More than music
Trevor Horn won this year’s PRS for Music Outstanding Contribution to British Music Award at the Ivors. Paul Morley charts the long and extraordinarily varied career of the man for whom the term ‘record producer’ was invented.
I FIRST INTERVIEWED TREVOR HORN for the NME in 1979 when he was a Buggle topping the charts with Video Killed The Radio Star, a jolly retro-futurist novelty song that a couple of years later was to make history as the song that launched MTV. With full self-righteous post-punk NME disdain, I resisted the group’s shiny plastic delights and Trevors bulging Dayglo goggles and issued a withering condemnation.
The next time I interviewed Trevor, he’d become the record producer responsible for increasingly dazzling and ambitious music by soft pop dollies Dollar, Sheffield pop sensualists ABC and pop revolutionary Malcom McLaren. This time I was a fan, and part of our discussion about the function and purpose of the record producer, coming after Nelson Riddle, George Martin, Tom Wilson and Giorgio Moroder, made it into Private Eye’s Pseuds’ Corner. ‘One of my favourite achievements to this day,’ says Trevor.
The Buggles was the latest in a series of stages the then 30-year old Horn had gone through having decided he wanted to become a record producer. He had no idea how you became one, or even what one was, but was fascinated with how and why records sounded the way they did.
‘I fell in love with the control room in a studio as soon as I saw one,’ he says. ‘In the beginning I was just fascinated with the idea of making records, learning how to play the recording studio as an instrument. New technology was arriving all the time, studios were rapidly becoming more sophisticated, and I was dead jammy to be there when all that change was happening.’
During the 70s, as a hard working bassist in dance bands and musical director for perky UK disco queen Tina Charles, Horn slowly built up the peculiar, abstract qualifications that helped him become a record producer. They included a practical understanding of rapidly developing recording technology, and how it connected with creativity, a pragmatic appreciation of the messy artistic temperament, an analytical approach to songwriting, the ability to boss musicians around, immense, almost surreal patience, and an uncompromising belief in the constantly mutating attractions of the pop song. ‘I just love the idea that with the pop song you reach all over the world and make something that gets into people’s lives.’
After interview number two, Horn invited me to work with him and his manager/wife Jill Sinclair at his new label, which I called Zang Tummn Tumb (ZTT). I named and branded his new group Art of Noise.
ZTT and Art of Noise’s opening record Into Battle was like Duck Rock 2—
‘I didn’t want to create any kind of rock feel for my music,’ explains Horn. ‘It wasn’t something I had or was interested in. The robotic thing in electronic music appealed to me because you could make the rhythm sound perfect and in a rock sense a bit rigid, but there could be no argument—
The second ZTT record was Trevor’s horniest ever record—
By 1985, Horn’s perfectionist technique for creating extravagant, endlessly remixable dance pop that blended technological precision with human inspiration and intense musicianship culminated in Grace Jones’ spectacularly ethereal electro-ode to self-confidence, Slave To the Rhythm. It was his finest assembly of electric moments, and one of pop’s all time finest moments.
By the end of the 1980s, Horn had laid claim to five dance producer of the year awards. ‘I remember accepting the last one and saying that the next hot producers were going to be DJ’s,’ he says. ‘Live music wasn’t doing so well, those early 80s groups were not so good live, and just playing your favourite music for people, selecting the best bits, putting them all together, and playing over the top, it was a form of production that was clearly going to evolve. What we did with Relax and Two Tribes [Frankie Goes To Hollywood] on the long versions was part of that new way of combining rhythm, mood and electronics and elongating whole sections. I was an old stoner, so the E thing never convinced me, that starting somewhere, going somewhere else for a bit, and then just stopping in the middle of nowhere.’
ZTT never quite fulfilled early potential, but there was Seal in the 90s, and for Horn a little echo of Frankie fuss in 2002 with lippy Russian girl duo Tatu.
Never liking to settle down into one style of music though, Horn has also produced Godley and Creme, Pet Shop Boys, Rod Stewart, Cher, Belle and Sebastian, Tina Turner and, recently, Kid Harpoon and Robbie Williams.
Robbie’s latest album is of course Reality Killed the Video Star. ‘When he told me, I was a bit shocked,’ says Horn. ‘I immediately said “You’d better tell people that’s not my idea!” I didn’t want anyone to think I’d bullied him into it. He was very determined. I didn’t know if it was a good title but I quite like it now.’
Horn is undoubtedly one of the very greats as a producer of pop sensation, as an inventor of his own sound, as a master of manipulating technology, composition and studio atmosphere to create epic sonic entertainments. ‘I like to make records that are larger than life and to go to extremes to achieve it,’ he says. ‘It is magic. It’s not a live performance. It’s made up out of music but its not just music, it’s more than music; it’s the capturing of atmosphere and time and place.’
And then, veering from the mystical to the pragmatic, he explains: ‘It’s all about getting something good down on tape. The song you have and what it’s trying to say, however murky, does in the end dictate the record you make and what it sounds like. You have to focus all the possibilities there are in a studio into three entertaining minutes. And you have to make the singer sound good. Pop fashion and the business have changed a lot over the last 30 years but some things never change. The song and the voice.’Continue »
For an update with Trevor, now he’s re-invigorating Robbie and winning lifetime achievement awards, I return to the Sarm Studios complex in Notting Hill, where he’s been working since the early 1980s. Such studios are one of those 20th century operations apparently on the verge of obsolescence, but Sarm still hums with X Factor era pop. Take That work there, and Horn has just given Baddiel, Skinner and Broudie’s Three Lions England football song an elaborate make over, and overseen a duet between Robbie Williams and Gary Barlow (he promises me I’ll like it, but knows there’s still enough of the superior sneering 1980 NME left in me to consider such a thing unlikely.)
Sarm, though, and the rest of the Horn empire now misses the driven, driving Jill, injured in a catastrophic freak accident four years ago that has left her in the dreadful limbo of a deep coma. It means there’s something inevitably melancholy in Trevor’s tone as he looks back over a busy, battling pop life that was shared with Jill since Buggles. ‘I was the one up in the clouds and she kept things down to earth,’ he admits. ‘It worked.’
‘Some songs are very hard to listen to without crying about Jill. Not the obvious ones either. Some songs are hard to listen to because I remember how much effort went into them, the ones that made you feel you weren’t sure what you were doing, the ones that were falling apart. When I’m working on something that is not quite working out, it’s falling apart and I feel like giving up on the track; I’ll go back and listen to Seal’s Crazy or Grace’s Slave or Pet Shop Boys and think, yes, it’s all been worth it.’
Thirty years after we first analysed record producing, he’s still not come to a definitive answer about what actually a record producer is. It might not be as important as it once seemed to get to the bottom of it all, but he’s still obsessively searching for clues.