Welcome to New Retro Week, a celebration of the biggest artists, hits, and cultural moments that made 2012 a seminal year in pop. MTV News is looking back to see what lies ahead: These essays showcase how today’s blueprint was laid a decade ago. Step into our time machine.
By Larisha Paul
There was no blueprint for One Direction. Before their formation in 2010, the landscape of competing boy bands whose mere name evoked thousands of screaming fans was barren. Predecessors like Backstreet Boys and NSYNC were either past their peak or already broken up — and none of them had been unexpectedly thrown together on a singing competition show. During their stint on The X Factor (U.K.), Harry Styles, Zayn Malik, Niall Horan, Louis Tomlinson, and Liam Payne were tasked with performing covers week after week while learning how to perform in a group that shared the spotlight, rather than crafting individual sounds as solo artists like they had hoped when auditioning. All the while, they attracted an audience of millions in a matter of months.
Simon Cowell, who orchestrated One Direction’s formation, signed the group to Syco Records and set them — or more accurately, a crew of pop producers and songwriters — to work on their debut album, 2011’s Up All Night. The anticipation was high, and they had to get it right. Songs for the album had been sourced from big hitters like Kelly Clarkson, Jamie Scott, Steve Mac, and more, but its trajectory-changing hit “What Makes You Beautiful” came from Savan Kotecha, Rami Yacoub, and Carl Falk. The trio had a history of working with boy bands, with credits for Backstreet Boys, Westlife, and NSYNC bolstering their resumes. But there was no formula for capturing that lightning-in-a-bottle moment that would elevate them into the upper echelons of pop history.
“From the first song, you could tell that it was going. It was working. We were kind of excited to [say]: OK, so let's do it again,” Falk tells MTV News on Zoom from the same studio in Sweden where One Direction recorded their earliest hits. “Let's not lose the DNA of the group or the DNA that we thought we were still molding. We had something.”
The label saw it, too, inviting those producers and writers back for album number two, Take Me Home, in 2012. During the making of that record, Horan, Styles, Payne, Tomlinson, and Malik’s curiosity about the production and writing process grew as they learned to play instruments and offer melodies of their own, contributing to the band’s budding, guitar-based pop sound. This was all new to them, and it could have been fleeting, but the opportunity to be in the studio with the biggest hitmakers brought with it a chance to study the craft of pop musicianship, setting the stage both for One Direction’s work on their remaining albums as a band and, viewed 10 years after the album’s release, for each member’s subsequent solo records after they split up in 2016.
“We wanted to involve them just because you end up always recording one guy for a couple of hours and the other ones play FIFA or watch Netflix,” Yacoub explains of the Take Me Home sessions. “To have a more creative environment, we had a couple of studios and we had them start writing stuff and just kind of getting the hang of it.” Around the same time, Yacoub and Falk had signed Kristoffer Fogelmark and Albin Nedler, two songwriters from a music school in Sweden. While the former pair worked on polishing songs like lead single “Live While We’re Young,” the latter locked down with One Direction to try their hand at crafting a hit. “I think that kicked off their hunger to write songs themselves,” Yacoub says.
“You can tell they wanted to explore that whole thing of not just sitting, to do something else than just vocals,” Falk says. “[We told them] feel free to try whatever. And they come in like, ‘Yeah, I think we have a chorus.’” It was the hook for “Kiss You,” the gold-certified third single from Take Me Home. Kotecha, who had been linked with One Direction since working as a vocal coach on The X Factor, helped to bring the song across the finish line, but it marked Fogelmark and Nedler’s first writing credits on the album. Their next two came on the boy band-core cuts “Last First Kiss” and “Back for You,” where Horan, Styles, Payne, Tomlinson, and Malik each scored writing credits of their own. Of the five Take Me Home songs with One Direction co-writing credits, three came under the guidance of Falk, Yacoub, and Kotecha, including “Still the One.”
Following their global breakout in 2012, One Direction found themselves rewriting the script for boy bands to come — and they couldn’t have been in better hands. “It’s a different craft to write songs for bands like this,” Falk says, highlighting the collaborative union he’d formed with Yacoub and Kotecha. “We had all done that. We all knew what it takes.” While they all had a natural knack for pop — excelling at recording and comping vocals as well as crafting exciting melodies and chord progressions — they had the added element of Max Martin-taught expertise via Yacoub and Kotecha. The former’s earliest credits appeared on Britney Spears’s “…Baby, One More Time,” NSYNC’s “It’s Gonna Be Me,” and the Backstreet Boys’s “Larger Than Life.” Falk had even pulled production inspiration directly from the three artists, speeding up piano stabs from the NSYNC hit to mold “Kiss You.”
The intensity of the two boy bands’s fanbases were similar, with some 4,000 young women showing up to the studio at one point. But inside, the action was less hectic. Horan would spend nearly every day learning One Direction’s songs on guitar under Falk’s guidance, while Payne studied the creation process from a seat next to the computer monitor and Styles formed a bond with the producers through his interest in songwriting. Throughout the creation of Take Me Home, the puzzle pieces slid into place as each member came to better understand his role in the band. “‘Kiss You’ was actually the first song that Niall found his way of singing,” Falk recalls. “We tried to try different people, and then he just went for it and did it with a bit of a raspy rock voice, like, that’s your thing.” Tomlinson had the same eureka moment on “Change My Mind.”
Yacoub recently reconnected with Horan to work on his upcoming third studio album. “He walked in, and I was like, dude, you’re a man now. I met him when he was a boy. He couldn’t even play the guitar when we started working together … Now he’s great at guitar and his vocals have enhanced 10 times over. And I could tell, from even the times in One Direction, he really wanted it.” When Falk teamed up with Payne earlier this year for the single “Sunshine,” it marked their first time working together since Take Me Home, too. A decade ago, songs were being brought to them marked with distorted guitars and a palette of signature sounds influenced by Bon Jovi, the Beach Boys, Mumford & Sons, and more. Now, the band’s former members can walk into a studio with a clear understanding of their own musical visions.
On his first two solo albums, 2017’s Flicker and 2020’s Heartbreak Weather, Horan built on those formative early studio lessons, forming his individual artistic identity by embracing his singer-songwriter roots. A student of R&B at heart, Malik found himself in collaboration with the likes of Kehlani and Timbaland across his records 2016’s Mind of Mine and 2018’s Icarus Falls, bringing to fruition the vision he left One Direction to fulfill. For Tomlinson and Payne, it took a few years to lock in a clear sonic aesthetic. The former’s 2020 debut Walls carved out a space in indie rock and Britpop, while the latter’s 2019 release LP1 straddled the lines of pop and R&B through major collaborations with Quavo, Zedd, and more. Meanwhile, Styles ultimately became the breakout star of One Direction – something Falk recalls half-jokingly predicting early on. The pop-meets-Laurel Canyon folk-rock sound introduced on his 2017 solo debut Harry Styles built the foundation that later informed its Grammy-nominated follow up Fine Line, shared in 2019.
“I do remember when One Direction blew up that people were just reaching out, back and forth, starting boy bands, and reaching out to me,” Yacoub said with a laugh. “I didn’t jump on any. I don’t think any band came close. I mean, they were so big.” Take Me Home debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 in November 2012 with 540,000 units moved in its first week. It sold more than 1.4 million records in a single month and has since been certified 3x platinum in addition to yielding two platinum singles. The band’s indefinite hiatus began less than four full years later, but the legacy of One Direction’s reign lives on through their endeavors as solo artists and the fans still supporting it all.
“It's even more impactful to see it now than when we were in the middle of it. There were no Grammy nominations, you know. You can tell it was working because everywhere they went, the crowd was insane. Fans were everywhere,” Falk says. “As recognition, it feels like that's come at a later stage almost. Like, shit, how big was this band? And those songs that are still going to be played in I don't know how many years. Their legacy is amazing, but it was hard to know that when they were actually a band.”