Exclusive Q&A: Simon Cowell on One Direction's Rise to Stardom
If you're over the age of 17 and live in America, odds are high that you didn't hear about the British boy band One Direction until some time in the last two months. The group has been gaining a huge audience of teens and tweens on Facebook and Twitter since forming on Simon Cowell's The X Factor in 2010, but they've only recently started to break through to the mainstream press in America. While the group was in New York last week prepping for an appearance on Saturday Night Live, flocks of young girls stalked them around the city, Beatlemania style. Their song "What Makes You Beautiful" is Number Nine on the Billboard Hot 100, and their album recently knocked Bruce Springsteen off the top of the charts. Rolling Stone spoke with Cowell about the group's incredibly swift rise to the top.
Tell me your first impressions of the boys after you met them on The X Factor.
I met them as solo artists to begin with. Each of them individually had very good auditions. We had high hopes for two or three of them in particular, and then it all kind of fell apart at one of the latter stages. Interestingly, when they left, I had a bad feeling that maybe we shouldn't have lost them and maybe there was something else we should do with them. And this is when the idea came about that we should see if they could work as a group. We invited these five guys back. They were the only five we cared about.
The minute they stood there for the first time together – it was a weird feeling. They just looked like a group at that point. I had a good feeling, but then obviously we had about a five-week wait where they had to work together. They had to come back for another section of the show where they performed together as a group for the first time. I was concerned whether five weeks was long enough, but they came back five weeks later and were absolutely sensational.
How quickly did you realize that they could be huge?
(Chuckles) When they came to my house in Spain and performed, after about a millionth of a second. I tried to keep a straight face for a bit of drama for the show. I remember sitting next to this girl who I was working with. The second they left we jumped out of my chair and said, "These guys are incredible!" They just had it. They had this confidence. They were fun. They worked out the arrangements themselves. They were like a gang of friends, and kind of fearless as well.
Were you surprised by how quickly they broke out and became massive?
Once they were on the show, it was unusual because in an instant, we had hundreds of fans outside the studio. That doesn't happen very often. The more I got to know them, the more I liked them and the more I trusted them. They had good taste and they understood the kind of group they wanted to be. They didn't want to be molded. I'm not interested in working with people like that either.
They had their own views and they all brought something special to the table. I thought, "As long as we can get the right record, they've got a great shot." This was such an important signing, we let three or four of the Sony labels make a presentation. I didn't automatically give it to my own label. I thought, "This is so important, if somebody can come up with a better idea…" I was actually willing to pass them along to another division of Sony because I thought the group were that important. I thought they were going to be so massive, I was prepared to do that. I let my own team work independently. They actually did come back with the best plan. I felt they understood the group better. It was good. I was able to give my own label the group.
It's interesting that so few British boy bands have broken big in the States. Even a group like Take That, who are massive in England, didn't do much of anything over here. Why do you think that is?
I nearly did with a band called Five a few years ago. They had one hit in America ("When The Lights Go Out.") Then they went out to Sweden a few weeks later to record a song which they famously turned down, called "Bye Bye Bye." And it really was bye bye bye after that. That would have been the record that broke them. I would have broken that band.
I think most times if you're British, then you have to be British. I think with most of these bands, you end up with a sound that sounds somewhere between England and America – which means you fall smack down in the middle of the ocean. You don't appeal to either. It was important they had their own British sound, something different, and something they liked themselves. Every record we made and we progressed with, it was always based off the feedback from the boys in the studio. If they liked something, we went ahead. If they didn't like it, we threw it in the bin. They were a big part of the selection process of the songs on the record.