Pete Martin: More turkey from the pop music svengalis

IF BOOKIES' musical knowledge was anything to go by, we knew what this year's Christmas chart-topper was going to be - it was going to be rubbish.

Leading the field was a tone deaf tradesman from Essex, fresh from winning the X-Factor donkey derby and, true to the form, he came out on top. But poor Matt Cardle seems just as surely bound for the glue factory of oblivion as previous "superstars" created by the TV show, such as Steve Brookstein, Shayne Ward and Leon Jackson.

Certainly not the housewife's favourite was Peter Griffin, the numb-nuts dad from cult cartoon Family Guy. With 33 million hits on YouTube, he turned the 60s kitsch classic Surfing Bird by The Trashmen into the turkey tipped to take the top spot this Christmas.

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However, possibly the lamest effort was the audio hum, shuffling and coughing of Cage Against The Machine - a rendition of experimental composer John Cage's work 4'33". Conceived in 1952, it was an unironic comment on the impossibility of silence. Today, it sounds like desperation.

Have these musicians who honed their talent the hard way lost so much heart? Have they fallen so far out of touch with the general public - and so out of our love? Couldn't they just woo us as before with a heart-melting melody and a few well-chosen words? It seems so. Trouble is, as the Scots-educated king of Madison Avenue, David Ogilvy, once observed: "You can't bore people into paying attention to you".

Boredom with pop music was something that would have seemed baffling to me as a child. Every Sunday, the charts brought nail-biting tension to the tranny as your favourite act battled for the top slot.

Every Thursday, Top of the Pops beamed exotic glamour into dreary, regional living rooms. From Dundee to Salford, from East Kilbride to Macclesfield, the Mackenzies, Morrisseys, Frames and Curtises tuned in - the lads inspired to reach for that rock 'n' roll star.

Perhaps this doesn't sound so different from the effect of today's X-Factor. The girl singing in her bedroom with a hairbrush; the boy strumming along with a tennis racquet - each longing to be "discovered". However, it never really worked like that. You only need hear the teenage Roddy Frame play on the self-penned debut album High Land, Hard Rain by Aztec Camera to realise how many years Scotland's boy wonder had put into his art.

Yet there was always plenty of pap in pop too. For every Bacharach, there was a Mike Batt. For every Joy Division, there was a Joe Dolce.For every Elton John, there was, well, an Elton John.

From its beginnings, the popular music industry also attracted Machiavellian managers. You may never have heard of Larry Parnes. He was the original pop svengali who, from the mid-50s to the early 60s, masterminded the first British rock'n'roll acts.

It's fair to say he had more interest in hot young men than cool, new music. But, when homosexuality was still illegal, artiste representation offered a milieu where gay men found acceptance. Parnes matched his business acumen with a snappy dress sense and sophisticated taste. Like many gay managers, he smoothed relationships between the toffs who ran record companies and the toughs who made music.

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It's also possible that sharing a taste for pouting boys and simpering songs with the pubescent female fanbase proves a marketing advantage. Having made Britain's first rock'n'roll star Tommy Steele, Parnes went on to handle a conveyor belt of blow-dried boys.

He described his process as "very extensive grooming", usually giving his protgs new clothes and "dangerous" names like Marty Wilde, Billy Fury and Vince Eager in pallid homage to real American rock'n'rollers.

Parnes also invented the packaged pop tour, bussing his acts round Britain in punishing, money-spinning schedules. He even once employed the early Beatles as backing band for a low-rent seven-date tour of Scotland - taking in Alloa, Forres, Fraserburgh, Inverness, Keith, Nairn and Peterhead - for the remarkably undangerous Johnny Gentle.

He wasn't alone in failing to spot the Beatles' potential but the rise of the artiste as artist left his acts looking dated and his methods cack-handed.

He became just another square trying to cash in by spoonfeeding the public with safe, patronising pap. Inevitably, in the mid-sixties, he turned his attention to musicals.

In reality, Parnes was more interested in entertainment than pop music. In this regard, he doesn't seem that different to Simon Cowell, whose idea of musical perfection is Bobby Darin's 1959 re-tread of Mack The Knife.

Cowell scotches rumours that he's gay and has protected his private life by hiring celebrity PR man Max Clifford to prowl the perimeter. But the stark truth is, Cowell isn't smitten by music or musicians. As he told Rolling Stone magazine, what he likes most is "Money. As much money as I can get my hands on".

Again, that doesn't seem much reason for music fans to regard him as the anti-Christ.He's hardly the first Conservative-supporting celebrity to confess to Gordon Gecko "greed is good" tendencies.

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Maybe it's his TV show's use of Carl Orff's 1935 Carmina Burana to introduce the judges? Historically, the music has a dubious link with Nazism but the lyrics were written (in Latin) about 900 years ago, meditating in mediaeval style on how the wheel of Fortune lifts you up, then crushes you.

The theme is often confused with the soundtrack to The Omen and, in popular culture, usually denotes impending evil. In Only Fools and Horses, it was used humorously whenever Del Boy Trotter's kid Damien appeared.

Still, you imagine the irony escapes Cowell and Co. It's just another example of his denial of the significance of musical culture. He started his career in "artists and repertoire", signing new acts and developing talent for record companies. In a period when other A&R men discovered Wham! and Frankie Goes To Hollywood and Blur and Take That, he managed the oeuvre of Sinitta, The Teletubbies and Robson and Jerome.

It's the cynical skill for turning musical chaff into chart-topping gold that underlies his success. So, there's not much about Simon Cowell that need surprise anyone. Not the novelty records. Not the notion that he "should do something for David Bowie". Not the narcissism.

On Desert Island Discs, the luxury item he requested was a mirror.

What most surely should shock us all is the total failure of seven separate series of X-Factor to uncover any original talent whatsoever: to add one new song - just one - to the canon of great British pop music.

Look at the hordes of hopefuls queuing to audition for Cowell's show. Think of the monumental amounts of money and publicity that go into this search for the X-Factor. Then consider how many successful pop stars of the past 50 years had already written a sheaf of songs by their early teens - at least enough to fill a first good album.

Surely among the thousands of karaoke contestants there must have been somebody with a great song up their sleeve? The real trouble is that Cowell almost certainly wouldn't have talent to judge it himself. The X-Factor doesn't just have a terrible Xmas release. It also has probably the worst A&R record in history.