Harry Styles backing guitarist

Playing In The Background

For five years, the world's most obsessive music fans watched and listened to Daniel Richards in their millions - but few ever knew his name. This is what life is like in the backing band of the biggest pop phenomenon of our times, and what happens when it all comes to an end

One afternoon on the American leg of their 2012 tour, on the cusp of becoming Britain's first international teen super-phenomenon since The Spice Girls, One Direction changed their line-up—radically. Just that morning it had included Louis Tomlinson, Niall Horan, Liam Payne, Zayn Malik, and Harry Styles. Now only Styles remained. Into the vacant spots stepped Jon Shone, Sandy Beales, Josh Devine, and Daniel Richards.

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There had been a mix-up. One Direction's management had phoned ahead to the Atlanta aquarium, where Styles was spending a free afternoon, but staff had been given incomplete information. They didn't know that the four people accompanying the singer were not, in fact, his bandmates, but the group's session musicians. Not to be found on bedroom posters or obsessed over in forums, these were the people whose job it was to bob around at the rear of the stage, playing the guitar, bass, and drums, who brought instrumental chops to the spotlighted personalities. Whose job often meant sleeping on the bus. Now, they were getting asked for autographs, and people were crowding around for photographs. Harry, far from acting the diva, never corrected anyone assumptions.

"He said to just go with it," Daniel Richards, told me one evening in March. "It's hard to remember now that it took One Direction a while to become instantly recognisable in America. People could sense fame, but they weren't too good with specifics. So we all played along." Easy enough: with his alert blue eyes and sculpted, caramel-blonde hair, he looks famous. "We ended up having this amazing day, playing with dolphins. Aquarium VIP is a lot cooler than you might think."

And for that afternoon at least, he was an officially documented, full-fledged celebrity member of the group he would go on to play with for five years.

"I think there's still a photo in Atlanta commemorating the occasion. Hopefully it doesn't actually identify us as One Direction."

From 2011 to 2016, very nearly their entire duration as a band, Richards was the group's live guitarist. Whenever they toured, or made TV appearances, or performed charity concerts, he played for them.

Richards and I met seventeen years ago, at a small comprehensive in North Devon. I have always known him as plain Dan. To his million-plus social media followers, however, he is GuitarmanDan, and if he isn't a household name, he has certainly appeared in many households. Even though he did not record with the group, anyone who has ever attended a One Direction concert, or listened to one of their live cuts, or saw them make their start on the X-Factor tour, has seen and/or heard him. That's a lot of people. Their 2014 Where We Are stadium tour made 235 million pounds, the highest grossing, ever, by a vocal group. They've even played for the Queen. When, recently, Dan wished Styles happy birthday on Twitter, it was retweeted almost ten thousand times.

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Dan's philosophical about his particular brand of fame, about being celebrity for being a near-celebrity."One thing it has been incredibly useful for is complaining to companies," he laughed. "I'll tell you what, airlines will find your luggage a lot faster if they start getting hundreds of messages from outraged teenagers." He pauses. "That one I feel a bit bad about. Once I had posted about the bags I realized how careful I had to be on the Internet. But I did get my stuff back."

Dan and I had anonymous, soporific adolescences. North Devon had delusions of being California, only with a tenth of the surfing and none of the sun. We wore Quicksilver and Billabong. We waited for buses. We complained about "grockles"—tourists down from London. And most of us, most of us very badly, played the guitar.

Dan came to the instrument 'late,' at thirteen. I remember several other boys, who had already established themselves as the school's musicians, discussing his bandwaggoning with contempt. Within a year, he was better than all of them. For most of us, the days of fumbling through Under the Bridge were destined for nothing more than wincing Facebook photo nostalgia. Dan was obsessed. He couldn't wait to get home from school to practice. But as aspiring musicians are constantly reminded, talent and perseverance are not guarantees of success.

Dan's first job after graduating from the London College of Music was a four-month stint in the house band for an old ferry that had been converted into a cruise ship, the "Island Escape," which drowsily ploughed the Balearic.

"Christ, you wanted to escape that thing," says Dan, with a still-uneasy laugh. "They told us we'd only be playing in the evening, and that the boat docked at a new place everyday, so we'd be able to disembark. That reality was crushed very quickly. When we arrived they took our passports. Any prospects of getting off the ship and actually seeing anything went out the window. And that window was this tiny porthole in a room where the previous week, the toilet had overflowed and warped all the furniture. We slept on top bunks."

The workload, too, was not as advertised.

"Even if they'd given our documentation back we couldn't have gone ashore. In addition to the three sets every evening, they had us play one or two around noon every day, right by the pool. I'm pretty sure that was illegal, all that electronic equipment so close to the water. Little kids would be doing dive bombs and splashing us."

How do you go from the captivity of international waters to backing the biggest act of the next decade? After his time at sea, Dan returned to London and enrolled to do a masters degree. His life became a round of school, work and endless practice: "While I was studying I played function gigs—weddings, birthdays. I was playing for about eight different bands." He soon realised that networking was the key to a future that held more than wedding receptions. "That's how it works, of course. You can be the best player in the world, but if no one knows who you are you're not getting any gigs. That's basically it."

A colleague of Dan's, a bass player, heard from a friend of a friend that someone was looking to put a band together. That was the sum total of the brief. Calls for performers can be vague, and careers usually more of a grind than a gift from God. Big Breaks are only privately believed in.

And not always easy to spot. "One Direction had only just finished up on The X-Factor. I had never actually heard of them, even, by that point, and we had no idea what we were auditioning for. We were simply sent two songs the night before, with instructions to learn them by ear."

The process, says Dan, was conducted like a mini X-Factor. And it was his time on the cruise ship that had prepared him. "I knew we had to look the part, dress well, act like we were already part of a professional outfit. They had a day for drummers, a day for guitarists, a day for bass players. Then they brought them together in groups and pitted them against each other."

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One Direction's musical director wanted to see how different combinations would vibe with each other. He tested them on their mastery of the songs they'd been sent, asking them to improvise solos on the fly, or suddenly omit certain sections. He had them jam to see how their playing styles meshed, and would ask they pick a key to play in, and then see if they could all keep up with one another.

"In the end, they stuck the two surviving groups in different rooms, then announced to one that it wasn't them."

The shadow competition was complete. Second place missed out on accompanying the only group to have their first four albums debut at number one on the Billboard 200.

Later, on tour, the musical director explained what had cinched it for Dan's group. A SONY executive had seen them walking from the studio to get lunch. Turning to the director, he asked if he thought they looked like a band. They did.

According to my observations on Facebook over the years, life with One Direction was not too dissimilar to life as One Direction: a series of vast crowds and red carpets, interrupted only for a photo with Ronnie Wood, or Will Smith, or Pudsey Bear. In my imagination, life on the road was one part exotic location, one part dramatic lighting, and three parts TMZ.

"No, it's a lot of work," Dan explains. "It's obviously exciting to play huge shows, but that's not what you're doing a lot of the time. And in terms of a tour, there's no difference between playing a theater and a stadium. We'd spend a week, ten days arranging the songs. A standard One Direction track might have five or six guitar parts. I can't play all of them, so we'd have to arrange which lines to incorporate. And plan when to insert or solo or whatever. Basically, arrange it so the experience wasn't the same as pressing play on the record."

Dan laments that as One Direction got bigger and bigger, more and more people started to poke around in it.

"People had to justify their existence to the project. We'd have complete randoms bursting into our practice room, screaming that the snare was too loud. It wasn't too loud, of course, it was exactly right, we'd been doing this for years." Dan is perpetually rational regarding the work's many frustrations, which itself seems to be a job requirement. "We'd just promise to fix it and carry on."

The gig economy has few poster boys, but Dan could be one. With One Direction, he both literalised the concept, toured the world, and made what a "very busy plumber" would in London. He held what Simon Cowell once described to them as "the best job in the world."

Throughout, One Direction themselves displayed a touching loyalty to their session band. "It was the One-D boys who looked after us," says Dan. "Had it not been for them, our experience could have been much worse. It's not common for the band to stay with the talent, but Niall saw us once, not looking our best, and after that insisted we join them at their swanky hotels."

Dan was grateful for a relationship with the group that does not come as standard. Many touring bands find themselves far lower in the hierarchy that runs the show. "We were incredibly lucky in many respects," says Dan. "And I know I've been very privileged. But the reality of being a session musician for that kind of act means that you're always going to be vulnerable. You can be picked up and put down as suits management. They can always find someone else to do your job, for less, in worse conditions."

Last summer, touring with One Direction took Dan to New York, where I was living at the time. We had only seen each other once or twice since school, where my friend had been small, skinny as a flute. Striding toward me in Washington Square Park, he looked like a rock star. Which is to say, he looked like what a certain teen demographic might associate with rock stardom. Which is to say, a hunk. The smile he gave me was framed by a jawline like a snooker triangle. The hand he offered bore an arm I presumed had been stuffed with cantaloupes.

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Summoning all my maturity, I decided to remind him of his schoolday nicknames, which had been mostly based around rodents, or upon his remarkable resemblance to Elijah Wood, or creative combinations of the two.

"Ratboy Baggins, you've changed," I said.

But Dan wasn't invested in being a hunk for the sake of being a hunk. The buff look was part of the job description, the show. To be in a boy band you had to look like a person who was in a boy band, so Dan did.

Later, I admitted that I didn't actually listen to One Direction, but he dismissed the confession with a sincerely unoffended of course you don't.

After Zayn Malik left the group in 2015, One Direction went on hiatus to recoup and pursue individual projects. They had barely been adults when they emerged into the beginnings of their global fame. Dan says he can't even imagine what it must have been like to be in that position, despite seeing that position evolve up close. "They are kind lads, good people, and they had a good team around them, in terms of being looked after and protecting them from scandals. But it was an intense rise. It's completely amazing to me that they all managed to stay grounded. They had toured almost constantly. Burnout was sort of inevitable."

Members of the backing band were free to be themselves, too. "Unemployment really sucks," Dan says. "I have so much sympathy for anyone who's been laid off. You always think 'oh, you'll find another job," but it really isn't that simple."

Dan now works as a freelance guitarist, and manages the booking agency, Matchbox Music, which he began because of his own sometimes unpalatable experiences with function gigs.

"The point is to never put bands out for less than 175 pounds, which is the minimum fair wage." It's a welcome counter to the predatory behavior of some agencies, which exploit young musicians' desire for work and exposure.

Alongside his agency, Dan has started Tux Bolo, a songwriting collaborative with a few other session musicians. Tux Bolo hopes, like more established pop teams such as Stargate, to provide songs for whoever needs them. He's now based in L.A., the Californian imitation we played out in Devon made real, and is still very much in contact with the band. "We see each other for drinks. It's calmed down a bit, relatively. In London, Niall and I used to go for drinks in Camden, just because there were so many 'rockers' around, and he knew the chances of being recognised were much lower. Now I run into them in bars in LA, and we hang out."

On Skype, Dan often pauses to think before answering my questions, like he needs to double-check the unlikely route that has led him from country lanes of England to Hollywood Boulevard. It's not that he doesn't miss the excitement of touring and performing, but he seems happy now, doing his own, quieter thing.

"I can't tell you how many artists want to break out of their recording contracts," he says at one point. "What's inescapable is the eventual need for creative control." He pauses again. "It's like that VIP day at the aquarium, actually, when we were mistaken for the band — of course it was incredible to swim with dolphins, but..." He doesn't finish, but I think I know what he means. Even then, he would liked to have signed autographs with his own name.

Daniel Richards, aka 'GuitarmanDan' / PHOTO: Twitter, @GuitarmanDan