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Pete Waterman: ‘Rick Astley walked away with a cheque for £5m, which is pretty good for an apprentice’

Musical I Should Be So Lucky celebrates the 1980s hits that Waterman and his colleagues Mike Stock and Matt Aitken made with Kylie Minogue, Bananarama, Mel & Kim and more

Pete Waterman, ever the most visible member of the hit-factory triumvirate that also included Mike Stock and Matt Aitken, doesn’t simply make entertainment. He is entertainment.

Remember when Kylie Minogue left Jason Donovan and ran off with Michael Hutchence? Waterman has an epic account that ends with a light-bulb moment: “I turned to the others and said, ‘Better the devil you know.’ And Kylie arrives, waylaid by all the press and paparazzi, and we have our backs to her so she can’t see we are still writing the lyrics. It sounds fantastic, but it was a great way to work.”

Name any star, and the producer has a story about them. “I remember Steven Spielberg asking me, ‘Why are the British so obsessed with dirt?’”, says Waterman. “I was watching an episode of Minder on set. He just didn’t understand. It was an anathema to him that there was this gangster – but not a movie gangster, just some spiv around the corner.”

You might say that “around the corner” was part of the Stock Aitken Waterman ethos. In contrast to today’s Instagram-ready, micromanaged pop stars, the trio generally prized ordinariness above all else. “If you’re with us, you ain’t going to turn up in a Rolls-Royce. You are not going to be wearing fabulous suits and dresses,” Waterman says. “It’s cheating the public if you are in it for the money. You’re going to turn up for work and look like the people who buy your records.”


Rick Astley proved that the Stock Aitken Waterman system worked. He was the reluctant singer of a Lancashire duo when Waterman saw him play at a Christmas party at a working men’s club in Warrington, near Liverpool. Astley dutifully served his apprenticeship as a tea boy in the producers’ hit-making factory in London before Never Gonna Give You Up made him a star.

“We put Rick on a Youth Opportunities Programme government training scheme,” Waterman says. “He was on £40 a week. At that time, you signed for five albums over five years, and the artist always came out with less money than they thought. We went 50-50 on everything after costs. He walked away with a cheque for £5 million, which is pretty good for an apprentice. He was a lovely, shy guy, and at the moment when he could have broken America, he said, ‘I can’t do this.’ And we backed off. I wanted to stay friends with him. He had lived in my house for four years when he came to London.”

Waterman is a fascinating fellow. To cover his costs as a budding DJ and record collector, he worked as a gravedigger and for British Railways before being taken on by General Electric, where he became a shop steward. At the moment when I Should Be So Lucky became one of the biggest hits of 1988, the impresario was struggling with illiteracy. He finally taught himself to read and write by scanning record contracts and books about the Motown label.

I love TV, but I don’t like too many TV executives, because they are too clever. They overanalyse their audience

“Music has been important to me my whole life,” he says. “I was from a very religious family, so I was enrolled in the church choir at eight, and I’d go to church three times a week. By nine, I was quite opinionated with the vicar about what hymns we should be singing. But the union taught me to fight for the underdog. I was the representative for 3,000 lady members and two men. And I carried that idea of fairness into music. Every member of staff had to get a bonus.”

Waterman was, perhaps predictably, an early pioneer of talent shows. Between 2001 and 2003, he was a judge on the first two series of Pop Idol. He walked away with the canny observation that there can only ever be one winner from that format: his old friend Simon Cowell.

“I love TV, but I don’t like too many TV executives, because they are too clever,” says Waterman. “They overanalyse their audience. The shows became basically about telling everything – [but] I don’t want to hear that your gran has just died, or that you’ve survived a heroin overdose. Can you sing? No? Sod off. I was never rude. If someone turned up from Walsall dressed as a banana, you could have fun with them. But after Simon went to America, the show lost some of its charm.”

Anyone who experienced adolescence during the late 1980s or early 1990s should prepare for a Proustian rush. I Should Be So Lucky, a jukebox musical based on Stock Aitken Waterman hits, touches down in Dublin next month. The plot concerns a jilted bride who goes on her honeymoon with her chums, pursued by her repentant fiance. And, yes, the show includes Never Gonna Give You Up and Dead or Alive’s You Spin Me Round (Like a Record).

Rick was a lovely, shy guy, and at the moment when he could have broken America, he said, ‘I can’t do this.’ And we backed off

The boppy repertoire features no fewer than eight Kylie tracks (including two duets), two songs apiece from Bananarama and Mel & Kim, and assorted bangers made famous by Sinitta, Donna Summer and Sonia. “I was involved in all the auditions,” says Waterman. “So I changed a few things. The age the actors are, they weren’t around for the originals – you see and hear them interpreting the songs completely differently. It’s a new experience.

“So, for instance, I went to rehearsal, and they’ve slowed down You’ll Never Stop Me Loving You. Well, I had tears rolling down my face. I thought, ’Oh, my God, did we write this song?’ I would have never thought to slow it down, because it wouldn’t have been a hit for us. And you go to the theatre and the audience reacts exactly like you. It’s amazing. And then you see Toy Boy. I would have never in a million years thought the audience would have gone for that the way they do. If you had asked me, I would have said, ‘Leave it out: it wasn’t that big a hit.’ But the crowd loves it.”

For a lot of the 1980s, the UK indie chart was dominated by the likes of The Jesus and Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine and Cocteau Twins. Then the rise of Stock Aitken Waterman and the founding of PWL, Waterman’s independent label, shifted the goalposts. Indie was no longer synonymous with The House of Love. Pop music, conversely, was no longer the preserve of the major labels.

“We had to go to the European courts,” Waterman says. “The very nature of the title, ‘Independent chart’, you can’t decide to miss us out because we’re not making Half Man Half Biscuit records. We’re making Stock Aitken Waterman records. You can’t just decide, ‘Well, yeah, but that’s not really music.’ We were an independent record company, and we were going to show you what real sales look like. That was a difficult tightrope to walk. In the end, of course, they stopped the independent chart. It was the best way to stop us.”

There has been much debate about popular music and the weird gendered dichotomy that characterises rock and hip hop, for example, as “good” or authentic music while dismissining pop as trivial, girly and “bad”. These arguments seem especially relevant looking back at reviews of the records that Stock, Aitken and Waterman – or Schlock, Aimless and Waterdown, as the Guardian called them – made. “I’d rather be able to pay my staff,” says Waterman. “I’d rather feed my children than be the greatest starving artist in the world. It’s not about what’s artistic or not artistic. Can you sing along? Can you dance to it?”

I Should Be So Lucky is at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin, from Tuesday, May 7th, to Saturday, May 11th