Pete Waterman, aged 65, on success, The Voice, and personal tragedy
My big love when I was 16 was railways. School had been horrible. By the time I was 16 I’d already worked for a railway for a year. I watched the trains go past, posh people sitting at tables with tablecloths; it was a different, romantic world. And I told myself, one day I’ll be on that train going to London.
I joined the church choir at age six and within a few years I worked out that most people didn’t have a clue what to pick for their wedding hymns. So I started offering to pick the hymns and put together the best choristers for them for a fee of 10 and sixpence. After a while we got bikes so we could cover four weddings a day. When rock’n’roll came we learned the guitar and worked as a wedding band. Then after a while, having amassed a fantastic record collection, I started hiring myself out for parties as a DJ.
I was determined from a young age to earn money. I adored my mum, I couldn’t stand seeing her struggle to make a living. She died when she was 52, worn out. I put my first silver record on her wall and she told me to take it down in case the neighbours thought she was posh. I don’t think she thought the music industry was a real job. My dad said: “Let the lad follow his dream.” He always supported me. When he was dying and they put him in the ambulance he told the paramedics: “My son’s Pete Waterman you know.”
If I told my younger self about all the things he was going to do, the thing that would make him pinch himself would be all the honours. My granddad, who I adored, was such a traditionalist. I grew up with pictures of the Queen and Winston Churchill on the wall. We had to stand for the national anthem. If he knew his grandson would have titles and regularly meet royalty and work with governments… incredible.
I always looked at the music business as a lifetime career [Waterman’s acts, including Kylie Minogue, Donna Summer and Rick Astley, have produced 22 UK number ones]. I’ve always moved with the times. It’s not always been about what I liked, but what people are entertained by. I make no apologies for anything I’ve done.
If you’d told any of us who were making Pop Idol back in 2002 that we were about to change the world of television, nobody would have believed it. We had no idea what we were doing. People said it was the most amateur show on TV. Now the whole world is about reality TV. I hated The Voice. It tried to tell people what to like. It insulted the public. People don’t buy voices because they look good, but they don’t buy people they don’t like either. Complete nonsense.
I believe what happens happens for a purpose. I’ve had fantastic times and I’ve had personal tragedy [Waterman’s son died of a brain tumour aged 33]. You say, why me? With me it’s taken six years before I could live with it. You think you’re tough. But no matter how much you think to yourself, I’ll get over this, you never do. So you have to teach yourself, this is life. It’s not all ice cream. It can be sour shit too.
There was a moment I’ll always remember when I thought – oh my God this is pretty special. It was in 1974. I had my first record out, by Susan Cadogan, Hurts So Good. I was going through a field in Coventry one Sunday afternoon behind two girls walking with a ghetto blaster. On came Hurts So Good. And the girls put the radio down and started dancing. As I walked past I said: “That’s my record.” And they said: “Yeah. Right.”
Photo Credit: Ken McKay/Rex Features