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Thursday 27 Nov 2014

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Network TV BBC Week 10
Eurovision – Your Country Needs You!
Interview with Pete Waterman

The writer's gonna write a song and he wants you all to sing along...

Eurovision – Your Country Needs You!

Eurovision – Your Country Needs You!

Friday 12 March BBC ONE

To win the Eurovision Song Contest, you need a classic simple pop song with universal appeal. Who better to turn to than Pete Waterman? Programme Information's Tony Matthews talks to him about his plans to make the UK No. 1 once again.

Simple and easy are not the same thing, as anyone who has ever tried writing a No. 1 song will doubtless have discovered.

"It's hard enough writing a hit song in the first place, let alone a Eurovision winner," says Pete Waterman who, with more than 200 hits to his name, including 22 No. 1s, has come as close as anyone to mastering the art. "You need to come up with something simple and catchy, people think it's easy but it's not." That's why the BBC has turned to the legendary pop writer to compose the UK's entry for the 2010 Eurovision Song Contest.

With nearly five decades in the entertainment business, and a track record of success that has earned him countless industry awards and an OBE, if anyone can put the UK back at the top of the Eurovision tree, surely Pete can. But with his very name raising expectations, isn't he on a hiding to nothing? "I've been on a hiding to nothing all my life," says the man who rose from a working-class background in Coventry to found a pop dynasty as part of the Stock Aitken Waterman production team, helping make stars of Kylie Minogue, Steps, Rick Astley, Mel And Kim and many more.

"When the BBC called to ask if I would do it, I had two questions," he says. "The first was to ensure that I had a free hand musically and the second was to ask my old partner Mike Stock to help me. We haven't worked together recently, but we've remained friends and there was no question that I would be willing as long as he was prepared to do it with me. Mike is the musician and he interprets my ideas – a trouble shared is a trouble halved, as they say."

For the last three weeks or so, Pete and Mike have locked themselves into the process of coming up with something that will work for the UK, and hopefully impress people from Sheffield to Sarajevo, but Pete isn't too worried about that. "The song has to appeal to one person only, and that's me," he says, "others will have their views on whether it's a good song or not, but I have to be in charge as ultimately I have to deliver it. If people don't like it, I can't do anything about that. We have the same starting point with all our songs and we know what the limitations are."

Although he has a free hand, Pete understands that a Eurovision song needs to conform to some very basic pop rules. "We know it needs to work as part of a television spectacular, it must be dynamic and hit everyone in the first few bars, and we know it has to last less than three minutes," he says. "You have to have a formula; it will have to have an intro, at least two verses, a bridge and a chorus, nothing superfluous.

"If you try to go against that it won't work," he adds. "Most of our No. 1s have been very standard songs. A song like Yesterday by The Beatles only comes along very occasionally to break that pattern, but even they didn't know they were breaking the rules until they'd written it. It's a fantastic song, but it's a rarity, even My Way follows a basic verse-chorus-verse-chorus progression."

Complicating things slightly is the fact that Pete doesn't yet know the identity of the singer or group who will perform his composition. That will be decided in the coming weeks as six hopefuls compete in BBC One's Eurovision – Your Country Needs You in which each will perform live before a panel of judges before three acts are selected to sing Pete's song in the final, with the public deciding who will go on to represent the UK in Oslo in May.

So has he studied the form, so to speak, to trace back a pattern of what makes a Eurovision song a winner? "I haven't thought about it like that," he says. "When I think of Eurovision I go back to the black and white years with Katie Boyle and the Eurovision logo, which was great. I loved Sandie Shaw's Puppet On A String, but you can't write songs like that any more. The audience today is highly educated and sophisticated and if you wrote Boom Bang A Bang or whatever they'd throw their arms up in the air."

Last year's runaway winner, Fairytale by Norway's Alexander Rybak, is the perfect example of what to look for, Pete says: "People liked it even before the competition opened; it was favourite to win because it was a good, simple catchy song."

Pete's success has been built on understanding both what audiences like and an ability to spot and develop talent, and he was fortunate enough to witness perhaps the greatest performance in the history of the competition in person. "I was there at Brighton in 1974 when ABBA came out with Waterloo," he recalls. "I was a young producer doing some promotional work and I was really impressed by them. I'd worked as a DJ in Denmark, so I knew of Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus long before the Eurovision Song Contest. They were great writers and were highly successful in Scandinavia, but they couldn't get arrested outside their own country. Their manager Stig Anderson had the inspired idea of getting them to do Eurovision, and putting them with the two girls, Agnetha and Anni-Frid, was a stroke of genius. Benny and Bjorn were already consummate performers and musicians and, to be honest, at that time a lot of the competition was pretty amateurish, so when they came out with Waterloo it was just 'whap... got you'. The impact was amazing and the whole history changed because one man saw the opportunity to put them out there."

Abba were truly exceptional but times have changed and most countries now are wise to what works. Pete notes from a BBC contact that one writer is providing songs for no fewer than six different countries. "Some entries are intensely local and probably won't transcend the barriers, even though they might be quite good tunes, but in my opinion everybody's got a chance," he says.

Until Jade Ewen's It's My Time, written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Diane Warren, restored some credibility in 2009, the UK had endured a pretty miserable decade at Eurovision including an abject "nul points" in 2003, a bitter humiliation for a nation with such a proud pop history. Why does Pete feel that the UK has fared so badly in recent years?

"I think it's because, for a long time, top songwriters didn't want to do it," he says. "Last year Andrew Lloyd Webber broke the mould really as the first real writer to put himself in the firing line. Going back as far as Bill [Martin] and Phil [Coulter] writing Congratulations for Cliff Richard in 1968, you haven't really had established writers and, even when the UK last won in 1997, the record wasn't British – it was Katrina And The Waves. We've put some pretty strange songs out there in recent years, I think we've tried to be too trendy – it's about getting a great song."

Not just at Eurovision but more widely, British music, Pete feels, has rather lost sight of that. "We treat music like jelly beans, it's become not so much about the songs as how it's delivered. To me it doesn't matter if it's a download or on an iPod or whatever, what matters is the song. For me people should watch Eurovision to pick a winner. You might laugh about a particular act or something strange, but you also want to say to your family 'that one will win'. As a youngster I used to watch with my mum and dad, even my grandad, all offering their opinion on what the best song was and everyone in the family would be involved. We've forgotten that and the media underestimates the power of music.

"Ultimately," he says, "it doesn't matter too much, but I'd like the country to feel proud, and I want people to say at least we gave it a bloody good shot."

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