Tanya Plays Pop:
Stock Aitken Waterman Gold
I don't think there's a 80s pop music compilation around without at least one song from the incredibly successful Stock, Aitken and Waterman production company, known as PWL. They, perhaps more than any big artist, defined the sound of the decade, and certainly played a big part in my childhood. However, they were never well respected at the time, and are still sneered at today. I think the 2005-released Gold compilation of their work is a good opportunity to review not only whether the sneering is justified, but whether the collection is a fair representation of their contribution to pop music. Below is a list of the artists mentioned, their songs, and my thoughts on them. Apologies for the quality or relevancy of some of the links; the refusal of record companies and DVD companies to see YouTube for the free advertising that it is made my job a lot harder!
It wasn't until I became a fan of the pop writing outfit Xenomania that I realised that 'Respectable', perhaps my favourite song on the album, is actually PWL's response to the avalanche of media criticism of their music, as the Girls Aloud hit 'No Good Advice' serves a similar purpose for Xenomania. Of course, with that knowledge, lyrics such as "Take or leave us/only please believe us/we ain't never gonna be respectable/Like us, hate us, but you'll never change us/we ain't never gonna be respectable" brings a marvellous new dimension to an already fine pop song. Showing Out is also an excellent song, reflecting the energy and joy that the two artists represented; two London sisters hell-bent on having fun. Given this, it seems doubly tragic that their careers were cut short by the death of Mel Appleby from complications arising from her treatment for cancer at the tender age of 24. Kim did have a couple of good hits using the songs her and Mel wrote together, and has continued to work in the industry.
Frankly, no PWL compilation would be complete without Newton-Le-Willows' most famous son belting out 'Never Gonna Give You Up', the natural choice for the 'Rick Rolling' prank on YouTube. 'Together Forever' is a nice addition, and gives you the opportunity to ponder on why Rick never got the career he deserved, whilst the vocally weaker Kylie became a superstar. Smash Hits entertained the theory that Kylie was actually Rick speeded up; maybe only one artist could survive...
You Spin Me Round, chocka-full of synthetic beats and bops, is a defining song of the '80s, but there's a good reason why 'Lover Come Back To Me' isn't that well known. The lead singer, Pete Burns, is now better known for looking like he's had his mouth smashed in with an iron pole.
It's amusing that the CD lists both her names; she's now so famous that she only needs one. The inclusion of her main hits is obvious, but 'Turn It Into Love' is an interesting choice, because to my knowledge, it was only an album track in the UK.
Jason Donovan's early success was inevitably intertwined with Kylie Minogue's, which, although helping him make his name, probably damaged his career in the long term, as PWL's material for him was never as good as Kylie's. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, he moved to musical theatre quite rapidly and has stayed there ever since. I don't have anything against Jason, but I wasn't that excited about revisiting these two songs.
PWL didn't just thrust new acts into the charts. Bananarama are a good example of a well-established band turning to the outfit to change their sound, and it proved a very successful move, producing perhaps their best-remembered material.
Hazell already had a good live career before teaming up with PWL, and the two songs on this collection are good pop tunes. I remember being particularly fond of 'Who's Leaving Who', and it's probably supportive of my feeling that PWL wrote particularly well for strong female voices.
The Reynolds Girls - I'd Rather Jack
A song I've never forgotten, because PWL had a real talent for catchy tunes. This hit saw these two sisters from Liverpool voice the discontent PWL had with radio DJs ignoring younger pop acts in favour of older bands (presumably the Smashie and Niceys of this world). Although this style of DJ was purged from Radio 1 soon after this 1989 hit, the Reynolds Girls themselves paid the price of being up-to-the-minute; their time soon passed and they became a one-hit-wonder.
Donna made her name with "I Feel Love" in 1977, and was perhaps the most successful established artist to work with PWL. I don't think these two are her best songs, but they're perfectly respectable, and helped sustain her career.
Lonnie Gordon - Happenin' All Over Again
I remember this being a massive hit (and according to Wikipedia, written originally for Donna Summer) and certainly helped launch Lonnie's career as a credible House/Soul singer. It's full of the early House music tricks, but still sounds decent today.
I remember both of these from my childhood, but although the energy is there, Sinitta doesn't provide the thrill that I get from the Mel and Kim tracks. There's a particular class with Mel and Kim, which means you can believe that they go down the West End of a Saturday night and rip it up. I can't believe Sinitta manages to get any further than Catford.
There's a Trev and Simon joke which I think is appropriate here. "They're a bit like Big Fun without the fun." "Oh yeah? What are they called, then?" "Big Fun".
Remember Brother Beyond? They were part of the emerging Boy Band genre that so defined my teens, and these two songs are pretty harmless fun, rather like the genre itself. However, it's a shame "Be My Twin" isn't here, because I think it's much better than the Brother Beyond songs featured!
Again, I must refer the reader to a comedy sketch; Dawn French's rather fantastic parody of Sonia on Star Test. However, there was nothing wrong with Sonia or her infectious enthusiasm for singing bouncy pop, and these songs are fun to hear again.
Samantha Fox - Nothing's Gonna Stop Me Now
Samantha (Sam) Fox is something of a notorious figure in the UK. After a hugely (fnarr) successful career as a topless model, she went on to have a surprisingly successful music career, marked by songs which aren't nearly as bad as you expect them to be. This is one of them.
Mandy Smith - Got To Be Certain
Mandy was another notorious figure, who became famous for going out with the ex-Rolling Stones bass player Bill Wyman at the age of 13 (Wyman was 47) with her mother's blessing, eventually having a ill-fated marriage to him at 18. This was actually the original version of the famous Kylie single, but Mandy's vocal limitations are embarrassingly obvious, especially when compared to the Kylie version. Although Mandy achieved some overseas success, health problems (well documented in the tabloids) prevented her from capitalising on this. She can perhaps be regarded as an early version of what is now a very current phenomenon; someone who was famous for being famous.
Cliff Richard - I Just Don't Have The Heart
Cliff didn't really need PWL's help, but this is a respectable hit which fits well into his long career.
Princess - Say I'm Your Number One
Remember Princess? I think I have a vague memory from Smash Hits, but this deserves to be better known, as it would fit very well into any modern RnB compilation.
Stock Aitken Waterman - Road Block
Yes, they weren't afraid of releasing their own singles either! It's an interesting fusion of styles, but isn't particularly memorable.
Divine - You Think You're A Man
Never accuse PWL of not taking chances. This is a rather good song for the outrageous Divine, which I imagine got a LOT of air play at the London Astoria.
Pat & Mick - I Haven't Stopped Dancing Yet
I've heard that Pat Sharp doesn't like being reminded of this. I know how he feels.
Boy Krazy - That's What Love Can Do
I think this is a pretty fair exploration of PWL's work, because there's no particular reason to include this song, except as an effort to cover all their acts. If you weren't paying attention, you'd mistake it for a Kylie album-filler track.
Ferry Aid - Let It Be
The capsizing of the MS Herald of Free Enterprise ferry off the coast of Zeebrugge in Belgium in 1987 resulted in the deaths of 193 passengers and crew. This cover of the famous Beatles hit was organised by PWL and the Sun newspaper to raise money for the charity set up in the disaster's aftermath.
Hillsborough - Ferry Cross The Mersey
Another fund-raising cover here, this time for those affected by the Hillsborough disaster, which was a human crush at a FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest in 1989. 96 Liverpool fans died and it meant a conversion for all major British football grounds to seated terraces, along with the removal of fences between the fans and the pitch, which had been a response to football hooliganism.
So, does this salvage PWL's reputation? It certainly makes cheerful listening for the most part, and although the accusations of formulaic writing begin to make sense after the third identical opening in a row, it's not like you can't accuse other pop music of the same thing. PWL were out to entertain, and I think they were extremely successful at doing so. It's also not well acknowledged that PWL's work paved the way for the work of Xenomania, who have refined the format to produce some of the more interesting music around today. Their work also made reality pop competitions possible; although the output of these shows have been as variable as PWL's catalogue. Although their work isn't to everyone's taste, it should be remembered that they were almost alone in their love and enthusiasm for pop music when they began, and they should be respected for bringing fun to what was a rather po-faced music and radio industry.
As an attempt to 'cover all bases', this compilation is actually rather good, as it features a few less well-known songs, and also features the often-forgetten contribution to charity fundraising by PWL. However, as interesting as these tracks are, most of them have been forgotten for a reason; which is why this merits a 3-star rating.