From the Art of Plastic to the Age of Noise

Sleeve notes for ZTT's forthcoming deluxe reissue of The Buggles' second album, Adventures In Modern Recording.

On Saturday 01 August 1981, The Buggles’ ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’ smashed like a giant magnum of Champagne onto the bows of the good ship MTV, setting it off on a voyage that changed music forever. The single was number one in 16 different countries and – bizarrely - the biggest record in Australia for 27 years. Meanwhile, The Buggles’ debut album - The Age of Plastic - became the first technopop landmark. How could you follow that? Maybe it was an impossible task, but Trevor Horn wanted to find out.

The history of The Buggles – a/k/a Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes - has never been clear-cut and the most hidden chapter has always been Adventures In Modern Recording, their second and final album. From the outset it was going to be more left field than its predecessor. “We had some pretty weird material,” Trevor remembers, “things like ‘Vermilion Sands’ and some weird little things that we’d done. The best we had was ‘I Am A Camera’ which had been one of the things that was a demo we’d done on a Sunday afternoon and was one of the best things Geoffrey and I ever did I thought.”

While Trevor and Geoff were in Yes, they’d already given a hint of the track in the form of ‘Into The Lens’, from 1981’s Drama. “‘I Am A Camera’ was a Buggles track and we had adapted it into being a Yes track,” he says. “It became ‘Into The Lens’ and, naturally, slightly more overblown. I don’t mind ‘Into The Lens’ - the melody’s unadulterated while the arrangement’s a lot more complicated - but I still prefer The Buggles’ version. I think Geoffrey’s brilliant on the Buggles version.”

The songs were in place, but as recording was about to start everything began to collapse. Geoff split to start his own big rock generator, Asia. “He went the day that we were meant to start! And then I remember the publisher from Island Music, our publisher, coming over on a Sunday and it was one of those strange things where you’re having a conversation and I suddenly realised this guy thought that was the end of it for me. He thought I was all washed up, career-wise. Because of Yes and because of Geoff going to Asia. And so this guy - who’s still a friend of mine actually - renegotiated Geoff’s publishing but never renegotiated mine because he thought there was nothing to be gained!”

“Island Records dropped me as well, you see. Island dropped The Buggles, Geoff went off to form Asia and to certain people it looked like ‘he’s had a hit, but that’s the end of it’. They thought I was finished. I was astounded and - you know what? - I was fucking angry as well! I hadn’t even got started yet…”

A second Buggles had to be built, but first there had to be a record deal. This was a couple of years before Trevor formed the Zang Tumb Tuum label with his wife and manager Jill Sinclair so the deal had to come from elsewhere. France, to be precise, a Buggles stronghold. “Jill got a deal with some French people, Carrere. I thought I’d keep going and at this French record label was a very nice man who basically funded the second Buggles album and I started to do it…” The man in question was Claude Carrere, the French disco king and one of the people behind hits like ‘D..I.S.C.O.’ and ‘Hands Up (Give Me Your Heart)’ by Ottowan.

The end result was the first in an exclusive line of Trevor Horn albums where the production is centre stage, rather than supporting cast. Adventures In Modern Recording would lead directly to Grace Jones’ Slave To The Rhythm, Art of Noise’s Who’s Afraid? and The Seduction of Claude Debussy and whole chunks of Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Welcome to the Pleasuredome.

Another thing these albums have in common is the infinite possibilities of sampling. Something which Trevor first played with on Adventures. “Things like ‘Beatnik’ were me just messing around with gear and just having a silly idea,” he says. “I was quite fascinated by Fairlight brass and all of those kind of things that Geoffrey and I had started messing around with before he went off to join Asia. And I thought that was a pretty good direction. There were three tracks on the album that I really liked - I really liked ‘Inner City’ because I just loved the drums. And in ‘Vermillion Sands’ we played big band jazz on the Fairlight. We went into 7/4 with double bass playing, just for the fun of it. We were just feeling our way through what you could actually do. So I sort of perfected a load of production tricks on Adventures In Modern Recording. Loads of productions tricks…”

The finished album (Carrere, CAL 131) offered the first sightings of many of Trevor Horn’s key collaborators across the next 25 years. ‘Vermillion Sands’, ‘I Am A Camera’ and ‘Lenny’ were co-produced with Geoff Downes, but Horn had John Sinclair, Jill’s brother and partner in Sarm Studios, alongside him for the remainder.

The engineers were Julian Mendelsohn and Gary Langan, who both went on to illustrious careers as producers in their own right, Langan of course staying on to co-found Art of Noise with Trevor, Paul Morley, JJ Jeczalik and Anne Dudley. Dudley’s keyboards can be heard on Adventures, too, alongside Trevor’s long-serving percussionist Luis Jardim and Chris Squire, borrowed from Yes, to provide “sound effects.”

‘I Am A Camera’ was the first single, backed with the short non-album cut ‘Fade Away’. It appeared on 7” (CAR 213) and 12” (CAR 2131) in October of 1981. The album’s title track appeared next (CAR 222 and 12”, CART 222) in January of 1982, coupled with another non-album track, the Short Version of ‘Blue Nylon’. The Long Version was saved for the 12” b-side of the next single, ‘On TV’ (CAR 232). It was to be The Buggles last single, although mainland Europe was still hot on their sound and songs from Adventures leaked out all over the place with both ‘Lenny’ and ‘Beatnik’ being released as singles in their own right just for France.

With the records fresh on the racks, Trevor was ready to move on to the next stage of his career – from performer to full-time producer. “There was this big seismic shift when Geoffrey went off with Asia. When he actually left, I thought ‘well the upside of him going is I don’t actually have to worry about my wife managing me anymore’. When you’ve got a partner you can’t have your wife managing you and your partner, which is how it was originally. I said to my wife ‘well you’re my manager now’ and she said ‘well, as an artist I only think you’re gong to be second or third rate, but as a producer you could be the best producer in the world…’

Trevor took Jill’s advice and began to fade away from performing. But while Adventures may have marked the end of one chapter, another was already being written because everything he worked on immediately afterwards sprung out of the concepts in this album.

“It was whilst I was working on that album that Jill got me Dollar to produce. I was pretty shocked that she wanted me to produce Dollar. I didn’t get it. But she said ‘just do a Buggles record and they’ll front it’. And I was like, ‘oh, I get that’…

Fortunately Dollar – Thereza Bazaar and David Van Day - were happy to submit themselves to that idea too. “They were nice to work with,” Trevor says, “Thereza said ‘you just make the record and we’ll front it’. And I thought well that’s an interesting idea… As for David Van Day, I think one of the music papers when they interviewed David described him as being in some sort of Transylvanian mist about what was really going on. He didn’t really know...”

Dollar allowed Trevor to look at the world of Adventures from a completely new angle. He could write songs for the characters and production environments that he’d dreamt up. “Dollar in my head were playing at the Vermillion Sands Hotel and they had their technopop band. And if you listen to ‘Give Me Back My Heart’ there’s this great bit where the band go “do do do deee!” and they play like a sort of TV band but it’s a technopop orchestra. And we used to talk about that, Bruce Woolley (who co-wrote the song with Horn) and I, that it was all happening in ‘Vermillion Sands’ in the hotel. So that’s the kind of stuff I was thinking about…”

So what would the band sound like, this imaginary outfit that played for two lovers inside a virtual hotel that only existed within a production trick/track? “I was thinking about Dollar and thinking about the two of them and thinking about this world. And I had this idea that we would try and mix Kraftwerk and Vince Hill. Real MOR with this sort of electro rhythm section. Back at that particular point in time that was a reasonably radical idea. Nowadays that’s what every modern record is, just look at Kylie. But back then Kraftwerk were the bible. We were trying to do The Man Machine meets a sort of MOR record.”

Little did Thereza and David realise, but there was a whole drama taking place in 'Vermillion Sands in the summer of 1980. “With me and Bruce, generally I write the lyrics and he writes the music. And I remember just talking to Bruce and somehow ‘Hand Held in Black and White’ came up. The idea of something quick and this was Dollar – they meet, their lives are quick and modern and fashionable –they meet each other and they see a future. Then in ‘Mirror Mirror’, they’re looking at each other and realising how much they love each other but they’re also looking at themselves because they have so much vanity and that’s what’s going to betray them. And then in ‘Give Me Back My Heart’ they split up and that’s the end of it. It’s very sad at the end. And then ‘Videotheque’’s like a postscript where they see pictures of each other as they go through their lives.”

Outside of the album, back in the real world, the experience of creating Adventures in Modern Recording was convincing Trevor Horn that his wife was right – his career was to be a producer rather than performer. “I’d met ABC and I’d started doing The Lexicon of Love when Adventures in Modern Recording came out. We were going to cut it and I remember thinking ‘I’m glad I’m moving over to being a producer because I thought that I just wasn’t making it as a songwriter...”

It had been a lonely process, creating the only Trevor Horn solo record to so far see the light of day. “It was kind of a solo record,” he concurs, “kind of. There were bits of Geoff on it and bits of Simon Darlow. But I finished it off myself with Gary. But really by the time I’d finished it off I’d sort of lost interest in it a little, because I didn’t think there was a single there…”

For the UK at least, he was right and the singles met a muted reaction. But in Europe it was a different story. “Certainly French people loved the album,” Trevor says and you can trace a direct line from songs like ‘Lenny’ across to Jean Michel Jarre’s techho-meddlings right up to Air, Stardust and Daft Punk. But when Holland picked up on the same track, it finally, physically signalled the end of The Buggles.

“I was working with ABC and ‘Lenny’, which was another track that I really loved, became a hit in Holland! It got to number nine and I had to go over to Holland to do a TV show. And I said to ABC ‘do you want to come with me and be The Buggles?!’ And they said yeah so they came over to Holland with me and I was on this TV show and I mimed to ‘Lenny’ and did an interview afterwards.”

“I’ll never forget it because the guy said to me, ‘well, things are not looking so good for you’, and I said ‘how do you mean?’ And he said ‘well, you know, your first record was a big hit now this record is number eleven, so your career is going downhill’. And I said ‘well you know what? You see these guys, this is a band called ABC and I’m a producer now I don’t really care about this stuff, I’m just doing it to promote the record. And I may be on the skids as an artist but things are looking up in other areas. End of interview. Fuck off.’”

The classic Fry/Palmer/Singleton/White line-up of ABC backing Trevor Horn as The Buggles must have made a surreal sight. But then so was the classic Downes & Horn line-up of The Buggles - two guys in silver suits, one with mullet, the other with funny glasses. The original electro Gilbert & George, long before Almond & Ball, Clarke & Bell or Tennant & Lowe.

It was an image that had worked well for The Age Of Plastic two years before. But with Trevor Horn going solo for its follow-up he had to find a new visual style and created the first of several ‘virtual bands’.

He fronted this one as an all-male tuxedo’d four-piece, an artist’s impression of the technopop house band found in the Vermillion Sands Hotel of track three. Horn stood out front with the headphones, the rest were showroom dummies, like a truly plastic Kraftwerk or the Autons from classic 70s Dr Who. It wasn’t to be the last of his ‘virtual bands’, the cloaked, masked Art of Noise followed soon after. To say nothing of the Grace Jones backing band Big Beat Colossus, the Art of Noise break-away faction Art & ACT and even those early test-shots of Nasty Rox Inc. posed by Action Men.

It was playful and appealing but, at the end of the day, imaginary. “When we did Video Killed The Radio Star we spent all our time in the studio making the record – we’d never given publicising it a thought. We’d never given what we were going to wear or how we were going to sell ourselves – we’d never given it a moment’s thought. But then I suppose after that what my wife had said really began to sink in because it was so obvious to me when I met ABC what they had… ABC looked great, they had their whole manifesto worked out and I realised it was a different thing being an artist and my wife was right.”

A future member of ABC, Fiona Russell Powell interviewed Horn on the release of Adventures In Modern Recording for a feature entitled The Most Wanted Man In Pop. In it she derided the current world of Bucks Fizz and Tight Fit where F stood as much for “fake tan, fake orgasm, fast food, false promises and foul play” as it did for her magazine, The Face. But “Trevor Horn has now overtaken Martin Rushent in the ‘hippest producer of the year’,” she said of one of her few hopes to change the situation.

“The English music press seems to be going through a phase of encouraging a high turnover of artists in order for it to have new people to write about,” Trevor told her, in a statement that’s as relevant in 2005 as 1982. “I read a review of some singles by Kim Wilde the other day and she reviewed The Buggles’ single ‘On TV’ and she said “You know, I don't like this very much but I really like all the things that Trevor Horn's done with Bucks Fizz like ‘I Am a Camera’! I thought, well, that just about sums it all up! It's cloud-cuckoo land...”

“I keep on reading about some great pop revival, but all the writers have started interviewing people like Kim Wilde and putting her through the Spanish Inquisition as if she's got something significant to say about the world. Surely anybody who knows anything about anything must realise that she's just a voice on a record?”

There was a sense in 1982, made all the more quaint looking back, that somehow the alternative to this anodyne pop was some kind of futuristic, sci-fi inspired new-media. In the US, ‘Fade Away’ and ‘On TV’ were released on an exclusive flexidisc through Trouser Press magazine. And in the UK, Max Bell jumped ship at NME to run the short-lived cassette-only music magazine, SFX (“the only magazine on C60!”), which featured the title track from the album in issue 7. The Buggles appeared amongst the likes of Sophisticated Boom Boom, Gary Numan and Modern Romance with Trevor’s singing standing out to guest reviewer Richard Skinner. “Great singing,” he said, “he’s killing himself there! Some of the singing on there reminds me almost of Crosby Stills Nash and Young.”

Adventures In Modern Recording was the last the world heard of The Buggles until December 1998 when Trevor and Geoff Downes reunited on stage at the Mean Fiddler. They were joined by Tessa Niles and The Marbles for the first live rendition of ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’ in almost 20 years. They reunited again in 2004 to open Produced By Trevor Horn, a concert for the Princes Trust at Wembley Arena. So while Adventures might have been the last record with “The Buggles” stamped on the front cover, the band never really finished. It just transformed from duo to umbrella group to solo project and finally into Trevor Horn’s spirit of playful experimentation that reoccurs in many of the records he has produced ever since.

Ian Peel, 01 January 2010