Various Artists: Pete Waterman Presents The Hit Factory – review

Were Stock, Aitken and Waterman the utter nadir of pop, or unfairly maligned geniuses? A bit of both, perhaps

Next week, Hyde Park plays host to The Hit Factory Live, a celebration of the music of Stock, Aitken and Waterman. It's an event almost guaranteed to give a case of the vapours to the rock fan of a certain age, old enough to remember when Hyde Park was the venue to which the nation's freaks flocked for free concerts. Has it really come to this? Rick Astley and Sinitta desporting themselves in the very place where Mick Jagger quoted Shelley and released butterflies? Sonia taking to the hallowed stage once trod by Blind Faith, King Crimson and Roy Harper and "Heavy Friends"?

Of course, since then Hyde Park has often played host to what would once have been termed The Man's Music – of late, Mike and the Mechanics, Jamiroquai and Gareth Gates – but this seems like the final insult. Even 21 years after Stock, Aitken and Waterman last worked together, they remain perhaps pop's most reviled producers, their wilfully tinny sound symbolic of all that went wrong with music in the 80s. But of course, to their adherents, SAW are unfairly maligned geniuses: these people congregate on messageboards to discuss the Super Dub Remix of Rick Astley's Together Forever and the extra tracks on the recent reissue of Big Fun's A Pocketful of Dreams.

Listening to this 3CD set, you're forced to concede both factions have a point. SAW were not only capable of making fantastic records, they could make them in more than one way. You do get a lot of their signature style – blaring faux brass, chattery synth bass and cantering drum machine – to which time has not been terribly kind, though there are some deft touches: the weird, seasick chord sequence behind the "tay-tay-tay" hook of Mel and Kim's Respectable, the Northern Soul melody of Lonnie Gordon's Happenin' All Over Again. Equally, there's a huge sonic gulf between the demonic Hi-NRG of Dead or Alive's You Spin Me Round (Like A Record) and the slow-motion take on freestyle electro found on Princess' Say I'm Your Number One; or between the punkish snarl of Divine's awesome You Think You're a Man and the effervescent hip-hop of Morgan McVey's Looking Good Diving (With the Wild Bunch), an early version of guest rapper Neneh Cherry's Buffalo Stance.

Bafflingly, however, SAW seemed absolutely incapable of telling good music from bad, as evidenced both by their label PWL's discography – where a record as good as Kylie Minogue's Better the Devil You Know rubs shoulders with the musical work of bemulletted local radio DJ Pat Sharp – and by The Hit Factory's track listing, which somehow finds room for not one but two offerings from the catastrophic oeuvre of Sinitta. It's hard to work out whether this was down to a Simon Cowellish contempt for their audience – in fairness, the British public showed a worrying tendency to buy SAW's dross in the same quantities as their good stuff – or if the trio just genuinely had no taste and sometimes made incredible pop records by mistake.

Either way, their imperial period was shot through with a hugely appealing brand of iconoclasm: no wonder Malcolm McLaren was a fan. There were the interviews (in one, Pete Waterman offered the mind-melting opinion that the Beatles could have learnt a thing or two from SAW about artistic integrity) and there was the Reynolds Girls' I'd Rather Jack. The latter is not by any means a great record – it sounds like it might have taken less time to write than it actually does to listen to – but as an act of mad, nihilistic musical provocation, it's up there with the Clash's 1977. Actually, it's better – or at least more honest. When Joe Strummer dismissed Elvis, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, he was lying through his teeth: when SAW went for Fleetwood Mac, Pink Floyd, Dire Straits, heavy metal and, indeed, all "music from the past", they really meant it.

It's impossible to imagine a pop act releasing a single like that today. You could say the same thing about everything on The Hit Factory: it's audibly music from a different era, less sophisticated, or at least less knowing. As it plays, there are certainly moments when you're profoundly glad it's all in the past: something like Big Fun's Blame It on the Boogie doesn't so much deserve to be confined to the dustbin of history as sealed in a concrete cylinder, like nuclear waste, lest it harm future generations. But there are also moments when it seems like a shame: more of them, maybe, than Stock, Aitken and Waterman get credit for.

Contributor

Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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