Building the perfect beast
Trevor Horn’s epic pop productions are rooted in an early infatuation with prog rock. “In my twenties I took some LSD and listened to music hour after hour. Most of the opinions I hold today were formed then,” he tells ANDREW HARRISON
IN TREVOR HORN’S SANCTORUM ABOVE Ladbroke Grove’s Sarm West Studios, in the kitchenette behind the lounge with the over-stuffed sofas and the family pictures and the scented candles, there’s a frame letter on the wall. It is dated 1983.
Dear Sir, it reads, We strongly object to receiving filth through the post. If there is anything else of the nature of Frankie Goes To Hollywood in the pipeline then please cross this shop off your mailing list. From A To Z Records, Worthing, Sussex.
Sharing the frame is the 7-inch cover of Relax. Yvonne Gilbert’s infamous illustration of the muscular gimp in leather undies and a spike heeled dollybird wearing no drawers at all is now bleached and yellowing with age. Trevor Horn, 61 this year, regards it with a mixture of nostalgia and disbelief, as if considering it anew. “We have so many complaints, so many complaints…” he mutters. Complaints about the original 12-inch Sex Mix of Relax, for instance, in which producer Horn and his studio colleagues celebrated finally cracking this notorious difficult recording by getting stoned and making a completely obscene 16-minute version full of squelches and moans, with none of the original song on it at all. “We had angry letters from gay clubs,” he says. “‘You think this is a joke? You think this is what we’re about?’ I probably did go too far on that one.” Then he brightens. “Worth a lot of money now, though. George Michael brought the last one. Got it in a shop in Borehamwood.”
Music fans all grow up with fantasy band line-ups in their heads. I only ever had a fantasy producer in mine. From The Buggles and ABC through the three great bands on his label Zang Tuum Tumb — Frankie, The Art Of Noise and Propaganda — Trevor Horn raised the bar of what pop could do so high that we could barely see it. He made me listen to Yes (Owner Of A Lonely Heart = TUNE) and with the Malcolm McLaren album Duck Rock he showed me that world music was not just for geography teachers but was, in fact, other people’s pop music. I realised years later that Horn’s signature sound — cosmic and grand but relentlessly danceable — came from his love of the most taboo music of the 1980s, prog rock. I wanted Trevor Horn to produce everything, preferably as a 14-minute-long disco mix.
His first truly massive hit was Video Killed The Radio Star; among his most recent releases is the Robbie Williams album Reality Killed The Video Star. Horn’s story stretches from the end of the Top Rank showband era into the digital present and beyond. It seems a good time to talk to him, not just because of the indelible mark that Horn has made on pop music but because of the great affection in which he is help too.
The latter came to the fore in 2006 after the tragic accident that befell Jill Sinclair, Trevor’s wife since 1980 and his formidable business partner. Their son was practising with an air gun and accidentally hit his mother in the neck, piercing an artery. The resulting blood loss put her in a coma. Trevor does not like to talk about his wife in interviews but confirms that it’s unlikely that she will make any significant recovery. It would be a bitterly cruel blow even if Jill Sinclair had not been, to a large extent, the unstoppable business drive behind Trevor’s artistic talent. “It’s funny,” he says after thinking for a few moments. “I really cried when I heard about Roy, from Siegfried & Roy, being attacked by their tiger. He’s in the same situation. Basically you’re in a coma for the rest of your life. I think the last thing he said was, ‘Don’t shoot the tiger. It’s not the tiger’s fault.’” He pauses. “What an amazing thing to say.”
TREVOR HORN WAS BORN IN DURHAM AND HIS voice retains a slight Geordie lilt, mellowed with a few transatlantic notes. He knows more about music than God does and is capable of going into impassioned digressions about it. For instance: the term “classical” is nonsense because all that music was written for the moment, as jigs and reels for instant consumption; the orchestra is the result of the mass-production of instruments that could stay in tune and is therefore directly related to Fairlight and Roland; and a medieval cathedral is, among other things, a fantastic reverb unit. He is surprisingly defensive about his beloved prog.
“What it all comes down to,” he says eventually, “is that when I was in my twenties I took some LSD and all I did was listen to music for hour after hour. Most of the opinions that I still hold today were formed then. My paradigm for a record was always putting on a pair of headphones and getting lost in it; the record taking you on a journey. All the records I liked did that. I liked progressive music because progressive means you haven’t given up.
“Let’s face it, most musical forms have an inspired creator that starts them off and then they settle into ‘in the style of’. The only form of music that isn’t conservative is pop music. Pop is like hamburgers. It takes in a bit of everything around it. It’s whatever you can get normal people to buy. How many modern symphonies do you ever listen to? We listen to Tchaikovksy, Mozart or Debussy, and it’s wonderful but it’s been done, almost to perfection. Pop’s not like that. Pop changes.”
Trevor Horn hated music at school. But when he turned eight everyone was given a recorder and made to learn it. Trevor had never imagined he might enjoy music before. His father, an engineer by day, played double bass five nights a week in a semi-pro dance outfit called The Joe Clark Band —
“I loved records, and I was interested in how things sounded. I was fascinated by pictures in the Melody Maker of people wearing headphones in recording studios. I dreamed of wearing them myself. It looked like the most exciting thing that anyone could ever do. Continue »
He became a professional musician the day he got fired from his last proper job, as a “progress chaser” in a plastic bag factory. Aged 18 he went from an office job to working in a Top Rank ballroom six nights a week on three times as much money. “It was fantastic,” he says, still energised. “Back then, if someone was a good reader, we’d say he could read fly shit off a lampshade. I couldn’t quite do that but I wasn’t a bad bass player. That was how I earned a living.”
Years as a jobbing musician ensued. He played in British disco star Tina Charles’ band, where he met future Buggles partner Geoff Downes and also became Tina’s boyfriend. He built a studio of his own in Leicester while playing seven nights a week in Bailey’s club in the city to pay the rent. But work was hard to come by. He and his colleagues would tinker with local artists’ songs and once made a record for Leicester City FC. At one session, a keyboard player friend called Bill Coleman told him, “Trevor, what you’re doing is called being a record producer.”
“It was one of those great moments when I thought, ‘Obviously that’s what I do,’” says Trevor. “I love it so much, it must be my thing. Bill told me I’d have to give up the bass, and he was dead right.” It would be six years before Horn got a hit, a pop-reggae-funk single by Dan-I called Monkey Chop that got to number 17 in 1979.
His next hit would be of a different order altogether. It was Trevor’s friend and writing partner Bruce Woolley who came up with the line “I heard you on the wireless back in ‘52". The two would often talk about the radio shows of their childhoods —
“I was a misfit at the time,” says Trevor. “My stuff just sounded weird. I couldn’t make records like Elton John and I hated punk —
Trevor found himself supplying the second line, “…lying awake intently tuning in on you”, and Video Killed The Radio Star was completed in an afternoon. Woolley had signed another deal, so it fell to Trevor to sing the song, and Bruce suggested he treat his voice to sound like it was coming out of a radio. “Sometimes when you start something you get an idea pretty quickly that it’s going to work,” Trevor recalls. “There was a moment when Geoffrey played a little French horn thing on the synth and I just knew it was the best thing I’d ever done, that it was going to be big.” Video Killed The Radio Star transformed Horn from struggling producer to number-one star in 16 countries, and from penury to sudden wealth. “It changed my life completely,” he says.
He celebrated with a new pair of glasses —
At this point the story takes a sudden lurch sideways as Horn and Downes, having finally achieved pop stardom, opt to join Yes instead. This is akin to The Verve deciding they need some fresh blood today, and proceeding to draft in Calvin Harris and Dizzee Rascal.
“That was kind of an insane thing to do,” Trevor admits. “I’d never been up close to a massive rock band before. I’d been playing music since I was 11 but when we were invited into rehearsals with them, it was an eye-opener. They were something else. They’d be playing together and it would be sort of OK, and then somebody would wake up and they’d go into this other mode. I’d never heard anything like it. They were really playing, on some level that I don’t think even they understood.”
Long-time Yes fans, he and Downes gradually understood that they were invited not as guests but as replacements for Rick Wakeman and Jon Anderson. For years afterwards Horn had a recurring nightmare that he was in a limo on the way to Madison Square Garden with Yes’s Chris Squire telling him they were going to play Parallels that night, over Trevor’s protests that he couldn’t sing it. He made the Drama album with Yes and left afterwards, returning to produce 90125 and Owner Of A Lonely Heart years later. Geoff Downes decided to stay.
“And quite a few people thought that that was the end of it for me,” says Horn. “But I thought, ‘Well at least my wife can manage me now. No more conflict of interest.’” Jill Sinclair’s first piece of advice: stop trying to be an artist and concentrate on producing. If you’re an artist you’ll always be second division. But if you’re a producer you’ll become the best in the world.
THERE’S A WIDELY HELD belief, fostered by stories about Frankie, that the Horn Method entails preventing a band from playing on their own records. This gets a laugh from Trevor, who explains that sometimes it’s more about dismantling the group and their music to examine every little piece, and then building it up again. Its first true application, he says, was ABC’s spectacular Lexicon Of Love in 1982, where a promising Brit-funk band were transformed by work and will into a paragon of pop music.
“They were very ambitious,” he says. “We’d recorded one full-band version of Poison Arrow and I asked Martin Fry, ‘Is this what you had in mind or do you want it better than this?’ He said, ‘We want it as good as it can possibly be. We want to compete with the Americans.’ So I told them that if that’s what they wanted, we were going to have to start again.” Horn reprogrammed all the music into sequencers and the band played along until they were metronomically sharp. Some members could do it and others could not. “I did dismantle the band a bit, and I still regret it because I paid a high price for it. I got ABC to change bass players. They had the English band syndrome: one of the guys isn’t as good as all the others. I guess you could say that lost me the chance of ever producing U2. Blackwell wanted me to do it but they were scared that I would split the band.”
The Lexicon Of Love and Malcolm McLaren’s concurrent world tour of pop Duck Rock also brought into the picture the backroom musicians who would define much of Horn’s future —
Horn’s “naive” idea was that his record company could nurture artists more closely than a major label. “I had ridiculous ideas of what a record label should be,” he says. “I thought it would be ajoyous creative commune —
“He interviewed me and part of it ended up in Pseud’s Corner in Private Eye,” says Horn. “Quite an achievement, really. He made me seem more erudite than I was. I thought, ‘This is what writers do. They romanticise what they see.’ The more I thought about the label the more I wanted Morley to design it. He did, and we had an incredible couple of years.”
Apart from an Art Of Noise 12-inch, ZTT’s first signing was a Liverpool band Horn had seen on C4’s The Tube. “I thought the drummer was interesting, with his little Hitler moustache and fuzzy hair, and the beat —
With its eventual court case, the story of Frankie is often taken as a parable of what onerous contracts can do to a band. Trevor thinks this reading is unfair on him. He had, after all, signed them on the strength of a demo only to find that gifted guitarist Jed O’Toole had been replaced by Brian “Nasher” Nash, “a good-looking kid, very important to the psychological make-up of Frankie, but he couldn’t play guitar very well. What am I supposed to do?”
The making of Relax has gone down in the annals of tortuous recording. The song went through four discrete versions before it became the monster that ate 1984. In the first version Horn tried to record it as the band played it live. “It was pretty awful,” he says, “because Nasher couldn’t really play.” For the second attempt Horn assembled a group of session players, including Ian Dury’s band The Blockheads, which was “OK but kind of tame”. The third attempt at Relax took weeks and led Horn into misery, but an arrangement for Frankie’s version of Ferry Cross The Mersey was going much better. Horn and keyboard player Andy Richards had stumbled on a low-end pumping rhythm on the Fairlight. “And then a bunch of things all happened at the same time.”
A friend had given Horn a Nepalese Temple Ball- a lump of dope —
In the end they completed Relax in a single take. At llpm Holly Johnson arrived at the studio. “It’s changed,” Trevor told him. “How much?” “Completely.” “Oh no. Not again.”
The hit version of Relax ignited ZTT’s imperial period, when it seemed they could do no wrong. Quincy Jones called Horn asking to buy the album by their third key signing, the German industrial pop band Propaganda, for America. “He was very surprised that I knew all his old stuff like Smackwater Jack. I was on the phone with him for an hour. I wanted to know what it was like to work with Sinatra. And if you listen to Michael Jackson around that time, ‘85-86, he started to sound a lot like Propaganda…” Even the faceless Art Of Noise began to have hits. The label seemed to have discovered a foolproof formula for producing perfect pop music.
They had, for instance, stumbled upon the idea of perpetually remixing a current release to keep it selling, an idea they built into their plan for Frankie’s second single Two Tribes. The initial 12-inch featured Patrick Allen, unmistakable voice of a thousand Public Information Films, reading from the government’s Protect And Survive films and from a record that radio stations were supposed to play in the event of a nuclear attack. When Allen read the script he immediately asked, “Where did you get this? You’re not supposed to have this.” He had been required to sign the Official Secrets Act when he recorded the original. Horn and Morley were crestfallen. Did that mean he wouldn’t record the Frankie voiceover? Allen thought for a moment and then said, “No, sod it,” and began the recording. Finally Morley suggested that Allen speak the words, “Mine is the last voice that you will ever hear.”
“And when he did it,” says Horn, “you could see that it really affected him. It was chilling, even to him.” This is how summer 1984 saw Britain’s radios and dancefloor fill with messages about the end of the world.
INEVITABLY ZTT COULDN’T LAST. THE BANDS WERE on lousy deals, says Horn, because ZTT itself was on a lousy deal. “We were earning half of what a record label ought to be on,” he says. “I know I’d be able to handle the personalities better now. With 30 years of experience. I had no idea how awful it was going to get.”
Frankie fell out and split in early 1987. ZTT tried to hold Holly Johnson to a solo contract but lost an embarrassing court case for restraint of trade. “In hindsight,” says Horn diplomatically, “we should have probably let him go.” Meanwhile The Art Of Noise were increasingly annoyed by Morley’s conceptual antics and open to voices that told them they were a hit band who ought to have been making more money. Propaganda wanted a better deal too and found one, with Virgin, but their next album was an insipid failure compared to their ZTT album A Secret Wish. ZTT would sign other successful acts (Seal, 808 State) but their infallible years were behind them.
There was also a sense that times were changing around Horn in the late 1980s. The home recording and DIY ethics of the Summer of Love were in, grandeur and scope were out. Horn admits that he resented house music somewhat. “It might have been because I got tired of people criticising me because my records sounded good,” he says. “I thought Relax sounded trashy but I realised afterwards that what I was hearing was a modern record, for the first time. It didn’t have any fidelity. It was samples and ratty little guitar sounds. That was the future. But rave music probably annoyed me more in the ‘90s. By the end of the ‘80s I was in America. I was a bit tired of here. In LA there was a nice feeling of being a small fish in a big pond.”Continue »
The work he’s done since is just as successful but inevitably less controversial —
“You’ll always need record producers,” he says calmly. “If you’re a young artist you learn how to entertain in the live context, but when you come in here it’s intimidating. The record you make is going to determine your career. I’m sure there were a lot of bands around in the ‘70s who could play as well as The Eagles, but The Eagles were the ones who made great records. A recording studio is a strange place, as much psychologically as technically, and if you come in without the right sort of help you can get it wrong —
“Sometimes,” says Trevor Horn, “All people need from a record producer is a voice to say, ‘That’s great, it’s finished. You’re done.’”
The unreleased second Buggies album ADVENTURES IN MODERN RECORDING and Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s WELCOME TO THE PLEASUREDOME are both out now as Deluxe Edition CDs