Vast cities of sound
When I first met Trevor Horn in 1979, he was part of a group called The Buggles, and he was having success with a song that seemed to have all the cheap, cheerful qualities of a novelty song. He was promoting “Video Killed the Radio Star”, his first hit after years of working as a jobbing musician.
I was interviewing him for NME, and at the time, when the best groups had intellectual, knowing names like Joy Division, Wire, Pop Group, Pere Ubu, a group with a nonsense name like The Buggles seemed such a bad joke, and the music they made so frivolous. I went along to interview Trevor, fired by youthful, big-headed NME critic anger, determined to point out the shocking error of his ways. (Only later would “Video Killed the Radio Star” achieve pop immortality by being the first song ever played on MTV).
In my snide Buggles article I called Trevor “a dustbin man of pop, picking up rubbish and crudely redistributing it”. Despite the harshness of my piece—
The Buggles was the latest in a series of stages the 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.
During the 1970s, on the edge between making it and not making it, he slowly built up the peculiar, abstract qualifications you might need to be a record producer—
His first production choice seemed dreadful—
ABC, a Sheffield group with the ambitious post-punk plan to merge Tamla Motown drama with Roxy Music glamour, noticed that the Dollar songs were incredibly slight but somehow sounded like the future. Horn’s sublime production for ABC’s Lexicon of Love made hyper-real the fantasies the group had of how they should sound: it was an experiment in making a pop classic that ended up sounding exactly like a pop classic.
The great irony for this avowed punk hater was that he then collaborated with the architect of punk sensationalism, Malcolm McLaren. The combination of McLaren’s aggressive curiosity for styles and fashions from around the world, from South African townships to the streets of Harlem, and Horn’s sudden rush of perception about the role of the producer as organiser of disparate technological and emotional ideas created a post-punk pre-world music masterpiece: Duck Rock was a techno blue-print for experimental dance albums drawn up by two eccentric English explorer/inventers, a hip hop Holmes and Watson.
It was proof that Horn works best when his traditional ideas about the structure and dynamic of pop music are rewired by an adventurous, experimental approach. I interviewed Trevor again, this time framing him not so much as a cynical pop hack but as a perversely hip sonic magician. He liked that better.
Horn invited me to work with him and his manager/wife Jill Sinclair at his new label, ZTT, and I named his new group, the team of musicians and technicians he had used to invent the sounds and stories of Duck Rock, Art of Noise. The name was nicked from the Italian futurists to represent the way Trevor was stealing sounds from history and digitally pasting them into the present. Art of Noise’s Into Battle was like “Duck Rock 2"—
The Art of Noise, which was The Buggles with a surreal, oblique non-image better suiting the radical studio invention that he was triggering, was really Trevor’s house band at ZTT. With whatever Art of Noise team of technicians, musicians and theorists he selected at any given point, Trevor the demanding studio dictator made hit records for Yes, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Propaganda and Grace Jones in a two-year blast of intense, expensive, time-consuming innovation.
As a producer, he was the link between an era when music was made largely by musicians playing together in one room to the time when it was programmed on machines in a series of different rooms. He didn’t so much sociably boss musicians about as formally check on the progress of programmers and engineers as they painstakingly developed the correct ingredient, or the appropriate formula. The hi-hat sound alone on Grace Jones’s intimately spectacular “Slave to the Rhythm” took six weeks to perfect.
Working with him in the studio, which meant a lot of slow-motion passing through time and stunned staring into space, I would watch Trevor ruthlessly committed to the idea of producing a massive commercial hit by avoiding the obvious and the cliched. He would say that it didn’t matter how much money he spent, how many times he had to re-do the song, how much he dominated the artist he was working with, how insane people were driven by his obsessive pursuit of perfection, how much metaphorical (and real) blood was spilled in the studio, how long it took, how many people didn’t last the course, it would all be forgotten if the song reached number one. He was always right.
Recent hits for Seal, Tatu and Belle and Sebastian show that Horn still knows his way around the electro-contours of an intelligent modern hit, but at some point, perhaps during the arduous construction of Slave to the Rhythm, he discovered exactly what it was a producer did, but perhaps wishes that he hadn’t—
The concert in front of Prince Charles at Wembley this week, celebrating his 25 years of hits as if it has been a sociable, spontaneous experience after all, features the first-ever live performance by The Buggles. In a way, despite appearances by Pet Shop Boys, Seal, Propaganda, Belle and Sebastian, Yes, Tatu, Grace and Frankie, the whole thing will be a Buggles performance. The novelty Buggles were reinvented as a serious solo producer who invented a variety of influential pop fantasies based around his futurist vision of the sound of music. Other people did the dirty work of selling and performing. He could stay where he was most at home. In the studio. Telling machines what to do.