Interview: Pete Waterman, the man behind the Kylie Minogue, Steps, Bananarama hits

From Drowned In Sound:

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?

Why’s that?

Well, I think we’re too close! You sit there in your bedroom and think 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.

Why’s that?

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.

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