Relax? I don’t do it
Record producer Trevor Horn was feeling his age. At 53 he was in a dilemma—
Still producing, it had nevertheless been nearly two decades since he was the be-all-and-end-all in the music industry.
As the Durham City-born music maestro was wondering where his life was heading, he happened upon a video of a Russian duo called tATu.
He saw a spark, and within months the Horn magic was back at work, and his re-working of tATu’s All The Things She Said became one of the biggest global sellers of 2003, shipping nine million copies, and becoming his biggest success since the heady days of Frankie Goes To Hollywood in 1984.
It was a far cry from his schooldays when he’d spend hours listening to the Beatles and flunking most of his school exams as a result.
Not for him endless nights with reference books and jotters, you were more likely to see young Trevor taking over from his father, playing the double bass in ballrooms around the North East.
His lack of academic prowess did him no harm, though. Thanks to his love of music, Trevor Horn became the world’s most sought-after record producer. And, all those years later, he is still achieving those multi-million-selling number-ones, albeit behind the scenes.
Trevor is now 55, shows no signs of letting up, and in two months the cream of the world’s music industry will converge on London’s Wembley Arena to honour him.
A star-studded bash, celebrating 25 years of Trevor Horn hits—
In between Buggles and tATu there have been the likes of Frankie, ABC, Dollar, Propaganda, Seal, Pet Shop Boys, Tina Turner, Rod Stewart and Yes—
Not bad going for the son of a dairy engineer with few job prospects in his native North East. He is weathering well, although he does admit he has his moments.
“Sometimes it feels a long, long time, it does today. I’ve just got back from America so I feel a little bit tired,” says Trevor, who grew up in Stonebridge, Durham.
His parents, John and Elizabeth, hailed from nearby Hetton-le-Hole. “I still have a lot of relatives there. I was up there only a few weeks ago,” he says, still retaining a slight North East accent .
John Horn was the bass player in the Joe Clarke Band, who had a regular slot at the Astoria ballroom in Durham City. Despite holding down a day job as the engineer at Stonebridge dairy, he also played most nights with the group.
“I used to go with him and I’d sometimes play, take over from him. That was my first taste of the music business, I suppose, but I was also in the youth orchestra at Johnston Grammar.
“I was obsessed with recording studios, microphones, headphones … any kind of paraphernalia to do with studios always used to hold a fascination for me, and I was obsessed by records from the age of 12, probably from when I first heard Walk On By by Dionne Warwick,” recalls Trevor.
“I think it’s difficult now for kids to realise how important records were to people in the 60s because it was so different and it was all so new. Music seemed to hold out so much promise. Everybody felt like something was happening.”
His parents left the city for the Midlands during Trevor’s mid-teens, but he remained in the North East with his grandmother to finish his exams.
“The problem is, I got too much into the Beatles so I failed most of my O-levels. I can’t blame them directly, obviously I had something to do with it,” he smiles.
“When I was 16, they put me in the senior youth orchestra because I think I was the only double-bass player in the county.”
He eventually followed his parents to Leicester and became a professional musician, working the ballrooms.
“They don’t exist any more because the whole discotheque thing came in the 70s and killed it, really. But I did that from about the ages of 18 to 30.”
And it was at the age of 30 that he took the country by storm with Video Killed the Radio Star. He had, though, been working quietly in the background of the music business for several years before coming to the fore himself.
“At one point, in my mid-twenties, I built a recording studio at my home and, when there wasn’t much business, I drummed it up a bit by fixing up people’s songs for songwriting competitions.
“One day somebody said to me that what I was doing was called record production. I realised that was what I enjoyed the most and was what I wanted to do the most.”
It was about this time Trevor started dating a singer called Tina Charles. He became her musical director, and soon Tina was topping the charts with Love to Love, followed by hits such as Doctor Love and Dance Little Lady, Dance.
“I was the faceless boyfriend. I didn’t even play on her records, I just happened to be there. We split up pretty soon after she had the hits, but I stayed on as her musical director,” he says.
“After about three or four years, I thought: ‘Maybe I should try writing some songs myself’.”
His first success was with Buggles and it was the turning point in his career. The Buggles number became a seminal record which was famously the first video to be played on MTV when it launched in the USA two years later.
“If you think that record was made in 1979, it sounds like a modern record. It sounds like it was sequenced, as if made by computers. But it was all played,” says Trevor proudly, adding it took 14 hours’ of playing to get it the way they wanted it.
How did he cope with the sudden fame? “After a while you just get so sick of it.
“What happened with us is we joined Yes. We had this ridiculous thing, me and Geoff Downes (Buggles’ bandmate). I joined as a singer and he joined as a keyboards player.
“And we were in Yes for a year and did a big tour of America. We even came up and played Newcastle City Hall.
“But then it was pretty obvious something was going to have to give. I really wanted to get back in the studio. I had a feeling there was a whole new thing going to happen.Continue »
“You could feel it coming and I wanted to get back in there again.”
A choice decision. He worked with top pop groups of the day, including producing ABC’s acclaimed Lexicon of Love album. But it was in 1984 and the advent of a group called Frankie Goes To Hollywood, that his life changed forever.
“We had an amazing first year, with Frankie and Propaganda and The Art of Noise,” recalls Trevor of his early days with the label ZTT which he formed with his wife, Jill Sinclair.
Frankie in fact, spent 15 weeks at the top of the charts that year, with their first three singles, Relax, Two Tribes and The Power of Love. And no-one was more surprised than Trevor.
“If we hadn’t signed them to ZTT they wouldn’t have been successful, as everyone else had turned them down,” he states matter-of-factly.
“They didn’t sign to ZTT out of choice. They signed more or less as no-one else wanted them.”
The release of the single was surrounded by controversy over the gay-sex innuendo of the lyrics and the accompanying steamy video.
“Then the airplay ban by Radio 1—
“The reason a couple of the guys in the band didn’t play on Relax was only because they weren’t around when we changed it, because after that they played all their stuff,” Trevor puts the record straight.
“It was an amazing year. I was about 34 or 35 and I didn’t have such a problem coping with the success as they did, because they had to go out there and live it and promote it.
“They were great people, but from that year onwards it was just horrible, a nightmare, because of inferior material on the second album and a lack of application.
“We worked just as hard at the second album, but other people didn’t work anywhere near as hard. They more or less had split up before we’d even signed them, in some ways. Drugs, drink? They weren’t prevalent around me, as we just worked all the time.”
Since Frankie, his credits have included Tina Turner, Grace Jones, Rod Stewart, Mike Oldfield, Seal, Band Aid, Le-Ann Rimes and, of course, tATu.
“Boy, it was tough going,” he says of the latter. “Have you tried to get Russian girls to sing in English? It’s no joke. Our conversations were pretty limited.
“I would just sing them the lines, and they’d sing back, and we went on for hours and hours until we got the vocal.”
Now Trevor is looking to the near future, and the charity bash in his honour at Wembley Arena. “It’s in honour of all the records—
“I’m 55 now. The music business is very competitive, you have to be right on top of it all the time. People don’t hire you because they like you; they just hire you because you do a job.
“If you stop doing the job they won’t hire you any more, however much of an old legend you might be. So, I’m just still working—
“The good thing about this show is it’s going to get me out of the studio. I play now more than I ever did. It was tATu that got me going again.
“When I did that record there was no budget for hiring musicians, so I had to play everything myself.
“I made a very strange discovery that I’d been watching people play keyboards and whatever for so long that, in fact, I could do it myself—
Trevor recently worked with the Pet Shop Boys and Lisa Stansfield. “I got a Producer of the Year award last year for Belle and Sebastian and tATu and I’ve just done a really good Seal acoustic album.Continue »
“It’s all his greatest hits but with all the production stripped off and just done with a couple of guitars. It’s coming out this Christmas. So I am kept busy.”
Relax? Don’t do it, as it were…
Favourite hit singles
Produced by Trevor Horn, A Concert For The Prince’s Trust takes place at London’s Wembley Arena on November 11.
The artist line-up will reflect Trevor’s hit-making career and confirmed so far are ABC, Art of Noise, Belle & Sebastian, Lisa Stansfield, Pet Shop Boys, Seal and Yes.
And to mark the landmark event, Trevor will perform with the other original members of Buggles, the first time the band have ever played live.
The concert for The Prince’s Trust aims to raise a substantial sum for the youth charity.
Trevor said: “I am thrilled to have the opportunity to work again with some of the world’s greatest talent, helping young people who just need a second chance.
“We’d planned to do an album called 25 Years of Hit Singles, because it is 25 years since Video Killed The Radio Star.
“Somebody twigged that a concert that was going to be all hit singles, sung by the original artists, might be quite entertaining. I must say I hadn’t thought about playing Wembley Arena.
“I had thought of going back out on the road with The Buggles just for fun, but I was thinking of it on a smaller scale just for my own amusement.”