The 80’s best kept secret – Trevor Horn

Video Killed the Radio Star – The Buggles (with Trevor Horn)

You will have heard of Andy Warhol, and his New York studio The Factory. He and his entourage were hugely influential in Pop-Art, fashion and music, with bands like Velvet Underground and artists like Nico Lou Reed and J.J. Cale.

This is a story about a man who was at least as influential as Andy, but in the 80’s. A man who built a similar studio bustling with creativity. He and his entourage of people would change electronic music forever and several of his team members would become immensely successful, yet his name is hardly known with the general audience. Here is the story.

Trevor Horn was a 70’s studio musician, a bass player who really wanted to be a producer. He had produced some amateurish punk-bands during the seventies, but Trevor first touched the charts after he started dating singer Tina Charles. Trevor became her musical director as well as backup bass player while building his recording studio. Tina Charles soon topped the charts internationally with hit singles like “Love to Love” in the late seventies.

In London, Northern boy Trevor was making some money producing radio commercials in his studio. In his spare time, he had been working with Bruce Woolley to form his own act, “The Buggles”. Together, in one hour of an afternoon in 1978, they wrote the track “Video Killed the Radio Star”.  There were three elements that inspired the song

Horn: “I’d read J.G. Ballard’s short story “The Sound-Sweep”, in which an opera singer is rendered obsolete in a world without sound, and I had this vision of the future where record companies would have computers in the basement and manufacture artists.
Secondly, I’d heard Kraftwerk’s The Man-Machine. It was like you could see the future when you heard Kraftwerk, something new is coming, something different. Different rhythm section, different mentality.
And finally, video was becoming immensely important. You could feel things changing. So we had all of that, and we wrote this song.” Eventually, they recorded an early demo, featuring Horn’s girlfriend Tina Charles on vocals.

In her backing band, Trevor had met keyboard player Geoff Downes. They had begun working together, making jingles for commercials as well as experimenting with electronic music. Trevor invited Geoff to join Buggles a bit later. Together they worked on the demo version of “Video Killed the Radio Star”, which was recorded in Geoff’s flat.  

Downes:  “We were northern boys trying to break into the music scene, but were initially rejected by all the record companies.” But Downes’ girlfriend helped out. “By chance, my girlfriend worked for Island and got them to hear our demo, and suddenly they wanted to sign us as producers, artists, and writers. We went from nothing to this terrific deal.”.

“Video Killed the Radio Star”  is a complex, modern-sounding pop song. Downes: “We stayed up for nights experimenting with different sounds. We wanted to cram as many ideas as we could into a pop song. The Buggles were predicated on the idea that everything in life is artificial, including music. That’s why it is sung in a robotic voice and why the instruments are all processed for a computerized feel. It was a commentary on the intrusion of technology into every aspect of our lives.“.

Interestingly, this was a track recorded with traditional instruments that was made to SOUND like it had been done by computers. The track was recorded in 1979. Back then “Wireless” didn’t refer to Wifi but actually meant radio. It is the first hit song showcasing Trevor Horn’s unique ability to make a recording sound “timeless”.

“Video Killed the Radio Star” was also the first music video ever to be played on MTV. The video was shot in South London in a day, directed by Russell Mulcahy. It had more production value than most other videos MTV had to choose from. Mulcahy used a lot of theatrics in his work. He went on to make videos for Duran Duran – including “Wild Boys” and “Rio” before directing the 1986 film Highlander. Also performing in the video were Hans Zimmer on keyboards and Warren Cann (from Ultravox) on drums.

Helped by MTV “Video Killed the Radio Star” became a UK #1 hit single and then went to #1 in 15 more countries, including America.

After the success, Horn and Downe joined progressive rock band Yes in May 1980. Horn sang vocals but he had problems with his voice and his nerves on tour. His bad live performance was the main reason for him to quit Yes after only seven months. Horn: “Joining Yes was one of those stupid things that you do sometimes. It was one of the two or three times in my life that I’ve done something that I knew was wrong.” Afterward, Horn and Downes went back into the studio to record the second incarnation of the Buggles, but they ran into personal and artistic problems, leading up to a disappointing second album and the eventual split of The Buggles.

By the way, after Buggles, Geoff Downes went on to form symphonic rock act Asia, which made him a huge star after which he rejoined Yes, and sold millions of records

The third unofficial member in Buggles, also in the video for was Hans Zimmer. You can see a young Hans standing in front of the Modular in the clip:

After school Zimmer had left his native Germany for London and started out as a synth programmer, working on radio ads. Trevor Horn produced and engineered several of the 30-second commercial spots that Hans composed and arranged, so one day Trevor Horn told Zimmer about his Buggles project and invited Hans to help him out: “I would start working with Trevor at 6 in the evening, finish at 9 in the morning to get to my 10 o’clock morning session which was actually paying my rent, it was pretty harsh. Trevor was always brilliant and I really learned a lot from him, I learned how to listen.

Another talent that Horne picked up was classical clarinet and piano player Anne Dudley. She was working nightshifts behind the keyboards in late ‘70s studio’s. There she met Trevor Horn, who offered her work as an arranger on his team.

Back at Horn’s studio she met Zimmer and was introduced to one of the first, wildly expensive, polyphonic synthesizers, the Prophet 5 (which Downes had used on “Video”). Anne Dudley describes the first polyphonic chord played he played on it as a jaw-dropping moment for her. Soon she was full-time on the studio team working with Trevor Horn, producing records like ABC’s Lexicon of Love and Malcolm McLaren’s Duck Rock.

During January 1983, Horn’s team was working on the Yes comeback album 90125 – Horn as a producer, and Anne Dudley providing arrangements and keyboard programming. Horn was among the first people to use samples. While others were using samples as a sort of special effect in a pop song, Horn and his team saw the potential to craft entire compositions with the sampler, disrupting the traditional rock way of writing and composing.

Dudley: “We started playing together in our own time. Trevor had got a new synthesizer from Australia, a Fairlight, which fascinated us. It made it relatively easy to put in a sample of, say, a dog barking, and then play it in different pitches.

During the Yes sessions, the team took an unused Yes drum riff and sampled it into the Fairlight using the device’s sequencer. This was the first time an entire drum pattern had been sampled into the machine. then they added non-musical sounds on top of it, before playing the track to Horn. This resulted in the Red & Blue Mix of Yes’ “Owner of a Lonely Heart” single, showcasing the prototype sound that would become The Art of Noise.

The concept for the Art Of Noise was based on “The Art of Noises”, a book by the Italian Futurist-movement from the beginning of the 20th century. Among other things, these futurists imagined creating a new kind of music by using daily noises instead of classical instruments. A vision that was finally made possible by the Fairlight. The members were arranger Anne Dudley, engineer Langan, programmer Jeczalik, producer Trevor Horn.

To complete the team, Trevor hired media concept man Paul Morley. He was an influential journalist for New Musical Express Magazine, and Horn hired him to “do Propaganda” for the teams productions. He also joined the Art of Noise, where Anne Dudley and the boys were having fun.

Anne: Using samples of “Leave It” and “Owner of a Lonely Heart” by YES, which Trevor Horn had produced, we wrote a piece of music with lots of different sections and samples. There was a neighbor’s VW Golf starting and stalling, and group members saying “urgh”, and “money”, which we played backward.

This was back in the day when editing meant you had to literally slice tape with a razor blade. We ended up with something quite quirky but we certainly didn’t think it had legs as a single. To our amazement, it got to No 8.”

Paul Morley, Mr. Media, had been hugely successful with his propaganda strategy, propelling Frankie Goes To Hollywood to the number one chart position with “Relax” by provoking the BBC so that they’s boycot the song. And when he ran into his soon to be wife, a German lady called Claudia Brucken, the team decided that she would need a band of her own. The name was obvious: Propaganda.

And so Propaganda was formed around Claudia. 80’s star David Sylvian (ex-Japan) was asked to produce Propaganda. He eventually decided against producing them, but while he was thinking about it, he came up with the ghostly top line and music of the song ‘P:Machinery’.  

In the end, Stephen Lipson produced the Propaganda album, under the supervision of Horn. For recording it they again did something revolutionary in 1983. Horn: “We took a Linn, a Fairlight, a DMX, a DSX and a Roland M5, interconnected them and programmed the whole song in each machine. Then we synchronized the instruments with each other. So we programmed everything, with the idea in mind, that the girls could sing over it, while we would lean back and just press some buttons – without using any tape. …Of course on recording day the whole setup went berserk and we had to start all over again to record the whole thing on tape!

Fun fact: Even though the fully programmed song technique failed the first time, Horn soon found out it could be used to copy multi-tracks, and copy and paste them over several measures. ‘Wow’, I thought, ‘that’s something we can use for ‘Welcome To The Pleasuredome’!’ This was supposed to be only a three-minute track, but which we were having so much fun copying and stretching it over and over that, in the end, we worked three months on that song, and it became 13 minutes long. 

And so we see that Trevor Horn had assembled this hugely talented group of people, who were the real stars behind many great 80’s bands and acts, producing hits for Seal, Simple Minds, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, ABC, Robbie Williams, The Art Of Noise, Belle & Sebastian, Cher, Bryan Ferry, Godley & Creme, Grace Jones, Paul McCartney, Tom Jones, Malcolm McLaren, Mike Oldfield, Pet Shop Boys, Shane McGowan, Rod Stewart, Tina Turner, t.A.T.u and of course Propaganda. Just check out these album covers, just a small subset:

Anne Dudley went on to become a producer for Tom Jones, Alison Moyet, and Debby Harry, the first composer for the BBC Concert Orchestra and an Oscar-Winning soundtrack writer for The Full Monty, as well as having written over 23 other movie scores like American History X, Les Misérables and Bright Young Things by Stephen Fry. Anne also is the favorite soundtrack writer of Paul Verhoeven, having done the scores for his movies Black Book, Elle and his soon to be released movie Benedettta.

Bu the way, Hans Zimmer has also been making movie and video game soundtracks since the late ’80s. He has a huge amount of Hollywood film scores to his name: True Romance, Backdraft, Rain Man, Green Card, Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, four Batman movies, Pearl Harbor, Pirates of the Caribbean, Sherlock Holmes, Inception, The Lion King, for which he won an Oscar in 2011, Dunkirk and of course Blade Runner 2049. What do you think of that list?

Actually, in the previous episode of this podcast, the Happy Goth Accident, all backing tracks we used were taken from Hans Zimmer’s Blade Runner 2049 soundtrack.

Warpaint – Shadows

Warpaint, what a great band name. Warpaint is an all-female LA quartet that appears to have a direct line back to 1982 Britain. The song, Shadows, is from their debut album “The Fool” from 2010. Where shall I begin with my fan rant about this great song. It gives me goosebumps 10 years later.

If I had to describe this album. In simple terms I would say it sounds soothing and immersive. There are certain elements of Grunge, but also from the ethereal sounding Cocteau Twins. It’s more about ambiance than action. The drum sections have a post-punk feel and the basslines are great on this album and also on this song (shadows). They could be one of those bands like The Chromatics to close off a season 3 episode of Twin Peaks.

Most of all, I think this is REAL music. It has an authentic heart and soul. There are four women playing instruments in a room, that’s it. That’s all that is needed. If you are sick of modern and manufactured crap then you do yourself a favour and check out Warpaint. Especially if you are into post-punk and alternative music, you will definitely enjoy this one.

But apart from my fan-rant: This first album didn’t create a big impact or splash, it’s just not poppy enough, and also maybe not “ballsy” or dark enough 😊

If you see live footage on Youtube, each of them is in her own zone. Often with eyes shut and head loose. It’s almost like watching them make up songs in real-time at every show. The chemistry can’t be denied and is an absolute joy to see.

The Sound – Sense of purpose (From the Lion’s mouth 1981)

This has to be the most underrated band and underrated album that I know of in our beloved dark genre. Some bands racked up hit after hit and enjoyed fame and fortune. Others never reach the top but slowly build a following, substantial enough to sustain a decades-long career. Then there are bands who get glowing reviews that never translate into large-scale public recognition, and end up with that poisoned label, of being “The critics’ favourite”.

One can only guess as to why The Sound didn’t make it into the big league. It is true that a lot of their songs sound the same. And later albums are too much “hit and miss” with some great tracks, but also a lot of mediocre ones. They missed the coherence and mood that From The Lion’s Mouth does have. But still it only sold 100.000 copies. So The Sound was doomed to become a “cult band”.

And maybe there were just too many of these post-punk bands around at the time.. And they couldn’t cut through.

Frontman Adrian Borland missed the charisma of Ian Curtis or Robert Smith. Also, in an age of “Video killed the Radio star”: Adrian wasn’t the most handsome guy you would like to see in a music video. Also Adrian had severe pchycological problems (a schizophrenic disorder) and he was an alcoholic. He was not easy to work with.

An interesting fact, is that this London band was more popular in the Netherlands than in the UK. Apparently we Dutchies have better taste 😊 And Adrian has also lived in the Netherlands for several periods in his life. Frustrated by

Frustrated by the lack of succes and a breakthrough that didn’t come, The Sound disbanded in 1987. Borland could not cope with other bands making it, and not him.

After the end of The Sound, he started a solo career and kept writing songs and performing. It’s a crying shame that he took his own life in 1999 at the age of 41. He jumped in front of a train at the Wimbledon railway station.

There is a documentary about his life and the band: “Walking in the opposite direction”

It premiered at the International Documentary Festival of Amsterdam in 2016. Here it is:

The Church – Under the Milkyway

The Church is an Australian Rock band, and this beautiful track is from their album Starfish from 1988. Before releasing this album they were making interesting music, but it took them 7 (!) albums to finally make it big.

In order to make this album, they temporarily moved to Los Angeles to record with producers Waddy Wachtel (Bob DylanRolling StonesRobbie Williams) and Greg Ladani (among others Fleetwood Mac). This proved to be quite a challenge for The Church. According to founding member Steve Kilbey: “It was Australian hippies versus West Coast guys who know the way they like to do things. We were a bit more undisciplined than they would have liked”.

Personalities clashed as the two sides were debating over guitar sounds, song structures, and work ethic. Under pressure from the producers, Kilbey took vocal lessons, an experience he later regarded as valuable.

The stress of living in the US influenced their recording, and left Kilbey feeling out of place:

“The Church came to L.A. and really reacted against the place because none of us liked it. I hated where I was living. I hated driving this horrible little red car around on the wrong side of the road. I hate that there’s no one walking on the streets and I missed my home. All the billboards, conversations I’d overhear, TV shows, everything that was happening to us was going into the music”.

Four weeks of gruelling rehearsals resulted in Starfish, which focused on capturing the band’s core sound. Which is bright, spacious, and clear.  

The group wanted a live and dynamic album; They tried to record a live atmosphere that conveyed a real sense of “being there”. They found the results bare and simplistic; however, the public reception was unexpected.

Because it turned out as the band’s international breakthrough album, and went gold in America.

It is timeless, lush music.. in my opinion.

Small fact about this track: “Under the Milky Way” was featured in a 1989 episode of Miami Vice titled “Asian Cut” and more recently in the 2001 film Donnie Darko.

Also on the Donnie Darko Soundtrack was “Love Will Tear Us Apart” by Joy Division. Because of that movie I really feel like these two tracks are made in the same universe or overall romantic 80’s ‘feel’.

Hans Zimmer

Barry Levinson’s wife loved Hans Zimmers’ soundtrack for “A World Apart”, so she bought the CD and gave it to Barry. He then stopped by Hans’ studio in London and asked Hans to move to the USA to start working on the soundtrack for Rain Man. Hans worked on over 160 movies and got an Oscar for the animated Lion King. He also worked on the 3 Batman movies by Christopher Nolan… for 12 years (!). Zimmer is really taking time and freaking out on every single sound. Plus, as mentioned, he did the synth programming on the Bladerunner 2049 OST (together with Benjamin Wallfish, great name).

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