- It should have been a good week. Simon Cowell had just received the latest set of demos from songwriter Andreas Carlsson. Cowell, at the time BMG’s chief executive of A&R, listened to them on his way home and decided that there was at least one song that would be a worldwide hit for whichever artist was lucky enough to record it. He booked a flight to Sweden, where Carlsson is based, and persuaded him to put the song aside for BMG boy band 5ive. Fine, said Carlsson, but only if 5ive were able to fly to Stockholm and start recording the following week.
Cowell picks up the story. “It’s a fairly standard procedure. You go there, you do the song, end of story. So what happened? Next thing I know, there’s a phone call from the studio. 5ive decided that they didn’t like the demo, and left. Anyway, to cut a long story short, the song in question was Bye Bye Bye, which became a hit all over the world for *Nsync.”
That was two years ago. 5ive released one more single, then split. Some Smash Hits readers may have mourned their passing, but the world of music remained largely unchanged. There are plenty of applicants to fill the space left by a boy band who got too big for their boots. As Cowell puts it, “You know, once you’ve got to that stage with an artist, it’s just, ‘Fuck off’. What’s the point?”
If pop music in the 21st century seems to be carrying on as though the Beatles never happened, there’s a good reason for it. The Beatles were never meant to happen. Until they came along and effectively seized the means of production by writing their own songs, the A&R man’s job – matching artists to repertoire – ruled pop. Afterwards, his job was reduced to that of talent scout.
It’s tempting to wonder what would have happened had George Martin not cast aside the Beatles’ proposed first A-side – a flimsy version of Gerry Marsden’s How Do You Do It? – in favour of Lennon and McCartney’s Love Me Do. Would the Marsden song have been a hit? Would they have been dropped if it hadn’t?
Before the Beatles, chart music didn’t divide into the “fake” stuff (pop) and the “real” stuff (rock). Singers had no desire to prove themselves by writing their own songs. It simply wouldn’t have occurred to them. The structure was already in place. Jobbing songwriters would provide the material for the likes of Billy Fury or Tommy Steele, who would then tour the postwar dancehalls of Britain, six or seven on the same bill, singing their latest hits. To see how much we’ve returned to that world, look no further than the Pop Idol Big Band Tour that followed the TV show: 10 pretty young things touring the arenas of Britain, singing other people’s songs to rapt teenagers. Just like the olden days.
The professional songwriter is back with a vengeance, servicing the constant demand for material needed to fill albums by the likes of Will Young, Gareth Gates, S Club 7, Britney Spears, Blue, Holly Valance, Westlife, Atomic Kitten, Liberty X and *Nsync. Ask Cowell how he feels about the songwriters he works with, and the icy persona familiar to viewers of Pop Idol transforms itself into something approaching obsequiousness: “In one year, maybe five top-drawer, grade-A songs might appear, and my job is to get them for my artists. Everyone else is after those songs, too. So what do I do? Well, I try and keep on good terms with the songwriters.”