Buggles star Trevor Horn on perfecting his art of noise over four decades
26th July 2017
MULTI award-winning producer, songwriter and bass player Trevor Horn certainly knows a thing or two about the art of noise—
From performing in The Buggles and enjoying Number One success with ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ (the first ever MTV video in 1981), Durham-born Trevor—who grew up in Houghton-le-Spring—had further hits playing with the bands Yes and Art of Noise.
But it was his production credits that brought him his greatest acclaim, producing hit after hit for bands including Frankie Goes To Hollywood, ABC, Dollar, Grace Jones, Pet Shop Boys, Malcolm McLaren and Simple Minds—cultivating a repertoire as varied as the decade itself.
The 1984 hit ‘Do they Know It’s Christmas’ was recorded in Trevor’s SARM West studio in London in 1984, and although it was produced by Midge Ure, Trevor created a 12-inch version the following day.
More recently in 2009, Horn produced the album ‘Reality Killed the Video Star’ for British singer Robbie Williams, which reached number two in the album charts.
Trevor’s string of musical awards include Brit Awards in 1983, 1985 and 1992, a Grammy Award in 1995 for Record of the Year (Seal’s ‘Kiss from a Rose’),
The Trevor Horn Band will be performing at Rewind Festival North, Capesthorne Hall, Cheshire on Saturday, August 5 and has already played at Rewind Festival Scotland this weekend.
We spoke to Trevor about his glittering career, early memories and his inspirations:
You will be playing at Rewind North—what songs will you be performing?
We normally do Two Tribes, Video Killed the Radio Star. Living in The Plastic Age, Slave to the Rhythm, Owner of a Lonely Heart, Relax. It’s so short—and it’s all over so quickly but it’s varied. I think the festival is great—it gives people a bit of light relief from anything that is too serious.
You’ve had a phenomenal career in the music industry, spanning four decades. Which would you say was your favourite decade?
My favourite is where I am now! I suppose we’d all like to be back when we were young—and full of vim and vigour but I spent 30-odd years of my life in a recording studio and I suppose, like a lot of people like me, I like to get out and play now, because that is how I started out. I just enjoy doing it because there are 10 of us (in the Trevor Horn Band), so we don’t play to track.
I read that when you were young, you decided you were going to be a full-time musician instead of an accountant (the profession Trevor’s parents preferred). Tell us about that.
I was in my last couple of years at grammar school and I was doing my ‘O’ levels and I started playing the bass guitar and stopped studying, so I didn’t do very well in my ‘O’ levels. I tried for a few years—I tried working in the normal world. My parents wanted me to be an accountant. My dad was a musician—he worked during the day and played bass at night. It was my dad who started me off. I suppose it was when I was about nine—I found that I was quite good on the recorder. I seemed to get it quicker than other people and I really, really learnt everything from playing the recorder. I learnt how to read music for the bass guitar and learned how to play the guitar from playing the recorder—I worked it all out myself.
You moved to London and toured with disco singer Tina Charles. Were you inspired by her producer Biddu?
He wasn’t so much my inspiration but I learned a lot from him as an aspiring record producer. I was Tina Charles’ boyfriend when she was being produced by Biddu. She came home one night and she had the backing track for ‘I Love to Love’ and it was the first time I’d ever heard a backing track—and on a record that was going to be a Number One! I must have listened to it 20 to 30 times, just because it was fascinating to me because it was so well done. I realised how high the standard was and how I was going to have to really try harder. I was probably about 27. Three years later The Buggles formed—it did take me a while.
What was your first appearance on Top of the Pops like as The Buggles, performing Video Killed the Radio Star?
You grow up watching Top of the Pops but then suddenly you are in the studio and you are miming to a playback that’s coming out of a transistor radio! Not a transistor radio but a BBC playback system 10 feet away and you could hear the crowd talking amongst themselves, and you could hear the playback. So the whole thing was a little bit of a letdown. To be honest you didn’t really know what to do other than stand there and sing the song, so it was a strange one. And of course they kept insisting that we had a drummer and things like that. Because it was really just me and Geoffrey, but nobody could get their heads around that. The Pet Shop Boys did fine with a keyboard player and singer, so we were a little bit ahead of our time.
After reaching Number One with Video Killed the Radio Star you went on to enjoy many chart successes.
I was like anybody else I had an “imperial phase”, as Neil Tennant describes it! If you’ve got an “imperial phase”, everything you do is a hit—and then something happens and you’re the same as everyone else.
Which of your hits is your favourite?
There’s a few there but I think technically ‘Owner of a Lonely Heart’ is the best record ever. But then ‘Relax’ was the first record of that kind and ‘Two Tribes’ was also the first of its kind.
What did ‘Frankie-mania’, as it was called, feel for you as producer?
It was a great year 1984—it was a superb year. It felt like riding a rollercoaster.
Who inspired you musically?
Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Tony Bennett, The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Yes—
What’s been your golden secret to getting the best from performers as a producer?
I think it’s to make sure everybody has a great time and works really hard. Making music should be fun; the harder you work, the more fun you have. Sometimes when something happens and you hear a song for the first time, we sometimes will cry with laughter—we all laugh so hard, that’s amazing! When you get those moments it’s terrific. But in order to get those moments sometimes you have to go through weeks of hard slog.
Did you hire out your studio for the recording of the hit song Do they Know it’s Christmas?
Yes, Jill and I let Bob (Bob Geldof) use the studio. Then the next day, the day after, on a Monday morning, I did a 12-inch remix of it—that’s why everybody keeps crediting me with the production but I just did the remix. It was a good one—but Midge (Midge Ure) produced the record.
Any current projects?
Currently I’m getting together another version of Video Killed the Radio Star, so that should be fun.
Away from making music, what do you like to do in your spare time?
I’ve got a boat—it’s not a yacht it’s a Scandinavian fast powerboat—you can sleep in it. I like travelling around the south coast in it.
Regarding today’s music industry, do you feel there are as many opportunities for young people and is it still as vibrant and exciting as back in the 80s?
I think it depends how important music is to young people. The Ivor Novella Award this year went to Skepka (for Best Contemporary Song—
Which of your awards made you feel the proudest?
I think the Grammy for Single of the Year—Kiss from the Rose—because I knew the people who voted for it and that for me, was a wow moment.
The Trevor Horn Band play Rewind North 80’s Festival on Saturday 5th August at Capesthorne Hall, Cheshire. More info & tickets: www.rewindfestival.com