Out in the Hertfordshire countryside near Elstree live Trevor Horn and Jill Sinclair, a record producer and his wife who own Britain’s most bizarre and successful new record label Zang Tuum Tumb.
As a performer with the quirky Buggles, Trevor once recorded a tribute to Elstree’s film studios. As a producer he’s been responsible for just three albums by Yes, Malcolm McLaren and ABC that have sold six million. He’s become a specialist in the art of noise.
For his own ZTT label he’s so far produced just a handful of singles, choosing unknown bands. Into Battle with the Art of Noise, a high tech computerised studio work out in which all variety of noises are turned into dance music, topped the dance charts in America where it’s generally assumed that Horn must be some inspired black DJ. Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Relax, banned by Radio 1 for its lyrics, topped the British charts for ZTT this year. Just as a single Horn produced for Yes did the same in America. And this week Horn and ZTT have a new single in the charts from the German band Propaganda.
Trevor Horn developed his production skills in the East End studio owned by his wife and her family in which he now has a share. This week he’s been recording again with his labels most controversial band Frankie Goes To Hollywood.
Trevor Horn: “A lot of people have got misconceptions about what a record producer does. They think that the record producer works the desk or they think that he pushes faders and things like that. But in actual fact, you can see all this equipment, I don’t touch anything. Maybe I twiddle the occasional knob. In a way I am the artists puppet because they comes to me with their ideas and I use all of this [the technology] and all of my experience to make whatever dreams they may have, or whatever ideas they have, come true.”
Robin Denslow: “Holly, why did the Frankie’s sign to ZTT?”
Holly Johnson: “Well, no one would touch us with a bargepole. No, it sounded quite exciting, Zang Tuum Tumb, because I think Trevor and Paul Morley were trying to recreate a kind of Motown thing, something with a definite sound that was kind of modern and forward looking.”
Trevor Horn: “We’re at the start of a new era in recording because you have a guy playing a bass guitar, it’s not necessary that he plays the bass guitar, we can basically do anything with sound.”
Robin Denslow: “You can do anything with sound?”
Trevor Horn: “Yes, we can do anything with sound.”
Trevor Horn started trying and do anything with sound in 1979 in the duo The Buggles, who gave Island Records their first ever number one with Video Killed The Radio Star. A year later Horn did something even more unexpected, he joined Yes, that super group from the seventies, as their singer. Performing at vast venues like New York’s Madison Square Gardens. Then came the move to record producer, and now there’s ZTT with Frankie Goes To Hollywood repeating the Buggles trick of an unknown band reaching number one.
Horn’s new headquarters is just off the Portobello Road in London. Once a waxworks factory, the building was turned into recording studios by Island Records. Island let the Horns take over in return for releasing their ZTT label on the understanding that this would be no ordinary record company. It’s different because everything is run by a top record producer and just two others and because that producer has decided not to work with the already rich and successful but with unknown bands.
Trevor Horn: “The new acts that come along, the kids who have all the best ideas, very rarely get hold of a good producer. You know, because there aren’t that many good producers around, and the ones that are around are very expensive. So I thought it would be really unusual to go back to produce people who were just making their first record. In a way it was more exciting. The idea of it, and it all came together at one time. Pop music is about sex and about reproduction, and about finding a mate, so you want to see really sexy people. People that you would like to mate with, because the kids who buy records are between the ages of about twelve and twenty-five and mating is all they have on their mind. I mean someone like Rod Stewart always to me looks like a dirty old uncle, and I thought Frankie looked much healthier on Top of The Pops. They were just, sort of, raw lust, you know of a very healthy variety.”
The board meeting at Zang Tuum Tumb would probably make CBS or EMI shudder. All decisions, from who gets recorded to how they’re publicised, are taken by just three people. There’s Trevor the house producer, his wife who looks after business, and music journalist Paul Morley credited with putting the naughty lyrics on the Relax record cover sleeve. A move which, by this week, had helped the record sell a million in Britain alone. ZTT board meetings seem like musical debates in which Jill tries to stop the other two getting too far out of hand.
After the success of the Art of Noise in America and Frankie Goes To Hollywood here, the third ZTT hit is by German band Propaganda. Who broke into the British charts this week with The Nine Lives of Dr Mabuse. But there’s a problem, Trevor and Paul have had an arty video made. Jill is worried it won’t get shown.
Jill is the least know of the three but at times she seems the most powerful.
Jill Sinclair: “I think the problem is that they’re both still very idealistic and even though that’s wonderful, in the end event, we’re in business.”
Robin Denslow: “Is it difficult being married to Trevor, managing him, working in this company together? I mean how do you separate your home life from business meetings like the one today?”
Jill Sinclair: “It could be a problem but it isn’t, in our relationship because we are very fortunate we don’t do the same thing, we do very different things, and so one feeds the other. He will stay up until three in the morning listening to a mix and when I get up at seven thirty with the children, and he’ll say ‘You’ve got to stop the…’ and turn over in bed ‘You got to stop the pressing, the mix is wrong’ and, I mean, this has actually happened.”
Robin Denslow: “Trevor produces the records, Jill does the finances, what’s your role?”
Paul Morley: “It’s very abstract. I think I do a lot of thinking. I think I design the label in itself. ZTT is probably and entertainment in itself. Continue »
Robin Denslow: “You become a sort of public face?”
Paul Morley: “I think so yeah. And that unusual for a record label, but I think important because otherwise you become just another record label and there are so many of them that the last thing you want to be is another record label. You have to be a little bit special.”
The long term aim of ZTT is even more ambitious. To create not just a record label but a pop music factory with in-house song writers, providing material for performers short of good songs and in-house producers, maybe even former club DJs, helping Trevor Horn with the production work. The studios will be very elaborate.
Robin Denslow: “So how much has it cost you to do up now?”
Trevor Horn: “I think we must be up to somewhere in the region of three quarters of a million pounds or probably even more. I don’t know my wife handles all of that. As you can see this is a very big room and we have the most modern equipment here. We have a 48 track studio and a solid state logic desk which is completely computerised. And there aren’t that many places that have such a big room with such modern equipment. We also have another studio downstairs which is smaller, which is equipped in exactly the same way. We’re building a third which will be just for programming computers because so much music is done from computers these days.”
Robin Denslow: “It’s going to take and awful lot of work to make back three quarters of a million doesn’t it?”
Trevor Horn: “I know.”
And the next stage towards making back all that money and making ZTT a major concern is the second Frankie single due for a release in a fortnight. It’s called Two Tribes. It’s about war not sex and in its unfinished state in the studio this week it sounded like this… [Two Tribes plays].