This Briton's got talent: Simon Cowell reveals what it's like to be the most powerful person in pop
One man does more to shape our music industry than any other. As he begins another star search, the svengali talks to our guest editor David Walliams.
David Walliams: Simon Cowell, when did you first hear music?
Simon Cowell: In my parents' house. My mum used to play records, always on a Saturday morning. Things like Sacha Distel, Matt Monro, Frank Sinatra, Charles Aznavour. I love those songs now but, interestingly, I hated them so much when I was about five or six that I scratched all of her records. And then I heard The Beatles for the first time and "She Loves You" was the first single that I bought. I loved buying records; records were what I used to spend my pocket money on.
DW: Did you ever think you could make music?
SC: No. I was bought an electric guitar when I was 12 but my guitar teacher beat me up. I didn't like guitar lessons and I got quite bored. My teacher was obviously bored giving me lessons, and one day I offered him a liquorice toffee but he didn't answer. So I threw it at him, it hit him in the face and he sort of beat me up. And that was the last guitar lesson I had. That was the turning point, David, when I decided I needed to be behind the scenes and not a musician.
DW: But you don't have any regrets that you're not on stage playing guitar?
DW: What were your aspirations when you were at school?
SC: I didn't have any aspirations other than drinking, smoking and that's all I really cared about.
DW: When did you discover girls?
SC: About seven. I had a crush on Dusty Springfield. Also, Raquel Welch. I had the One Million Years B.C. poster. But my first crush was a girl called Tara Miller and we snogged at the bottom of my garden.
DW: What did your parents want you to do when you grew up?
SC: We never really discussed it much because I was so terrible at school and I was always getting into trouble.
DW: What were you worst at?
SC: Woodwork, metalwork, chemistry.
DW: I hated those. My metalwork teacher used to pay me to be quiet in the lessons. What about things like English?
SC: English I was good at. Although every story which I was given to write, no matter what the subject was, I used to write it as a horror story. There was a series called Pan Horror Stories, which I used to love and I just ripped them all off.
DW: Did you ever have to write poems?
SC: Yeah, I was rubbish at poems. I hate poetry. I'm allergic.
DW: Have you never tried to write lyrics?
SC: No, funnily enough it's only this year that I've started to even listen to lyrics for the first time. Swear to God. For me, they were like wallpaper. I never took any notice of them.
DW: A lot of songwriters I know say that that's the hardest part.
SC: Now I'm starting to understand them. You know when we were doing Britain's Got Talent this year? I found that a way of making people's own compositions interesting was by asking them what the song was about. Because normally I would just listen to them as a wave of sound and nothing registered.
DW: But so few people actually interpret the lyrics because so many people in talent shows are replicating someone else's performance, especially young people. We had little boys of 11 or 12 singing "Someone Like You"... "I heard that you're settled down, that you found a girl and you're married now". Like, really?
SC: Yeah, I don't think they quite got it. But that's what I would have been like. To me, they're just words.
DW: One thing that struck me when we were doing Britain's Got Talent is that it's strangely quite gruelling sitting through auditions. So how have you gotten through the last decade listening to so many people singing, most of them terrible?
SC: By being optimistic. There are some countries that have made these shows and every year it's like someone winning Big Brother; in other words – nothing happens. You never hear from them again. With me, year one, I got lucky with Will Young and Gareth Gates as they both sold millions of records. Year one on American Idol we found Kelly Clarkson. Year one on Britain's Got Talent we had Paul Potts. So over the years we have found people who have become stars.
DW: So what's more important to you? The show or what happens afterwards?
SC: Both really. When I started I would have said it was what happened afterwards because Pop Idol was only intended as a marketing exercise to find artists. It was very cynical. The show was a process and then over the years, because people enjoyed the show so much, I then paid equal attention the show and to make it as entertaining as possible; and obviously try and find artists off the back of it as well.
DW: Who's the person you're proudest of finding?
SC: I would say One Direction because they didn't exist before the show.
DW: I remember watching the show at home and thinking, "This is a masterstroke" because you had created the youngest boyband, and if you're a 12-year-old girl, you can much more easily relate to a 16- or 17-year-old-boy than you can to Westlife or someone, who are now in their thirties.
SC: Well, I wasn't thinking quite as cynically as that.
DW: So you're less cynical than I am!
SC: Yes, I am actually. No, at the time there were a couple of people, Harry and Liam, who were really good on their first auditions and we were really disappointed that, for whatever reason, they didn't make the cut on the second round. As they went I said, "I think there's five guys here who we should consider putting into a group", and it literally took 10, 15 minutes to make that decision. And now this week they've debuted at number one on the American album chart, which is the first time that's ever happened with a British group.
DW: And how have you broken them in America?
SC: Mainly through social media. It wasn't a hype or over promotion thing.
DW: So do you have a long-term plan for a band like that?
SC: Well, you take it week by week. There's definitely a future for them. They've been signed up by Nickelodeon, they have a movie deal on offer. There's something special about these boys so I am proud of that because, and I've got to be honest with you, I'm 52 years old and there does come a point when you're on one of these shows and you have to wonder if your opinion is relevant anymore. Are you going to sound like an old fart? Or can you actually talk to people much younger than you and have them trust you and relate to you?
DW: Will you ever retire?
SC: Yes, if I got to the point where I was completely out of touch and I genuinely didn't know what I was talking about.
DW: What do you think your legacy will be? That you once worked with David Walliams?
SC: No, actually, David. I don't think we've hit that point yet. This is a very, very important time for me. Last year didn't feel like it but I think this is the time where I feel we're either going to be like disco in the Seventies, where it just ended, or we're going be like Madonna and we can reinvent ourselves from 2012 to 2020. I would hate to think that we've hit the peak. That would be really depressing. I'd rather fall off a cliff than death from a thousand cuts.
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