The Hit Factory: Stock, Aitken and Waterman Story: Take a trip down musical memory lane with Jason Donovan, Pete Burns & Sinitta

by Matt D

If you’re currently suffering because Olympic fever has hit the TV and you’re not that interested have no fear as I feel that a programme tonight may pick your mood up somewhat. So far over this Olympic fortnight we’ve been treated to documentaries about lawyers, midwives and zoo-keepers thankfully though ITV1 have put together a programme celebrating the best of pop music in the mid to late 1980s. Celebrating the best of producer Pete Waterman and song-writers Mike Stock and Matt Aitken, who together were the brains behind recording studio The Hit Factory, the documentary goes back to the beginning of their reign. Pete Waterman was already a well-known name having been in the industry since 1974 as both producer and DJ his accomplishments already included introducing The Three Degrees to the UK and being involved in the massive Musical Youth hit ‘Pass the Dutchie’. When he returned to the UK in 1983 he was approached by Stock and Aitken who wanted to get into the song-writing industry so together the trio set about working together with their first hit being The Upstroke by the oddly named Agents Aren’t Airplanes. Though this would be a humble beginning for the trio it did pick up an interesting accolade as it was championed by John Peel and, as Waterman points out, it was odd to have the legendary DJ promote something from the team later known for their catchy pop.

Another odd bit of trivia was that the trio’s first top 20 single came via a collaboration with legendary drag queen Divine, who is possibly best known here for the original version of Hairspray, with her hit ‘You Think You’re A Man’. Waterman talks about how he needed the best technology available to him at the time in order to produce a new sound and it worked because even though it had its roots in high energy disco it was fused with pop overtones. The group moved up in the charts with Hazell Dean’s hit Whatever I Do a song that took this high energy theme to the next level and attracted the attention of one Pete Burns. Burns contacted Waterman and played him the album that he and his group had recorded with the producer selecting as their first single a song that the frontman hadn’t really considered. Obviously this song went on to be Dead or Alive’s ‘You Spin Me Round’ which was also Stock, Aitken and Waterman’s first number one single and which also made the American charts despite Burns’ record label dismissing it as music for queers.

The documentary then looked at the story of Mel and Kim a duo that I’ve heard of but didn’t know that much about but who had a fascinating yet tragic story. Mel and Kim Appleby were, according to the documentary, the first act that The Hit Factory boys gave real focus to promoting as they had both a marketable sound and a distinct look. As former Smash Hits writer, and later Heat editor, Mark Frith commented they looked like Paris fashion models but behaved like real East End girls with a wicked sense of humour but most importantly they had great voices. As Kim reminisces a lot of the public thought that they’d peaked after first hit Showing Out however it was with the much more memorable Respectable that the girls garnered a number one single. However sadly shortly after this Mel became ill and was later diagnosed with cancer though she gallantly tried to carry on with her career the two never had a hit again before she tragically passed away aged just 23.

The Hit Factory’s most valuable assets were yet to come however firstly a young lad from Newton-on-the-Willows who had a great voice and went on to be number one in 24 countries. That was of course Rick Astley and the song ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ which people believed to this day to have been recorded by Luther Vandross but once again Waterman made a star of this lad whose first manager was still operating from a small office above a fancy dress shop. Waterman then regales us with the tale of how he was approached to help the career of an Australian soap star by the name of Kylie Minogue who was made to wait all day by the producer before finally Mike Stock being the gent that he is recorded a song with her however it was left on the shelf. Eventually the team were contacted by a TV producer who was eager to put together a video for Kylie’s single that she’d recorded in order for it to go out on a Noel Edmonds Christmas Special. The song became I Should Be So Lucky and soon made Kylie a mega star as well as giving PWL, the name of Waterman’s record company at the time, their figurehead who was soon joined by her then boyfriend Jason Donovan. The two released a single together which apparently was the must have Christmas present for 1988 after their Neighbours characters Scott and Charlene were married earlier that year.

As well as Kylie, Jason and Rick Astley the documentary covers to a lesser extent PWL’s success with Sinitta, Brother Beyond and Sonia as well as covering how Simon Cowell begged to work with Waterman in the 1980s when the latter was much more of a hot commodity than the former who was just starting out in the industry. For me the documentary fell a bit flat when trying to explain where it all went wrong for the group and it seems like they just couldn’t control their artists plus they weren’t up with the music of the time. The fact was that Kylie and Jason both wanted to release more adult stuff that their core market, the pre-teens, just didn’t understand so eventually all of the big acts moved away from PWL with Matt Atiken leaving with Kylie. It seemed to me that there was more of a reason for the fracture of what such a popular recording trio however it was just put down to the fact that the sounds were changing however the 1990s were the decade that bought us Take That, East 17 and later Spice Girls. As we know Waterman continued to be successful with Steps and as a judge on Pop Idol while Aitken and Stock produced more hits with Robson and Jerome.

The documentary though is a little uneven split up into the stories behind the successes of some of the key artists and the songs that made them big. What I enjoyed most about it was singing along with some classic pop hits – ‘You Spin Me Round’, ‘Especially For You’ and ‘Too Many Broken Harts’ were particular favourites of mine while at the same time it reminded me of buying my first cassette tape album which was Sonia’s debut featuring the brilliant ‘You’ll Never Stop Me From Loving You’. There’s no real structure to the documentary and it’s far more anecdotal that it perhaps should be and, as I mentioned, there isn’t enough explanation into the causes of the fall of the group. Overall though there’s plenty of nostalgic hits and as this programme is packed with music you’ll be swept away with it for the hour and forget all about the fact that there’s some big sporting event on the other channel.

Did this programme bring back musical memories for you? What did you think of the show? Leave Your Comments Below.