Ed Sheeran? I just don't get it says pop hit maker Pete Waterman
Producer and railway buff Pete Waterman has been the force behind some of the biggest hits in pop. He tells Sarah Marshall about his career and why he's never really made a bad record – just some records that people didn't buy
KYLIE Minogue, Bananarama, Rick Astley and Steps have more in common than just being chart-topping stars. They all have Pete Waterman to thank for helping propel them to fame.
The former Pop Idol judge, who has a passion for railways, is synonymous with some of the biggest acts in the music world. He is known for being one third of the famous writing trio Stock, Aitken and Waterman and also established a successful record label, PWL.
We meet in south-east London at his plush office to talk about a special three-disc The Hit Factory CD, which is being released to celebrate 30 years of Astley's hit Never Gonna Give You Up and Minogue's I Should Be So Lucky.
"A lot of people that collect our stuff still collect CDs," Waterman says matter-of-factly. "There is still a market for CDs, particularly amongst the older audience. I mean, I guess I do both. I don't stream – I don't like streaming – I like physically owning it."
There are 50 tracks on the album; surely he has one or two that stand out as favourites?
"If I had a favourite on there then I would have failed doing my job," he says. "They're all my favourites. But seriously, if you could pick one record you'd made that was your favourite, then you failed. Because if they weren't all your favourites, why did you make them?
"Did I make any bad records? Yeah, of course I made bad records, but I didn't think they were bad. I stand by them to this day, the public thought they weren't great because they didn't buy them, but that's part of the game".
And it's a game Waterman (70) has mastered, although it wasn't without hard work.
Today Minogue is a global star but, when she first signed with Waterman, he says it was a struggle to drum up interest in her.
"You see her as a great now, but we never got plays on Kylie. No-one would play Kylie records. In fact it worked to our advantage. Radio never played Kylie until she was in the top 10. And then we got three times as much plays as if we were in the top 10."
Ask Waterman about Steps, formed in 1997, and their revival this year alongside other big acts like Bananarama, and he offers some interesting anecdotes.
"Steps were huge; the media didn't realise how big Steps were, only the public realised how big Steps were. They never, ever achieved what I believe they could have."
Waterman says the popular pop five-piece – Claire Richards, Lee Latchford-Evans, Lisa Scott-Lee, Faye Tozer and Ian 'H' Watkins – broke up too quickly. The group first disbanded in 2001, and reunited a few times in the following years, but it was their 2017 reunion and release of a fifth album that really delighted fans.
The music mogul, who now also presents shows on two local BBC radio stations, says their initial split was a "premature end".
"We were about to start another album at that point. But that really left the story unfinished and that's what I guess people still buy into. Steps didn't go out on a down, they went out still at the top."
This leads to a discussion about the current state of the music industry, radio and record labels.
"Well, this is interesting. Radio doesn't play Steps. And this is why Steps probably endured longer, because they are still the hidden diamond. The public bought – they're the most successful group of that time – in record numbers. They were phenomenal. They made me more money than Kylie did."
A mental double-take and a repeat of his last statement is met with Waterman's matter-of-fact: "Oh, without question. And you look back, we never discounted a Steps record, ever. [I know because] I still work in radio, you won't find Steps on anyone's playlist."
Why is that?
Waterman doesn't hold back.
"Because they're snobbish, because it's still male-dominated. They still don't get what that was all about. The record companies still don't get Steps. They're male-dominated, they don't get that every young girl wanted to be one of Steps. Because they're men, they all want to be in a heavy rock band like Kiss. And that's our industry, it's still like that."
But that doesn't mean there isn't good music being produced and Waterman has a few names he rates in the current climate: Dua Lipa, JP Cooper and Pink.
"I mean, Pink's record on the radio sounds like every record I wish I'd ever made," he says.
Mention Ed Sheeran though and it's not the reaction you'd expect.
He says: "Ed Sheeran, don't like him. I don't get him. I just don't get Ed Sheeran. My daughter loves him, I don't get it. Too derivative for me."
Sheeran is Marmite, I muse to Waterman – you either love him or you don't.
"Yeah, I think he's clever, but he uses too many other people's bits and pieces for me. Doesn't disguise it enough," he says.
Waterman became even more of a household name as part of the judging panel on Pop Idol alongside Simon Cowell, whom he has mentored throughout his career, but walked away after the second series.
Would he ever return to a reality TV show like Pop Idol?
"Only if Simon asked me. And the reason for that is, to me, Pop Idol – no disrespect and I mean this sincerely to Nicky [Chapman] or to Foxy [Neil Fox] – Pop Idol was Simon and I.
"I mean, it started when Simon and I went to a meeting for Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, and the guy who owned Millionaire thought we were a married couple. He said 'You're the best married couple I've ever met, because he said 'You argue about everything, and you're funny with it'.
"And if you look back at Pop Idol, that's what it was, it was me and Simon really arguing with each other and being funny."
:: The Hit Factory Ultimate Collection is out now.