On an influential music producer (Many Happy Returns)

When it comes to musical tastes, it’s fair to say that beauty is very much in the ear of the beholder. As if any proof were needed, Gary Barlow and Take That’s biggest fans include the Manic Street Preachers’ bassist Nicky Wire, among millions of others. What’s more, the record producer Pete Waterman has said his and his team’s influences when producing music have included classic compositions of composers such as Mozart and Pachelbel.

Pete Waterman, at the Stapleford miniature railway

Pete Waterman himself, who turns 70 today, is perhaps better known these days for his talent-show punditry than for the record production coups of the late 1980s that made his name as well as those of his then colleagues Mike Stock and Matt Aitken. Nonetheless, he has had an enormous impact (arguably both positive and negative) on the British music scene since the 1980s, and one that can’t be ignored whatever you think of the music.

Even before the Stock/Aitken/Waterman partnership was started in 1984 Waterman was helping to make hits: with his previous collaborator Peter Collins he produced Musical Youth’s 1982 international hit “Pass The Dutchie”. The triumvirate were not just the guys who revived the careers of Bananarama and Hazell Dean, launched the careers of Rick Astley, Mel & Kim, and Sonia, and turned Australian soap stars Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan into pop icons. They also worked with established artists such as Cliff Richard and Donna Summer – indeed, legendary DJ Paul Gambaccini has said their finest hour was Donna Summer’s 1989 hit “This Time I Know It’s For Real”.

The team were often accused of producing “assembly-line pop”, and Waterman himself has been unashamedly candid about the necessity of such a method in order to get the hits out and the money in:

I certainly don’t remember any singer that we ever worked with ever taking more than 25 minutes to record a track. Whether it was Donna Summer, whether it was Cliff Richard, whether it was Bananarama, whether it was Sinitta – they had 20 minutes, because literally we wanted a performance, we didn’t want hours – you go in there, you sing this song, you sound fresh, you sound exciting, because that’s what we’re selling.

The SAW “Hit Factory” scored around 40 million record sales across the world, which included 13 British No 1 singles (from 1985’s “Spin Me Round (Like A Record)” by Dead or Alive to 1990’s “Tears on My Pillow” by Kylie), six of which topped the chart in 1989 alone. They were also awarded the Ivor Novello gong for Songwriter of the Year three years running, and the Best British Producer BRIT award in 1988.

Not everyone was a fan of their work: in one poll the Hit Factory was voted the second worst thing about the ’80s (after Margaret Thatcher). The “assembly line pop” jibe was picked up by comedians, and the team and their sound were parodied by, among others, French and Saunders, and Tony Hawks’s spoof band Morris Minor and the Majors in their 1988 hit “This Is The Chorus” (credited in its sleevenotes to Schlock, Aching, and Wateringcan).

By the time the partnership ended in 1993, popular music trends had transformed, as grunge had arrived from the States, club hits were starting to dominate the charts, and the Britpop era was about to begin. Later on in the 1990s the three men behind the Hit Factory would be involved in an acrimonious court case over division of the money they had made. Nonetheless, Waterman’s own PWL label continued, and his clients included the boy/girl dance band Steps. As for Waterman’s own personal public profile, he re-emerged as a talent show judge with 2001’s Pop Idol and Pop Stars – The Rivals the following year. In between his various music coups he had made a name for himself with his hobby of collecting railway locomotives and his associations with Walsall FC and the Coventry Bears rugby league team.

As I said at the beginning, music-wise, beauty is in the ear of the beholder: we’re none of us going to have exactly the same likes and dislikes. The many sounds of Pete Waterman, while not to everyone’s liking, have provided a soundtrack to millions of lives from the ’80s onwards, and not always a negative one. Even if you dislike it, it’s arguable that Pete Waterman’s music helped even those producers who wouldn’t have touched the Hit Factory sound with a barge pole: many of those who would later go on to fuel the rise of Britpop from the mid-90s onwards must have heard it and thought ‘We can do better than that.’

So Many Happy Returns, then, Pete, and thanks for the influence.

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