Sam Hollander wrote songs for Panic! At The Disco (his work on “High Hopes” landed him on Variety’s 2019 hitmakers list), Katy Perry, Weezer, Def Leppard, blink-182, Ringo Starr and Carole King, among many other notable artists , but it was his experience with One Direction that helped shape his vision of hitmaking. In his new book, “21-Hit Wonder: Flopping My Way to the Top of the Charts” (out November 7), Hollander recalls the boy band’s adventures in pop-rock on their 2012 album “Take Me Home” and shares their nightmares, failures and false starts in this exclusive clip.
A (brief) direction
One afternoon, during a rare and unexpected rain, I ducked into the Urth Café on Melrose for a quick bite. I had been in Hollywood for less than a year, but this felt like the first real downpour I had encountered. I sat down at a table and the space was so crowded that I began to involuntarily listen to two people sitting behind me. I recognized one of the voices. It was Beka Tischker, an old friend from New York, who was now a powerful publisher in Los Angeles. Beka was discussing possible collaborations with a Swedish writer. The Swede mentioned his old band, and I spun my chair into the most obnoxious intrusion ever.
“Jesus Christ, man, you’re into cardigans!” The Swede looked puzzled. “Yes. Do you remember us?
Then the accomplished record geek stepped in. ” You remember ? I saw you three times on the ‘Life’ tour. I was the guy in the front row of Tramps, singing every word and probably making you a little uncomfortable in the process. In fact, I apologize. I really should have apologized. I was like Patton Oswalt in “The Fan”. If someone had suggested that I apply Norse Goddess Nina Persson’s smile to my cheeks, I probably would have.
The Swede, aka Peter Svensson, and I traded numbers and made plans to collaborate, but Beka suggested we consider throwing a track guy into the mix. She recommended her writer, Kool Kojak, whom I knew socially but had never worked with. Kojak, a graffiti free spirit, was already one of my favorite personalities in town, so I was really looking forward to it. But I was also a little puzzled. Who was the artist? The Cardigans had not recorded a record for a decade. When Beka told me it would be a pitch song, the thrill quickly dissipated. Historically, my few hits in the song placement game had been mostly laughable. For some reason, all the creativity and quirkiness of my collaborations with artists never translated into this approach. They were either too generic or too prevalent for the masses. I could never find my sweet spot in this formula-driven game, so I avoided it altogether. That’s why this session started to feel bad.
The three of us hooked up a week later at Kojak, and just dove into it. After a solid minute of debate, we decided to try an idea for One Direction. Every pesky pop songwriter on earth was chasing 1D after the “What Makes You Beautiful” explosion, so it seemed like a bit of an exercise pipe dream, but I guess I was down. I came up with a title and concept that I thought was in the zone for them. The guys seemed to dig it: “Rock Me.” I was shooting for a sexier version of the boy band’s brand of freshly cleaned fun. It was pretty basic, nostalgic stuff. I think I wrote most of the lyrics in about fifteen minutes. Peter tapped into his own brand of Swedish melodic mathematics. As a protege of Max Martin, he was already like a Stockholm University professor in this shit. Kojak dropped a fun track and we finished demoing the song within hours. It was like Nashville time-lapse writing, except I could see the bluish Pacific Ocean from the Kojak Bridge. Later in the evening we ate Thai food. Fun guys. A full day.
Then something peculiar happened. Simon Cowell heard it and loved it. Also Dr. Luke and Max Martin. Luke jumped on board to produce. The song was sped up. In an instant, it permeated the tracklist of the hardest-to-access record of 2013. It was a bit like waking up to find a brand new pair of limited-edition Nike MAG Back to the Future sneakers offered under the bed. This One Direction album has sold six million copies. “Rock Me” went gold in a bunch of countries.
At that point, I started completely rethinking my career process. Why did I only collaborate with these soul-sucking artists? It seemed like such an emotional and fiscal waste of time. Maybe this approach to pitch writing was really the ticket for me too? So I decided to throw away everything I knew and started writing cover songs for placement with Peter and Kojak every day from scratch. We had very few goals. Just a ton of broad strokes. “Hey, maybe that would work for Selena Gomez?” I think we composed about twenty songs. Guess what? They were all crazy as shit. Well, more specifically, my contributions were.
My lyrical ideas were all soulless and contrived – totally based on chasing whatever was happening in the Top 40 at that exact moment. I couldn’t connect to any of them. I had never hung like this before, and the results were shameful. The straw that broke the camel’s back was that catchy melody Peter sent me on a plane trip east. Peter wanted the chorus to start with the repeated phrase “I gotta go goooo. I gotta goo. He asked for it, actually. There was no negotiation. It was Iranian hostage shit.” I made a hundred attempts at this refrain as JetBlue cruised across the United States, and nothing worked. “I gotta go goooooo.” It didn’t sound like a hit. It sounded like yodelling. At the end of the day, I just couldn’t connect to it, so I trashed it on the spot.
As I started to lose faith in our fleeting power trio, I felt like Peter and Kojak were starting to leave our unit as well. We really had fun together, but when none of the many tracks we collaborated on over those two months ever received a positive response, we all creatively parted ways with an unspoken goodbye. That was the end of my brief foray into pitch-song hunting.
Bonus Cut: A few years later, Peter managed to turn “I Gotta Go” into “You Gotta Love Me Harder” for Ariana Grande, and he had a worldwide number one hit. Every time I hear it today, my self-loathing kicks up a notch. Who’s the fool now, bitch?
From “21-Hit Wonder: Flopping My Way to the Top of the Charts” copyright © 2022 by Sam Hollander. Reprinted with permission from Matt Holt Books, an imprint of BenBella Books, Inc. All rights reserved.