Interview: Pete Waterman – with Kylie’s first four albums getting the deluxe reissue treatment we talk to the producer behind them
Cherry Red Records is celebrating the beginning of Kylie Minogue’s career with a series of lavish box sets featuring exclusive bonus tracks and rare DVD content. All four albums, produced in conjunction with PWL and Stock, Aitken & Waterman, have been lovingly re-mastered and are available for fans of the Australian pop princess to order from the Cherry Red website now.
Louder Than War contributor Fat Gay Vegan recently quizzed Pete Waterman OBE, record producer and song writer extraordinaire, on his involvement in the creation of these iconic pop tunes. Topics discussed by the pair include the SAW musical legacy, how Dannii was pivotal in her sister’s musical maturation and why Pete remains best friends with Kylie to this very day.
But before we start, who remembers this “banger” as we probably won’t have referred to it back then!
Fat Gay Vegan: I should start by congratulating you on the first four Kylie albums and the reissues, because I think the sound is incredible. I’ve been listening to them for the last few days and the sound of the reissues is top-notch.
Pete Waterman: Well we cared about them, you know, and I guess that we cared about quality ever since we started the company back in the seventies and I know nobody thought of that at the time that we were making these albums ‘cause you were just buying them ‘cause you loved the songs. But we were very passionate about the quality even back then and I guess that shows even today.
How involved were you personally in the process of bringing the albums back, especially choosing the bonus tracks?
Well I have to credit Tom Parker and Little Ian (Usher) because they know far more about PWL than I will ever know ‘cause I was too busy doing it and they were fans buying it. But you know nothing ever happens here without my say-so because at the end of the day it was my company and I have to stand by, whether you like it or dislike it, I have to stand by the decision to do it.
Was Kylie involved in the process of the reissues?
Oh yeah. She was consulted but I mean for an artist, they’re not really interested in what they did 25 years ago are they? They’re interested in what they’re doing next week on their new album. So of course everybody talked about it but Kylie’s got her own career and the same as me. I mean, that’s why it was led by Tom and the staff because I think you need somebody that was a fan looking at it and I think the reason it worked so well is because Tom was a fan. You know, he’s still passionate about it.
You talked about the fact that Kylie’s not very interested in that period – she’s moved on. Not many people are constantly reminded of work they were involved in almost three decades ago to the level you are. These Kylie hits are unforgettable moments on the pop culture timeline and the passing of time doesn’t seem to diminish their impact.
That’s a very true point.
I was reading that Especially for You was recently certified a million-seller 26 years after its release. For you, how does it feel to be involved in the creation of these songs that will never be forgotten?
It’s a good question, because right now they seem to be getting a real big resurgence. Right across the globe suddenly everybody seems to be playing our stuff again which is very flattering and I get all the requests for adverts and television and films. There’s hardly a month goes by when there aren’t people using those tracks. If we go back to when we’re recording, did we ever think that that would be the case? Well certainly in Kylie’s case, nobody believed she’d last a year, let alone 30 years. So you sit back and sometimes you think when we were doing it, we never thought that we literally would still be listening to them all this time later.
I wanted to go back a bit and work out what it was like for Kylie when she first met you. Did she know about your history? Did you sit her down and play her Dead or Alive, Princess, Sinitta, Divine or was she aware of what was already an impressive catalogue?
The great thing with Kylie, unlike all the other artists, was that we never had any time! We never had any time to talk to each other. When we did I Should Be So Lucky, Kylie was still working for Neighbours. It was her main job. Nobody took her singing career seriously. I mean literally none of us. We were all having a go, but none of us could sit down and say we were going to change the world and obviously she was on such a tight schedule from Australian television. She would literally come in for an hour when she was in London and heading back she had literally two hours to record I Should Be So Lucky. That was it. The first album was recorded in incredible snatches, you know? Two hours here, three hours. Fly to Australia. Might do some tracks in Australia, some here. If you could get four hours with her, it was the most you could get. So certainly let me tell you, we didn’t have any time to sit and talk about the weather, or what we’d done or what we wanted to do. It sounds ridiculous I know, but we were almost not able to even play her the songs! It literally was here’s the track, here’s how the song goes, here’s the lyric. Mike would teach her the song and it would be recorded in an hour. That’s the pressure we were under.
How stressful was it for you?
It wasn’t stressful because that’s what we were used to. In fact, in hindsight, the truth is it was so enjoyable because we didn’t have time to get stressed. Don’t forget at the time we did I Should Be So Lucky we probably had six records in the Top 10. You’ve got two hours and then she’s on a flight back to Sydney. You ain’t got time to sit and think ‘Oh shit, what do we do next?’ ‘cause that’s just wasted five minutes.
I think Stock, Aitken and Waterman were a little bit older than the artists you were working with. Do you think the pressure ever got to Kylie or some other people on your roster?
I think what got to them was how famous we were. I think that was a difficult thing to live with, that we were literally more famous than most of our artists. Certainly at the time we worked, probably up until Je Ne Sais Pas, we were far more famous than Kylie was in the music world. Obviously, that’s where Kylie completely changed it around with television/Neighbours. She obviously became more famous and then people found out about us via Kylie. But originally, people were buying the Kylie records because it was Stock, Aitken and Waterman and PWL. And then suddenly the kids kicked in that were watching Neighbours and our record sales went through the roof.
Your song writing team was so incredibly prolific during the period of those first four Kylie albums. It’s staggering to look at a list of your written and produced work from that time. Rick Astley, Sonia, Jason Donovan, Bananarama, Brother Beyond. I could go on and on about the records that I bought alone. Did you always write the songs with Kylie in mind or were there songs written for her that ended up with someone else?
No. No, we had no spare songs. Every song was written for her. There were a couple of artists where somebody else ended up with the song. The classic is Donna Summer who ended up with This Time I Know It’s For Real. The track was originally for Bananarama. Jason did actually record a track that was originally meant for Rick but that was very rare. Very rare indeed. We had no spare songs and literally we were writing songs, particularly later on in Kylie’s career like Better The Devil, we’d literally finish the song when she was in the studio. It wasn’t there at nine o’clock that morning that’s for certain. We didn’t get the phone call from her until twelve o’clock. The Better The Devil You Know title came out of the fact that she told us she was going out with Michael Hutchence and she’d dumped Jason so you know, that’s a typical example of what it was like at the time. Literally within two hours or three hours, the artist was in the studio when three hours before you were going down a different path and then suddenly there you are. You’re writing a song about Jason Donovan falling out with Kylie Minogue.
So it sounds like you were flying by the seat of your hot pants, so to speak!
Yeah, we were. I always remember Paul McCartney saying the same thing about The Beatles. It’s creative. They were writing those songs on a bus between gigs and we were writing them in between artists coming into the studio. It wasn’t unusual in those days that one artist would go out and a couple of hours later another artist would come in. We’d have an artist in the morning who could only be in ‘til two o’clock and then we’d have somebody in from four ‘til six. That’s how crazy it all was. We’d have to work round when certain artists were available. So it actually works out to be a creative way of working.
If someone had never heard of Kylie or The Hit Factory and they bought these four albums, what would they learn from popular music from that period?
I personally think it was very real period. Before that, pop music had been a little bit more wishy-washy. I think that the period that we’re talking about, things became a little bit more real. We were massive fans of Motown and that was a massive influence on us. We thought that the Motown songs were far more teenage-relevant than any of the British pop songs of the same period. We thought that the Motown songs did actually speak to young people in that they were about subjects that they related to. I think we were trying to do the same. I always tell people, and it sounds like a ridiculous statement but I’ll make it anyway, I always sort of felt that if I couldn’t jump up and down on my bed to the songs that we were doing then we’d missed the point. I was a big kid and I just loved doing what we were doing and when we were writing these songs, and Mike and Matt, I wanted to be the kid on the bed jumping up and down. And if it didn’t do that to me, why did I want to do it? ‘Cause that’s what pop music did to me at 12.
And it’s obviously what the kids wanted at the time. I remember an interview with Jason where he said that your song writing team was in the business of supply and demand. You wouldn’t have made it if people didn’t buy it.
That’s correct. But at the end of the day, I bought Carole King and I bought all those records like Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow ‘cause I believed them. It was a part of my teenage angst if you like that, as a shy teenager, somebody was writing lyrics that I could relate to and that very much to us was what we were about. Somebody said to me at the time ‘but you’re 30’ and I said ‘no, actually I’m 14’. You know, I feel 14 because I really feel the lyrics work for me. I remember we used to have violent arguments about lyrics. Almost to the stage where we would fall out with each other. There were fights. We did fight in the studio over lyrics.
I imagine there must have been a huge amount of pressure to transition Kylie from a teenybopper idol into an artist with a wider range so more people would admire and support her. Did that create problems for PWL to try and mature Kylie?
To be honest, we were certainly never involved in anything like that. That was the record company, the management company. Neither Kylie nor us on a creative level ever had that discussion at all. So I think Kylie’s management might have discussed with our management but it didn’t get through to us. I think that what we see is a natural progression and I think that Kylie’s problem was Dannii (Minogue) and you know that wasn’t my problem. I wasn’t producing Dannii so I didn’t have that problem. But when your sister is more credible than you are, I guess that’s a bit of pressure.
I suppose Kylie was looking at the records that Dannii was putting out and the songwriters and producers she was working with and got an idea, do you think?
I think that’s part of what you do. It’s like they always say, the grass is always greener on the other side.
I suppose Kylie’s image changed at the time because managers got in her ear.
No, no. Hang on a minute. There’s one person that changed Kylie and that’s Kylie. Kylie was managed by nobody. Kylie made that decision and Kylie made the decision when she wanted to change. When she left Neighbours she did not any longer want to be the Kylie of the Especially For You years. The minute she left the TV series, Kylie was not interested in that character. You’ve only got to look at the Michael Hutchence thing and the Jason Donovan thing. In reality, what we were doing was nowhere near as fast as she moved. At the end of the day, a song’s a song but going from Jason Donovan to Michael Hutchence is a bit more bloody radical than going from I Should Be So Lucky to Better The Devil You Know, to make a bold statement!
It’s hard for her fans to really know what went on behind the scenes and as much as we like to think of her as an independent woman calling her shots, we don’t know what goes on in the record industry.
Oh she did (call the shots). No question whatsoever. Kylie has always been completely in charge of everything. Nobody advised her, I promise you. They may have given her advice but I doubt whether she ever took it.
A huge part of Kylie’s longevity really has to be the support of her gay fan base. Was this something you guys considered in the very early days? When did you become aware of her gay following?
Well, we’ve always had a gay following so in fact it was the other way around. She got her gay following from us. We started our career with Divine and Hazel Dean and Dead or Alive so it was only natural that she followed down that route. I said to somebody once, many years ago, that we were as camp as Butlin’s so you can’t be that camp without getting the accolades at the end of the day so I just think that those records were important and people followed her. It’s changed now I think. I went last year to see her and Kylie’s got a different audience now. Completely. I mean it is a completely different audience. In fact I almost didn’t want to hear her singing the old ones because she is a different artist now and I was more interested in her doing the modern Kylie stuff because the old stuff now almost seems strange for her to do.
Yes, it’s almost like a world away isn’t it?
It is a world away. That’s what you have to remember, that people move on and she’s moved on and she’s obviously doing all hard-core disco, modern gay anthems. That’s what she does. You could say that you like it or you don’t like it but that’s what she wants to do. She’s lasted longer than anybody else from that period. Certainly nobody else from that period is still around doing what she does and got the following that she’s got.
Yes, that’s true. Going back to the first four albums, if I start listening at the Kylie album and I work my way through to Let’s Get To It, there seems to be a definite growth in the sophistication of the music and the output. What were the biggest changes in you as a writer and a producer across this period?
It was called The Hitman and Her (music show hosted by Pete), because I was on television with what now people look back on as a very hip and trendy show. People at the time dissed it but we were playing the cutting edge dance music at the time and nobody was more cutting edge than we were. To play Kylie in there you’ve got to make cutting edge music so she had to keep moving. That’s in my opinion, the right way that you get creativity. If you go into Bowlers or you go into the Hacienda, you can’t play I Should Be So Lucky can you? They’re going to lynch you! But by then, Kylie’s become respected enough and hip enough to play anywhere. And that’s only because I’m out there knowing and she’s watching the show, we want her on the show but she’s got to fit that show which is part of what you’re doing.
It’s my understanding that Celebration had been recorded in time but didn’t make it on to Let’s Get To It. Is that correct?
[asking someone else] Celebration was on Let’s Get To It, wasn’t it Hel? Oh no, it was on the greatest hits. That’s quite correct.
So there’s no story behind why it didn’t make it on? I read yesterday that it had been recorded in time but there was a decision made to leave it off Let’s Get To It.
It wasn’t actually finished if I remember rightly. Certainly we liked it but I think there was some reservation on the Australian end, which is ironic as it became the anthem for the [Sydney 2000] Olympic Games. But there you go, that’s history. One minute it’s a pile of dog poo and the next minute it’s a national anthem. That’s the story of my career really. You go in there with a great track and they don’t like it! You’ve got to remember also, I think part of the problem we had was you and I know who Kool and the Gang were but in Australia probably nobody knew who Kool and the Gang were.
And I suppose that Celebration had come back around full circle. It was time for it to become part of public consciousness again. It had enough time off the airwaves by the time it was a hit for Kylie.
Yeah. To be honest, I remember we’d agreed to do it. Phil (Harding) and Ian (Curnow) did it downstairs and it was one of those tracks that took a bit longer because Kylie wasn’t around and as I say, I don’t think at that point the Australians knew how big a track that was in that it was slightly different for her. You know we’d gone down the Step Back in Time route, well I guess Celebration was the ultimate Step Back in Time. That’s what it was. We were doing that whole ‘walking in rhythm’ type of vibe. Now they were all big hits here (in the UK) but none of those hits were big in Australia. So we knew about those tracks but certainly the Australian record company didn’t quite get what they were because it was a very sort of British disco or club thing that didn’t translate to the pop charts in Australia.
When you were heading into the recording of Let’s Get To It, did you already know that that was Kylie’s final studio album with you?
Yes. I mean in hindsight, we should have actually sold that album before we made it. If I was as brilliant as I’d like to think I could have been I would have had the common sense to say that Kylie had become such a big star she was overshadowing us and killing our creativity and that if we had stepped out at that point, we’d have had to gone back to what we were good at and that was finding new artists and constantly finding new things to do and being completely creative instead of worrying about who was going to pay the rent and all the salaries at the end of the month.
I watched a clip a few days ago where you said that you still have a very good relationship with Kylie. Were you happy with how your professional relationship ended and how she walked away from PWL?
We’re still best friends. How can you do what you did together? I mean we just did so much together. If you didn’t like what you did you could never friends. You’ve got to be friends.
It’s very heartening to hear that in a business that’s not known for building life-long friendships.
Well I can honestly tell you that with all my artists if there’s an argument, if you go back to Rick Astley, I walk away. I’d rather stay friends than have a lawsuit. Because lawsuits are easy, friendships are really difficult. For me, I want to be able to go and introduce Kylie and Jason and Pete Burns and all of those people to my kids and be able to say, “We used to work together” and they say, “Your dad was great”. That’s all I want, because as you just said, this is an industry where everybody slags everybody.
Going back to the albums again, if somebody walked up to you and said, “I can only afford to buy one of the first four Kylie albums, which one should I buy and why?” What would you say to them? What’s the one you think is the pinnacle of what you did with Kylie?
Well, listen. It’s always the first that’s the best. It’s only The Beatles that got better at the fourth album than all the others. And we ain’t The Beatles and we never was.
There are a lot of diehard Kylie and PWL fans that will be reading this interview and they always want information they’ve never heard before. Is there any humorous story or even scandalous story from the Kylie days that you can share with the readers that they might not have heard before?
I think that every Kylie story must have been told by now. The thing was that it was an incredible, incredible time. We were so busy that half the time it was all a whirl. And even now for me, who lived it, I just remember brief moments of conversations. One of the agreements that we’d had with the Australian record company – a ridiculous agreement given how much money we were earning – was that if we gave them a number one, they would give me a holiday in Australia. So there I go, fly down to Australia and we get this fucking great big yacht round the Barrier Reef and we whisk into some stunning paradise to have a Chinese [meal] with Kylie and Jason. It was all surreal. It really was surreal. You’re wafting off to paradise, you’re on a fucking great yacht, you can’t stand to see another beautiful sight, you don’t even know where you are and you go and have a Chinese meal with Kylie and Jason. And you come back and of course, when you come back and it’s like, “What was it like?” and it’s like, “We haven’t got time to think about that. Have you got any titles for a song because she’s in in about an hour”.
Well that’s a wonderful story and I think that there’s probably nobody else alive that I could speak to that’s had the experience you’ve had and the cultural impact that you’ve had so I’d really like to thank you for talking to me today.
Well, thank you very much.
Kylie, Enjoy Yourself, Rhythm of Love and Let’s Get To It all available as Special Edition CD, Deluxe Edition 2CD/DVD Set and Collector’s Edition LP / 2CD / DVD Box Set.
More details / to purchase hit up either of these links:
Kylie Minogue can be found on twitter as @kylieminogue.