Which direction now for One Direction?
They've had 95 international numbers ones and are worth £70m, but is the world's biggest boyband outgrowing their fans. And, if so, what next? Tom Lamont talks to the boys of One Direction about the future
Not long ago, I travelled to America, on a short trip to interview a singer, for which I was picked up in a car laid on by one of the big record labels. The driver noted my British accent and said, "You like One Direction?"
I hadn't kept up with One Direction since The X Factor, though I knew the rough narrative. The boy band had finished third in 2010, and gone on to make decent gains in the British charts, before taking their preppy, 60s-influenced synth-pop to America - where they boomed, selling server-towers' worth of a first album, Up All Night. Their second and third albums, 2012's Take Me Home and 2013's Midnight Memories, went to No 1. They defied their risky name and its hint of one-dimensionality by diversifying into movies, perfumes, toothpaste, generally making giddy-money for themselves and their patron, Simon Cowell.
Sure, I told the driver, One Direction are fine. He said that the band had flown into town a week ago, and that he'd driven one of the boys to his hotel. About a 15-minute journey.
You only drove one of them? Where were the others? "In different cars," the driver said.
For a 15-minute drive? "Five members, five cars."
And right there, One Direction became intriguing.
It's October, and the band are promoting a new album, their fourth in three years. They agree to meet me at the end of the month, two days before Halloween. It's a time of year for ordering cardboard Louis and Liam masks, or a top-to-toe outfit exactly replicating Zayn's letterman-jacket look from the 2012 tour. Along with One Direction's new album, Four, and a third volume of their memoirs, there's a new perfume out and a new single streaming online. I know this, go full immersion, swimming deep in the world of One Direction, the YouTube clips, merchant catalogues, DVDs, album streams.
Four years' touring, releasing, deal-inking and generalised fan farming by the band has established a vast, primitive ocean of stuff around One Direction. I learn: Martin Scorsese is a fan, and that each band member has a lipstick. Midnight Memories was the world's biggest selling album in 2013. That year's documentary, One Direction: This Is Us, earned so much at the box office that Cowell was genuinely annoyed it didn't receive an Oscar nomination. At a concert in Peru, 47 fans were crushed, needing treatment. There are currently four varieties of branded bedclothes, not including sleeping bags.
Where were the human boys in the middle of this? Louis Tomlinson (23), Zayn Malik, Liam Payne, Niall Horan (all 21) and Harry Styles (20) showed up at regional auditions for The X Factor and were pulled from Doncaster, Bradford, Wolverhampton, Mullingar and Cheshire respectively, to be transformed into world-straddling agents of profit. They were paid £30 a day as X Factor auditionees, and now they're worth about £16m a man. Louis not long ago tried to buy a football club. Harry owns a £20,000 sculpture of Jesus. Niall, they say, still loves his Nandos. Zayn's lucky number is 11. Two of the boys are single, two are coupled and one, Zayn, is engaged.
Really, even these kernels of bio come parcelled in a warning wrap. Their lives are surrounded in obfuscation, hopeful conjecture, nonsense. Last spring, the Star went to press with a front page, HARRY X-RATED SEX PIC SHAME, that by second edition was changed to HARRY FURY AT FAKED SEX PIC. I'm sent a novel by Simon & Schuster, 584 pages of fantastical smut that reimagines the band not as popstars but as randy college students. (Paramount have the movie rights.) Back in the spring, Louis and Zayn filmed themselves enjoying a cheeky spliff while on tour and the footage somehow ended up online. Before my interview, I'm sent a warning not to raise the subject: "The band won't be answering any questions about the Louis/Zayn 'drug' video."
I speak to people in and around the music business about the band, to ex-popstars and industry lifers, to critics and glossy magazine editors. Most are reluctant to go on record. "Tread carefully, my friend," one publicist warns. "You don't want to upset the Overlord." (He means Cowell.)
Everyone has a claim, an opinion, a criticism. An employee who worked backstage at the Brit awards confirms that a member of Mumford & Sons once caused enormous offence by mistaking members of One Direction for competition-winning fans. Hours before I travel to meet the band, Roger Daltrey of the Who launches an unprovoked attack on One Direction's musical integrity, suggesting they lack purpose. Samples of Harry's vomit, I read, have been listed on eBay. He'd stopped to be sick on the side of the road while driving in LA, and fans swooped.
When I first get a clear look at them, these five young men with a Sri Lanka-sized body of fans, we are in a large studio complex in north London, the room dim except for where One Direction are sitting, on a spotlit sofa.
They're all dressed in black and grey, an effort, their stylist explains, at making them "slicker, more rock'n'roll". This is the thinking behind the hair, too: shoulder-length for Harry, pushed back with a head band for Zayn, generally model-ish all round. The new album is your fourth in three years, I say. How long can you maintain this pace before you melt?
Liam, leather-jacketed, says: "Erm. It's an often-asked question. But I think we're feeling pretty good. We've just had a couple of days off, actually." Louis, in a Bruce Springsteen T-shirt, corrects him: "A couple of weeks off." Liam: "Couple of weeks off, yeah. Couple of weeks. So we've been chilling. But we're all pretty hard-working. We just enjoy it more than anything. It's not a question of burnout."
To those people who haven't given your albums a listen before, why should they?
"You know, I think, why not?" Harry asks. He's wearing a sleeved vest and, unlike the others, who are rapid and chirpy, speaks in a slow drawl - there's a touch of Eddie Izzard. Louis talks about there being something for their fans on the record, but also something for their fans' parents - a 1980s-influenced seam that might be found nostalgic.
I wonder about Roger Daltrey. Was it fair for him to suggest that One Direction lack purpose?
Louis: "Aaayyyuhhh ... I mean, everyone's entitled to their own opinion." Liam: "I didn't even hear that." Louis: "No, that's the first I've heard of it."
Zayn, wearing a knitted jumper, speaks about One Direction not trying to impress anyone. Louis returns to the matter of purpose. "Like, we're doing a signing today, [because] it's incredible to give back to the fans. And you only have to look at how overwhelmed some of them are, even just for a meeting with us, it's incredible. And I think, as a parent, looking at that, there's your purpose. You know, we're hopefully making people happy, so ..."
What motivates this band? "Giving back to the fans." What do they make of their every utterance being second-guessed by those fans? "That's just part of their fandom."
From here on I will redact all mentions of fans, and of those fans being great. Just assume that One Direction knows it has fans and knows its fans to be supportive, because their every other thought is sunk under the weight of acknowledging this. When I ask about the emotional burden of their work, all those complex infatuations they can't possibly reciprocate, the boys say it's not a burden it's a privilege. Zayn: "If it wasn't for [redacted] we wouldn't be where we are." Liam: "We just like to think about [redacted]." Harry: "[Redacted]."
I've been thinking about the fans myself. Before I meet the band, I speak with an editor at GQ, who reads me some of the threats that were sent to his office on the band's behalf after his magazine published an interview thought unflattering. "GQ needs to shut up," ran one message, "before I break my glass nail file in two and stab them in the eyes."
I meet with a non-violent section of the fanbase, two Essex schoolgirls called Elise and Frances who have been devoted to One Direction since the start. We spend an afternoon together, the 15-year-olds demonstrating the extraordinarily close study of the band that occupies its followers, day to day.
Both Elise and Frances have had their Twitter accounts suspended for messaging One Direction too often. In terms of receiving individual attention from the boys, Frances and Elise's options are limited. Throwing a "fake faint" at a gig is rumoured to have led others to backstage encounters. (Frances: "I'd seriously consider it.") Probably their best bet lies in a dogged Twitter pursuit, sending the same message to a member over and over in the hope of snaring his attention and getting a smiley in return. This, Frances says, means sending it about 400 times, well into the realm that Twitter considers service abuse, hence the frequent suspensions. One Direction is the first mega-band of the social media age, and this has a direct knock-on effect for me: the boys have very little incentive to promote their wares through old institutional channels such as the press. They don't give long interviews; they don't need to. When Frances and Elise get home from school, they go online to see what One Direction are saying. As it happens, One Direction are usually saying they have a new product out.
The interview halfway gone, we're talking about how normal the boys are. Louis: "We're normal lads." Zayn: "We're normal guys." I ask about a song on the new album called Stockholm Syndrome. If you lot are captives, who are your jailers? Harry gets in first: "You."
I get a sense Harry would be the most interesting band member to speak to alone. Of all of them, people tell me again and again, he's the one who's managed to remain most level, even as he romances his way around the major metropolitan areas (LA's Kendell Jenner, London's Cara Delevingne, Nashville's Taylor Swift) and buddies up with Anna Wintour at fashion shows.
But today I've got the lot of them together. It's all been quite cautious, quite defensive - the only steer away from the official line Liam's comment: "It's not a question of burnout."
Four albums in three years, I think. Three books, a movie, two world tours, 300-odd shows. What else can it be a question of?
"We were kept on the road, and before you know it, two or three years and millions of dollars had gone by." This was one of the Backstreet Boys, speaking to Rolling Stone at the end of the 1990s. In the same magazine, another Backstreet Boy said he'd twice delayed essential heart surgery because of non-negotiable touring commitments. Some years before this, an overworked Robbie Williams, then in Take That, fell asleep on a below-stage riser and woke to find himself in front of thousands.
Feel, a biography about Williams by the journalist Chris Heath, written with the pop star's collaboration, is an indispensable document for anyone hoping to understand the perks and unbalanced harassments of life in a boyband. The short-term effects of too much travel and too many hours together, the slower-burning dementia brought on by round-the-clock adoration. Williams writes: "The first couple of years we were really quite close ... but the last couple of years, I don't know, it just became mad ... Home life was weird, and you [got] a weird perception of the world. And then there's a hundred fucking girls outside your house … And all of that stuff mixed with the insane promotion that we did ... We were tired and scared."
An equivalent volume, One Direction: Tired And Scared, seems unlikely to arrive for a while. But they are this decade's significant boyband, bigger than Take That ever were, and busier, so they must be similarly taxed. In last year's official documentary, the band were not much encouraged to discuss emotional damage. We did get poignant looks at the mums and dads, though, their scenes hinting that home life, as per Feel, had got weird. Louis's mother was shown buying a cardboard cutout of her son in order to say goodnight to it. Liam's mother: "They become like someone in a newspaper or a magazine to you." Harry's stepfather: "Harry went to an audition and never came home again."
I've brought a copy of Williams's book with me, and when I pull it out, they say, "Oh great. Oh sick." I read them the "tired and scared" passage. Williams was remembering life in Take That after four years on the road. Does it chime?
Louis: "I'd say we're tired at times. But scared?" Niall: "No, not scared." Zayn: "Where he says 'scared', maybe it was something to do with him not knowing where he wanted to go with himself." Harry: "I think we've also been lucky enough to have stuff that went on with them [Take That] as an example." Liam: "There was a different hierarchy in that band."
Quickly I've come to dread Liam's interruptions, his land-scorching "erms" that tend to halt any surrounding chat. By all accounts, Liam took the longest to find his niche in the band. Harry locked down the role of Sexy One early, having had an affair with an X Factor host, Caroline Flack, 16 years his senior. Louis was cheeky and confident, and so the Funny One. Niall smiley, inoffensive: the Nice One. Reticent Zayn was named Mysterious, and with these other roles taken, Liam finally found his place as the Responsible One.
"We feel most at home when we're sat writing, or on stage, that's our thing," Liam tells me flatly. "There's no real getting away from it." He'll later put a message on Twitter that reads in its entirety "Very interesting day today", and when such a thing is approvingly retweeted 55,000 times, I guess there isn't a lot of pressure to be interesting. But I'm encouraged he has been considering hierarchy within the band. They all should. The time is coming, it must be, when this unnaturally contained pack of males won't be able to go on in each other's company. The songs will chafe, as will the schedule. One Direction will split because boybands do, at which point hierarchy - in terms of an individual's charisma, musicianship, credibility, cool - is all that will matter.
Have they made any sort of pact? That if one member wants to leave, the band folds?
Louis: "No, we haven't really. What do you mean?" Liam: "No, we haven't spoken about that." Zayn: "What would the pact entail?" Liam: "Well, I don't know if it will [fold]. Without any of us ... Yeah, I don't think it will, I think that's the magic of it. We still feel like we're on our rise a little bit."
Just about everyone else I asked felt this band was nearer its end than its beginning. Some had doubts One Direction, pushing into year five, would go much further. "Not long for this world," a glossy-mag editor told me. For what it's worth, someone who knows someone in the band's camp said there was nothing in the diary after next summer.
The boys say to me: "We're just making the music that we love." Yet for all the fun and verve contained in a new-album track such as Girl Almighty, theirs is still music targeted squarely at one market, the clue to which is in that song title. They've put out decent pop since 2011. They're pushed to their best when Ed Sheeran contributes a track or two per release cycle. But I'm not surprised it grated when a Mumford failed to recognise them as musicians. The boys of One Direction are ageing faster than their output. If this is a generalisation, it's one based on hard sales data: theirs is not music to which early-20s males listen.
Harry, we learned this summer, has been writing on the sly with Ryan Tedder, the songcrafter-supreme behind some major Beyonce. Niall is a lifelong fan of Daltrey and the Who. Zayn's meant to be deep into his hip hop. There's only one direction this points. But until the boy band actually gather for that sombre press conference (as boy bands do), discussion of their split must remain misty and speculative.
Our interview is over. I hand them a scrapbook made over many months by Elise and Frances. The band must have taken a thousand such offerings, but they're decent boys, and make themselves interested and flattered. I give them a present myself: a copy of Robbie Williams's book, in part an essential playbook on making the transition to a soloist. I put it on the floor, intrigued to see who will pick it up. Harry, the Sexy One, and the favourite to make a name for himself alone? Zayn, the Mysterious One, who has the best voice? Niall, the Nice One, or Louis, the Funny One? Surely not Liam, the Responsible One. Harry reaches. Liam gets there first. "Thanks," he says, swiping it up.
Epilogue: I say goodbye, write up our encounter, file my copy. How honest was my meeting with One Direction, huddled up on their spotlit sofa? I knew the official identities (Funny, Nice, Mysterious), but even those hadn't fully tallied. Louis wasn't funny. Niall didn't seem so nice, just tired, coasting. They were all mysterious, in the way a collective can keep themselves if they don't say more than one or two sentences before passing on to each other.
A week after the interview, I'm eating lunch in a cafe near my home when someone taps me on the shoulder: Harry. He's at a table across the room - do I want to join? We talk about the interview, how absurdly hot it was under the lights. He mentions playing five-a-side the night before and we trade stories about the first football matches we went to see. Harry says it was the only place his dad would let him swear - a little six-year-old Styles, gleefully doing "wanker" signs at the opposition fans.
It's a nice chat. Harry's Nice. A reminder that he's one of the most famous men in the world comes when a dude slinks over, asks for a photograph..
I ask Harry how often that happens. How many selfies in his lifetime, a rough figure. The drawl is perfect for his answer. "More times," Harry says, "than anyone could count." We say goodbye. Later, it occurs to me to check how high the bidding went on those collected samples of the guy's vomit. I can't find the eBay listing, but I do find a photograph of the roadside site where the vomiting took place. A small shrine has been erected: Harry Styles threw up here, 10/12/14.