For a man who has enjoyed as much success as he has, Simon Cowell has made some astonishingly bad decisions in his career. But even worse than the acts that he’s chosen to sign? The men he’s chosen to do business with…
Whenever the Great British public is canvassed for their opinions on the worst singles ever released, you are all but guaranteed to see the same few tracks time and time again.
Mr Blobby by Mr Blobby is a nailed-on cert. Teletubbies Say Eh-Oh! usually puts in a good showing too. Occasionally someone will remember Zig & Zag’s Them Girls, Them Girls and it is rightly given a prominent spot on the list. Power Rangers by The Mighty Raw will likely feature if the people asked are of a certain age; Swagger Jagger by Cher Lloyd will likely feature if not.
Often overlooked in these round-ups are stone cold turds like Ruff Mix by Wonderdog, Hillbilly Rock Hillbilly Roll by the Woolpackers and the Gladiators’ cover of The Boys Are Back In Town. They may not ever get official recognition, but they are all extremely horrible too.
And what is it that these monstrosities have in common?
They are all creations of Simon Cowell.
It’s a riddle that will baffle future historians. How on earth did an A&R man whose CV is littered with such awful, disqualifying clangers ever become recognised as an international tastemaker and multimedia impresario?
As is so often the case with stories like this, there are two answers: a simple one, which you’ll probably already know, and a more complex one, which you possibly don’t.
The simple answer is that Cowell became successful because a lot of these songs were inexplicably huge hits. Mr Blobby was a number one hit that went platinum (600,000+ copies). Teletubbies Say Eh-Oh! was a number one hit that went double platinum (1.2m+ copies). Power Rangers was only kept off the top spot by Stay Another Day and All I Want For Christmas Is You – festive classics that are so beloved they continue to chart almost 25 years after their release.
Hideous though they all undeniably are, they were huge money-makers.
It wasn’t just the singles either. Cowell’s biggest success in the 90s came with Robson and Jerome: the commercially successful but critically disparaged TV duo who sold millions upon millions of albums. They are generally considered to be a bit of a punchline now, but it was only relatively recently that their eponymous debut album lost the record for fastest sales of two million copies (a title now held by Adele’s 25, snatched in 2015).
Untroubled by considerations of quality, talent or integrity, Cowell has proved time and time again that he understands what sells. So it stands to reason that someone with his particular instincts would rise up the corporate ladder.
In reality though, it’s not that clean cut. The music industry is a notoriously fickle one. For every success story that gets remembered there are always a dozen flops which end up lost to history, and any one of those flops could easily have hobbled the ambitions of even the most determined executive. Cowell is no stranger to absolutely soiling the bed, yet somehow he never got fired.
Which is why there is a second, more complicated answer to this question.
Simon Cowell didn’t have many allies in the business when he was coming up. When an A&R’s portfolio is full of hideous novelty acts and every idea they’re chasing sounds like a catastrophe just waiting to happen (“It’s the theme tune from Teletubbies, but longer – and with a banjo solo”) they are liable to be treated with caution, suspicion and derision.
The issue is further compounded when that same person is a stubborn, cocksure egotist, whose daddy (Eric Cowell, EMI executive) got him his first job by pulling a few strings.
This heady combination of abysmal taste and self-assuredness caused a lot of people to be deeply sceptical of Simon Cowell. A succession of business partners, colleagues and bosses all found him to be far too much to cope with.
They could have maybe sucked it up if he was a maverick who got results every single time but Cowell made some gargantuan mistakes in his early career, failing to sign some of the biggest acts of his day. Kylie Minogue. Take That. The Spice Girls. All slipped through his fingers at various points – and this was before he told Swedish superproducer Max Martin that a girl with a name like “Britney Spears” would never become a star.
Taken together, there is a very feasible alternate timeline in which Simon Cowell was one of music’s most flamboyant failures; quickly fired from every job he ever had for peddling crap and talking worse.
A major reason that that version of events never came to pass is because Cowell had something of a guardian angel floating around the industry. An elder who kept a watchful eye over him, intervening whenever Cowell’s cock was on the block for some egregious overspend on a flop act, or a round of lay-offs was imminent.
That angel was Jonathan King.
Before he went and made the comparison potentially libellous by getting himself convicted on multiple counts of indecent assault and attempted buggery, Jonathan King was very much the Simon Cowell of his day.
Like Cowell, King had an uncanny knack for spotting songs that the public would claim to hate, yet still buy by the truckload.
Arguably, the one exception is King’s debut single, Everyone’s Gone To The Moon, which is still regarded as a bona fide classic (thanks, in part, to covers by artists like Nina Simone, Bobby Womack and Doris Day).
The rest of his back catalogue though, it’s fair to say, is regarded with a little less reverence.
Under his own name and an endless succession of pseudonyms, King was responsible for a whole raft of infamous novelty records across four different decades. Songs like Una Paloma Blanca, Loop Di Love, Johnny Reggae, Leap Up And Down (Wave Your Knickers In The Air), Lick A Smurf For Christmas. All critically ridiculed. All artistically barren. Most of them, huge commercial successes.
His influence on the music industry wasn’t simply confined to a selection of bubblegum singles though. King’s fingerprints are everywhere.
He famously discovered Genesis. He was the one who signed 10cc. He produced breakthrough records for The Bay City Rollers, kickstarting Rollermania. He was responsible for the UK’s last Eurovision winner, Love Shine A Light (as well as picking the fondly-remembered Ooh Aah… Just A Little Bit).
That instantly recognisable “Ooga-chaka-ooga-ooga” introduction to Hooked On A Feeling? The one that was plastered all over the Guardians Of The Galaxy movie a few years back and Ally McBeal before that? That was King.
Chumbawamba – a scrappy anarchist folk-punk outfit from Burnley – suddenly landed in the charts out of nowhere with Tubthumping, 15 years into their careers, because Jonathan King found them a major record deal.
Even as late as 2000 he was still getting tracks in the charts, as he was the person who brought Who Let The Dogs Out? to the attention of the Baha Men.
You may hate every single act and record he’s ever been involved with. You certainly wouldn’t be alone in that – and, in fact, if you do, you’d slightly prove our point.
We’re revisiting King’s back catalogue to make clear that, in Cowell, he saw a kindred spirit. Both men were regularly ridiculed for their taste in records and the artistic choices they made, but both knew that the songs that sold weren’t always the most credible or the most fashionable – and they had the platinum plaques to prove it.
Because of this, King appointed himself a sort of unofficial mentor to Cowell, keeping watch over his career and intervening at a number of crucial moments.
For example, King was the one who instigated peace talks at Arista in the early 90s, when Cowell was fighting with practically everyone else at the label and causing problems.
When those talks failed to bring about any meaningful truce, King put in a good word for Cowell with talent scouts elsewhere and got him another job at RCA.
When Cowell was making a dog’s dinner of the work he was doing there, drawing the ire of the RCA’s big bosses for being (as one executive memorably put it) “responsible for everything shit in this building” King was the one who smoothed things over, calling the company’s president and saving Cowell’s bacon.
It seemed that whenever Simon Cowell was at his lowest ebb, Jonathan King would always be the one to bail him out.
Which is kind of ironic – given what would happen next…
Obviously there’s never a great time to be arrested on multiple counts of historic sexual abuse, but November 2000 was an especially bad moment for Jonathan King.
Not only was he being touted as a possible candidate to take over as a chief executive at EMI, King had also been tapped to appear as a judge on a ITV’s new talent vehicle, Popstars.
A fancy new ‘reality TV’ import from New Zealand, the basic thrust of Popstars was to create a pop band on telly, documenting the entire journey from the earliest auditions right through to the release of their first single. Producer Nigel Lythgoe had been under strict instructions from the executive that commissioned it to secure Jonathan King for the show’s judging panel, offering him a rumoured £2.6 million to take part.
King ended up turning it down – which is just as well, because his imminent arrest and later conviction would have thrown a rather hefty spanner in the works. (The auditions were filmed in October 2000, a month before King was arrested; the series was broadcast the following January, when the ‘Vile Pop Beast’ headlines had been pasted all over the papers).
Instead, King recommended someone else for the job. His shit-pop protégé: Simon Cowell.
The fallout from this one particular decision would have a hugely significant effect on all four of the men involved in this story – but not immediately.
Initially, Cowell accepted ITV’s offer but was instantly plagued with doubts that he had made the wrong decision. At this point in his career – in late 2000 – he was in a positive but precarious position. The success of Robson and Jerome had put enough distance between him and Mr Blobby that he was no longer considered the kiddie disco merchant he once was. More promisingly, one of his recent signings, Westlife, were really making a big name for themselves – and making plenty of money too.
This success might have been enough to vindicate the label’s decision not to fire him, but Cowell’s Midas touch still wasn’t particularly well-calibrated. In fact, everything else he was touching was turning to wet shit.
He wanted so desperately to be responsible for the Next Big Thing that Cowell was ploughing millions into a series of pop projects – almost all of which would stall, splutter and die on the vine.
The problem seemed to stem from his unresolved fury at having failed to sign Take That and the Spice Girls. The global success that these acts had enjoyed without his help rankled so much that Cowell developed an almost monomaniacal focus on trying to launch an act that would eclipse them both.
In 2000 his blazing hot hope was… Girl Thing.
Cowell couldn’t shake the feeling that it unwise to split his attention across two projects– especially given that one that could end up being a high-profile, televised humiliation. So he rescinded his acceptance.
You probably don’t need telling that he backed the wrong horse. Popstars would end up being a huge success, drawing millions of viewers and launching two huge-selling bands in its first series: Hear’Say and Liberty X.
Girl Thing, on the other hand, released two poorly received singles – the second of which barely grazed the Top 30 – before Cowell scrapped their album and dropped them from his label.
Adding a hefty pinch of salt to the wound, Hear’Say’s smash hit single from the show, Pure And Simple, was originally a song that Cowell had lined up for Girl Thing. He had spent hundreds of thousands of pounds getting it written and recorded and remixed, ready for them to use – only to later pass it over in favour of the song Last One Standing as Girl Thing’s debut.
Pure And Simple fell out of his control and into the hands of his rivals who gave it to Hear’Say. It became the fastest-selling debut single of its time, selling well over half a million copies in its first week and spending three weeks at number one.
Last One Standing peaked at number eight and slipped out of the Top 20 after just two weeks.
Cowell was furious. Not only had he cocked things up by taking matters into his own hands, his guardian angel was now too busy compiling his legal defence to help lend a hand.
This failure would motivate Cowell to get involved in a new TV project with Simon Fuller: a legally sneaky reworking of the Popstars format which made extra money for all involved by introducing the element of public televoting. A show called Pop Idol.
Pop Idol would be the making of Simon Cowell when it debuted on ITV the following year.
Right around the same time that his former mentor, Jonathan King, would stand trial on a series of sex crimes.
The Devil Makes Work…
Pop Idol debuted on October 6th 2001 to 5.2 million viewers. By the time the live final rolled around, that audience had swelled to 13.3 million. The show was a massive success.
The breakout star – even bigger than the competition’s winners – was the previously unknown record executive on the judging panel. The one with a catty attitude and an acid tongue. The one with hair like a bootbrush and his belt up by his nipples. Simon Cowell: Pop Idol’s panto baddie.
Cowell adored the attention and the adulation the show brought him. He saw this was his shot at the big time, and he didn’t want to cock it up.
As an industry figure, Cowell had known that hacks didn’t much care what he got up to in his private life. There was no mileage in a story about a boring backroom boy like him when there were big stars to cover. Now that he was a big star in his own right though, that would all change.
Every party he went to. Every trip to Stringfellow’s or Spearmint Rhino. Paps would follow wherever he went. Reporters would camp outside his house. People would talk. The relative privacy he had once enjoyed would instantly evaporate. It would all be fair game now.
Wisely, Cowell had already made plans for this eventuality. He had hired a PR guy to handle and manage the press on his behalf.
For most people in 2001, Clifford would have been the sensible choice for the job. As he had not yet been collared by Operation Yewtree, and was not yet in prison for the sexual assault of multiple women and girls, Clifford was – at that time – the go-to guy when a celeb wanted to make sure their reputation was kept spick and span. For Cowell though, it was a very peculiar choice.
Cowell has always claimed that his reason for hiring Clifford was that he was worried there were a lot of women in his past who would try to sell kiss’n’tell tales about him after he became a big-shot TV star – and maybe that’s true. But there was something else that Cowell was trying to keep quiet, and Clifford was the man he tasked with hushing it up.
The previous year, shortly after he’d been offered the Popstars gig first time around, Simon Cowell had paid £50,000 towards Jonathan King’s bail when King was arrested on allegations of historical sexual assault.
Now, in absolute fairness to Cowell, ponying up for a friend who finds themselves in dire need of help is an admirable thing to do. Given how recently King had done a huge favour for him, the impulse to do right by him and return the favour will have been strong.
It’s also worth remembering the precedent that sits at the bedrock of our justice system: that everyone should be considered innocent until they are proved guilty. (King subsequently was found guilty on six counts but, obviously, Cowell wasn’t to know that at the time.)
None of that is the weird bit though.
The weird bit is that the reason Jonathan King needed bailing out in the first place was because Max Clifford had been the one toiling away in the background to put him there.
Before King’s first accuser (a man named Kirk McIntyre) went to the police, he emailed Max Clifford. He did so in May 2000 after having heard a report on Radio Five Live that the former DJ Chris Denning had been arrested, imprisoned and tried in Prague for sexually abusing underage boys.
McIntyre said in his email that he too had been abused by Denning at a teen disco called the Walton Hop. He asked Clifford (a resident of Walton-on-Thames) if he had heard of anyone else who was known to have been abused at that place.
Within 24 hours, McIntyre says that the National Criminal Intelligence Service (as it was known at the time) had called to speak with him. Within a fortnight two officers from Surrey Police had travelled up to him – and one of them had taken a statement.
Meanwhile, Clifford had been collecting more names and passing them across to the police – behaviour that we now know was a deep cover for crimes of his own.
There’s a grim poetry to the fact that the same police investigation which Max Clifford worked so hard on to get Jonathan King arrested (Operation Arundel) would later inform the police investigation that led to Clifford’s own arrest for much the same crimes (Operation Yewtree).
It also makes for a weird little triangle that Cowell hired Clifford to cover up the fact that he had paid King’s bail; a payment that wouldn’t have been necessary if Clifford hadn’t been so eager to shop King in to cover his own back – nor would it have been particularly damaging had King not recommended Cowell for the high-profile TV job that required Cowell to hire a PR person in the first place.
But as if that wasn’t confusing enough, it doesn’t end there. There’s a fourth player in all of this, complicating the matter further.
The police liaison officer who took Kirk McIntyre’s statement about his abuse at the hands of Jonathan King left the force shortly after that statement was filed. From there, that same officer took his notebooks with him and embarked upon a brand new career, acting as a go-between for the press and the police.
There, he helped to broker deals to sell details of criminal investigations to the papers as story tips – work in a curiously similar vein to Max Clifford.
This same officer-turned-tipster has since made quite a name for himself in the business and is now working on a true-crime investigation series for ITV. It’s called The Investigator, and it’s produced by Syco Television – the TV wing of the multimedia entertainment production company owned by Simon Cowell.
It was all rather rosy for a while, but his reputation has taken quite a battering in recent months when he was singled out for particular scorn by the judge presiding over a trial that collapsed earlier this summer. A trial of Jonathan King.
So who is this person?
Mark Williams-Thomas: the celebrity paedophile scatter-gun.
In Part Two…
We’ll return to the top of this story in the next part and walk through the history of Mark Williams-Thomas’s involvement in it instead. In doing so, we’ll see how he helped secure the arrest of Jonathan King; get himself arrested by his former colleagues; get his big break from chatting on a plane; and find out why he’s suddenly become such a big figure of interest in the Year Of Our Lord 2018…