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Into the Lens: Spotlight on Trevor Horn, Part I

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If legends, fairy stories, and myths have taught us anything, it’s that saviours can come from unlikely places: Middle Earth was saved by little men with hairy feet who wanted nothing more than to get plastered and dance to the penny whistle; the nephew of a moisture farmer had (and lost) a hand in saving a galaxy far, far away; a delinquent Guns N’ Roses listener taught the future scraps of humanity how to break SkyNet (and smash those metal mother******* to junk); even the good book presents a humble carpenter as the saviour of mankind. It is with this in mind that I present to you my spotlight on Mr. Trevor Horn, who is one most important player in the ongoing history of progressive music and an icon within the even bigger globe of music in general, even if at first it doesn’t seem obvious.

1977 – “The Fall of Prog”

After exploding from late-sixties art-rock roots, progressive rock was one of the dominant forms of music in the early to mid-seventies. Bands were given the freedom to run rampant with their artistic expression, resulting in a short but intense echo of what had been done by the great jazz groups of the fifties. Long-haired freaky people played complex and intelligent twenty-minute songs and still managed to sell out stadiums. They weathered opposition from meat rock and disco, holding their own against the closed-minded. It seemed prog musicians were sailing that grand river running through a land full of unplundered sounds, testing out odd instruments and electronic techniques as they went — sending messengers down tributaries that would one day lead to genres such as hip hop and electronica.

So what happened?

Punk happened.

theclashNot that, as a fan of progressive music, I hold any resentment. I am, like hopefully most of you, a forward-thinking person. I truly believe that in 1977 it was time for something new to come along. I like to think of it like a forest fire. Sometimes they just have to happen so that an overcrowded and dim mire may once again become a burgeoning, verdant forest. Plus, I like a lot of what punk music did. It was simple and it was passionate. It had feeling. It appealed to people who were sick of fairy tales and lessons and who just wanted to associate with the music at a base level. They wanted the truthful, gritty soundtrack to the crud they were going through in their daily lives. Punk offered that up abundantly. Also, I think The Clash experimented a lot more than even some progressive bands.

By ’77/’78 progressive rock was becoming the thing to hate. People were calling it stuffy, pretentious, and over-complicated. Some felt it was difficult for the common man to associate with. Among the records targeted and most commonly associated with prog getting carried away are Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s Love Beach and Yes’ Tormato, both released in 1978. Add to that some major changes that had taken place in the prog universe. Robert Fripp had ended the reign of the Crimson King in 1975, and Steve Hackett had left Genesis in ’77, who in turn put out their sappiest record ever the following year.

With punk rock on the rise, it seemed something new was going to have to be developed for art to survive in the following decade… it was going to have to be something the common man could associate with while at the same time capturing the imaginations of those faithful astral travellers like you and myself. Creating such a beast seems like it would be a daunting task, considering time was closing in on the beginning of a decade which would be notorious for its short attention span and the resultant one-hit-wonders. The ‘beast’ would end up being a fusion of pulsing disco dance beats, the raw immediacy of punk, and progressive experimentation. It would come to be known as new wave. In 1977, with the supposed ‘Fall of Prog’ looming on the horizon, this is where we catch up with our main character, Trevor Horn, and his good friends Geoff Downes and Bruce Woolley.

1979 – The Age of Plastic

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While bassist/vocalist Horn, keyboardist Downes, and guitarist Woolley met as members of disco singer Tina Charles’ backing band in 1976, the three went out on their own shortly thereafter. Trevor Horn put out some disco material as Chromium (an entire album in 1979 called Star To Star), but soon the three cohorts would begin developing more ambitious material. Woolley stuck around to co-write a few tunes and would contribute guitar to the album, but it was Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes alone who ended up creating the studio-only band The Buggles.

The big single “Video Killed the Radio Star” came out first. The song’s infectious chorus and pop energy immediately sent their name rocketing up the charts, but was also a double-edged sword for the band. The song was so popular that mainstream audiences expected any follow-up to be just as mind-numbingly catchy, and underground audiences wrote the band off entirely. The duo began the daunting task of building an album around the hit single.

the-age-of-plasticI have no shame in admitting that The Buggles’ debut album The Age of Plastic is one of my favourite pieces of vinyl. From a songwriting perspective the record is a tour de force. Horn’s time producing jingles has clear influence here. While a lot of rock music fans will dismiss the album as corny, the album is far from “Radio Star” on repeat. Musically, The Age of Plastic is very synthetic, with focus on Downes’ brilliantly sharp keyboard playing, although there are proper drums, bass, guitar, and vocals on the record. The resultant fusion creates that new wave sound I introduced earlier. The disco beats are ever-present, the punk kitsch-culture is there too, and prog is more than represented, albeit cleverly disguised as pop.

In order for a prog fan to listen to this stuff properly, he or she must recognise the difference between forward-thinking and pandering. The forward-thinking musician is wise to the flow of the stream and sees what’s coming next. He or she then makes a conscious decision to take up the tools of the upcoming and bend them to his or her will, or to continue using his or her own tools in sharp and relevant contrast to the current flow. When one simply picks up and makes what is popular because it is popular, it is called pandering. With The Age of Plastic, Horn and Downes belong in column A. They bent the pop tools of the looming eighties into a fine art piece quite ahead of its time. The album explores the complications that modern technology will eventually bring to the world.

The first track on the album, “Living in the Plastic Age,” is quite disco-inflected, but introduces a couple sweet new elements. The first is a certain ‘happy darkness’ which seemed to be an element of a lot of punk music of the era. The song is poppy and catchy and upbeat but there is a steady undercurrent of darkness here. Like Roy Batty has hijacked the Soul Train and is driving her into Ridley Scott’s 2019. Use of the acoustic guitar toward the song’s end has a haunting effect that would reappear to greater effect in a future work. I will be sure to mention as much when we get to that point.

horninradiostarMy comments on “Radio Star” are mostly positive. While the song’s repetitive and sugary chorus are far too poppy for my kind of jive, the song has pristine structure and showcases the musicianship of the band’s members remarkably well. Geoff Downes’ piano work, for instance, is stunning, especially in the song’s redux/coda. The song has a distinct air of the emergent 80’s and has often been confused as being a hit of that decade, rather than as one of the seventies. I would imagine this has a lot to do with the fact that the song’s music video was the first ever aired on MTV in 1981.

The third tune, “Kid Dynamo,” delves even deeper into a dark, dystopian synthetica with harder, driving guitars and grim-sounding accented vocals. The first side of the album concludes with the odd “I Love You (Miss Robot),” a darkly soothing, bass guitar-driven ballad which brings us back into cyberpunk country. The chorus is simple but is performed by Geoff Downes on a vocoder as he also adds haunting keyboard effects. The song is a great example of the power of forward-thinking when mixed with simplicity.

The record’s second side begins with “Clean, Clean,” the song the duo championed as the follow-up to “Radio Star.” The song is well-written, with a neat little bridge and abundant vocal and keyboard hooks, but it clearly lacks that pop ‘click’ that “Radio Star” has. “Elstree” was also a single and is lyrically similar to “Radio Star.” It sees a failed actor taking up a more regular position behind the scenes and looking back at his life in regret. “Astroboy (and the Proles on Parade)” once again revisits cyberpunk with a much lighter vibe, although the keyboards do occasionally border darker realms, expecially with the post-chorus hook.

thebugglesThe last song, “Johnny on the Monorail,” is my favourite. If you pick up the CD remaster of The Age of Plastic, and I recommend that you do, you’ll be treated to “Johnny on the Monorail [A Very Different Version].” This is an alternate take of the song, not a remix. Trevor sings most of the vocals, giving the song less of a pop sound. It is faster-paced and there is a much darker vibe with simple but charged guitars adding to the excellent keys and bass and building to a fantastic coda. It would have been great had this one been on the album proper, but the original version’s pop atmosphere better suits the flow of the rest of the album. In either case, the imagery conjured up in the song’s brilliant lyrics make it a standout for me, even amid more proper prog epics.

Before the album was even released, there was a great deal of murmur about how there wasn’t going to be anything remotely as vital as “Video Killed the Radio Star,” on it. Subsequent singles did not do remotely as well. I find it funny how people look back at The Buggles. Remember, dear readers, that the victors always write the history books. Because the majority will forever be ‘The Voice’ for everything, pop will always be king in music. When the mainstream remembers The Buggles, it remembers a catchy one-hit-wonder… that guy with the crazy glasses. They were that band that put out one hit and then disappeared. Rarely will the mainstream mention much about The Buggles joining prog giants Yes, but when they do, they see it as a mistake… as do The Buggles themselves. The second part of my article will explain otherwise.

Ryan Smith

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Categorised in: Album Reviews, Artist, Reviews

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