Paul Morley's Showing Off... Pete Waterman

Paul Morley talks to the record producer and former judge on Pop Idol and Pop Star: The Rivals about his love of pop music and why he doesn't begrudge Simon Cowell anything

The Pete Waterman Studios are part of County Hall, behind the London Eye on the banks of the river Thames. There's a large plaque outside that brazenly announces that inside the building there are the Pete Waterman Studios. The inside is extremely grand and to get to the Waterman offices and studios you walk down an ornate, echoey corridor of such size you could be in Prague or the 19th century or both. Or, perhaps, heading to a '70s school disco.

It is here that Waterman, of Stock, Aitken and Waterman, and the 80s, and the Hitman and Her – Waterman, of course, being the hitman – is in the process of building a kind of media village, still ambitious to re-create in some form the heaving, heady days when he was, as pop svengalis go – what with Banarama, Kylie, Rick, Jason and Steps ("I thought if Oasis could get away with sounding like the Beatles, I could get away with sounding like Abba") – a king of the world. Everything he touched, as he liked to say, turned to gold. Each of his hits, his No 1s, functioned like gags, containing the right balance of build up and punch line, and repetitions of build up and punch lines, and his method was based on a mixture of giving people what they want, even if they already had too much of what they wanted, and explicitly, unashamedly democratising hardcore rhythms and techniques emerging in disco and post-disco nightclubs.

He was illiterate when he left school, and only learned to read properly in his late 30s. The pop he produced and sold was based on his early years as a disc jockey, getting invaluable experience seeing what literally moved people and made them happy, and it was the pop music of a combined music enthusiast, showman and ambitious businessman that meant his gaudy, pumping, sentimental, slick, camp, corny, nutty but exceedingly shrewd and calculating music was as much a sign of the British times as anything apparently cooler, hipper or less profit-driven.

Simon Cowell was a big fan when he was a junior music executive clawing his way up the ranks, even if it was just because he wanted, craved, hits and for a while a Stock, Aitken and Waterman production pretty much guaranteed you a hit. Waterman's way with a gimmick, a tabloid trend, a rough, youthful talent, a celebrity voice, his reading of the high street market, his indifference to the snide observations of pompous critics and fussy tastemakers was a significant influence on Cowell. Waterman was Cowell's idea of a music man, not Chris Blackwell, Berry Gordy Jr or Jac Holzman. Waterman suggested to Cowell ways you could be a success in the music business, not necessarily because of the music but by making sure that you set yourself up to be in the right place at the right time and hired the right studio team to turn this awareness of time and place into the right soundtrack. Waterman was turned on to pop because of the Beatles, and when the time comes to work out a pop narrative based purely on chart success, retailing acumen, piles of merchandise, showbiz star-making and tabloid coverage, then Pete Waterman is definitely the missing link between the Beatles and Simon Cowell.

As show-offs go, though, Pete is funnier, more open, more honest, direct and down to earth than Simon – he is definitely not a black toilet paper man. It may well be why Simon is now the king of the world and Pete can only shake his head, in alarm and admiration, at just what his apprentice got up to and got away with.


Paul Morley

The GuardianTramp

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