Pete Waterman is a lot like John Lydon... to interview at least. Just as with the former Sex Pistol, chatting to the hitmaker-in-chief behind Kylie Minogue, Steps, Bananarama and many, many more is a noticeably combative experience.
That’s not to say the man defined pop throughout the late 80s and 90s is impolite in conversation. More that he’s prone to prone to grand outbursts, “I don’t listen to any music at all, I never have”, which you’ll have to probe away at until you get some specifics, “I particularly like David Guetta at the minute." Despite claiming to have shifted 500 million records worldwide, you could be forgiven for thinking Pete is a little too eager to defend his legacy.
If that is his intention, then the upcoming Hit Factory Live gig set to take place in Hyde Park this 11 July is one hell of a way to go about it. A celebration of the Stock Aitken Waterman partnership that spawned more than 100 UK Top 40 hits, you’ll struggle to find a more nostalgia-friendly lineup on the 2012 festival circuit. If you want to see Rick Astley sing ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ live this summer, you’re simply going to have to buy a ticket.
To get behind the mind of a Pop Idol judge who also managed The Specials and recorded with Judas Priest, we got on the blower with him and even talked a bit about his love of trains. If you thought you knew Pete Waterman from that Spitting Image sketch then think again...
Hi Pete. How’s it going?
Marvelous, thank you.
Good to hear it. What you up to at the moment?
You ain’t got long enough. It’s blummin’ madness at the minute. You name it, it’s going on. Concerts... whatever. Too old for all that.
Well the concert is the big one
It’s one of the big ones. I do other things you know?
I know I’ve been reading all about it. Whose idea was it to put on the concert?
Helen [Dann] and another lad who used to work for me and now works for Live Nation. They talked about it could be years ago and to be honest, it’s always difficult if you’re the person who’s doing it. It’s got a different allure than if you’re doing it yourself. Anyway they talked me into it, I didn’t think anyone would want to do it to be honest. If you do it it’s slightly different isn’t it?
Well, I think we’re too close! You sit there in your bedroom and think to yourself, ‘Does anyone care anymore?’ It’s easy to think about it. Not for me. I move on, I’m doing new things and I’m looking at trying to see what I do really.
Because there never used to be that market for nostalgia gigs, revisiting the pop acts you loved in your youth. It all moved so fast...
I don’t know whether I’d agree with that because working on radio all people wanted to hear was the old ones. It’s whether you personally want to be involved in nostalgia or not. I mean, nostalgia to me is a memory and can we ever recapture those memories? It’s difficult I think.
Why is now the right time for the gig then?
I’m 65 for Christ’s sake and most of the people who are singing on that stage are 40! There’s a point where I think it works and after that there’s a point where you go ‘I’m too old and nostalgia is not worth it.’
So it’s now or never?
Yeah, well I fought it for 10 years but now everybody I bump into in politics is saying, ‘I grew up with your music’. And you think it’s now or never because in another 10 years, they won’t remember. Maybe Steps and that and the later Kylie but not the early Kylie. They certainly won’t remember Mel & Kim and stuff like that.
Have you seen the Steps TV show?
No, I haven’t.
Might give you a clue that I’m not in it [Lets rip a cackling laugh]
But they’re headlining your gig?
Yeah, I didn’t say they couldn’t sell tickets. That’s not a reason for me to watch the TV show.
Were you surprised when their Greatest Hits went to Number 1 after all those years?
No, the opposite. If you want my personal opinion it’s that television got... everybody gets Steps wrong. They’re still more successful than nearly everybody ever in the British music industry. Adele has never done 26 nights at Wembley. Everybody forgets, the problem with Steps is that they’re not a male-orientated group. If you’re in a masculine marketplace, which the record industry certainly is now, the last band you want to be associated with is Steps. We were very much in touch with a female and gay audience and that has been out of favour for some time.
Were Steps targeted towards that audience or did it just fall that way?
Well that’s the way I am. I can’t makes them what I’m not. If I was making hip-hop you’d think it was bloody strange. But my feminine side and my camp side I love it that’s what I do. I’ve done it all my life. I love these people who say I planned it, ‘That’s not how I planned it, it’s just who I am and that’s what I love.’ If you do stuff which you love, people will buy it. If you do stuff you think is going to make you money, it won’t work because people will know you’re not serious. Everybody knows all the records I’ve done from 1970 onwards, I’m passionate about them. You might not like them but I’ll stand by them because that’s what I wanted to create. So if you haven’t got a camp side forget it. If you’ve never went to Butlins as a schoolchild you’re finished.
Where were you when you found out Dead Or Alive’s ‘You Spin Me Right Round’ was Number 1?
I was in the studio. We certainly weren’t working with Dead Or Alive at that point because almost everybody had already given up on them. It took 17 weeks for them to get to Number 1.
But that must have been a great moment for you?
Yeah, it which great because the minute we went to Number 1 our phone stopped ringing. Everybody used to call us until we were Number 1 with Dead Or Alive and then nobody ever called us again. It was a peculiar occasion. We’d struggled for four years to get our sound accepted, we had our first Number 1 and nobody phones us to offer us work. It was just incredible.
Why do you think that was?
When we had every club Number 1 there could be, we were trendy underground record producers that the A&R guys felt comfortable with. The minute we made Number 1, we were almost too obvious. That’s the record industry; never the call the people who can make you a million pounds. Call the people who can lose you a million pounds, there’s a credibility there.
But you still managed to have plenty of hits after that?
But we did all of them on our own. We didn’t go into the record industry because we thought we were going to make millions of pounds. We went into it because nobody would pick our records up. ‘Say I’m Your Number One’ was a classic example - no one wanted it. Kylie Minogue, I couldn’t give her away for £15,000. Nobody would sign Jason. Steps, there’s no question by the time they came to me that every other record company had turned them down.
Steps are still struggling to get a new record contract after selling out the O2 and having a Number 1 album
Yeah it doesn’t surprise me because nobody understands what Steps are about. I think I know who they are.
So why don’t you manage them Pete?
Well, as we started the conversation, I don’t go backwards. I always want to be doing new things and I love Steps, I put everything on the line for that band. The guys who produced the first record wouldn’t even have their names on the record. I went to the O2 and I thought they were fantastic but to me the reason they do well is because they’ve got great songs and they’re great showmen. It probably works now as well as it did then because there’s nothing like it really.
Moving on to Kylie, she was someone you had 13 hit singles with between '88 and '91. A lot of other acts you worked with never had that longevity
Well to be honest we didn’t have that many signed for that long, I think Kylie was the only one we had signed for three years. In those days, because I got bored very quickly, I’d sign things for one album. In fact, I signed quite a few acts for one single. No one had ever done that before but I didn’t want the hassle. I just wanted a hit and to then move on.
That’s quite cut-throat
Is it? Well that’s what we wanted to do, the problem is you give someone a hit, they make it to Number 1 and their IQ goes up 400 percent. I don’t want to work with people who tell me what to do, I want to work with people who want to work with us to get Number 1s. Not sit down when they’re Number 1 and tell you how they did it. I haven’t got time for that.
Why is Kylie not on the Hits Factory bill? She’s the elephant in the room
We’re not telling anybody who’s on the final bill.
So reading between the lines, she’s going to make an appearance?
I’m saying nothing. When we’ve done these concerts in the past, back when we had the hitman roadshow, there was always a surprise and the kids felt that surprise was fantastic. You were going to get your value for money but you always knew there was something on there that you didn’t expect. When we used to run our concerts before, we put 10 acts on, you got a free beef burger and a free diet coke when you walked in and there was always a surprise at the end of the show. That was usually Kylie or it could have been Jason. I think they appreciated that.
You’ve been criticised for the credibility of the songs you produced but you also managed The Specials
I’ve done lots of things. I’ve got a very catholic taste. People who criticise you do nothing. We in Britain are brilliant at criticising but every now again you’ve got to get off your fat arse and do it. I always said to journalists at that point, ‘Okay chaps, I’ve got a studio here. You pay me £30,000 come in, you can do whatever you want in my studio, let’s see you put your money where your mouth is.’
How did you get around to managing The Specials?
Lynval [Golding] and Neville [Staple] used to work for me when I was a DJ at the Locarno. They were my coasters from back when I had a record store in Coventry and they used to hang out there. I just happened to be around when they first started and that’s how I managed them. I recorded ‘Jaywalking’, ‘Too Much Too Young’ and two others but by that time I’d moved on because I literally could not get them arrested.
I pulled every favour I could pull in the record industry and everyone told me I was a complete idiot. It was just punk reggae and punk reggae wouldn’t sell. That’s just a lesson I learnt. You learn these lessons and I learnt, ‘I knew The Specials would be massive. I’m not listening to any of these people, I’ll do this myself.’
I missed out on The Specials because I got talked out of them. I didn’t drop them, I just moved on. I gave them the tapes and said, ‘Guys you’ve gotta get on because there’s nothing I can do for you.’ You can either hang on and it doesn’t work or you can let them go to people who make it happen. For me, it was more important for them to go to make it happen to prove I was right than to take the money. Double whammy because it gave me the spur to do it myself.
You also worked with Judas Priest but those tracks have never been released?
In hindsight, they’re probably the best tracks we ever did but quite rightly their manager [refused them]. We’d have given them Number 1 records and if you’d given Judas Priest Number 1 records they couldn’t have coped with that. It would have just killed their career. You couldn’t have seen that at the stage we were at but in hindsight you go, ‘yeah, I agree with that.’ I occasionally dig the record out and play it to people and they’re amazed that we made heavy metal.
Matt, Mike and I were musicians and fans of music and if you love music, you don’t just love one sort you love all sorts. I bought heavy metal records and Matt played heavy metal records all the time. It wasn’t that we didn’t love heavy metal, it’s just I didn’t see many heavy metal bands ringing up SAW.
What’s your favourite heavy metal record?
‘Smoke On The Water’ but I worked with Robert Plant many times as a DJ when he had his Band Of Joy and I introduced Led Zeppelin eighteen bloody times I think. I love a bit of Led Zeppelin me.
Who would you have liked to work with?
Johnny Mathis - great, great voice. We met him and we got close but then the record company just wouldn’t wear it.
You also worked with Donna Summer?
We did, I knew her very well. We were great friends. I met Donna for the first time in '74 in Munich when she was... The first record, I ever picked up for the music industry was Silver Convention’s, that was at a music lounge in Munich with a lot of session people and Donna was one of the session girls.
[Later,] Rick Astley was Number 1 in America and I met Donna and her husband Bruce at The Pool in LA and Donna asked me to produce an album with her and we stayed friends from that day onwards. I’d just written to her to be on the concert in July, in fact we’d just licensed some stuff off with Donna for the Greatest Hits. That was only two weeks ago.
How did you find out she had passed away?
I got a call from the BBC last Thursday afternoon, bizarre but that is typical of Donna. Very private, never told you anything, kept themselves to themselves. The family were very religious, so it wasn’t a mourning for them, this was a celebration. There weren’t any big secrets as most of us have when we were ill. It was private and then we move on.
How does your approach to hitmaking differ to the X Factor and The Voice?
I like music. I don’t like television. I like to listen. They like to watch.
But you were a judge in Pop Idol?
That was about music, after that they changed it. That’s why I’m no longer on it.
How did they change it?
Well... just watch the first series, second series and then see what television does to it. People saying their grandma saved up to get them a train fare because they just died. Nonsense, utter nonsense.
Personality is important in pop music though
No it isn’t. It has always been about songs and that’s why television get it all wrong. The whole principle of The Voice was nonsense before it even started, they already proved that didn’t work with the second series of Pop Idol when Michelle McManus won it. Exactly what I said, the public do care what they look like so it’s nonsense.
Have you watched The Voice?
No, I saw it in America two years ago and realised what nonsense it was. Just another way of trying to take the bread out of Simon Cowell’s mouth. He does it so much better. It’s just the same old formula with someone trying to get it for themselves. Can’t believe the BBC even believed it to be honest.
Well, they wanted a slice of the pie
But they haven’t got it have they? They spent a lot of money and they ain’t got it. Should have come and paid me £26 million, I’d have told them what to do with the £26 million.
What would you have said then?
Keep it in their pocket.
Do you agree with Mike Stock when he says pop music is too sexual at the moment?
I’ve not seen these quotes, I don’t know what Mike is up to but Mike has his own opinions and he sees popular music different from me and that’s what’s great about us. We didn’t always agree and we fought for our ground. I’ve got no opinion, pop music has always been a little bit sexy.
So are you still in touch with Mike?
I speak to Mike quite regularly but we don’t discuss music. They’re his views. That’s why he’s doing what he’s doing and I’m doing what I’m doing. I have a stronger view that we're showing videos with guys beating on women and women being scantily clad and beaten up by men. Sex? Sex don’t worry me.
But violence does
Violence and showing women in a wrong light, that worries me. I think that, given the Rochdale case where women were groomed for sex, that whole male thing has to be looked into. Hip-hop culture where they treat women in a degrading light definitely has to be looked into.
Do you have anyone in mind when you say that?
Well, you only have to look at the videos, they show women as objects.
So what about Eminem’s video with Rihanna for ‘Love The Way You Lie’?
Well, I just think you have to be very careful when young people are watching those videos. I was very strong when I was at the BPI about swearing in hip-hop records because I think when you bring them down to that level you’ve got to be very careful.
Because all your records were famously squeaky clean
Well, that was just my view, I don’t impose my view on anybody else. All I’m saying is that we have to be very careful when we just break every rule in the book and everybody thinks you can do anything. Snuff movies is not my scene.
So what do you listen to at the moment?
Me? I don’t listen to anybody, I ain’t got time, I really don’t have time. I hear a little bit of pop coming out my son’s bedroom in the morning. The girls play me different things but you know it just washes over me.
So you don’t listen to any music?
I don’t listen to any music at all, I never have. If you’re a painter, you can’t look at too many painters or you can’t paint. I hear music all the time, I particularly like David Guetta at the minute and in the studio here I’ve got Chase & Status, Sub Focus, all those guys. I hear it every day but I don’t sit in the studio and listen to what they’re playing me. They don’t come in and say, ‘Listen to this Pete.’
I read that you only made £11 from the whole Rick Rolling thing because that was also huge?
Yes, well that’s the whole problem with the internet and the way it works. It’s great when you get four million hits but it ain’t so good when you check your royalty check and it’s £12.50 or whatever it was. That’s great for the telephone providers and to the guys who own the IP addresses but to the creators it’s nothing. It’s not just me, everybody’s talking about it. If you’re writing this story and not getting paid for writing this story how much longer can you afford to do it?
To end on a more light-hearted topic, I know you’re into trains
All my life!
Tell the Drowned In Sound readers an interesting train fact
I now earn my living fixing old boilers. As opposed to entertaining old boilers, I now fix them!
The Hit Factory Live concert is set to take place on 11 July at Hyde Park