded and released on Proto Records and distributed by RCA. Although the record only reached number 60 in the British charts, it cemented the relationship of Stock, Aitken and Waterman. Though all three were credited as producers on SAW records, in reality it was Stock and Aitken who were in the studio writing and playing all the instruments. Waterman was really the A&R man; his strength lay in the fact that he knew the music industry side. It was Waterman who was responsible for getting the acts that Stock would then write for and produce.
SAW’s first real production success was ‘You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)’ for Dead or Alive, which reached number one in December 1984. Although not written by Stock, it did, however, herald the SAW sound that would attract new and established artists. Writing success followed for artists like Rick Astley for whom Stock wrote and produced ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’, a number one single both in the UK and USA in August 1987. Other successful acts, including Mel & Kim and Bananarama, began to dominate the UK charts. This led, in late 1987, to Pete Waterman setting up his own label PWL to handle SAW’s releases. Its first major success was Kylie Minogue’s number 1 ‘I Should Be So Lucky’.
In the period that followed, from the late 1980’s to the early 1990’s, SAW produced 100 top 40 records, including 60 top ten hits and 13 number ones. Mike Stock left SAW in 1993 following the sale of PWL to Warner Brothers. The following section analyses the production methods that gave rise to the PWL sound, a sound that resulted in the commercial success listed above.
Building the sound of a bright new Britain
Producers will often begin the production process aiming for a particular sound. For Stock and PWL the importance of the sonic element of their records was reflected even within the company’s advertising slogan. Therefore, just as Phil Spector’s own Philles label had announced “Tomorrow’s Sound Today” (Oldham 2003: 172, emphasis mine), similarly PWL offered, ‘The Sound Of A Bright Young Britain’ (emphasis mine). The following section will provide an appreciation of the SAW sound, as well as documenting Stock’s contribution to it in terms of his production role.
Some of the most important elements of the SAW sound relate to the fact that Stock (along with Aitken) was the songwriter for the label. He was also technically proficient, responsible for recording the SAW records and had a clear appreciation of his market. Consequently Stock would admit that “When I’m writing I’m thinking in production terms” (Stock 2004: 103). Therefore, his arrangements and choice of chords where influenced by the space they would occupy within the final recording. Stock was not preoccupied with the problems of how to replicate the sound live on stage; his goal was the sound of the recording. This point is echoed by Simon Napier-Bell, who notes,
They wrote to a formulae that was dictated by their production techniques, and this meant that every song they wrote would be perfectly produced. (2001: 322)
The result of this approach was that Stock, as producer, was influencing the sound of the recording even before he had committed anything to tape. He was able to do this by deliberately writing songs that would lend themselves to his own production values. Stock’s sonic template included a take on ‘HI–NRG’, a sound that had been popular, especially in gay clubs, where it was also known as ‘Boy’s Town’ music. The importance of gay clubs had an inadvertent effect on the production of SAW’s records. Waterman was a frequent DJ at the clubs and was well acquainted with the dance-floor lights that were triggered by the sounds of the particular record being played. SAW’s idea was to include elements in their records that would realise the maximum potential of the light systems. They achieved this by adding percussive elements in the higher frequency range such as handclaps and cowbells, playing triplets. They also cut out a lot of the bass frequencies, which would often be compressed (squashed) by the club’s sound systems. As Waterman concluded:
When one of our records came on, it was louder than the previous one and the lights would go off like fireworks. (quoted in Napier-Bell 2001: 321)
Stock’s production therefore, was initially aimed at a specific target audience, as Watermen explained:
I knew the gay scene very well and knew all the DJs, because it was the old Tamla Motown market, I knew there were potentially 15-20,000 buyers for any record made in that vein. (quoted in Cunningham 1996: 313-4)
This was also confirmed by Richard Smith writing in the Gay Times who reported that:
The SAW boys are clever guys who know their market and who know that a pretty considerable chunk of it consists of gay men…they pander to this…a perfect and beautiful hybrid of the two popular music forms that have been dearest to us in the past: early Motown and HI-NRG. (Smith 1990)
Thus Stock as the producer was not only contributing to the sound of the recording but deliberately using the production, its sonic elements, to influence and appeal to the audience. This echoes Adorno’s notion that: “Structural standardization aims at standard reactions” (cited Frith & Goodman 1990: 305) and although not addressing the recording process directly Adorno continues:
The composition hears for the listener. This is how popular music divests the listener of his spontaneity and promotes conditioned reflexes. (ibid: 306)
Thus what Adorno regarded as a negative consequence of popular music was seized upon by Stock as a positive means of channeling his production methods for the desired effect. A further example of this is the use of tempo in their HI-NRG productions, as Stock describes,
we worked out that the average resting heart works at 60 to 80 beats per minute, so we always made our songs twice the resting heartbeat with the intention of generating excitement and getting the feet tapping. (Stock 2004: 46)
The final contribution to the SAW sound can be linked, in part, to the advancement of technology at this stage in the early 1980’s. Mike Stock and Matt Aitken were the songwriters for the PWL label and also the label’s band. They were responsible for all of the sounds and instruments heard on the SAW records, apart from the vocals. Stock was the producer and would use the same recording set up, synths, drum machine and vocal mic. Multitrack recording enabled Stock to record one part and then overdub the rest negating the need for any band. This method of working was a result of the technological advances around this period, which resulted in the advent of digital synthesizers, sequencers and drum machines (especially the Linn drum favoured by Stock). The advent of the MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) also allowed devices to be linked and controlled by each other. The result of these advances meant that music could be recorded and re-recorded and edited in a fraction of the time used to record on traditional analogue equipment. This inevitably led to a similar sound emerging from the SAW studio; the only real difference would be the artist who supplied the lead vocal.
SAW had succeeded in generating a sonic blueprint controlled by its chief architect, producer Mike Stock. As their success grew SAW started to receive requests from established artists, keen to achieve ‘The Sound Of A Bright Young Britain’. By attaching SAW’s 1980’s sonic imprint they would be instantly updated and presented to a new generation by default. Stock had already had success with Bananarama; they went on to add the SAW sound to Donna Summer, Cliff Richard and even worked with Heavy Metal band Judas Priest, although no recordings were released. It seemed that SAW could do no wrong, however, when the backlash started it originated from an unlikely source.
SAW v The Record Industry: The sound of success
By the end of the 1980’s SAW and PWL’s success was evident in the huge quantity of records they sold (upwards of 500,000 copies for each Kylie Minogue single). Rather than rejoicing at SAW’s success the record industry turned against them, viewing them as a threat. The reason was simple; they were a very successful record company. However, they were more significantly a successful independent record company. As Waterman states, forcibly, “We were pissing people off incredibly because every record we had released dominated the independent chart” (quoted in Smith 2002: 61).
Stock adds that:
By the end of 1989, the three of us in SAW had 27 per cent of the market in the record business. (Stock 2004: 94)
This was clearly a concern for the major record companies who employed thousands of people from marketing, distribution, to A&R, all being outsold by such a small operation as SAW.
The manner in which Stock, as producer, contributed to this success can be related directly to his production practice. The previous section considered the SAW sound and how this was instrumental in achieving success. There were also other factors which facilitated the production process and contributed to their business success. The first of these was that Stock never made any demo (demonstration) takes of the songs his artists were recording. The usual practice is to spend some time recording an initial version of a song to tape or disk, a work in progress. Between the demo stage and the final recording the song will go through a series of changes, which may include tempo, arrangement, instrumentation, keys and lyrics. Stock didn’t make demos as he and Matt Aitken were the band, they played all of the instruments on all of SAW’s recordings therefore they didn’t need to pass a demo to the other band members.
This had a direct impact on the length of time spent in the recording studio. The song would already be recorded and all that the artist was required to do was lay down their vocal part (additional overdubs could be completed without the artist being present).
The second important factor of Stock’s production practice was the fact that he was not producing to the requirements of an A&R man or another record company. SAW were releasing records through their own PWL label and Pete Waterman certainly never blocked any productions. This was another reason why Stock didn’t require a demo version of his songs. The usual practice was that demos were passed between producer, artist, band members and the A&R person representing the record company’s interests, for approval. The quick turn around in recording meant that each song was ready with the minimum of fuss. The songs didn’t have to be scheduled, unlike the majors, into a long list of recording, releases and marketing strategies. The small team at PWL worked quickly and efficiently, in some cases a song would be written, recorded, pressed and in the shops in less than two months, a schedule that the major record companies could not compete with. This mode of production ensured that the SAW sound was ubiquitous during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.
Another important factor in this success was the exposure SAW songs received on radio. Stock had always stated that he made records for the public, a point echoed by Waterman: “We have taken pop music back to the people who buy records” (quoted in Smith 2002: 59).
Certainly Stock’s productions were radio friendly. They were compressed and sonically balanced; however, they still had to be heard. PWL had an ingenious tactic in their campaign for radio exposure. Every time a record is played on air the station logs its performance. This in turn triggers a payment to the artist via the Performing Right Society (PRS). In general this also triggers another charge payable to the record label via the Phonographic Performance Limited (PPL) charge. In the case of PWL they had waived the PPL charge for all plays of their records. As all the other labels were charging PPL this meant that it was cheaper to play a PWL record. In the case of Kylie Minogue’s hit ‘I Should Be So Lucky’ it was reported that Radio 1 who had played the song “up to 180 times in a ten week period while it was a hit, made a potential saving of up to £15,000 in needle time” (Independent 1988). There was of course nothing illegal in this practice. However, it would not have endeared PWL to the rest of the record industry majors who employed an army of record pluggers desperately vying for radio airplay.
SAW it seems had taken on the record industry and won. However the industry started to turn on them and this became apparent at an awards ceremony event in 1986. The Ivor Novello awards are deemed by artists, and the recording industry, as one of the most prestigious awards given to songwriters. When in 1986 SAW received the award for ‘Best song of the year’ it was the third year in succession that the trio had won, something that even Lennon & McCartney had failed to achieve. However as they went up to accept their awards they were met by a barrage of boos, as Simon Napier-Bell observed: “They’d found the formula for success and people throughout the industry were seething with jealousy” (Napier-Bell 2001:313).
The success, however, didn’t continue indefinitely. The SAW sound was overtaken by another sonic blueprint emanating from Seattle and it is perhaps a little ironic that in the end PWL was sold to a major company, Warner Brothers, netting Waterman a large payout. Stock left SAW in September 1993 and continued to write and produce with limited success until the release of ‘The Fast Food Song’ which got to number 2 in the UK charts in 2003. Perhaps as a response to the acceptance of SAW’s past achievements or a reaction to the 1980’s revival sweeping the music scene, in 2005 it was announced that SAW were to reunite. In typical fashion Waterman added that:
The new SAW sound won’t suddenly be hip-hop or thrash metal…if being stuck in a time warp means selling 30 million records again I won’t mind. (quoted in Sherwin 2005)
Clearly Waterman valued the important contribution of the sound in SAW’s success, the sound that was a direct result of Mike Stock’s production. However, the control Stock exerted over the production process, as well as the artists he worked with, led to accusations that SAW was simply a pop production line.
The Hit Factory
One of the most important ingredients in the production process are the artists themselves. However, in a similar fashion to Spector’s ‘Wall Of Sound’, the SAW sound became the sonic framework into which their artists were planted. In Mike Stock’s case the artist was required only to sing the vocal line and had little or no bearing on the writing or production process. As he testifies:
I never tolerated artists telling me how to produce a record in the studio. I’d just give them the song, get it down on tape and put it out regardless. (Stock 2004: 168)
SAW even adopted the title given to the Brill Building in New York, and called themselves ‘The Hit Factory’. This led many to believe that SAW was just a production line, such as the 1996 guide ‘Inside The Music Industry’ which described their operation as that which “chewed up and spat out such a large number of teen disco stars”(Barrow & Newby 1996: 201). Napier –Bell observed that
because the songs that pushed the trivial artists whom they produced to the top of the charts came from formula song writing, many in the industry put them down. (2001: 322).
The fact was that this means of production was highly efficient and commercially successful. Pete Waterman summed it up by saying:
What makes a hit record is cash, when you see a cheque come in your bank for a million quid you know that’s a real hit. (quoted in ibid 321).
It seems that the record industry’s aesthetic critiques were based on a commercial jealousy. So what better way to answer them than by producing a record that was both artistically acceptable and commercially successful?
This is exactly what SAW achieved with the release of their single ‘Roadblock’ in 1991. Stock wrote the track in a day; it contained a drum rhythm, funk bass and a guitar riff. Then Stock and Aitken added backing vocals, saxophone parts and finally chanted the word ‘Roadblock’ over the top of the track. Sonically it was a typical SAW production in terms of the manner in which it had been written and recorded. The only difference was that Stock & Aitken were taking the minimal lead vocal role. By this time it was not only the record industry that was incapable of making an objective criticism of SAW’s releases. Even SAW’s own artists had difficulty in divorcing the production from the image that had grown up around the PWL label. As was the case when Bananarama’s Siobhan Fahey was played a pre-released copy of ‘Roadblock’ to which she commented: “Yeah, it’s a 70’s funk track, isn’t it? You guys could never do anything like that” (Stock 2004: 51). In an attempt at securing an objective critique the decision was taken to eradicate all traces of SAW from the “Roadblock” track. This was achieved by burning out the manufacturing mark that showed the record had been made in England. The next step was to add SAW’s New York lawyer’s phone number as the only contact information, in a further attempt to prove that the record originated from America. The single was then promoted as a club single with these specially prepared white label vinyl dance versions. Their ploy worked and, after initial acclaim, SAW owned up and the single reached number 13 in the charts.
Control and The Independent Kylie
The record industry criticisms of Stock’s production methods were also echoed by some of SAW’s most successful acts, in particular singer Kylie Minogue. One of her biggest hits ‘I Should Be So Lucky’ was number one in 25 countries including Britain. It launched the career of Kylie (contrary to popular belief the TV show Neighbours was shown twice daily to massive audiences only after she had hit the top spot). The song was written by Stock in 40 minutes. This was because of a lack of communication between members of the SAW team. Minogue had been asked to come to Britain to record with them. However, nearing the end of her two-week stay she was yet to record. On the final day of her stay she arrived at SAW’s studios only to be kept in reception for hours. Finally, when all parties realised the situation Stock hastily wrote a simple backing track. He then proceeded to sing the melody to Kylie who then went into the studio, recorded the vocal and then left to catch a flight home to Australia. The recording was taken around the major companies but no one was interested in releasing it, therefore PWL released it (Stock 2004).
The production methods of Stock and his SAW sound maintained Kylie’s career. However, the criticisms applied to SAW’s ‘Hit Factory’ attached themselves by association to the artists themselves. As Shuker states:
Kylie as a manufactured pop star…pointed to the role of producers Stock, Aitken, Waterman who wrote (with the exception of ‘Loco-motion’), produced, and arranged all the tracks on Minogue’s first album. (2001: 164)
In an attempt to counter such charges Kylie fought to regain control, beginning with the actual production process:
I just wanted to be a bit more involved…I was not happy any more at being told to go and ‘have a cup of tea till we call you’. (Smith 2002: 69)
Minogue eventually left SAW. However, she could not escape the songs that had built her successful career, in particular ‘I Should Be So Lucky’. The fact was that the public loved this period of work; she still performed the SAW singles in her live shows. However in an attempt to regain control of this body of work, or simply as a chance to exorcise Stock’s production, she appeared at the Poetry Olympics in 1996 at the Albert Hall in London. Persuaded to perform by her friend Nick Cave she read out the complete lyrics of ‘I Should Be So Lucky’ without any musical accompaniment. As Smith concludes: “The extra ingredient of reciting the words in this fashion without the bouncing melody, they took on ironic meaning” (ibid: 137). What Smith failed to understand was that the irony was always there, as Stock stated, ‘I Should Be So Lucky’ sounds all pink and fluffy, but it’s a sad little song” (Stock 2004: 56). He wrote the lyric based on the fact that someone that busy with her acting and singing career wouldn’t have much time left for a relationship. This only goes to reiterate the importance of Stock’s production. Textual analysis would clearly show the sadness inherent in the lyric. However offering a holistic approach, one would argue that it is the overall sound, the production, which masks this, contributing to an up beat preferred reading
In an ironic twist to Kylie’s quest for control she signed to underground label Deconstruction gaining kudos without great commercial success. The irony being that while she was signed to PWL she was part of the most successful independent record company in British chart history. In contrast in the 1970’s, Punk Rock artists had queued up to sign to major record labels, The Sex pistols at EMI, Virgin, Warner Brothers and The Clash at Columbia. As Shuker concurs:
Important in identifying and situating authenticity is the commercial setting in which a recording is produced, with a tendency to dichotomize the music industry into independent labels (more authentic, less commercial) and the majors (more commercial, less authentic). (2002: 20).
However Shuker’s assessment is put into question by the independent, yet commercial status of PWL.
Mike Stock’s inclusion in this paper has, at least, contributed to an appreciation of his work, which has to date, been under represented within the academic research of popular music. By linking the producer’s role and practice to the unique sound of the SAW recordings, the paper has highlighted Stock’s contribution to the success of the PWL label and its dominance of the charts from the late 1980s to the early 1990s.
The paper has also addressed criticism SAW received at the hands of the record industry. This was found to be aimed at the production methods employed by Stock. These methods were both efficient and commercially successful. Artist criticism of Stock’s production methods was covered in an investigation of SAW artist Kylie Minogue. It was found that her desire for control was centered on her lack of contribution to the production process, a process that was tightly controlled by Stock. It was however, his control over the production process that resulted in the unique SAW sound, the ‘Sound of A Bright New Britain’.
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