Time heals, as Pete Waterman knows. In his 80s pomp, when he oversaw hit after tinny Hi-NRG hit with Mike Stock and Matt Aitken – a total of 100 Top 40 singles before they disbanded in 1993 – he embodied Thatcherite pile-’em-high, sell-’em-cheap crassness. Three decades later, he’s at the Royal Festival Hall, the subject of a reappraisal that presents him as a tastemaker who recognised that underground club music could be taken overground by adding pop shimmer and monster choruses.
In truth, Waterman has a foot in both worlds. In view of the Simon Cowell-shaped dark age that has followed, Waterman now seems essentially benign: interviewed on stage by former Channel 4 and BBC1 chairman Michael Grade, he’s a font of unfeigned warmth and amusing, if lengthy, stories which usually end in “…and the single went Top 10 around the world”. Waterman breezily admits that the 80s rock press “wanted us dead”, yet he’s here still, straddling the line between pride in his creations and utter shamelessness (Bananarama, he tells us, wanted a single to sound like a Dead or Alive track, so Stock, Aitken and Waterman sent the female group to the pub and simply re-used the actual track).
“We broke all the rules,” he says truthfully: there can’t be many production teams who forget that they’ve summoned a young soap star to their London studio and have to write a song on the spot as she waits. Kylie Minogue ended up with I Should Be So Lucky, and Waterman with another anecdote.
Where the evening stumbles is in the live performances. There are 14 Stock, Aitken and Waterman (SAW) songs on the setlist, and only two major SAW stars to sing them: a fizzing Hazell Dean and Claire Richards of Steps. The other tunes are performed by a hustled-together cast that includes Jaki Graham, Welsh choir Only Men Aloud! and a kid from now-defunct boy band Stereo Kicks, who’s introduced by Waterman as “a little Rick [Astley]”. The real Astley, were he to Rickroll through the timeless Never Gonna Give You Up, would have ignited the place. When even Sonia can’t make a Pete Waterman retrospective, your heart aches for him a little.