Does Rock ‘N’ Roll Kill Braincells?! – Pete Waterman

In Does Rock ‘N’ Roll Kill Braincells?!, we quiz an artist on their own career to see how much they can remember – and find out if the booze, loud music and/or tour sweeties has knocked the knowledge out of them. This week: the music impresario and one third of ‘80s/’90s hit factory Stock Aitken Waterman (SAW) takes the ultimate test

Which 2021 Olly Alexander-starring drama features Divine’s SAW-produced ‘You Think You’re a Man’?

“Was it It’s a Sin?”


“Divine was lovely. We had a lot of fun. Mike Stock made the mistake of making him sing in tune, and the record company said: ‘We don’t want him singing!’, so we had to re-record it with him shouting it badly. I kept a fabulous review of it that said: ‘For a man who started his career eating dog-shit, this record is the step in the right direction!’ [Laughs]”

What playing card adorns the cover of Dead or Alive’s 1985 single ‘My Heart Goes Bang (Get Me to the Doctor)’?

“I don’t remember the sleeve! The ace of hearts?”


“[Dead or Alive frontman] Pete Burns was so far ahead of his time and out-there. He was the closest you could get to a genius but that was also his problem. He could do so many things but keeping him focussed for 10 minutes was almost impossible. We only got their [1984 Number One] single ‘You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)’ because we wouldn’t let him get involved too much. It’s a famous story, but I sent everybody home except the engineer because I knew we couldn’t finish the record if we were all in the room, because we’d all end up punching each other because Pete was so difficult.”

“But I loved Pete and we had a great relationship. When he saw me in my leather trousers and earrings, he mistakenly thought that Matt [Aitken] and Mike were my toy boys. That’s what he always told people!”

Apparently mixing ‘You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)’ was the only time you ever took cocaine…

“I’d put my neck on the line because I knew it was a Number One. This was my one shot. Then the mixing desk broke down in the middle of the night so we had to wait for the engineer to come [to London] from Southend. I’d been up for 24 hours at this point and still had at least 10 hours to go. A very famous rock band who shall remain nameless used to mix downstairs overnight, and took a lot of drugs to get them through the night, so I thought if they can do it, so can I! When they told me it was £80 a gram, I thought: ‘You’re joking! I can go to Peru for £65!’. We used to play terrible tricks on that band. We once substituted their cocaine for plaster of paris so they all had bunged-up noses for a while!”

For what bizarre reason did Bananarama once allegedly cause you to be arrested?

“[Laughs] Because they hit the fire alarm in the bloody hotel in Boston and then told the police I was their dad!”


“That took some talking out of! And it was all because I’d cheated at Trivial Pursuit! They got so incensed, they left the room and set off the fire alarms. They were fucking renegades! You could get yourself into serious trouble with them within minutes. When we were Number One in America with Bananarama’s ‘Venus’ [in 1986], I remember going to this heavy-duty party with them where I’m sitting looking at guys with guns bulging out of the left-hand side of their coats, worrying: ‘Oh my God!’. But the girls didn’t give a monkey’s. They just grabbed a bottle of vodka and were having a great time. Anything was possible with them.”


Pre-SAW, you managed The Specials. According to the band’s Jerry Dammers, you were fired after showing them how to do what?

“Ooh, now I don’t know that one!”

WRONG. Apparently you were demonstrating how they should dance.

“[Laughs] YES!! He still tells me that story! And it’s absolutely true, but not quite right. What I was trying to do was show them how to feel the rhythm because they’d never been in the studio before, and that’s very different from doing a live gig. So I was demonstrating that to feel the rhythm, you had to drop your shoulder and sort of… feel it. So Jerry took that as dancing, which it wasn’t.”

Any memories of the the Specials‘ frontman Terry Hall who sadly passed away this year?

“Without Terry Hall, there would have been no SAW. Because he taught me not to listen to a human voice and go, ‘He can’t sing’. You’ve got to listen to a voice and go: ‘is it distinctive’? Because Terry Hall had a unique voice and he had been brought in by Jerry and I tried to talk him out of it, saying: ‘He can’t sing’. But Jerry thought Terry was the key and he was right. So Terry taught me the greatest lesson of my life and what to look for in the future. Think about it: was Pete Burns a great singer? It’s about the quality of performance rather than just the voice. Terry also lived around the corner from me and went to my old school.”

In 1988, SAW released E. G. Daily’s ‘Mind Over Matter’. Name either the NME Godlike Genius whose vocals she replaced, or the singer who first released the song in 1986.

“I didn’t know there were two people who recorded it before E. G. Daily.”

WRONG. Nikki Leeger first released the track in 1986. The SAW version originally had Debbie Harry on vocals before a record company dispute prevented her from appearing on it.

“I didn’t realise that! But we had a lot of fun recording with Debbie Harry*. She was someone who treated us like fellow songwriters and producers and would let us get on with it, whereas some people would make you defend what you did before they even stepped into the studio.”

Among other big-names that you worked with, perhaps none was more surprising than Judas Priest whom you recorded four (unreleased) tracks with in 1988…

“We covered Diana Ross & Marvin Gaye’s ‘You Are Everything’ with them and it would have been our biggest-ever record. We had great respect for each other. Matt ended up playing more rock guitar than they did! We went for it. We were more rock ‘n’ roll than Judas Priest! They kept saying: ‘No, we want more SAW’, while we’re going, ‘Fuck SAW, we want to do more rock ‘n’ roll! It was my birthday and we went out to this huge place in Paris and Cristal champagne was flowing. Mike Stock got off the plane the next day, with no memory of coming home.”

“When we played the song, they said: ‘It’s a Number One record – which is the last thing we want!’. They missed a trick because now you have the Foo Fighters covering Rick Astley and anything goes, but their manager was frightened that it was going to end up as the biggest song of their career and 16-year-old girls would start turning up to their stadium gigs.”

*Harry recorded versions of ‘In Love With Love’ and ‘Sweet and Low’ with SAW.

Which Australian rock icon described Kylie Minogue’s 1990 SAW-penned single ‘Better the Devil You Know’ as “one of pop’s most violent and distressing love lyrics”?

“Oh, Nick Cave?”

CORRECT. What’s your favourite moment with Kylie?

“The naïve moments were the most magic. When we were on tour, we went back to South Wales where Kylie’s granny was born and I took her in the car up the valleys to where her grandmother was. At the time, she was the biggest pop star and we were walking the streets while kids were wondering: is it her? We had a ball. It was moments like those where you relaxed and could realise the enormity of what was happening.”

Apart from Nick Cave, who has been the most unexpected fan of SAW’s work?

Noel Gallagher! I’ve had some absolutely unbelievable conversations with him. When he was a gas fitter in Manchester, my studio was across the road from him, so he’d nip over at lunchtime and steal my guitar strings because he couldn’t afford them. He always credits me with giving him his start. Without my free guitar strings, he couldn’t have carried on!”

You produced two Eurovision songs – Cyprus’ 1984 entry, ‘Anna Maria Lena’ for Andy Paul and the UK’s 2010 effort, Josh Dubovie’s ‘That Sounds Good to Me’. Can you name either position they finished in on the leader board?

“No! Was Josh Dubovie the last bar one?”

WRONG. Josh Dubovie ranked dead-last on the leader board, while Andy Paul placed 15th.

“[Laughs] Oh dear! We were so naïve about how cheap the BBC were. With Josh Dubovie, we were given £20 a day to live on. In Norway! A round of drinks was £800 there! I looked at Mike Stock and said: ‘What are we doing?!’ At the press conference, somebody told me that Azerbaijan’s video cost £3 million. What fucking chance did we have? I thought: ‘We’ll go home now!’”


Which band anonymously released a parody of the SAW-produced 1987 all-star Ferry Aid charity cover of The Beatles’ ‘Let It Be’ called ‘Scab Aid’?

“I’m failing this bloody quiz miserably! I haven’t a clue!”

WRONG. Chumbawamba released the track criticising the stars’ motives and newspaper The Sun who organised the recording, featuring lyrics like: ‘While the owners of the printing presses and pop stars cry phoney tears/Nothing bleeds like the hearts of the millionaires’.

“Really? That’s a cheap shot! We did it for a reason [to raise money for the charity set up in the wake of the Zeebrugge Disaster]. When Chumbawamba chucked water over John Prescott at the [1998] BRITS, that felt like a cheap trick. If you want to be a politician, stand up and let the people vote for you. It’s great having a viewpoint – I was a senior shop steward for a long time – but don’t play at having political views, stand up and properly take the stick!”

On a brighter note, what was it like recording Paul McCartney on the track?

“Surreal. You’re working with a Beatle for Christ’s sake! He’s a perfectionist. He kept wanting to do more vocal takes. Even when the record was Number One, he was still telling me he could do it better!”

In 2008, you starred as a judge on Peter Kay’s Pop Idol spoof Britain’s Got the Pop Factor… and Possibly a New Celebrity Jesus Christ Soapstar Superstar Strictly on Ice. Name any of the three fictional acts that made it to the final.

“Anyone who could tell you that must have a great memory!”

WRONG. You could have had: Geraldine McQueen (played by Kay), 2 Up 2 Down or R Wayne.

“That was the most fun thing I’ve ever done in my life. Peter wanted it to be as real as possible, so we never knew what acts were going to be in front of us so he could get our genuine reactions. There was one scene where I had to burst into a church, shout ‘Stop! Young man! Wait’ and go down on the knee and make the sign of the cross. When I did it, Peter yelled at me: ‘What the fuck are you doing? I didn’t want fucking Zorro!’ He’s still calls me Zorro to this day!”

You were a talent show judge on Pop Idol and, most notably Popstars: The Rivals where your “vocal harmony group” One True Voice famously lost out to Girls Aloud’s ‘Sound of the Underground’ for the 2002 Christmas Number One…

“The truth is, I’d heard ‘Sound of the Underground’ before the competition even started and knew it was impossible to beat. It was foolish to take on [their label] Universal, but I played it straight and we got a band playing live every Saturday night.”

You demanded a vote recount when your band Steps were beaten to the 1999 BRIT Award for Best Breakthrough Act by which group?

“Ugh! Belle and Sebastian.”


“It made me angry. Next to Rick Astley, Steps are the biggest act I’ve ever had, but didn’t get the record industry acclaim, and were written off. But we were always pariahs. Although the first ever DJ to play a SAW record was John Peel and we’d started working with leftfield artists like Pete Burns and Divine, we were the enemy of the NME. We once did a hostile interview with NME – and it turned out to be the best interview we ever did, because we got Mel and Kim’s [1987 Number One] ‘Respectable’ out of it. We wrote it when we weren’t shortlisted for the BRIT Award for Best Producer. I took out an advert in Music Week that read: ‘You can love us. You can hate us. But you’ll never change us. We ain’t ever gonna be respectable’.  Then we just mixed it with lines out of that NME interview for the song’s lyrics. So NME may have hated us – but we made a few bob out of you!”

The verdict: 5/10 

“I thought I’d do worse!”

The second part of the documentary Stock Aitken Waterman: Legends of Pop airs on Channel 5, Saturday 28 January at 8.30pm