The Most Wanted Man In Pop: Trevor Horn

“Why does pop music have to be so naff?” asks TREVOR HORN, whose production work for Dollar, ABC and Spandau Ballet is an unequivocal answer to his own question. FIONA RUSSELL POWELL talks to the runaway Buggle who has rapidly overtaken Martin Rushent as “the hippest record producer of the year”.

WHAT HAD ONCE BEEN DEDICATED TO THE SOUL WAS NOW DEDICATED TO THE SALE
(John Kennedy Toole)

1982: THE YEAR of Max Factor pancake pop: the year of synthetic sex, gold lamé air-brushed Sudden Tanned flesh, blond skin, blond hair – the year when blond music rules the airwaves. Please Sir, I want some MOR. Plasticized pop reigns supreme! Witness the return of bright eyes, white Cuban heels, white knickers and white tongues. Farrah Fawcett has reared her blow-waved head again in the tasteless, classless, soulless guise of Bucks Fizz, Dollar, Tight Fit and Bardo.

F is for fake tan, fake orgasm, fast food, false promises, foul play. Pop the cork, push the button and fill the vacuum with meretricious emptiness. Bucks Fizz promote shorthand secretary chic whilst on the shop floor Andy Hill and Pete Sinfield manufacture meticulously monetarist Pitman pop. Lyric writer Sinfield dips his nib in Domestos before settling down to script screaming monogamous sentiments and continually fatuous storylines.

Following in Bucks Fizz’s flat footsteps, the shamelessly blatant Bardo fly the flag and the flack, fitting perfectly into the standard Eurovision Song Contest requirements of tits and vapid tat. Even after inflicting an obscenely bad dance routine that caused the cosmopolitan millions to cringe but probably inspired Flick Colby; even when the white legs and white knickers of the fearless Sally failed to titillate the judges and Britain won a barely respectable seventh place, the Great British Public – patting Sally on her puritanical backside for putting up such a jolly good show – forgave the hapless duo and continued to buy ‘One Step Further’, sending it up to No. 2.

Meanwhile, Abba abdicate gracefully and Tight Fit glide smoothly into place, flexing their muscles and shooting up steroids, they plan their strategies: hard-sell, soft-porn, sexist propaganda. They take up their positions and hustle their way into the top end of the charts. Apparently the Tight Fit manifesto, short on morals, scruples and talent, works. It seems that no matter which stable the vinyl horseshit flies out of, Joe Public will love it and buy it.

From the day-glo effluence of Bucks Fizz to the fleshy chauvinism of Tight Fit to the tawdry tautology of Bardo, none of these epitaphs to mediocrity have matched the spectacular success of Dollar. Summed up beautifully in the words of a John Cooper Clarke song, Dollar are… “like syrup, tacky but sweet”. Visually gauche – Top Shop couture and brother/sister profiles that hint at incest and narcissism – listen to the radio and watch your pound drop to the Dollar. Therese and David – two tarts with hearts of gold who were Born Blonde and Immac-ed into submission – everything about them is golden, from their teeth, their voices, right down to the spoons in their mouths. Dollar embody the art of slick tack and epitomise production-line music for the nouveau riche.

Chief manipulator of the palomino puppets and master craftsman of sophistication and market-research is producer Trevor Horn, like Durex and Brillo rapidly becoming a household name. The modern-day Midas of the recording studio, everything he touches turns to gold, from Martin Fry’s suit to the ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’ disc on his office wall – how soon before it all turns to platinum?

Meeting Trevor Horn quickly brought me down to earth and proceeded to put me in the picture. Sarm Studios is situated in one of the seamiest parts of the East End, in an area which seems to be a fairly accurate representation of inner-city life in Bangla Desh in a temperate zone. The happy hunting ground of the Kray Twins and Gilbert & George, this is the twilight land of Pakistani export “fashion” warehouses and is solely populated by war-veteran-turned-winos and professional beggars.

Trevor commutes into London from Elstree in his Mercedes 450 SLC and like a mole disappears into the pea-green, air-conditioned tomb, squashed underground in a converted basement of the Trendfever clothes depot, for up to 14 hours at a time. Nine times out of ten he surfaces with a sparkling gem of perfect production-point of fact: since Trevor started producing again, six out of eight singles have been hits. The studio is small and fully fitted throughout with carpets which have SARM in very Seventies script woven into them, a very expensive and ostentatious procedure normally only seen in five-star hotels; but then Trevor is a five-star producer and charges five-star prices.

Sarm has been going for over ten years and is owned by Trevor’s wife Jill and her brother, John Sinclair, who produced the first Foreigner album. Assorted pop notables have trod the Sarm floorboards including Queen who recorded and mixed ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ there with Roy Thomas Baker.

Amidst vast publicity following the meteoric rises of the careers of ABC and Dollar, Trevor Horn has now overtaken Martin Rushent in the “hippest producer of the year” stakes. Success comes in large doses; in the week that I met Trevor there were three Horn-produced singles in the Top 20. Success and Horn have an intermittent relationship: after forming Buggles with Bruce Wooley in 1979 and consequently scoring a massive hit with ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’ (a No. 1 in 16 different countries and the biggest record in Australia for 27 years) he spent the next couple of years singing and writing for the dubiously revamped Yes.

Currently deluged with requests from top bands to produce their singles and albums, Trevor has been dividing his time between picking up the pieces of Spandau Ballet’s career, producing professional eccentric Malcolm McLaren’s first album Folk Dances Of The World, finishing work on ABC’s debut Lexicon Of Love album, writing and producing Dollar’s singles, and being a father for the first time. He has also just finished a single with James Warren of the Korgis and plans are being made to produce the next Linx single. Meanwhile, Buggles’ second album limped out about four months ago but so far has failed to make any great impact. In fact, his Buggles projects are fast turning into a rather self-indulgent and expensive hobby.

TREVOR HORN ON BUGGLES

Before I started Buggles I was a sort of loser record producer, I spent four years producing records for various people without ever making any money out of it or having any success at all. A couple of people have become famous since though, like Lee what’s-his-name out of Imagination. I used to play bass in Shakatak years ago when it wasn’t called Shakatak, when it was a sort of jazz rock outfit. Mainly I just produced unsuccessful records because I couldn’t seem to lay my hands on a good song.

Eventually I got so fed up doing things that weren’t successful I decided that if I couldn’t find a good artist and a good song then I’d write it myself and become the artist, so I wrote this song called ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’ with Bruce Wooley. I know the name’s awful, but at the time it was the era of the great Punk thing. I’d got fed up of producing people who were generally idiots but called themselves all sorts of clever names like The Unwanted, The Unwashed, The Unheard . . . when it came to choosing our name I thought I’d pick the most disgusting name possible. In retrospect I have frequently regretted calling myself Buggles, but in those days I never really thought much about packaging or selling myself, all that really concerned me was the record.

TREVOR HORN ON SPANDAU

‘Instinction’ was a bit of a set-up because when they first asked me to do it I thought it’s going to make me look like the cavalry that comes charging in at the end of the film and saves the wagon train! ‘Instinction’ was really half-baked and I thought their two previous records, ‘She Loved Like Diamond’ and ‘Paint Me Down’ were both very ugly records, I thought that with Tony Hadley’s voice the way the records were mixed hadn’t done him any favours at all.

‘lnstinction’ was in bad shape. I think Hadley had sung the vocals feeling really miserable, just like he’d sung the previous two, because people had been saying nasty things about him and he’d had a bad time in the studio. It definitely showed through on the record. I would have liked ‘Instinction’ to have been a little more economical but unfortunately I didn’t record it, I just remixed it and overdubbed it. I felt that it needed bringing to life but in the process I had to busy it up too, I think I achieved that if you compare it to the other version.

TREVOR HORN ON ABC

When ABC approached me I was very surprised and a bit sceptical. I think they’d met a lot of other producers before they turned to me. I said “What do you want a producer for? ‘Tears’ is a really rough record but it’s good,” and they said, “Yes, but it wasn’t meant to sound rough, we wanted it to be more polished, more professional.” They were very different to what I’d expected, I wasn’t expecting them to be so clever. I thought Martin would be a complete arsehole and he turned out to be the complete opposite. ABC have good manners and they’re very polite to people which is something I appreciate, I like the way they seem to take into consideration the people that they make records for…

When you make a record you can live out fantasies. I invented a whole fantasy world – I built it and arranged it. I don’t pay any attention to who Dollar really are as people. Dollar are a special case because they wanted me to write the songs and do the whole thing, whereas ABC records are about what’s in ABC’s heads, not what’s in my head, the core of an ABC record comes from Mark and Stephen. You know, they’ve done a lot of things that have cost a lot more money than they needed have, they spend a lot of money making good B-sides. A lot of people couldn’t give a toss about the B-side, if it takes more than two hours they start getting shirty about it.

That’s what it comes down to in the end, most people aren’t prepared to spend the money. They want the product to be done as cheaply and economically as possible. I’m expensive but I put everything into it, I take a lot of care, but I don’t know how long I’ll be able to do that, I’m bound to get to the point in a couple of years time where I just won’t have the emotional stamina to be like that anymore.

TREVOR HORN ON DOLLAR

Why does pop music have to be so naff? I often ask myself this question. If Vince Hill was 21 now he wouldn’t do it the same normal old way. I wondered if I could do some records that would sound like Vince Hill meets Kraftwerk. I don’t know if I’ve achieved that. What I wanted to do was to make some really good MOR records but that weren’t MOR in the old sense of the word where they had real drums and real violins on them, but to use synthesisers and robot drummers. The Dollar records are very computer orientated, in fact, on “Give Me Back My Heart” half of Therese’s voice is done with a computer – we put her voice into a computer voice print and played it on a keyboard, a very complicated process that no-one’s ever really done before.

I don’t think I achieved that so much with ‘Hand Held In Black And White’ (the first one I wrote for Dollar); I thought it was good but a little bit out of focus, so I thought I’m going to make certain with the next one which was ‘Mirror Mirror’ and I tried to make it almost like a computer had written it and produced it.

‘Hand Held’ was about a frame of mind, you know when you take a very quick snapshot . . . well, I saw a photo of Dollar that was taken with a handheld camera in black and white and I thought it was a nice attitude. ‘Mirror Mirror’ was supposed to be about someone looking in a mirror telling themselves how much they loved themselves but Dollar took it at its face value and sang it to each other which was quite fun.

The third record that I did for Dollar, which has just been released, is ‘Videotheque’ – it’s taken me about six months to persuade them to put it out. They said they wanted a ballad which got up my nose a bit so I said “right, if you want a ballad I’ll get you the sloppiest ballad I can find” so I found them ‘Give Me Back My Heart’, which was written by a kid called Simon Darlow and I wrote the end bit. I also thought ‘Heart’ would be quite good for them to do because they’d just split up and it touched on a few nerve ends. I think it was a bit traumatic for them because they identified with the song. It’s quite sad, really.

TREVOR HORN ON POP

I like Bucks Fizz but I didn’t like ‘Making Your Mind Up’, I thought it was pretty ordinary mainstream stuff. I don’t know why people talk about Bucks Fizz, I think they should talk about Andy Hill – ‘My Camera Never Lies’ is a beautiful record but to start reading some great significance into it is ridiculous.

There will always be a space for good pop records. I think at the moment we’re experiencing a bit of a backlash, I think music generally got a bit self-indulgent for about three or four years, very atonal with people not giving a shit about the audience. They presupposed that because they wanted to do it therefore it must be good. People now are trying to write tunes again; just look at groups like Simple Minds, I thought that ‘Promised You A Miracle’ was lovely, it’s one of my favourite records at the moment…

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. I keep on reading about some great pop revival, 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 realize that she’s just a voice on a record? 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 don’t really think pop’s any different from pop music of the past 15 years: I think the Dollar records are a bit different because their basic core lies somewhere else, whereas I think the basic idea behind a Bucks Fizz record is the same idea that’s been there for 15 to 20 years.

But I’ve been doing this for years and I’m mistrustful when one minute pop records are really hip whereas a few years ago when the Buggles had such a big hit with ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’ it was totally unfashionable – the music press really sharpened their teeth.

TREVOR HORN ON MALCOLM McLAREN

He’s a really crazy guy but I like him, I like his thinking because he’s so different to everyone else. I thought it would be really good to do something that was a challenge rather than getting locked into saying “OK, I’ve worked out a formula and this is how you get a hit record”. The album’s a bit off the wall, very ethnic. Malcolm really believes in it, he’s quite an idealistic sort of person, he really wants to do something constructive. I feel a bit aware of the fact that McLaren’s going to sell the record in a certain way, I’d rather leave the talking about it to him because it’s his project and I’m only the producer, it’s not up to me to spout about his album.

I’d never met McLaren before and I was prepared to hate him because there were certain things in the Punk era that I just loathed and I really felt that he was responsible for a lot of it, a lot of the bad things. Y’see, being a record producer, well, I just couldn’t swallow the whole thing. The whole Punk way was so anti-record production it wasn’t true. I got so fed up with talking to snotty kids giving me second-hand philosophy. After meeting him I understand where it started from and what it was about and probably working with younger people has helped me to understand it a lot more.

Don’t forget that when the Punk thing happened I’d been in the music business for maybe over ten years as a musician and I was a bit of a hack, you know, and to be suddenly confronted by Punk Rock was a real shock. Let’s face it – a lot of it was a load of shit, but I think in the end it did the English music scene a lot of good. I don’t think English music will ever be the same again; that’s the problem with America, they never had it.

TREVOR HORN ON AMERICA

It’s a frightening country. When I went across to America with Yes I felt it was one of the last big tours – it was like the end of an era. I say that but just look at Asia, they’ve got a Number 1 album; AOR’s going to come back in again, Asia’s past individual reputations in England would bury them in the local cemetery but in America they’ve been sort of deified. I think part of America’s bad taste is down to the grip that big business has got on music over there. When I joined Yes a couple of years ago, there was this guy called Lee Abrahams who programmes all the American radio stations and he actually does studies where he puts electrodes on people’s heads and plays them tracks. To the Americans Rock ‘n’ Roll is a way of life but I find it all has such a soft edge. I can respect the skill in the way that Joan Jett record is put together but I don’t like it really because it’s got such a soft back beat.

I’m a racialist really – I don’t like Americans, but that’s because of the way I was brought up to believe they were sort of gods, like always winning the war and having the best police in world, when I went over there I realized what a load of old hooey that all is. It’s really just a bunch of displaced Europeans building from memory in some kind of desert over there.

TREVOR HORN ON J G BALLARD

I’m a nut for J. G. Ballard, I’ve read just about everything he’s ever written. ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’ was based on The Sound Sweep – a short story by Ballard about a little boy who’s deaf and dumb and he goes round sweeping the sound out of rooms with this sound vacuum cleaner that he’s got; music is out of date – people don’t listen to it anymore. Music’s been condensed down to an essence that you can’t actually hear but has the same effect on you. That gave me the idea for the song. I don’t bother talking about Ballard to most people because unless they’ve read him they start saying, “Oh, you read science fiction?” and I can see a curtain come down.

TREVOR HORN ON BEF’s MUSIC OF QUALITY & DISTINCTION

I wasted my money buying that LP, they didn’t re-arrange anything. I find the recording quality poor; I mean, how they’ve got the nerve to call it music of QUALITY – when I think in reality it’s a complete opposite of that. I mean, Tina Turner singing with a rhythm box – do me a favour. I keep on seeing their faces and I keep reading about BEF everywhere – yawn yawn. Why can’t they write a load of new songs?

TREVOR HORN ON THOMAS DOLBY

I’m quite a big fan of Dolby, I love his songwriting, I’ve got about four records of his at home that I play all the time. But it makes me sick to read about him in the papers because he just keeps on and on about this boffin thing; they keep writing about boffins and computers but it doesn’t make any sense to me. Like on the BEF album, it says about drum computer programmed by so-and-so, but I could show you how to programme a drum computer in five minutes, it’s a piece of piss. I don’t know why Dolby keeps appearing with those little glasses on and talking about some stage act he’s going to get together; you keep getting the feeling that he’s going to do something magnificent but he hasn’t done it yet. It just makes me laugh. I suppose it’s something to build a career on but it’s all missing the point.

The point is to make good records that the people out there are going to like and buy. I believe that every single pop record should have some kind of basic message behind it, a record or a single is a form of communication: you’re putting across an idea, a statement, but you’ve got to be prepared to slog it out and not accept second-best.

© Fiona Russell PowellThe Face, March 1982

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