Interview: Pete Waterman

Music industry legend PETE WATERMAN talks to KATIE FORSTER about Steps, drugs and the importance of a good song.

katie forster Kylie Music Pete Waterman Rick Astley Steps

I’m very commercial’ confesses Pete Waterman, the man responsible for such cheesy 80s classics as Rick Astley’s Never Gonna Give You Up and Kylie’s I Should Be So Lucky – not to mention the entire back catalogue of Steps (and a host of awkward year 6 disco memories). So why has he come to Cambridge to argue, in a Union debate, that the music industry is ‘more industry than music’?

‘It’s a very lucrative industry, but it only works if there’s music. Young managers don’t talk about music any more; they talk about anything but. I just don’t understand that. I’ve got a mobile phone that can download an app, but what’s that got to do with the bloody song? I’m a strong believer that once we get over the celebrity factor, we’ll start to realise again that people will buy what they like, not what an industry wants to give them’.

It really seems like there is No Limit to Waterman’s knowledge of the music industry. He holds 22 number one hits to his name, both on his own and as part of the famous writing trio Stock Aitken Waterman. What have his numerous years of experience taught him? ‘I’ve spent over 50 years doing this – I’m nearly as old as the bloody chart! Music does go in circles. I’ve been around long enough to remember people saying “the music industry’s dead” at least five times’.

Not even the threat of illegal downloads fazes him. ‘There’s no such thing as free music. The internet is a con. It’s an absolute con. Everybody uses the words “free music” but you pay your provider to provide the internet.’

Modern pop is peppered with nods to retro styles and throwbacks to eras gone by. But Pete is insistent that music should look forwards, not backwards. ‘Memories are great, but they do fade. You guys are too young to remember some of the records I played on the radio. It’s up to you to create the next batch of memories – something that’s relevant to you, not what’s relevant to your grandfather or your great grandfather.’

‘The most important thing for me has always been goosebumps’ he tells us when asked the ingredients of a hit song. But does he see a link between pop success and musical formulas that are more often found in classical music? ‘Absolutely! I’ve always believed that the modulation of a song is absolutely crucial. I was a choirboy from the age of five. Church music works. You see the emotion.

When I first met Mike Stock and Matt Aitken in 1985, three people came together who were passionate about different sorts of music. Mike had also been a choirboy and was also a clever musician, so he was able to articulate what I was talking about. He would go, “sing that again, that’s interesting, you’re singing a flattened fifth”. But I was a DJ by then, so I had a vast knowledge of which songs made people dance at parties.’

If you compare Steps to, say, The Saturdays, they seem more airbrushed and slicker. Is there more pressure on bands these days to be perfect? ‘The Saturdays were approached in a completely different way to how I approached Steps. I never said “I want 3 girls and 2 boys and they have to be models” – I don’t do that. I just heard a little gimmick record, 5,6,7,8. It was funny, but it was fun. I didn’t think “right, they’ve got to look like this”, I just thought “this is a good record”‘.

The gold necklace around Pete’s neck glints as a small reminder that he is worth £30 million. ‘Never in my life have I ever thought of the monetary value of what I’ve done. I don’t care if people don’t like my records. That’s irrelevant to me. I do it from the fact that it’s my judgement, that somebody else might back my judgement.’

Yet the pressure from the industry to make money might affect young stars, who end up messed up (or vomiting on stage in the case of Justin Beiber). ‘I think that the sad thing about the music industry is drugs. We were, by our own admission, clean. We never allowed even alcohol in the studio. If artists wanted to do heroin, we were like, “do what you like, but don’t kill yourself in my presence, because I’m not going to condone this”. I don’t buy the “tortured artist” argument. There is a problem with the people around that artist not giving them support.

‘I think it is incredibly difficult as a manager when you’re earning £400,000 a year from an artist, which certainly was true in the case of Amy Winehouse, to say, “you know what Amy, you do that again and you’re out of here”. But if an artist is going to put themselves in a position where they can’t survive, then as a human being I don’t want to be with that artist, no matter how brilliant they are. I’d offer them the most help I could.’

Does he feel lucky himself? ‘I’m lucky, lucky, lucky! And that’s not a joke. Throughout my musical career, as one door closed, another one opened – Rick Astley walked out one door, Kylie Minogue walked in another.  And I spotted that. That’s luck. You make your own luck I guess, but the only difference between a number one and a number two is luck, because you just put your record out at the wrong time and its number two. And I’ve had too many number twos to tell you that!’

And with that he’s out the door and into the Union debating chamber. Nothing’s gonna stop him now…