“At the beginning of the ‘80s people knew about digital audio but they didn’t understand how it worked. Or what it was capable of. We were the first to stop EQ’ing to tape. Put the EQ on the monitors and record everything flat. That’s the secret.
None of that shit that you do for analogue where you pump up the top end and compress the hell out of it. Because if you put it down on digital like that it will forever sound like that. A lot of people crashed and burned with early digital because of it”.
Only sound techies amongst us will get what Trevor Horn was saying in a video interview on The Art of Record Production. But I was reminded of the record producer when I was flicking through my singles and stopped at Video Killed the Radio Star by pop duo The Buggles.
On Top of the Pops he was the wee man with massive round glasses. He didn’t have the traditional look of a pop star, but it was a great tune and the song hit number one in the charts.
‘We had a really good learning period. Every trick we knew in the studio by then we put into ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ and made it jump out of the tape’ said Horn.
While researching Horn, a lot of interviews say he was ‘The man who invented the 80s’ that’s a claim on the epic scale – just how true is it?
Trevor Horn has music in his bones. Being a child in the ‘50s his father was a semi-pro musician and Trevor picked up bass guitar at a young age. At 21 he relocated to London and earned money as a session musician. He played bass in a covers band, which featured keyboardist Geoff Downes – the other half of The Buggles.
‘Hiring a studio was expensive you had to get somebody else to pay for it. I had four years working for song publishers, one of them gave me regular work and £300-£400 pounds to make a set of demos of their songs. That would get me into the studio and by this time I would try this, and try that’ said Horn.
The Buggles released their debut album The Age of Plastic on Island records in 1979 – not only giving Island records their first number one record in Video Killed the Radio Star, but also a great start to propel Horn into the ‘80s. Even though he had his doubts about the record….
‘My voice never had the vaguest amount of soul in it, so on the record they made it sound like it was coming out of a radio speaker’.
In August 1981 the song was immortalised into music culture history as the first video to be aired on new music channel MTV. Then after a year in prog rock band Yes playing massive venues like Madison Square Gardens, Horn became a full-time producer and had commercial success with his first project.
Straight out the starting gate was pop duo, Dollar. He co-wrote and produced three singles which all became top 20 hits in the UK. He was making a mark on the charts and laying the groundwork for classic pop songs to come.
‘When I started out, when you wanted a rhythm track you had to play it, these days it’s a lot quicker cos of all this studio stuff we have’.
Even greater success in the studio followed with The Lexicon of Love by ABC, reaching number one on the UK albums chart and hit singles followed ’Shoot that poison arrow through my heart’. He was bottling pop magic as even more commercial success followed.
Experimenting and finding new techniques in the studio helped create ear popping singles for the mainstream. Spandau Ballet Instinction and Malcolm McLaren’s Buffalo Gals and Double Dutch won him a Brit Award for Best British Producer in 1983.
One evening he heard Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and invited them to his studio. Three hit singles and two number one albums followed. By now he owned London’s SARM West, the go to studios.
In November 1984 he gave Bob Geldof and Midge Ure free use of the studio for the Band Aid song Do They Know it’s Christmas? Horn produced the B-side featuring messages from artists including David Bowie, Annie Lennox and Holly Johnson. He also remixed the 1985 version.
Horn was breaking new ground as he assembled one of the first studio rigs including a Roland TR-808 drum machine, a sequencer and a set of Simmons electronic drum modules. He spent £18,000 on a Fairlight synthesiser, one of only four in the country at the time.
‘I had a vision at the time which was Vince Hill meets Kraftwerk. I wanted to make electronic records that work in the mainstream. At the end of the ‘70s there was Elton John, Led Zeppelin, you needed something fresh to compete with it. I thought technology was the way, to construct something and the more control you could have in the studio the better’.
Horn resumed working with Yes as producer on their albums and another Brit Award for Best British Producer in ’85 and a run of successful records including Slave to the Rhythm with Grace Jones, the Godley & Crème single Cry, and albums by Pet Shop Boys Introspective, Simple Minds Streetfighting Years and in 1989 Paul McCartney’s Flowers in the Dirt closed the ‘80s.
So was he the man who invented the ‘80s ?
From leaving his home in the North East, forming The Buggles and producing countless hit records – his fresh and exciting outlook helped create a new way of working in the studio. His innovative production techniques alone, set him apart from others – yes, Trevor Horn sound tracked a decade.
Plus, it’s tip yer hat time, he was awarded a CBE in 2011 for services to the music industry.
Gary Alikivi February 2021.
Research & interviews: Trevor Horn – The Art of Record Production.