IT’S two decades since svengali Pete Waterman – along with a little-known Simon Cowell – became judges on a TV talent contest, ushering in a new era of pop music.
Pop Idol began in the autumn of 2001 and, after making stars of Gareth Gates and winner Will Young, led to the creation of a host of acts from One Direction to Little Mix on the show’s successor, The X Factor.
Now Pete, 74, believes the axing of the hit ITV series is another symptom of an industry so reliant on making music through the internet that it is terrified of woke politics and cancel culture.
He said: “We’ve gone too politically correct. I think that was a problem for the show. I thought we lost a lot of the excitement and honesty we had with Pop Idol.
“If somebody’s a bad singer, they’ve got to be told they’re a bad singer.
“I don’t think that’s being rude. I think that’s being truthful. We have a problem now, particularly in television, with our culture.
“If somebody says what they think, whether it’s right or wrong, they’re finished. A record company will say, ‘You can’t say this or that’.
“You’ve lost the Johnny Rottens. You’ve lost the Pete Burns. You’ve lost those guys, the likes of the Gallagher brothers.
“Artists these days are so scared now of cancel culture that they’re not going to be speaking out for a revolution or chatting back to the Government or calling people out.
“They’re too scared of being ‘cancelled’.”
Lucrative hit machine
Pete, speaking as he appears on new Britbox music show Feel The Noise, says the record companies now focus 90 per cent of an artist’s career on making money, by any means necessary, while just ten per cent is about the music.
He said: “Rita Ora makes great pop records. But the brand of Rita Ora is more important to them than sales of Rita Ora records because sales of records are now the minority.
“It’s how much they can make from advertising and all the brand associations — whether it be the shoes, the bras, the pants, whatever it is.
“I can’t blame them, by the way, because that’s what they have to do.
“But I believe they absolutely lose something to get the 90 per cent.
“That whole internet, posing on Instagram, has become more important than being in the studio and making a decent record.
“I can’t imagine Noel Gallagher standing up and advertising crocodile shoes, jeans or whatever it is, because he picks up his guitar and sings.”
Pete created a highly lucrative hit machine as one third of Stock Aitken & Waterman, who gave us Jason Donovan, Bananarama and, arguably the jewel in the SAW crown, Kylie Minogue.
But he admits she was partly a marketing triumph — as well as a lucky signing from the Aussie soap Neighbours.
He said: “People said she wouldn’t last five minutes. Well, how wrong were they? Why is she still so successful all these years later?
“Because she’s looked after her fans. She hasn’t gone far away from what she does.
“She knows what she does, she knows what people like and she gives it to them.”
But despite Kylie and his other acts being huge moneymakers, Pete insists he was always motivated by the music.
It was his passion that inspired Simon Cowell as he rose up the ranks of the music industry — and why he wanted Pete to join him on the judging panel of Pop Idol when it first aired on October 6, 2001.
But the admiration is mutual and Pete salutes the X Factor boss for ushering in another golden era of pop that gave us one of the biggest global pop phenomenons of the 21st Century: One Direction.
Pete said: “Simon created The Beatles but in a different way. He really did, because all these Korean bands now are following what he did.
“If the Korean bands ever made a good record, they’d be dangerous, because they’re selling 20million records and nobody can tell you what they’re buying. They’re buying a brand.
“But One Direction is probably the greatest experience in merchandising this world has ever seen.”
As well as making a fortune, Pete says Simon never forgot about the music, partly because of a pearl of wisdom Pete once gave to him.
He said: “I always remember telling Simon a little story that I think applies to all pop stars.
“I’m quite happy playing Monopoly, going around the board and collecting £200 every time I pass go. But stay focused and keep making great music.
“Don’t get carried away with interviews and TV shows. Do them, but then get back to music.”
As for Simon’s other great triumph, Little Mix, he says they are simply on the cusp of a pitfall that has seen groups such as Girls Aloud and the Spice Girls break up.
He said: “In the beginning the music comes out . . . punch, bang, and you fit the image.
“But then the girls themselves became more important than the records because the marketing machine takes over.
“And if you’re fighting for your place in that band, it becomes a battle of attrition for who’s got the most publicity. And then one of them leaves, like Geri Halliwell did.
“It’s the trap most of these types of bands fall into. The girls think they’re bigger than the music they create and the band fails.”
Pete believes the departure of Jesy Nelson could spell the beginning of the end for Little Mix, who won The X Factor ten years ago and went on to sell 60million records.
‘There’s always friction’
He said: “They’ve changed. They became characters, and they’re fighting within themselves. The thing is, when you put people together unnaturally, you do well to make it last as long as it lasts.
“You are putting four people together like that who, before your television show, have had no contact with each other, and you’re asking them to bond and become friends and work together.
“At the end of the day, there’s always going to be friction and when it comes to the likes of Little Mix, you’ve got very strong characters all fighting.”
Meanwhile, Pete says genuine artists face an uphill struggle in a world where the lines between mediocre wannabes and driven stars are blurred by technology.
Pete added: “Streaming has changed music incredibly, and not for the best.
“No longer do you have to play gigs like you used to or do shows like you had to play. You can do it all online now, and on TikTok — and you can redo TikTok until you’ve got it perfect, so the spontaneity has gone.
“Musically, in Britain, you look at the artists we’ve had, from punk to Oasis, whatever it’s been. People have done it all for themselves.
“You listen to a lot of records and there’s a lot of production gimmicks in there, but could some of these acts actually go out and perform for an hour? I doubt they’d have the energy or stamina.”
But Pete is not entirely cynical about the modern pop landscape, pointing towards standout stars including Ed Sheeran and Adele.
He said: “Ed is probably the canniest of all the artists I’ve seen for 20 years. He definitely will go down as a phenomena.
“He’s massive all over the planet. He’s gone to a new level, even past The Beatles in terms of success.
“And nobody else has got the Adele audience. It’s hers. When she comes back, I’ve no doubt she’ll be as big as she was before. She’ll become a legend of this era.”
And though he says the recent golden era ushered in by The X Factor has ended with the series, he believes another show will launch to revive the industry by uncovering otherwise hidden talent.
He said: “It will be back. It may be not called X Factor but it will be back.
“There will always be talent shows. They may go out of fashion but they will come back at some point. Because the chance of a major record company walking into your town this afternoon and doing auditions is non-existent.
“They’re not flying in from LA to see some kid in Warrington.
“So talent shows are the only way people with no hope can get hope.”
- Feel The Noise: Music That Shaped Britain is available now on BritBox.