‘Better Than Words’: How One Direction Became One of the Great Rock Bands of the 21st Century
July 22, 2020
Collaborators Savan Kotecha, Carl Falk, Julian Bunetta, and John Ryan recount the group’s story and sound for their 10th anniversary
A BATHROOM FIGURES significantly in the origin stories of at least two classic One Direction songs. The first will be familiar to any fan: Songwriter and producer Savan Kotecha was sitting on the toilet in a London hotel room, when he heard his wife say, “I feel so ugly today.” The words that popped into his head would shape the chorus of One Direction’s unforgettable 2011 debut, “What Makes You Beautiful.”
The second takes place a few years later: Another hotel room in England — this one in Manchester — where songwriters and producers Julian Bunetta and John Ryan were throwing back Cucumber Collins cocktails and tinkering with a beat. Liam Payne was there, too. At one point, Liam got up to use the bathroom, and when he re-emerged, he was singing a melody. They taped it immediately. Most of it was mumbled — a temporary place-holder — but there was one phrase: “Better than words …” A few hours later, on the bus to another city, another show — Bunetta and Ryan can’t remember where — Liam asked, maybe having a laugh, “What if the rest of the song was just lyrics from other songs?”
“Songs in general, you’re just sort of waiting for an idea to bonk you on the head,” Ryan says from a Los Angeles studio, with Bunetta. “And if you’re sort of winking at it, laughing at it — we were probably joking, ‘What if [the next line was] “More than a feeling”? Well, that would actually be tight!’”
“Better Than Words,” closed One Direction’s third album, Midnight Memories. It was never a single, but became a fan-favorite live-show staple. It’s a midtempo headbanger that captures the essence of what One Direction is, and always was: One of the great rock & roll bands of the 21st century.
July 23rd marks One Direction’s 10th anniversary, the day Simon Cowell told Harry Styles, Niall Horan, Zayn Malik, Liam Payne, and Louis Tomlinson that they would progress on The X Factor as a group. Between that date and their last live performance (so far, one can hope) on December 31st, 2015, they released five albums, toured the world four times — twice playing stadiums — and left a trove of Top 10 hits for a devoted global fan base that came to life at the moment social media was redefining the contours of fandom. It’d been a decade since the heyday of ‘NSync and Backstreet Boys, and the churn of generations demanded a new boy band. One Direction’s songs were great and their charisma and chemistry undeniable, but what made them stick was a sound unlike anything else in pop — rooted in guitar rock at a time when that couldn’t have been more passé.
Kotecha, who met 1D on The X Factor and shepherded them through their first few years, is a devoted student of the history of boy bands. He first witnessed their power back in the Eighties, when New Kids on the Block helped his older sister through her teens. The common thread linking all great boy bands, from New Kids to BSB, he says, is, “When they’d break, they’d come out of nowhere, sounding like nothing that’s on the radio.”
In 2010, Kotecha remembers, “everybody was doing this sort of Rihanna dance pop.” But that just wasn’t a sound One Direction could pull off (the Wanted did it only once); and famously, they didn’t even dance. Instead, the reference points for 1D went all the way back to the source of contemporary boy bands.
“Me and Simon would talk about how [One Direction] was Beatlesque, Monkees-esque,” Kotecha continues. “They had such big personalities. I felt like a kid again when I was around them. And I felt like the only music you could really do that with is fun, poppy guitar songs. It would come out of left field and become something owned by the fans.”
“The guitar riff had to be so simple that my friend’s 15-year-old daughter could play it and put a cover to YouTube,” says Carl Falk
To craft that sound on 1D’s first two albums, Up All Night and Take Me Home, Kotecha worked mostly with Swedish songwriters-producers Carl Falk and Rami Yacoub. They’d all studied at the Max Martin/Cheiron Studios school of pop craftsmanship, and Falk says they were confident they could crack the boy-band code once more with songs that recalled BSB and ‘NSync, but replaced the dated synths and pianos with guitars.
The greatest thing popular music can do is make someone else think, “I can do that,” and One Direction’s music was designed with that intent. “The guitar riff had to be so simple that my friend’s 15-year-old daughter could play it and put a cover to YouTube,” Falk says. “If you listen to ‘What Makes You Beautiful’ or ‘One Thing,’ they have two-finger guitar riffs that everyone who can play a bit of guitar can learn. That was all on purpose.”
One Direction famously finished third on The X Factor, but Cowell immediately signed them to his label, Syco Music. They’d gone through one round of artist-development boot camp on the show, and another followed on an X Factor live tour in the spring of 2011. They’d developed an onstage confidence, but the studio presented a new challenge. “We had to create who should do what in One Direction,” Falk says. To solve the puzzle the band’s five voices presented, they chose the kitchen-sink method and everyone tried everything.
“They were searching for themselves,” Falk adds. “It was like, ‘Harry, let’s just record him; he’s not afraid of anything.’ Liam’s the perfect song starter, and then you put Zayn on top with this high falsetto. Louis found his voice when we did ‘Change Your Mind.’ It was a long trial for everyone to find their strengths and weaknesses, but that was also the fun part.” Falk also gave Niall some of his first real guitar lessons; there’s video of them performing “One Thing” together, still blessedly up on YouTube.
“What Makes You Beautiful” was released September 11th, 2011, in the U.K. and debuted at Number One on the singles chart there — though the video had dropped a month prior. While One Direction’s immediate success in the U.K. and other parts of Europe wasn’t guaranteed, the home-field odds were favorable. European markets historically have been kinder to boy bands than the U.S.; ‘NSync and Backstreet Boys found huge success abroad before they conquered at home. To that end, neither Kotecha nor Falk were sure 1D would break in the U.S. Falk even says of conceiving the band’s sound, “We didn’t want it to sound too American, because this was not meant — for us, at least — to work in America. This was gonna work in the U.K. and maybe outside the U.K.”
Stoking anticipation for “What Makes You Beautiful” by releasing the video on YouTube before the single dropped preceded the strategy Columbia Records (the band’s U.S. label) adopted for Up All Night. Between its November 2011 arrival in the U.K. and its U.S. release in March 2012, Columbia eschewed traditional radio strategies and built hype on social media. One Direction had been extremely online since their X Factor days, engaging with fans and spending their downtime making silly videos to share. One goofy tune, made with Kotecha, called “Vas Happenin’ Boys?” was an early viral hit.
“They instinctively had this — and it might just be a generational thing — they just knew how to speak to their fans,” Kotecha says. “And they did that by being themselves. That was a unique thing about these boys: When the cameras turned on, they didn’t change who they were.”
Social media was flooded with One Direction contests and petitions to bring the band to fans’ towns. Radio stations were inundated with calls to play “What Makes You Beautiful” long before it was even available. When it did finally arrive, Kotecha (who was in Sweden at the time) remembers staying up all night to watch it climb the iTunes chart with each refresh.
Take Me Home, was recorded primarily in Stockholm and London during and after their first world tour. The success of Up All Night had attracted an array of top songwriting talent — Ed Sheeran even penned two hopeless-romantic sad-lad tunes, “Little Things” and “Over Again” — but Kotecha, Falk, and Yacoub grabbed the reins, collaborating on six of the album’s 13 tracks. In charting 1D’s course, Kotecha returned to his boy-band history: “My theory was, you give them a similar sound on album two, and album three is when you start moving on.”
Still, there was the inherent pressure of the second album to contend with. The label wanted a “What Makes You Beautiful, Part 2,” and evidence that the 1D phenomenon wasn’t slowing down appeared outside the window of the Stockholm studio: so many fans, the street had to be shut down. Kotecha even remembers seeing police officers with missing-person photos, combing through the girls camped outside, looking for teens to return to their parents.
At this pivotal moment, One Direction made it clear that they wanted a greater say in their artistic future. Kotecha admits he was wary at first, but the band was determined. To help manage the workload, Kotecha had brought in two young songwriters, Kristoffer Fogelmark and Albin Nedler, who’d arrived with a handful of ideas, including a chorus for a booming power ballad called “Last First Kiss.”
“We thought, while we’re busy recording vocals, whoever’s not busy can go write songs with these two guys, and then we’ll help shape them as much as we can,” Kotecha says. “And to our pleasant surprise, the songs were pretty damn good.”
At this pivotal moment, too, songwriters Bunetta and Ryan also met the band. Friends from the Berklee College of Music, Bunetta and Ryan had moved out to L.A. and cut a few tracks, but still had no hits to their names. They entered the Syco orbit after scoring work on the U.S. version of The X Factor, and were asked if they wanted to try writing a song for Take Me Home. “I was like, ‘Yeah, definitely,’” Bunetta says. “’They sold 5 million albums? Hell, yeah, I want to make some money.’”
Working with Jamie Scott, who’d written two songs on Up All Night (“More Than This” and “Stole My Heart”), Bunetta and Ryan wrote “C’mon, C’mon” — a blinding hit of young love that rips down a dance-pop speedway through a comically oversize wall of Marshall stacks. It earned them a trip to London. Bunetta admits to thinking the whole 1D thing was “a quick little fad” ahead of their first meeting with the band, but their charms were overwhelming. Everyone hit it off immediately.
“Niall showed me his ass,” Bunetta remembers of the day they recorded, “They Don’t Know About Us,” one of five songs he and Ryan co-produced for Take Me Home (two are on the deluxe edition). “The first vocal take, he went in to sing, did a take. I was looking down at the computer screen and was like, ‘On this line, can you sing it this way?’ And I looked over and he was mooning me. I was like, ‘I love this guy!’”
Take Me Home dropped November 9th, just nine days short of Up All Night’s first anniversary. With only seven weeks left in 2012, it became the fourth-best-selling album of the year globally, moving 4.4 million copies, per IFPI; it fell short of Adele’s 21, Taylor Swift’s Red, and 1D’s own Up All Night, which had several extra months to sell 4.5 million copies.
Kotecha, Falk, and Yacoub’s tracks anchored the album. Songs like “Kiss You,” “Heart Attack,” and “Live While We’re Young” were pristine pop rock that One Direction delivered with full delirium, vulnerability, and possibility — the essence of the teen — in voices increasingly capable of navigating all the little nuances of that spectrum. And the songs 1D helped write (“Last First Kiss,” “Back for You,” and “Summer Love”) remain among the LP’s best.
“You saw that they caught the bug and were really good at it,” Kotecha says of their songwriting. “And moving forward, you got the impression that that was the way for them.”
Like clockwork, the wheels began to churn for album three right after Take Me Home dropped. But unlike those first two records, carving out dedicated studio time for LP3 was going to be difficult — on February 23rd, 2013, One Direction would launch a world tour in London, the first of 123 concerts they’d play that year. They’d have to write and record on the road, and for Kotecha and Falk — both of whom had just had kids — that just wasn’t possible.
But it was also time for a creative shift. Even Kotecha knew that from his boy-band history: Album three is, after all, when you start moving on. One Direction was ready, too. Kotecha credits Louis, the oldest member of the group, for “shepherding them into adulthood, away from the very poppy stuff of the first two albums. He was leading the charge to make sure that they had a more mature sound. And at the time, being in it, it was a little difficult for me, Rami and Carl to grasp — but hindsight, that was the right thing to do.”
“For three years, this was our schedule,” Bunetta says. “We did X Factor October, November, December. Took off January. February, flew to London. We’d gather ideas with the band, come up with sounds, hang out. Then back to L.A. for March, produce some stuff, then go out on the road with them in April. Get vocals, write a song or two, come back for May, work on the vocals, and produce the songs we wrote on the road. Back to London in June-ish. Back here for July, produce it up. Go back on tour in August, get last bits of vocals, mix in September, back to X Factor in October, album out in November, January off, start it all over again.”
That cycle began in early 2013, when Bunetta and Ryan flew to London for a session that lasted just more than a week, but yielded the bulk of Midnight Memories. With songwriters Jamie Scott, Wayne Hector, and Ed Drewett they wrote “Best Song Ever” and “You and I,” and with Scott and One Direction, “Diana” and “Midnight Memories.” Bunetta and Ryan’s initial rapport with the band strengthened — they were a few years older, but, as Bunetta jokes, “we act like we’re 19 all the time anyway.” Years ago, Bunetta posted an audio clip documenting the creation of “Midnight Memories” — the place-holder chorus was a full-throated, perfectly harmonized, “I love KFC!”
For the most part, Bunetta, Ryan, and 1D doubled down on the rock sound their predecessors had forged, but there was one outlier from that week. A stunning bit of post-Mumford festival folk buoyed by a new kind of lyrical and vocal maturity called “Story of My Life.”
“This was a make-or-break moment for them,” Bunetta says. “They needed to grow up, or they were gonna go away — and they wanted to grow up. To get to the level they got to, you need more than just your fan base. That song extended far beyond their fan base and made people really pay attention.”
Production on Midnight Memories continued on the road, where, like so many bands before them, One Direction unlocked a new dimension to their music. Tour engineer Alex Oriet made it possible, Ryan says, building makeshift vocal booths in hotel rooms by flipping beds up against the walls. Writing and recording was crammed in whenever — 20 minutes before a show, or right after another two-hour performance.
“It preserved the excitement of the moment,” Bunetta says. “We were just there, doing it, marinating in it at all times. You’re capturing moments instead of trying to re-create them. A lot of times we’d write a song, sing it in the hotel, produce it, then fly back out to have them re-sing it — and so many times the demo vocals were better. They hadn’t memorized it yet. They were still in the mood. There was a performance there that you couldn’t re-create.”
Midnight Memories arrived, per usual, during a November, in 2013. And, per usual, it was a smash. The following year, 1D brought their songs to the environment they always deserved — stadiums around the world — and amid the biggest shows of their career, they worked on their aptly-titled fourth album, Four. The 123 concerts 1D had played the year before had strengthened their combined vocal prowess in a way that opened up an array of new possibilities.
“We could use their voices on Four to make something sound more exciting and bigger, rather than having to add too many guitars, synths, or drums,” Ryan says.
“They were so much more dynamic and subtle, too,” Bunetta adds. “I don’t think they could’ve pulled off a song like ‘Night Changes’ two albums prior; or the nuance to sing soft and emotionally on ‘Fireproof.’ It takes a lot of experience to deliver a restrained vocal that way.”
“A lot of the songs were double,” Bunetta says, “like somebody might be singing about their girlfriend, but there was another meaning that applied to the group as well.”
Musically, Four was 1D’s most-expansive album yet — from the sky-high piano rock of “Steal My Girl” to the tender, tasteful groove of “Fireproof” — and it had the emotional range to match. Now in their early twenties, songs like “Where Do Broken Hearts Go,” “No Control,” “Fool’s Gold,” and “Clouds” redrew the dramas and euphorias of adolescence with the new weight, wit, and wanton winks of impending adulthood. One Direction weren’t growing up normally in any sense of the word, but they were becoming songwriters capable of drawing out the most relatable elements from their extraordinary circumstances — like on “Change Your Ticket,” where the turbulent love affairs of young jet-setters are distilled to the universal pang of a long goodbye. There were real relationships inspiring these stories, but now that One Direction were four years into being the biggest band on the planet, it was natural that the relationships within the band would make it into the music as well.
“I think that on Four,” Bunetta says, with a slight pause, “there were some tensions going on. A lot of the songs were double — like somebody might be singing about their girlfriend, but there was another meaning that applied to the group as well.”
He continues: “It’s tough going through that age, having to spread your wings with so many eyeballs on you, so much money and no break. It was tough for them to carve out their individual manhood, space, and point of view, while learning how to communicate with each other. Even more than relationship things that were going on, that was the bigger blanket that was in there every day, seeping into the songs.”
Bunetta remembers Zayn playing him “Pillowtalk” and a few other songs for the first time through a 3 a.m. fog of cigarette smoke in a hotel room in Japan.
“Fucking amazing,” he says. “They were fucking awesome. I know creatively he wasn’t getting what he needed from the way that the albums were being made on the road. He wanted to lock himself in the studio and take his time, be methodical. And that just wasn’t possible.”
A month or so later, and 16 shows into One Direction’s On the Road Again Tour, Zayn left the band. Bunetta and Ryan agree it wasn’t out of the blue: “He was frustrated and wanted to do things outside of the band,” Bunetta says. “It’s a lot for a young kid, all those shows. We’d been with them for a bunch of years at this point — it was a matter of when. You just hoped that it would wait until the last album.”
Still, Bunetta compares the loss to having a finger lopped off, and he acknowledges that Harry, Niall, Liam, and Louis struggled to find their bearings as One Direction continued with their stadium tour and next album, Made in the A.M. Just as band tensions bubbled beneath the songs on Four, Zayn’s departure left an imprint on Made in the A.M. Not with any overt malice, but a song like “Drag Me Down,” Bunetta says, reflects the effort to bounce back. Even Niall pushing his voice to the limits of his range on that song wouldn’t have been necessary if Zayn and his trusty falsetto were available.
But Made in the A.M. wasn’t beholden to this shake-up. Bunetta and Ryan cite “Olivia” as a defining track, one that captures just how far One Direction had come as songwriters: They’d written it in 45 minutes, after wasting a whole day trying to write something far worse.
“When you start as a songwriter, you write a bunch of shitty songs, you get better and you keep getting better,” Ryan says. “But then you can get finicky, and you’re like, ‘Maybe I have to get smart with this lyric.’ By Made in the A.M. … they were coming into their own in the sense of picking up a guitar, messing around, and feeling something, rather than being like, ‘How do I put this puzzle together?’”
After Zayn’s departure, Bunetta and Ryan said it became clear that Made in the A.M. would be One Direction’s last album before some break of indeterminate length. The LP boasts the palpable tug of the end, but to One Direction’s credit, that finality is balanced by a strong sense of forever. It’s literally the last sentiment they leave their fans on album-closer “History,” singing, “Baby don’t you know, baby don’t you know/We can live forever.”
In a way, Made in the A.M. is about One Direction as an entity. Not one that belonged to the group, but to everyone they spent five years making music for. Four years since their hiatus and 10 years since their formation, the fans remain One Direction’s defining legacy. Even as all five members have settled into solo careers, Ryan notes that baseless rumors of any kind of reunion — even a meager Zoom call — can still set the internet on fire. The old songs remain potent, too: Carl Falk says his nine-year-old son has taken to making TikToks to 1D tracks.
“Most of them weren’t necessarily musicians before this happened, but they loved music, and they found a love of creating, writing, and playing,” Kotecha says
There are plenty of metrics to quantify One Direction’s reach, success, and influence. The hard numbers — album sales and concert ticket stubs — are staggering on their own, but the ineffable is always more fun. One Direction were such a good band that a fan, half-jokingly, but then kinda seriously, started a GoFundMe to buy out their contract and grant them full artistic freedom. One Direction were such a good band that songwriters like Kotecha and Falk — who would go on to make hits with Ariana Grande, the Weeknd, and Nicki Minaj — still think about the songs they could have made with them. One Direction were such a good band that Mitski covered “Fireproof.”
But maybe it all comes down to the most ineffable thing of all: Chance. Kotecha compares success on talent shows like The X Factor to waking up one morning and being super cut — but now, to keep that figure, you have to work out at a 10, without having done the gradual work to reach that level. That’s the downfall for so many acts, but One Direction were not only able, but willing, to put in the work.
“They’re one of the only acts from those types of shows that managed to do it for such a long time,” Kotecha says. “Five years is a long time for a massive pop star to go nonstop. I know it was tiring, but they were fantastic sports about it. They appreciated and understood the opportunity they had — and, as you can see, they haven’t really stopped since. Most of them weren’t necessarily musicians before this happened, but they loved music, and they found a love of creating, writing, and playing. To have these boys — that had been sort of randomly picked — to also have that? It will never be repeated.”