Interview: Pete Waterman
We grill the 80's hitmaker on the business of pop music, Pop Idol and why he's never gonna give up on the industry.
by Ella Griffiths, Dominic Kelly
Thursday 11th October 2012, 23:16 BST
The Beatles have 17 number one singles to their name. Pete Waterman has 22. Claiming more than half a billion worldwide sales to his name, Waterman has been an integral figure in the history of the British pop industry - and to top it all of, he's been invited to speak at the Cambridge Union.
Waterman was one third of Stock Aitken Waterman, one of the most successful songwriting teams in history; the trio revitalised the Motown sound in the 1980’s and crossed it with contemporary European influences to create their signature sound. The more jaded among us might roll our eyes at the likes of ‘Venus’, ‘I Should Be So Lucky’ or ‘You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)’, but in reality, these are slices of the stickiest bubblegum pop ever swallowed and have remained in the musical system ever since.
Since the age of five, music has been an integral part of Waterman's diet, and it is to this fervour that he attributes his phenomenal success, "I'm passionate about music; I am the living proof that when big business closes the door on the little guy, if you have passion for something, you can actually walk through walls. Music has been an incredible aid to wealth but also an aid to parts of your life when things don't go well; there are horrendous moments in your life when you have to get through it, and music can do that."
Waterman's most successful period was undoubtedly the mid to late 80’s, when his songwriting factory would pipe out multiple number one hits every year. "But the ironic thing was that we got more work when he didn't have hits than we had our first number one. The moment we did, the telephone stopped ringing. Everybody wants you to be trendy and underground… then suddenly no one wants to know you because it's no longer trendy; you're now a cash cow and nobody wants to be seen to be milking it."
Donna Summer, Kylie Minogue, Steps and Bananarama are just a few of the names that stormed the charts under Waterman's gaze and brought him his fortune. The relationship between business and music has always been an interesting one for the music producer: "I've never allowed my passion for music to get in the way of having to earn a living. I always remember being a kid at school and hearing about Mozart. People thought he was a boy genius and they'd pay him in gold watches because they thought it was wrong to pay him in money. I've always been "Don't pay me in gold watches, pay me in cash.” But it was clear to Waterman that the money followed the hits, and not the other way round: a good tune always came first.
Waterman’s success largely grew from being more forward-thinking than his contemporaries. In many ways, his approach towards the industry has laid the blueprint for the modern popstar. He attributes part of his success to his openness towards technology when producing music. “You've got to use technology, not let technology use you… I've never been frightened of the electronic revolution; in fact, I would go further than any of the record industry would go. Because if I sold a million Kylie records or a million Rick Astley records [in the 80’s], if you could buy it on your phone I would have sold ten million!”
Waterman is probably best known to this generation alongside Simon Cowell as one of the judges on Pop Idol, the progenitor of The X Factor, The Voice and every modern day, public-vote decided reality TV format. What stands out most about his experiences on the programme? “I think that everybody has to remember that we had done probably 12 weeks recording before one episode even went out. So we were absolutely working in the dark and hadn't got a clue of whether anybody was going to like this show.”
By the second and final series of Pop Idol, Waterman became disillusioned and frustrated with the programme, which he would later send-up to brilliant effect on Peter Kay’s Britain’s Got The Pop Factor. For him, the original series preserved a humorous aspect that subsequent versions of the format have lost. “We started at 8.30 in the morning and for the first few nights we finished at 4 the following morning with a one hour lunch break and we were literally bored stiff. So we were playing games with each other because we had to be attentive all the time… What we had suddenly given them, without thinking, was this huge, huge volume of funny footage.”
Looking back over his career, perhaps from the driver carriage of one of his trains that he owns as part of his railway enthusiast hobby, 'Love in the First Degree' by Bananarama stands out as his proudest moment. “I’ll always remember when Berry Gordy, who was the head of Motown, was on Radio 1 and said: "I listened to a song called ‘Love in the First Degree’ by a guy called Pete Waterman- he's the only guy that I would have put one of his records out" - and that's good enough for me.”