The marvellous italo-house keyboard break in the middle of “Respectable” gives the game away: Stock Aitken and Waterman were Britain’s premier pop Europhiles. Their late-80s heyday is as near as UK pop has come to European Union – a joyful pan-continental pop sound with Mel, Kim, Rick et al. joining Taffy and Sinitta in vibrant, tinny one-ness.
Everything critical you can say about SAW is of course true. Were they formulaic? None more so. Exploitative? Surely. Lowest common denominator? Yes, and lower still. No hitmakers since have been as brazen about making pop into a cheap, kit-built, product, and their hit-rate wasn’t quite high enough to deflect all the distaste for that approach.
But at the same time they were inevitable and necessary. There was an enormous latent pop market that somebody was going to start catering for. The Hit Factory did so, and what’s more they did so in enjoyably confrontational style. There was a populist, rebellious streak in SAW which imagined their customers as girls who would put on the TV, see a Percy Sledge track or a worthy cover version and think, in Smash Hits terms, “Bo-RING!”. On the video for “Respectable” the set is laughably cheap, the careful, tasteful staging of mid-80s videos thrown out of the window in favour of two sisters enjoying themselves. You don’t need the proto-Spice lyrics to hear this song as a blueprint for a thoroughly achievable kind of fun.
Curing an excess of soul with a dose of soullessness seems like harsh medicine, but “Respectable” is the Hit Factory at close to its best: it hadn’t narrowed its formula down yet – there’s a lot of nice Europop touches in the background, and the “Tay-Tay-TAY-Tay” hook is splendid. Mel and Kim themselves have tons more gusto than many of SAW’s favoured vocalists. The song spins its wheels badly during the verses so I never enjoy it quite as much as I think I do – but this is still very much on the potent side of cheap.