- Tue, 2004-10-12 17:10
Mike Stock had always wanted to become a successful pop songwriter and his dream came true as one of the founder members of the most successful British record-producing teams and song writing partnerships of all time – Stock Aitken Waterman, aka SAW.
SAW became known as the `Hit Factory', producing and recording more than 100 Top 40 singles during the 1980s – a claim that even The Beatles, did not achieve.
At the peak of SAW's success, I Should Be So Lucky and Never Gonna Give You Up helped launch the world-famous artists Kylie Minogue and Rick Astley and as the hits poured off the production line, SAW itself became even more famous than the stars.
I Like Music caught up with hit songwriting legend and all-round nice guy, Mike Stock, to find out his views on the music industry now, a few songwriting secrets and home-truths about Peter Waterman.
“I like music because… it's got to be the closest thing to Heaven on Earth!” Mike Stock
ILM: You taught yourself to play the guitar aged 9, followed by the piano and have taught yourself everything. Is that something your parents instilled in you?
Mike: I don’t know whether they did. My older brother and younger sister are very musical too though and they studied it at their grammar school, but I failed the 11+ so I didn’t get music lessons at my school, I got woodwork! But I wasn’t discouraged but there must be something genetic there. I think you’re born with an ear for music.
ILM: You met Matt Aitken during your time in a band together. How did being the artist compare to being the songwriter/management?
Mike: There’s not much difference in terms of the thrill you get if a million people buy your song or if a crowd of people stand up and give you a round of applause. I suppose in a way a lot of artists who stop touring miss the thrill of a live performance.
ILM: You built your own studio, any tips for artists with that undertaking?
Mike: Equipment is always changing, you’ve always got to stay up to date. Expensive things do that, but unless you’re at the forefront you can get left behind. Our desk at The Borough when SAW first started, the desk was 20ft long and weighed a metric tonne, literally, but the difference now is, the equipment is tiny and you can get a lot more into a small space. So you’ve got to get the most recent equipment.
ILM: You clearly understand the rules of writing a good song, now you’ve had so much songwriting experience, do you enjoy breaking the ‘rules’ and experimenting more nowadays?
Mike: I do on my own in my own bedroom, but I wouldn’t like to impose that on an audience. Rules become rules for the very simple reason that they work. There are some fundamentals that remain true no matter what country you’re in, or what year in history you are, a good tune is a good tune. A melody that stirs you and gets your heart I don’t think that ever changes, because it’s a human response.
It’s like the countryside, you look at the rolling hills and green trees and everybody likes that, why would you change what nature intended. In songs you dress up nature, love is more sparkly and sugary and fantastic.
In all forms of creative art you need to break the rules a little bit to add a touch of quirkiness, but I wouldn’t advise anyone attempting to do that until they know what the rules are, and the only way to do that is to keep working until you’ve got a perfect little pop song and then you can mess about with it a bit, but not a lot.
ILM: I love the stories of how the song titles come about, like Kylie being lucky in everything else but love, have you found the quicker you write the songs the bigger the hit? And what’s the quickest time you’ve written a song in?
Mike: It depends. Sometimes you can wake up with a complete song in your head, so I don’t know how long it took me to dream it. You can say I Should Be So Lucky was written in 40 minutes but you’d have to have had all the years experience behind you to be able to have done that, so it’s a bit of a misleading statement. You can’t really write a song that quickly. You can have an idea quickly and the inspiration, the 1% that kicks you off. And the idea with that one with Kylie was the idea of luckiness, and that came in an instant. So it was 99% perspiration, 1% inspiration. I don’t mean to fudge the issue but people like speaking in soundbites and Pete Waterman used to say he’d written songs on the toilet, and that devalues it, but you can grab a few headlines if you say things like that.
ILM: Did you approach artists or did they come to you, or both?
Mike: It’s a funny old one this. The problem with what were doing, a lot of people looked down their nose at it, so when we broke few and had a few hits, you’d have thought they’d have formed an orderly queue, but they didn’t that was when they stopped coming to us. They came to us when we were forming and having a few hits, but as soon as we became established they walked away. So we then had to look, as we did, outside of the industry.
For example, Mel and Kim, were two normal kids from the streets, and Rick Astley he was doing his thing up in Warrington, so we had to find them and work with them rather than them coming to us as a popstar. A little bit earlier you had Bananarama who came to us because they liked what we did with Dead and Alive, and then after that, the Kylie one had nothing to do with her coming to us. Michael Hurl who used to be at the BBC tipped us off that there was this young girl in a soap that was only on once a week but they were going to extend it to daily in the early evening slot, so he said there’s this girl who could be a popstar, so we went out to find her.
ILM: You and Matt spent 12 hour days in the studio, do you wish now you’d given yourself a bit of break to enjoy your success, or was all that hard work necessary to achieve that success?
Mike: That’s a good question because I don’t think I really enjoyed it. Looking back I wish I’d taken a bit more time to appreciate it more, but then there’s this other expression, you have to make hay while the sun shine’s and there was the idea that we were doing well and on a roll, so let’s not stop and keep going. Actually I don’t think we needed to do that to keep having the hits, we would have been better off taking a step back and maybe not working with some of the artists that we did, being a little bit more selective. But you never know when it’s going to come to an end, so we kept our heads down and motored on. At the time we didn’t realize we didn’t need to do that.
You must stop to smell the roses.
ILM: Do you still have the songs you wrote in your childhood? Tell me about your first ever song?
Mike: I think the first song I ever wrote was called The Thunder And The Lightning. I was seven and there was a storm outside that made a big impression on me, and the second song I wrote was called Angela, and that was a girl who really liked me. She doesn’t know that though. Her name was Angela Dennis.
ILM: What do you like about the music industry now and dislike about it, how has it changed for the better and worse?
Mike: I’m not sure if I’m an Oracle or not, I come from one-side, I’m totally on the side of the artist and the creative people, the writers and the producers. It’s the music business, so 50% of its business and the rest is music and you can’t have one without the other. But I think the tendency now is for the business to be more important and I don’t think it was like that until the mid 1990s. I think up until then artists had more say. For example Bananarama came to us because they liked the records we made, so they went to London Records their bosses and said we want to work with these guys, but you can’t imagine people like Gareth Gates doing that anymore. They don’t have a say really because the business controls it so completely. If anything, I’d love to redress the balance and accept that it’s a 50/50 partnership – that you can’t have a hit without the business and you can’t have the business without a hit. That would be a fairer split.
It’s moved too far. Simon Cowell once said to me, “Of course Mike it’s 80% business and 20% music,” and I don’t believe that. I believe people have a love affair with music of one sort or another. It forms so much of a backdrop to everybody’s lives that I think we do it a disservice to this wonderful thing called music if we really believe that business is 80% of its value.
ILM: It must have been a tad annoying with Pete taking the glory/limelight and devaluing pop music and what you two were doing, with the whole Walt Disney rubbish. Can you remember the turning point, when Pete started getting too big for his boots and making these cheapening comments?
Mike: The seeds of that were sewn by our own success. Because at the very beginning when we worked together we needed Pete to shout about us, and that was his role. He wasn’t a writer or producer, it was Matt and I doing the work and we needed Pete to go out there and sell it like mad, and that was fine. But after a short while our songs and records began to speak for themselves, and we didn’t need Pete to do that.
He recognized that as well, so he did his radio and TV shows, tours and interviews, and he became a spokesman and industry figurehead, and so he filled his time up with self-promotion, which also had some spin off for us. In the end people were asking for his opinion on everything, and they got more and more outlandish.
There came a point when Pete described himself as Walt Disney and Matt and me as the animators, and I just thought of these seven dwarfs, and I said to Pete, ‘you can make yourself look as big as you like, but just don’t make us look small.’ And he couldn’t understand that and he carried on with that line.
Funnily enough because he was shouting about it, I’ve always told him how great he is at that, and always supported him because I thought he was very good at that and it’s required. After we split he didn’t want to be known for that and then pretended he’d written the songs and made the records. I couldn’t understand it. He was doing the very thing I’d been complaining about and put himself in our role as ‘animators’. It was very strange, but I think he was trying to take all of the glory and it didn’t need to be done.
We shook hands on a deal, and couldn’t really have a contract between us in physical terms because what we were doing was very unique and there wasn’t really a standard form for it, so we had a handshake agreement for seven years and carried on like that with things being ok, and the last straw was when Pete backpeddled on the deal, and there were certain financial questions as to where the royalties went, so that was the turning point.
I’m not blaming Pete entirely for this, because the industry itself started to close us down. We had a market share from them and they got all upset by it and Pete was shouting his mouth off and rubbing their noses in it, and I think in the end they ‘put the squeeze on us’ and Pete got into financial trouble. He did like his train sets and toys.
ILM: Regardless of what Pete said about the team, you were hugely successful with little money one week and then plenty of it the next. How did that feel, achieving your goals?
Mike: There was one point when I know Matt felt he’d achieved something, when he managed to collect enough money in his bank to show me his was a millionaire. For me it wasn’t about the money. We were 32 when we teamed up. So I’d been gigging around and writing songs and trying to make it in one form or another, and it was frustrating. You can hear a song in the charts and think I’ve written a song just as good as that, I know I have, but you can’t get a record deal.
But I knew I’d made it and it was such a release of frustration and energy when we had our first hit and you see your record on Top Of The Pops and you turn the radio on and hear your song without knowing it was going to be played, and that all happened by Spring 1985 and we’d teamed up a year earlier, had a few hits and then number one with Dead or Alive. So that was success for me and those bits and pieces became part of the fabric of the pop world at that time.
ILM: What ambitions do you still have left to fulfil?
Mike: I still would like to write the perfect pop song. Rick Astley’s Never Gonna Give You Up, was quite close to that and records that have sold millions are near perfect, but I don’t think I’ve got the perfect one yet, so it’s like a quest for the holy grail.
ILM: With Roadblock you proved you could make music that the music snobs would rate. What gave you the inspiration for that song?
Mike: It was one of the American gangster rap things, and it was a heavy gloomy thing but, as you point out, we pleased the critics but we didn’t sell many records. It was number 14 I think. The guys who write in NME they all got excited by it, but the public in general didn’t. And that’s the dichotomy in the world, all those who work in the industry are so far removed from the people who actually buy the records and provide their wages, in other job they couldn’t survive.
ILM: You’ve worked with Paul McCartney, Cliff Richard, Donna Summer, Kylie – of all the artists you’ve worked with, which did you get on the best with, have a laugh with?
Mike: I’m sure I’ve had good fun with somebody. Jason Donovan was fun to work with. He wasn’t a great artist but he was a nice chap in the studio. Mel and Kim were the most fun, because they’d never done it before, so we had to reorganize the studio so they could deal with all that, and they were dancing round. They were fantastic really.
On the record we’ve got samples of them laughing and giggling that we kept on the record. That does reflect from the fun we have. They were good fun and ahead of their time.
ILM: Please describe the Mike Stock process of songwriting and making music?
Mike: There’s a point when I get moved when I’m writing, whether I’ve started on the piano or on the guitar, and very often with a title if a phrase comes into your head, but that’s very much just a starting point. And sometimes you hunt around for chord structures and melodies, and when one gets in my head I can’t write it down, so I’ll sing it over and work it out, and when you get one and the hairs stand up on the back of your neck and you just feel it, and you’re so excited and exhilarated by it.
And then after that it could be weeks of torture running it through the mill and trying to get production work on it and doing the bass, and you must keep reminding yourself and how exhilarated you felt when you first came up with the idea, otherwise you’d give up on it.
So I know when I’m sitting at the piano and I’ve got a good tune and a good lyric and it’s going nicely and you get excited and after the 500th time of hearing it in the studio you have to remind yourself why you liked it so much.
It’s always hunting around, looking in the corners of your mind, trying to open your brain so you’re varying things, a slight variation of an old thing can excite you, just adding the odd note in here or beat in there you realize you’ve created something totally different. It’s like a search and you go through all the sounds and all the ideas until you find something that really excites you.
If you know you’re in songwriting mode you have an antennae. The New Scientist were questioning where creative ideas come from, whether it’s the brain or outside. Is there a pool of stuff that we can all dip into occasionally, they had a big theory all about it.
ILM: Do you still see/write with Matt? Mike Stock and Matt Aitken,The original M&M right?
Mike: I’m not ruling out the possibilities that we could, and we haven’t fallen out in anyway. Actually I still talk to Pete and we still have business connections with our songs with our publishing. So I think so at some point.
ILM: You left SAW for various reasons, the Warner Sale and so on, and your book sets the record straight. but to me it seems the main reason was artistic differences, Pete wanting to get in songs to remix from all over the world and to try to appeal to the ‘credible youth’ audience. When you see Pete now, still doing the same thing with PWL, appearing on Pop Idol to Judge, what do you think?
Mike: He didn’t for a number of years. The course he set out on in 1994 when we split up was that horrible grungy stuff, then he broke through with Steps, not as a writer or producer, but they came to him and a song had been written, and it was more like what we used to do anyway. There’d been nothing much else for him.
With Pop Idol I’m glad he’s not doing the new stuff, he’s stayed away and I think he should, because I think it’s now a circus. I think what started out as an attempt to get some middle-of-the-road pop through, which is fair enough, it’s now turned in to a circus. And I don’t think Simon Cowell should do it either.
I mean if you can make a 16 year old cry or get someone so angry or embarrass someone totally because they’re a pillock, then that’s good television, and that’s all that’s going on there, a TV programme. And I think any talented singer with any respect for themselves should not go anywhere near those programmes.
ILM: Simon Fuller and Simon Cowell although rivals appear to be from the Pete Warterman school of music, called Svenaglis of Pop. Will the press always look for someone to term Svengali?
Mike: Yes, it all sounds dark and evil or glamourous. Is it everyone’s dream to change things to suit them, I don’t think we were really Svengali’s. But I would say that Pete and certainly Simon Cowell have a bit of that in them.
Because Simon Cowell is not really a musician or producer in his own right at all, he really is tone deaf, but he knows what he can sell and he knows a hit when he hears it and that’s not a bad thing. He has such a power base though in terms of the media, particularly in TV. It’s all about being able to shout about it the loudest, and how much airplay he can get his artists, and anyone who wants that should go with Simon without a doubt.
But I don’t like the way Michelle McManus has been dumped. I don’t know what happens to these people once they’ve been left behind like that, because it’ll be hard to get a job. They don’t care about the artist. Pop music is this innocence and it’s this mixture of the opposite of innocent that is
Simon Cowell and the manipulation of the industry set in contrast to the very innocent desires of a singer to be loved, which is what it’s all about. It’s almost like luring kids into a candy store, it doesn’t sit well.
ILM: You’re a hugely determined person – how do you stay focused?
Mike: I think the boots on the other foot really. I’m driven. The idea of writing another song always excites me, the idea of making music and getting that tune, it’s something I can’t really stop myself from doing, it’s in me. I normally set myself a deadline, so I play around and tinker everyday to come up with a store of ideas, but otherwise I won’t write a song unless I’ve got to and have a deadline. So if I’m told the artist is coming in to the studio next Wednesday I know I’ve got to focus, get the tune finalized, lyrics written down, backing track recorded, so that’s how I get the focus.
ILM: Can you describe your favourite place on earth?
Mike: I don’t know, but I think it would be a well-watered fairway near Miami.
ILM: What is in your CD player right now?
Mike: It’s a girl I’m considering working with. I listen to music I’m sent all the time. My son’s got me into Billy Joel at the moment, I like his songs.
We chatted to Mike as his autobiographical book, The Hit Factory hit the shops. In the book Mike reveals more about how the music industry began to dislike the success of SAW; how the relationship between Mike and Pete became tense; how Pete sold his record label PWL to Warner Bros, a financial decision which eventually led to the demise of SAW; and how the success of SAW took a toll on Mike's personal life, spending little time with his family along with receiving threats of blackmail and kidnapping. It makes interesting reading.