Taking Stock: The Fiction Factory


Mike, Matt and Uncle Pete at the height of their powers….

Stock, Aitken & Waterman. Love ’em or hate ’em, they have finally been given the kind of in-depth, multi-part documentary on prime time UK Television that their success, and catalogue, deserves. I knew Channel 5 would come in useful for something one day.

“Legends Of Pop” ran across successive Saturday Nights, totalling just under 2 and a half hours in all. Added to that were a pair of “Stock Aitken Waterman’s Greatest Hits” video clip compilations, a fairly thorough (if understandably incomplete) trawl through the best (and/or best-known) tracks to emerge from the trio’s vast roster of artists and collaborators between the mid-1980s and the early 1990s.

This retrotastic activity reminded me of the glorious SAW Singles Boxset, Say I’m Your Number One, released almost a decade ago, and also of the “Hit Factory” autobiography by Mike Stock which I happened upon in a charity shop around the same time.  The boxset has become quite collectable (and a Vol.2 is sorely needed); its 31 discs cover the full range of SAW efforts from the huge (Rick, Dead Or Alive, Bananarama, Mel & Kim) to the briefly popular (Sonia, Hazell Dean, Princess), the should-have-beens (O’chi Brown, Haywoode, Brilliant) and even the “who on earth?” likes of Jeb Million and Spelt Like This. There was also room for SAW’s debut release from early 1984, the Agents Aren’t Aeroplanes single Upstroke with its Relax-inspired sleeve.


Amongst its quite literally hundreds of tracks and mixes, Say I’m Your Number One is a surprisingly oddball selection of faves and flops, but somehow all the more illuminating for it. SAW weren’t always about lowest-common-denominator pre-teen pop; the range of acts they teamed up with during the earlier years includes venerated talents like Edwin Starr, The Three Degrees and Georgie Fame. There was a hook up with Laura Branigan in 1987 that deserved to be more successful, and their uniquely British version of female funk/soul/pop – with that distinctive fat bass sound and thudding drum machine patterns – gave us lost classics like Getting Closer (Haywoode), The Heaven I Need (Three Degrees), Love Is War (Brilliant), After The Love Has Gone (Princess) as well as the original Whenever You Need Somebody (O’chi Brown).

By contrast, Mike’s book “The Hit Factory” (subtitled The Stock Aitken & Waterman Story) proved rather less enjoyable. Written in 2004, while he and Matt were still estranged from Uncle Pete, it is – to borrow the title of my review published online a decade later – “a wonky attempt to set the record straight”.

Thanks to the wonders of the internet, said review (unlike so many of mine from back in the day) has not fallen through the cracks and can now be brought to you as one of afdpj‘s blasts from the past….


There is a great story to tell about the rise, rise and sharp decline of the Stock Aitken Waterman hit-making machine. Unfortunately, despite the best intentions of one-third of that trio – chief songwriter Mike Stock – “The Hit Factory” is not that book.

Perhaps it’s fitting that this conversational, unfocused series of thoughts – littered with hackneyed phrases and often glib generalisations – should come from a man who has made a living from penning a series of engaging, tuneful but clichéd and ultimately transient pop records. The blame for this is only revealed at the very end in the acknowledgements, with Stock thanking a Chris Welch for transcribing his “ramblings” into a coherent, structured tale. Much of the first half of “The Hit Factory” reads like an uninvolved breeze through post-War pop culture in all its most unoriginal guises. Cliché after cliché falls off the page, with very little genuine insight or perspective for the reader to get to grips with.

Frequently, as I was reading the early chapters, I would imagine the wrath of English teachers from my youth, were they to be presented with Stock/Welch’s cheery but sweepingly vague prose (e.g. “we were living the dream, scoring hits for fun and enjoying our new-found fame”) – visions of red ink in the margins, irascibly demanding to know more details. Whether such a lack of depth is due to legal requirements, or simply an absence of interest in vividly-recalled miniutae, it’s hard to tell. “The Hit Factory” is often a frustratingly one-dimensional affair, with several opinions and experiences blandly repeated more than once, which is a fault of the transcriber/editor as much as Stock himself.

What transpires, after an introduction which covers his parents’ surprisingly colourful history, is someone who prides themselves on a strong work ethic and rigidly sticks to his ways, always convinced their way is the right way, the best way, and the only way. He espouses old-fashioned, traditional morals (admirable views, but ones which tend to come across in a slightly hectoring manner throughout the book). To him, pop music is the best music, the music of the ordinary (working class) people of Britain. Elvis and the other US rock’ n ‘rollers never interested him as much as the emerging Beat Groups of the early 60s from these shores, and a dislike bordering on mistrust of American culture crops up at regular intervals, most explicitly towards the end of the book.

Stock Aitken & Waterman created some excellent records between 1984 and their dissolution in 1992, when Pete Waterman’s attempts at courting the financial assistance of Warner Brothers to steady the ship split the partnership with indecent haste. Stock’s sense of hurt and betrayal is clear and very much understandable, as a straight-living, hard-working, self-made songwriter from outside the industry was hung out to dry in a quickly-changing pop world driven by the emerging drug culture. The amount of vitriol – both critical and personal – directed at him and his two partners during their heyday is also unsparingly recounted, as is the quite shocking manner in which the BPI sought to exact revenge for SAW’s success by scuppering several of Stock’s early 90s releases. This “dark side of the industry”, as he calls it, makes for some of the more involving passages in the book, with fruitless court cases and thwarted attempts to resurrect his career leaving him a more cynical, exhausted man.

Likewise, his disgust at the demise of good, traditional pop music for everyone of all ages is hard to argue with. However, you feel that his heart is probably more aligned with “light entertainment”, something which his long-held love for the post-War tunesmiths and musicals such as South Pacific suggests. That’s no bad thing in itself, Stock’s catalogue of hit songs bears testimony to his craft – I Should Be So Lucky, This Time I Know It’s For Real, Never Gonna Give You Up, Better The Devil You Know are now acknowledged classics – but his rigid personality traits and working methods created a strained relationship with just about every artist who came through the SAW doors.

Unable to entertain the notion of an artist wanting to try something a bit different after a while, Stock saw a steady procession of acts leave their stable. In his eyes, they were badly advised kids who should have simply got their head down and done as they were told, for the rest of time, and they would never have a flop record. This view is somewhat undermined by the stark commercial decline of SAW’s post-1989 work with Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan even before they expressed a desire to move on; Kylie’s final album with the PWL label was a disaster, and Jason’s 1990 set Between The Lines took its audience for granted by churning out poor copies of the previous album’s songs only for the public to say No Thanks.

Time and again, Stock’s mantra of listening to the public and giving them what they want is trotted out, as if he alone knows what is needed to have a hit record. Yet by 1992, the public clearly preferred the “appalling nonsense” of Shakespear’s Sister (spelled incorrectly in the book) and the “evil” non-music of the drug-fuelled techno dance scene. Waterman, for all his failings, had at least seen the writing on the wall and attempted to keep PWL relevant to the 1990s and inject some fresh impetus and cash into the venture. The manner in which he stabbed Aitken and Stock in the back in order to do so is hard to excuse, but so in some ways is Stock’s refusal to acknowledge that the formula had run its course. For all his bluster and confident assertions of knowing exactly what the public wants, the litany of C-list celebrities, TV stars, DJs, comedians and no-hopers that made up Stock’s post-1992 output tells its own story. He baulks at Waterman’s introduction of 2 Unlimited into the PWL empire, yet spent the best part of the 90s and 00s in league with the very worst of entertainment tie-ins and novelty songs (Power Rangers, WWF, Fast Food Rockers, Robson & Jerome, John Alford…..and that’s not even including an abortive hook-up with a pre-fame Westlife).


A birrova classic. But a game-changer, Mike? Are you sure?

Other rather strange and dubious claims are made in “The Hit Factory”, such as Princess’ sublime summer 1985 hit Say I’m Your Number One being a game-changing first British black soul hit (Loose Ends, Linx and a host of others would beg to differ!) – something he refers to on at least two occasions. Waterman’s famous habit of self-aggrandisement and embellishing of the facts also colours Stock’s own statements at times; he is at least self-aware enough to realise his ego can make him difficult to work with, and he remains stoically supportive of Matt Aitken despite the strain SAW’s success put on them. Likewise, his devotion to wife Bobbie and his children seems heartfelt without being schmaltzy.

Overall, the (again frustratingly) shoddy discography at the back of the book will probably give more insight into the actual SAW story; the early breakthrough via gay clubs and the Hi-NRG scene, then Top 40 hits with Dead Or Alive, Hazell Dean, Princess and Bananarama, before the glory days of 1987-89 and Rick Astley, Mel & Kim, Kylie, Jason et al. Back then, as Stock continually reminds us, chart positions meant something. Singles really sold in large amounts, before the industry got too clever at their own marketing games…..and in the discography’s column for “chart peak”, the relative merits of each record are laid bare, free of the vapid hyperbole in the 175 pages preceeding them.

“If we’d put out all those records under our name, we’d have been the biggest act of all-time. Bigger than The Beatles”. Ah, but quality over quantity is the key. A raft of #84 and #78 entries with failed popstars, inbetween the outright gems, is not quite the endless procession of smash hits outlined in the book to accompany such grand delusions. Mike Stock should know that better than anyone.



  1. The Harding book is one I’ve still got on my wishlist, thanks for reminding me about it! He apparently declined to be involved in the C5 doc because of PWL/SAW’s lack of proper credit for the work he actually did on the records.

    Liked by 1 person

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