Perhaps you know him best these days for the countless TV appearances as presenter, judge or pundit, from his shows on regional radio in the Midlands, or – going back a bit further – as a club DJ.
Alternatively, you maybe more aware of his hands-on involvement with Britain’s rail industry, building from scratch successful train businesses, creating hundreds of jobs, salvaging and preserving steam locomotives and championing model railways en route.
But Pete Waterman’s place in the history of popular cultural was cemented in the mid to late ‘80s and early ‘90s as the catalyst of a music production and songwriting partnership that scored more than 100 UK top-40 hits.
Stock Aitken Waterman sold a staggering 40 million records and earned an estimated £60 million, working with a who’s who of pop over that period, from Rick Astley and Kylie Minogue to Donna Summer and Steps. And at the heart of the trio’s PWL label, Pete was clearly the prime mover, his many accolades along the way including 13 Ivor Novellos, despite having left school unable to read or write.
What’s more, Pete remains as passionate about music today as he was working as a DJ for the Mecca organisation in his youth. So whatever you do, don’t mention retirement to this 70-year-old pop impresario, as I did early on when I tracked him down to his London office. In fact, I started by mentioning another septuagenarian I’d just spoken to for these pages, legendary Mott the Hoople front-man Ian Hunter, 78 years young and still touring and writing acclaimed material.
“Oh, and I remember seeing his band when I was a young lad!”
So now Pete’s hit 70, has he any ambition to retire?
“Not at all! Then again, I don’t perform like Ian does. If he’s still out there playing, that’s fantastic! Those guys were brilliant, coming in that post-Beatles pre-Bowie era, lucky to catch that brief time period, I guess.
“I loved Bowie. I was a soul boy, particularly Northern Soul and Motown, but working for Mecca I had to play stuff I wouldn’t have gone out and purchased … even Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep! And just after that period we’re talking about, seeing Bowie break through, the rock scene improved dramatically, through Mott the Hoople and bands like that. A really interesting time.”
So when was the last time Pete DJ’d?
“I still work for BBC Radio Coventry and Warwickshire (and WM), every Saturday. And the great thing is that it’s about music rather than entertaining people dancing. The last time I DJ’d to people to dance to has to be 25 years ago … maybe for the last edition of The Hit Man and Her. And that’s gone on to be legendary really.”
Us of a certain age remember that well, late night TV after a night out, if you weren’t out clubbing yourself, with Pete joined by Michaela Strachan in a Granada show that ran from September 1988 to December 1992. And in the region I later settled, it seemed that a fair few people knew some of the more prominent dancers that popped up on screen most weekends. Take That’s Jason Orange was one, as were a couple of members of 911.
While he was talking to me from the heart of the capital, Pete remains part-based in the North West, not far from Mr Smith’s, the club from which his hit show was first broadcast.
“I tend to live in Warrington from Friday to Sunday and here Monday to Thursday. And I love that … well, I love the train journey, don’t I!”
The capital’s received a few hard knocks of late, not least from the Westminster and London Bridge terrorist attacks. But it seems that Pete’s not ready to move out yet.
“We have an advantage in our old age sometimes, having been born at a time when people were dropping bombs on us every night out of the sky. Then I grew up in a period as a DJ when we were constantly clearing clubs and ballrooms because of IRA violence. Throughout my career, I took the security aspect as absolutely essential, as I had to. We were trained to do that at Mecca, working in public places, so to me there’s always been a real threat. It’s something I’ve had to live with, and you have to get on with life.”
Pete’s heading back to the North West for the Hit Factory Live Show on Saturday, August 26th though, part of the Livewire Festival at Blackpool’s Headland Arena over the August bank holiday. He’ll be appearing alongside and introducing several ‘80s and ‘90s superstars from his stable, not least Jason Donovan, Pepsi and Shirlie, Go West, Samantha Fox and Sinitta, plus Nathan Moore (Brother Beyond) and Undercover. Is there still strong competition among his acts?
“There was never competition for us. We didn’t allow that. You were there to enjoy yourself. If there was, you were in the wrong business. If you’re not enjoying it, don’t do it. We always said it could last five minutes, five weeks, or five years, so enjoy every moment. If you don’t, you’ll regret it.
“The great thing is we look back over 30 years or so and we’re still all friends. I went to a friend’s funeral yesterday, and you go back and think, ‘We’ve had a charmed life, we did what we wanted to do and have such fantastic memories’.
“We were in Blackpool regularly, including with The Hit Man and Her every six weeks or so. You look back and it’s magical. I’m very privileged to have been able to look back at so many great events. It was amazing, I got paid for it … and I kept my clothes on!”
There’s clearly a strong 80s’ retro market out there too, with Bananarama the latest PWL-associated act reforming.
“It’s incredible. I remember when journalists told me it wouldn’t happen, and I always said, ‘You’re wrong’. You can’t sell a million records in a couple of weeks if people ain’t keen on your record. You might sell 20,000 or 30,000, but not millions. And that’s what was happening.”
Pete left school at 15 in 1962 to work for British Railways, becoming a steam locomotive fireman based in Wolverhampton until his Stafford Road depot closed in 1963, choosing music instead, inspired by The Beatles.
That gives me the excuse to talk trains, telling Pete my Dad was a steam loco fireman from 1953 to 1961.
“Wow! Amazing. What a great career that was.”
I add that he reluctantly left British Railways to become a postman, hoping to support his growing family better.
“Yeah, probably better paid.”
So how about Pete – would he have changed his own career path, given the chance, and carried on where he started?
“No. I started on the railway at Wolverhampton, but I have to say I wouldn’t have done all I’ve done if I still worked for BR. I might have had a great time and enjoyed it, but … I love my railways and I’ve been able to buy trains to play with, but music pays the bills and trains are for enjoying myself.”
It was the same with my Dad. Getting out of that industry when he did, he at least retained his love of railways, never losing that passion. And that’s clearly the case for Pete too.
“Yeah, people tend to forget how dirty and how hard it was, and what unsocial hours and poor pay it offered. I remind people when they talk about taking the railway back that I worked on it and we were there. Drivers now get £60 or £70,00 a year. We don’t want to go back to where they were on £20 a week, working at four in the morning for four nights or four days sometimes, for less than £20. We don’t want to go backwards.”
He’s said to be worth around £30 million these days, according to the Sunday Times Rich List, and has been involved in several railway ventures. For instance, in 1988 he revived the name of the London and North Western Railway (LNWR), involving a rail vehicle maintenance business based at Crewe, with depots across the country, by the time of its sale the largest privately owned rail maintenance business in the country.
That was sold in 2008 to Arriva UK Trains, but there’s also the Waterman Railway Heritage Trust, which owns several steam and diesel locomotives. and then there’s his interest in model railways, his Just Like the Real Thing initiative specialising in O-gauge kits, having spoken about how his ability to become absorbed in making models helped him cope with the death of his eldest son. And as an avid collector his frustration at a lack of high-quality model railway kits on the market saw establish his own company, now widely regarded as a world leader and creating and sustaining jobs at the factory where the kits are made in Scotland.
Furthermore, in 2007 he became involved in a co-operative UK rail industry bid to create a national railway training scheme under the Labour government, halted in 2009. So, while I’ve got him on the subject, I ask – as a leading employer and innovator in the rail industry – what he makes of plans for a return to nationalisation of the railways. Something needs to be done, doesn’t it?
“Yeah, but once we renationalise the industry it becomes fat, lazy, and we go backwards. We need to rebalance, but you have to understand that every Government since 1948 except the last Tory one, under Patrick McLoughlin, has failed to put the money in. And five years of that has not made up for 55 years of under-investment. Yes, we’ve spent billions, but we needed to spend trillions, because our railway system is so far behind.
“If we spent £20 billion a year for 50 years that would only get us to where European railways are today. And we haven’t the money to do that. In a Utopian world, we’d like to have a state railway, but there’s no money to invest, because you have to have money from outside. It’s the only way. No party will do that over the NHS. If you have to argue railways versus health service, you lose every single time … and so you should.”
Having left the locomotive cab in the early ’60s, he started to build an impressive record collection, not least through acquiring rare US imports, his subsequent DJ-ing taking him across the UK, entertaining bigger crowds with a blend of classic R’n’B and soul. At one point, he was supplementing his income by work as a gravedigger then as a General Electric Company apprentice, becoming a trade union official.
Gaining a residency with Mecca, initiatives such as matinee discos for under-18s in Coventry gave him valuable insight into what music interested young audiences. And it was at Coventry Locarno that he met long-time friend Neville Staple, later co-vocalist for The Specials, a band he went on to briefly manage, even going on to write the foreword to Staple’s biography, Original Rude Boy, in 2009. Did Pete recognise the themes of urban decay, unemployment and violence in the inner cities The Specials sang about in their evocative 1981 No.1 hit, Ghost Town?
“Oh, there’s no question. Absolutely perfect. Jerry (Dammers) for me was the best songwriter in that period and for all the youngsters who want to know what the ’70s were really like, go and listen to Jerry’s records. He summed that period up perfectly.”
In an early A&R role for the Philadelphia scene, Pete introduced the Three Degrees to the UK, a later move to Jamaica then seeing him work with Peter Tosh and Lee Perry, and produce Susan Cadogan crossover hit Hurts So Good. By 1979, he’d set up Loose Ends with Peter Collins, hits with artists like Musical Youth and Nick Kershaw following, setting up the PWL (Pete Waterman Limited) label in 1984.
Soon, he signed producers Matt Aitken and Mike Stock, Hazell Dean’s Whatever I Do the first of many successes, with 22 UK No.1s following, including those with Dead or Alive, Kylie Minogue, Bananarama, Steps, Mel and Kim, Donna Summer, Sinitta, Cliff Richard and Jason Donovan. But throughout his varied career, it seems Pete’s never sought to rely on one project. Is that a secret of his success?
“I just love working. If you sit and wait for it to come to you, it’ll never happen.”
Even as an enterprising young boy, he cycled between churches earning a few shillings singing in their choirs. Was his sense of business acumen better than his voice?
“Without question! And my enthusiasm outstripped both.”
His success in the music industry was recognised through honorary doctorates from Coventry University (2001) and the University of Liverpool (2004), and an OBE in the 2005 New Year’s Honours List. What’s more, he remains on board with local enterprise and training initiatives as well as his rail ventures, this thrice-married father-of-four also having seen four books published, including I Wish I Was Me: The Autobiography. And all that despite dealing with dyslexia, the music industry’s ‘Man of the Year’ in 1990 not learning to read and write until in his 40s. Did his dyslexia help fire him up in a bid to succeed? Or did it put barriers in his way from day one?
“It helped. I didn’t know what failure was. When you can’t read, how bad’s a review? You just got on with it. I never lied to anyone though. I would tell people I couldn’t read or write.”
Do you think things are easier for today’s generation in a similar position, now it’s better recognised?
“I think it’s impossible for today’s generation. I learned to spell through the internet, and wouldn’t recommend any kid to go to school and not learn to read and write. Quite the opposite – try twice as hard!”
It would be easy for this punk and new wave fan to write a former Pop Idol judge off as just another symbol of the established music industry, the ‘hit factory’ Pete created arguably a key influence on the current dearth of TV music talent shows. For that alone some of us may feel we should disown his pop legacy. But that’s not fair, is it?
“No, we set up to be independent. The Specials went their own way and I went mine. I had a mortgage I had to pay, salaries to find, so chose a way I could remain independent. And we were never, ever part of the music industry in that respect.”
He wasn’t really given kudos for that spirit though, despite PWL propping up that indie charts for many years.
“No, but look at the events of the General Election. Five months before everyone said Jeremy Corbyn was a waste of time. Similarly, everyone said of Stock Aitken and Waterman, ‘Forget it’, yet we went on to dominate the world! The public make up their own mind.”
“Erm … last year.”
And how’s the relationship between you these days?
“We’re fine. I guess when you work that intensely for a while it comes to a positive end. I think it does.”
Was there a specific moment in your life when you saw a performer and knew what you wanted to do next?
“Yeah, with David Bowie, when I went to see the Serious Moonlight tour. I’d had hits before but that made me realise I knew what I wanted, and no compromise – if I fail, I fail, but this is what I want to do.”
He retains a love of pop all these years on. What was the last great acts he saw who he felt were on their way to deserved success?
“Over the last six months there have been some really good acts, like Clean Bandit, 21 Pilots – I love Stressed Out – and Bastille. Coldplay at the moment are on fire! They’re amazing.”
Anyone you’d still love to work with, who somehow slipped the net?
“There are a couple of young kids I’d love to meet. Jonas Blue is very talented. Dua Lipa too. I love her. That’s my sort of stuff. I guess I see what I did and what they’re doing 20 or 30 years on and see all the traits and excitement, and that’s fantastic.”
What would your advice be to the next generation of emerging artists?
“Stick to what you do. Don’t get carried away. Coldplay are a great example. They pop up all over but never let the quality drop. Chris Martin is exceptionally talented, putting himself with all sorts of people from different situations but still coming out a winner. That’s talent.”
And of what song attributable to yourself are you most proud?
“Oh, it’s Rick Astley’s Never Gonna Give You Up. It’s over something like 100 million hits on YouTube … or billions … God knows what it is these days! But it’s about so much more. The point is, that was a moment in time.”
Yep. I’ve since gone back and checked, and it’s 332 million internet hits now for that particular track … and counting. There’s no arguing with that. Respect due.
For the full line-up, tickets and more information about the Livewire Festival this August bank holiday at Blackpool’s Headland Arena, call the box office on 0871 220 0260, visit the official website or go to http://www.seetickets.com.