PETE WATERMAN – THE GENIUS
Last night I was sitting out there on the ledge to way past one o’clock getting my 1981 text done. That whole black thing – I had no idea it was coming. Only after I started to try and recall each street I walked between The Paradise Garage and the Gramercy Park Hotel did I remember how it was on that walk that my whole theory on the difference between black and white attitudes to making music started to evolve.
Reading it this morning, back out on the ledge, I realise there are a couple of things I missed. The Specials had just had their number one hit with Ghost Town. I loved Ghost Town. You may remember that The Specials were part of that whole ska revival Two Tone thing. The Specials and the rest of them dressed up in pork pie hats and sharp and tight tonic suits that I had remembered young cool black guys would have worn in the mid 1960s. The Specials had a couple of black guys in the band. They used to look totally uncomfortable in this get up. I used to think there was no way they would choose to wear those clothes outside of the band. No way would they want to ape the style of their dad’s generation. Just as today no young black lad would be seen doing the whole rasta/reggae thing. The Specials was a totally white concept thing, having a couple of black lads in the band just gave it a look of authenticity for all the white kids who bought the records.
The trouble is, me being white, British and an unreconstructed postmodern man, I can not help but do all that looking back, mix and match, borrowing from whatever hasn’t been borrowed from for a while. It’s in the genes or it’s in some part of me and I can’t get it out.
Later in 1981 I saw The Ramones play Hammersmith Palais. Everything about The Ramones was retro. Their whole thing seemed to be about celebrating a time that never existed. We all knew they were complete fakes. Even if they wore those black leather jackets, T-shirts, ripped jeans and Converse sneakers every day of their lives and they slept in them as well, we knew it was just a costume. An act. But that night at the Hammersmith Palais I thought they were brilliant. I could see through it all but that did not dim their genius in my eyes.
Even worse, the following May (1982) The Clash brought out their album Combat Rock. I thought it was fantastic, one of the best albums ever made. It wasn’t the case that my faith in rock was restored, it is just that I am riddled with inconsistencies. I may want to be as modern as the black man but my genes won’t let me.
This chapter is supposed to be about Pete Waterman and I have spent the last couple of pages attempting to wrap up the last chapter.
Spring 1985. I am sitting in my office at WEA (Warner Elektra Atlantic) in Broadwick Street, Soho, staring out the window and wondering if I was now a corporate arsehole or whether I genuinely looked cool in my new Paul Smith suit, when this bloke walks in unannounced. A bloke that I have never seen before and he starts talking to me like he has known me all his life. He starts telling me how he used to manage The Specials, that he had spent Christmas with Michael Jackson and he is about to be the biggest thing in pop music in the 1980s and then he started going on about steam trains and why The Beatles were still the greatest pop band ever (‘until they went weird’) and Tamla Motown was the greatest label ever and he was the new Berry Gordy.
What I was looking at was a white middle-aged man with grey hair and a demented stare and an accent from somewhere north of Watford and bad dress sense (he wasn’t wearing a Paul Smith suit).
I asked him if he wanted a cup of tea and what his name was. He said yes to the first question and Pete Waterman to the second. He then told me that he had produced You Spin Me Right Round (Like A Record Baby) for Dead Or Alive. I’ve mentioned Pete Burns before, how I was not the sort of person he wanted to be seen speaking to. What I didn’t say was that I thought You Spin Me Right Round was one of the best records ever made. I decided that either this strange man was lying or I should be listening to him. I listened. He told me that if I had any bands in need of a hit, he and the two lads he’d got working with him could deliver the goods.
I told him there was this band that I had just signed to the label and we were looking for a producer and that they were called Brilliant and they were playing that night at the Wag Club, just around the corner. He told me that he would be there, that he knew Paul McCartney and he used to DJ in the club in Coventry where I used to go in 1974/5 where I saw Betty Wright. He told me it was him that put her on and we both agreed that TK Records was the best record label of the 1970s and Hamilton Bohannon was a genius. He drank his tea and left.
That night at The Wag Club this band called Brilliant sounded shit. They had been formed by Youth, the bass player from Killing Joke. I had only signed them because my friend and sometime working partner, Dave Balfe was managing them and Youth could talk a good band. The band had two bass players for some reason that only Youth could defend. They had a guitarist who wanted to be Jimmy Page, a drummer who drummed and a keyboard player who made keyboard sounds. The songs were a dreary mush of white-boy funk but they had this singer who was this striking black girl with a husky but fragile voice.
Pete Waterman turned up halfway through their set. He immediately came up to me and before he had heard one complete song said they were shit but if I would sack the band but keep the singer and give him £3000 next week he knew just the song she could sing and we would have a top 10 hit in a matter of weeks. Then he left.
Next morning he was back in my office.
We then had some convoluted conversation that took in discussing the Flying Scotsman versus the Mallard (trains), Chaka Khan versus Aretha Franklin and why U2 were shite. At some point David Balfe joined us and a compromise was arrived at. The compromise was this: we would sack everybody in the band but Youth ‘cause it was his band in the first place and the guitarist who wanted to be Jimmy Page because he did really good artwork and of course the girl singer whose name was June Montana.
Dave Balfe and I wanted to know what the song was that would deliver the top 10 hit. Pete Waterman said he couldn’t tell us until he got half the £3000 in his bank account. The other half he wanted before he handed over the tapes.
We shook hands on the deal. Then he told us another thing. He wouldn’t be wanting Youth or the guitarist who wanted to be Jimmy Page playing on the record.
Two weeks later I’m down on this building site in Borough (south London). The building site was some back street Victorian workshops that are being converted into a recording studio. I’m with Dave Balfe, Youth, June Montana and the guitarist whose name was Jimi [sic] Cauty. The session was supposed to have started that morning. There is not even a mixing desk in the place, let alone microphones and tape machine. Pete Waterman is there showing his bank manager around, introducing us to his bank manager as record company moguls and the band as the future superstars he is going to be producing. He was talking complete bullshit that the bank manager could surely see through. Youth, Jimi and June certainly could. We left wondering why we had ever handed over £1500 to this mouthy madman. If it wasn’t for the proven fact that he had produced You Spin Me Around, I think we would have cut our losses and never had any more to do with him.
A week later I got a call from him.
We had not heard from him since meeting him and the bank manager at the building site. I made a couple of calls and Youth, Jimi, June, Balfe and I headed down to Borough. Part of the building site was now shuttered off. Inside was a makeshift studio, no recording booth, just a mixing desk and a pair of NS 10 speakers and a couple of keyboards.
We were met by Waterman who introduced us to his boys, Matt and Mike, and told us the track was sounding brilliant and only needed the vocals to complete it, and could he get his other £1500 in the morning? We still didn’t know what the song was and Youth and Jimi were having an understandable artistic crisis about the fact that a record was being made that was to be released under their group name that they had not written or played a note on and had as yet no idea what the song was.
Matt and Mike were a couple of friendly Essex boys and they instantly put us at ease. Pete Waterman got them to play the backing track back to us. It sounded completely different to anything I might have expected. For a start it was in 12/4 time. It was moody and spacey and seductive. All the sounds were keyboard generated, all very modern but like dark chocolate. I wanted to say it sounded like a Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis production but thought I might offend if I did. In the mid 1990s the Jam and Lewis production team were making the best-sounding records in the world. They were young, black and from somewhere in the States. By 1995 all the British groups that had dared to sound modern in 1991 had either given up, got forgotten or were trying to be rock bands. It was only people like Jam and Lewis in the States who were still daring to make records in a way I’d never heard before. And here I was in a broom cupboard of a studio in south London listening to something that sounded like Jam and Lewis.
After a few bars I started to recognise the chord changes, but not what song they belonged to.
June Montana was the first to guess the song.
Jimi and Youth didn’t have a chance to say anything. Out went June with the lyrics and after a few tries had found a way of singing the song to the tempo of the backing track. And then she was asked to come back through to listen to what they had done. Pete Waterman was right. Those lyrics justifying the ultimate male-dominated world were completely changed in meaning as soon as they were sung by a woman.
Pete Waterman got his £1500 the next morning but it didn’t go as smoothly as we might all have hoped. For a start, the track needed quite a bit more work. This included using a machine called a Greengate to record Youth playing the bass and Jimi playing the guitar. At that time in 1985 I had not heard of the word sample or sampler but this Greengate machine was was a sampler. Matt and Mike were able to take a snatch of Youth’s and Jimi’s playing and use it in the recording of Man’s World. This went some way to placate Youth and Jimi’s desire as musicians to have played on their own record without having to go through the messy business of actually having musicians playing real instruments.
Those back at the various departments of the record company thought the track sounded like a future hit. Those whose job it is to plug the record to radio stations thought that Radio One would love it. I was pleased that they were all pleased and felt somewhat vindicated in having signed such a stodgy band to the record label. It was agreed that Pete Waterman be contracted to produce the proposed album by Brilliant. Waterman agreed ‘cause he needed the money to finish the studio.
Now for the real reason I wanted to write this chapter.
Over the following nine months or so we spent hundreds of thousands of pounds of the band’s future royalties down at Pete Waterman’s studio. By the time we were done the studio was built. Mike, Matt and Pete were about to define the sound of British pop music for the latter half of the 1980s and turn their surnames, Stock, Aitken and Waterman into a global brand name for light and breezy throwaway pop.
But for June, Youth, Jimi, Balfe and me it was a different story. It’s A Man’s World was not a hit. Radio One did not love it. Neither did they like the next two singles that were released under the band’s name. As for the rest of the album, without a hit there was no point in releasing it. It was not like they were a real band any longer whose career you could build with by them going out and playing live. If they didn’t have hit singles, nobody would buy the album. So there was no point in going to the expense of pressing up the record and releasing it. Brilliant got dropped by the label and I left before I got sacked.
But – and this for me is the important BUT – in those months down at Pete Waterman’s studio, I learnt something from his approach to doing what he does which has influenced everything I have done since and the way that I see music. And it is not that I have wanted to churn out cheesy production-line pop that can sell by the millions or become an over-opinionated mouthy multi-millionaire. What I learnt was how to make records, and I guess Jimmy Cauty [Jimi] and Youth did too.
Although Dave Balfe and I had produced Echo And The Bunnymen and Teardrop Explodes records, that had not involved any great vision thing. It was just a case of trying to tighten up the arrangements of the songs the bands had already written, trying to stop the band falling out or getting too wasted while recording, trying to get everything to sound okay and trying to get something that both the band could feel proud of and the record company could sell. So much of making records that way is about taking into account the fragile egos of the individual band members, keeping everybody at least moderately happy.
The first thing I learnt from Waterman was to dispense with the idea of musicians having any say in what the record is to sound like. Musicians will only ever be bothered with how good they sound, not the overall sound of the record. Drummers will always want the drums to sound louder; guitarists, the guitars and so on. Musicians, by definition, have chosen a particular instrument and then spent years learning to play. They view and hear the world as a drummer or guitarist or whatever.
Pete Waterman wanted to make modern-sounding records. Records for now. If you used musicians on making records, they always had a tendency to make them sound old fashioned because all musicians hark back. They – even if they don’t know it – want to play something that sounds like something on some other record from the past.
So if you can get a machine to do that part, all the better. So no real drums, that is a given. Use a real drummer and they just start going on about their favourite drummers from the past and try to use the recording session as a platform to prove what a great drummer they are.
Matt and Mike were both more than adequate musicians themselves. But they had a rule – never play on a record you are making. If you play on it, your ego as a musician will cloud your judgement of what is right for the record that is being made. Matt and Mike would always have a keyboard player hired in to play all the parts. That way they never had qualms ditching any part that had been recorded in favour of trying something else. This meant that they were never trying to make a record that pandered to the sensibilities of the musicians who might be involved.
Now, up until then it has been Matt and Mike this and Matt and Mike that. That is because it was Matt and Mike who were working in the studio all the time. Pete would only come into the studio once or twice a day, or if specifically asked to come in and listen to something. That way his ears were always fresh. Matt and Mike might have been working away for six hours with a keyboard player or singer on some track and Pete could walk in and say ‘You got it completely wrong, lads. Barking up the wrong tree’ and then start describing what he thought it should sound like. Often what they had spent the last six hours on was trying to make real what he had described to them six hours earlier. The problem was that Pete could not play a note on any instrument and had no idea about any music theory, so his descriptions of what he was after or could hear in his head were always completely abstract. This could drive Mike and Matt up the wall.
That was the problem, but why this also worked completely brilliantly was that Pete had a mass love and encyclopaedic knowledge of the hit single. He had gained his musical education as a DJ in clubs around the country playing the Tamla or soul hits of the day. He had learned exactly what made the kids want to get up and dance or sing along to. Although he loved pop music, I don’t think he ever listened to it for his own satisfaction. He listened to it for what other people could get out of it. Pete loved whatever made people want to dance, or cry, or smooch, or fall in love to. But he didn’t just love the old Tamla stuff, he loved the new r&b records from the States as in the Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis produced records and I’m sure today it would be Neptune or whoever are the r&b producers of the moment.
But of course he was an arsehole as well and he knew it. He would phone and book dates to get June, Youth and Jimi down only for them to turn up at his studio to find Matt and Mike working with Mel and Kim or whoever it was.
The recording of the Brilliant album paid for his studio while he got his empire going. Within 12 months of the Brilliant album being shelved and the band being dropped by Warners, Mike Stock, Matt Aitken and Pete Waterman were the most successful production team in the world and defined what British pop music was to sound like in the late 1980s.
Of course I thought most of what they did sounded like formulaic rubbish that I would never want to listen to even if it was the only piece of music I had. But the man was a genius.
What I got from him, and I guess in their own ways Jimmy and Youth got it too, was the importance of having an overview of what you are doing. Never treat anything you do as precious, be willing to dump everything and start again. Don’t get drawn into the technical details. Don’t be impressed by musicianship, trust your instincts and be willing to move on if your instincts are proved wrong.
Without being witness to the way Mike and Matt and Pete worked, Jimmy Cauty and I could never have made the KLF records. It informed us in so many ways even though what we did and were about was completely different. It also informs so much of what I’m trying to do with The17 even though there may be a million miles between I Should Be So Lucky by Kylie Minogue and The17 climbing a mountain to listen to the wind or whatever. Don’t ask me to define exactly what it is that I have been informed about.