TREVOR HORN IS A ROARING SUCCESS. HE WAS BUGGLES, PLAYED WITH YES, GAVE DOLLAR THEIR HITS AND HAS NOW PRODUCED ABC AND THEIR DEBUT LP, THE LEXICON OF LOVE. AIN’T HE A GENIUS?
“Producers being heroes — it’s a disgrace!”
TREVOR HORN was worried that this interview was going to appear in some kind of technical section, accompanied by a photograph of him sat at a mixing desk.
“Paul, all of that is just so boring. It’s all very well reading about some guy saying he prefers to mike a bass drum this way, but that stuff is irrelevant to making a single — not the day to day reality of it, but to the magic of it. The technical aspect is irrelevant. It’s like talking to a Durex manufacturer in a sex magazine. It’s hopeless!”
Don’t fret, Mr. Horn. I had in mind writing about you as some kind of hero. I mean, why not!?
The hero’s eyes, enlarged a dozen times by two magnifying glasses harnesses into the shape of a pair of chunky spectacles, stare into me and make my own eyes buggle.
“I tell you who I got offered last night,” he says. “The Ramones!”
I groan. “Who are they?” he cracks.
I laugh. “No, really, who are they?” He’s not joking. “I know the name… aren’t they sort of like The Knack?”
I explain the slowing Ramones situation, and advise our hero to miss the boat.
“I’m getting offers from everywhere. This is of dubious merit.”
Trevor Horn is the producer of ’82; as Rushent was to ’81; as Andy Hill or David Cunningham could be to ’83. He turned Dollar into gold; realised ABC’s dream, with shiny class and bullet-proof glass; saved Spandau Ballet from turning into The Skids. He’s too busy to work with Linx — “I really regret that” — and right now he’s visiting daft corners of the world with Malcolm McLaren, preparing ‘Folk Dances Of The World’.
“I find that he has a way of looking at things that is similar to mine as regards its perversity. This project is such a good idea. I don’t know if it will work, we’re both taking a bit of a fling on it. I thought it would be good to get away from the conventional thing and jump in at the deep end, and see what happens.
“I’ve spent a year in the studio making records that have all got guitars and drums on them and in the end you’re saying, now what can we do now with the drums? The McLaren LP, well, he wants to get kids dancing to folk music, very basic music, music from the Americas. He wants to see them square dancing. Dances where you actually have to learn something, where people are actually dancing together… doing something.
“I think I got the job because I was the only person who understood what he was talking about… B. A. Robertson wanted to do it! McLaren’s designed clothes for it, he wants to get people to do something completely different. To do a square dance in a disco… why not?”
“Me I go from one extreme to another.” (‘The Look Of Love’) “That’s about you as well, Mr. Horn.”
— Martin Fry
TREVOR HORN is enjoying himself, and why not? A year ago he was as unfashionable as Lonnie Donnegan: now he could probably even save Bob Geldof. He’d had two spastic hits with an hilariously serious bubblegum group, spent a year nodding his head for bread with Yes, and was preparing to launch his kind of Dollar into an uncaring world. From Buggles to McLaren; from Yes to ABC.
“I’m doing the same as I’ve always done except now I’m probably doing it a bit better.”
What is it that he’s doing? Making things up! And what things…
(What is a producer? A kind of storyteller, a kind of lover: a bucket in a clear blue sky, if it’s Trevor Horn.)
I’d interviewed Trevor Horn when he was in Buggles: he squeezed through the interview like a buggled rat.
“I was trying so hard to be hip, trying so hard to, be impressive… me and Downsey were paranoid about appearing to be something that we were. We wanted to be hip, which is the naffest thing to want to be.”
I called him a dustbin man: he’s forgiven me, even if his wife maybe hasn’t. He does, though, look more like a dustbin man than a hero and a mystic — this is his disguise, In the studio, off comes the unlikely glasses, out comes bright green cape, and he flies… The mild if buoyant 33 year old family man becomes a creature in touch with divine, defiant unknown forces!
“Calm down, Paul, calm down.”
You don’t fool me, Mr. Horn.
“Yes I do.”
What is a producer? He is a cream donut, a strange landscape, an informed interference and if it’s Trevor Horn, a grand canyon. A Producer? If he’s produced ‘Hand Held In Black And White’, ‘Mirror Mirror’, ‘Poison Arrow’, ‘The Look Of Love’ and The Lexicon Of Love then he’s a hero.
And if it’s Trevor Horn he takes hold of what he wants to produce and says not why? but Why Not?
“Why I entered the music business I did it because I wanted my life to be an adventure.”
— Trevor Horn.
HEY, MR. Horn, it’s been a strange 12 months for you…
Twelve months ago everyone was acting like I was some kind of disease.
Whichever way you look at it I got kicked out of Yes and I was really cheesed off about that cos I’d thought the whole idea of someone like me joining Yes was quite an exciting idea… the idea of someone new being involved as opposed to old, and whether or not you liked Buggles they certainly weren’t part of the old wave.
I thought it was a good idea — but the reality! It turned out to be completely opposite to the dream I imagined. I was a Yes fan for years. The idea of joining what you think is your sort of group is irresistible. I mean, there was a point in my life when I actually sat and watched Yes on TV and I looked at Jon Anderson and I thought, My God I’d love to be him… And it happened to me, I went through it, and I tell you it was just so daft.
It’s completely daft to want to be Jon Anderson.
Hahahahaha, well, yeah… it is — terribly daft, especially now I realise that I just don’t want to be him.
But look, you say it’s daft, but at the time I wanted to be Jon Anderson I was playing in some awful Top 40 band up in the Midlands, y’know? seven nights a week for £50 playing everything that got into the charts. I was absolutely nowhere.
That was about ’73, ’74, and Yes were really good, they were fresh and new during those first years, whatever happened to them afterwards. And I know what happened to them now because I saw it first hand, the way the art takes second place and the whole thing becomes a great big dinosaur that needs to be shovelled hundreds of thousands of dollars just to keep going.
Was it easy to believe that you had taken over from Anderson, that you were getting under the skin of this particular dinosaur?
Naah… maybe it would have helped if I could have distanced myself, seen it all with a certain irony. But I just couldn’t believe how they’d allowed time schedules and money and business to completely supersede anything artistic. Even The Buggles, as silly as it may have seemed to you, were far more with following through what you wanted to do than Yes.
Yes really was totally to do with supporting the wife the kids and the big house, making sure this unreal bubble didn’t burst… and you just gotta keep that money, those quarter-million dollar advances, coming in from the record companies, so you’ve got to do The Album, you’ve got to do The Tour. There’s no time to think.
Me and Geoff Downes joined in June and by August we were doing Madison Square Garden in front of 20-odd thousand people. It was insanity.
How did it alter your attitude towards music, as a collection of details, as an energy… It must have been a profound experience?
It was that. I mean, when I was standing ready to go on at Madison Square Garden I thought to myself I’ll never get so hung up about getting my voice onto a record ever again, I’ll never get hung up over a mix, I’ll never get worried about things like that because nothing could be as horrific as this.
But working with Yes seems the total contradiction to what you did next — designing Dollar. Some people, and this is probably just a hangover from ’70s prejudice, would say that if it’s Yes then it must be majestic and if it’s Dollar it must be sickly and fluffy.
Oh sure, but you see that’s exactly the kind of distinction that is nonsense to me.
When Dollar first asked me to do the record that was the first thing I thought. I thought why should Dollar always make those crappy MOR records, why can’t we do something good for once? I mean, why not? And if there’s one thing I learnt from being with Yes is that there are absolutely no rules to anything.
Before Yes I suppose I was a bit conservative and straight, but after being with them for a year and probably being stoned the whole year cos I was so freaked out by it all, I realised that you can do absolutely anything on a record. I used to think you had to adhere to like daft rules, but that’s stupid. I mean, I never saw a great difference between working with Yes and working with Dollar — it’s all music and the quality of that music doesn’t relate to some manufactured context, but to some very vague basics. Perhaps one of those basics is just that it’s horrible to give people the same thing all the time.
I CAN IMAGINE the things that you’re fighting for when you make a single — floating around those vague and obviously very pure basics — but what are you actually fighting against?
The first thing you’re fighting against is what you can actually cut onto plastic from a tape — there’s only so much. I’d love to cut an earthquake into the middle of a record if it was possible. It’s not possible, Paul. There’s a limit to what you can actually get onto plastic and after that, well, you’re fighting those things you can only be vague about, things like banality.
My first thing when I’m going to make a single is to say what is this — this will probably seem daft — I say what is this about, what are you trying to do, what are you trying to say, y’know, what is the basic core of the record… and do you know? In the case of ABC I never really knew what they were trying to put across with ‘Poison Arrow’. They tried to tell me a few times and I just kind of trusted them, because they really seemed to know what they wanted. I thought, well I’ll give them what they want.
They said they wanted a record of great quality, a record of complete professionalism, and so I said OK! And then I eventually twigged as to what they wanted, or what I thought they were trying to do… to make a disco record but one that actually said something, did something, built to a climax, and they were only using the disco format in much the same way as Bob Dylan used a guitar on ‘Times Are A-Changin”.
Maybe we should talk about Trevor Horn’s drive for quality within an absurd context almost for the sake of it: go for broke for the sheer hell of it, invent as much as fingers and thumbs and the four walls will allow. The sheer hell of it…
Isn’t that what pop music is all about?
That’s a tiny bit ambiguous.
You know what I mean.
Yeah, the drive for quality… I have my own definition. I love the idea of making records with a superb sound quality and great engineering quality and then putting something perverse over the top, just for the hell of it.
There can be no particular reason for doing it… then again the drum roll in ‘Poison Arrow’ was there for a particular reason, I know exactly what I was trying to put across … the idea of a girl saying something to a boy and his heart goes BOOM!! Like that, the way your heart drops into your stomach when someone says something like look, you’re fired. And you get filled with horror.
I wanted to portray like that kind of catastrophe… and that was the great thing about ABC actually, cos when I said they should do that Martin said yes but when we do it in video someone should just raise an eyebrow… it should all be inside them, not outside…
ABC are great because they really understand, they’ll take the obvious and add the vital final twist… I’m fond of the unexpected twist too… like the whole of the end of Dollar’s ‘Give Me Back My Heart’ just developed out of something the keyboard player played in the studio and we developed a whole scenario with me singing a bit of fake Yes at the end just cos somehow it sounded like that was what was needed… and I thought also it might upset a few people to hear a complete Jon Anderson rip-off in a Dollar song…
Dollar’s ‘Mirror Mirror’ is one of the weirdest things I can think of… at least as weird as Rimbaud ceasing writing in his teens or Susan Sontag’s writings on camp… are you familiar with Sontag?
No, not at all…
Maybe it’s for the best. But do you consider ‘Mirror Mirror’ to be weird?
Yes I do! because it seems to be something that it isn’t… on one level it’s something, on another it’s not what you first thought. I always thought of it as being rather perverse when I did it, cos I thought it was like a classic MOR record with a Kraftwerk rhythm. That’s an obvious description, but it’s that kind of perverse matching.
I think over the years people have been making records that are perverse but also horribly ugly. What’s the point of making a perverse but ugly record? No-one will listen to it! But give people something they can’t ignore because of the professionalism of some of its parts, and then when you’ve got their attention phase them a bit by doing something odd in that context. I like people to blink.
Like the whole ABC album: four guys from Sheffield making a record and there’s a 30-piece orchestra on there… it’s pretty perverse, rather odd, and the point that it’s finished to the high standard of a slick American album as far as the sound and precision I’ve given it, that’s delightful…
It says a lot about you, Mr Horn, that you can appreciate these sort of things.
But that’s what it’s all about!
I know what you’re saying. It’s pretty delightful that everything that’s coming your way this year — ABC, McLaren, Spandau, Morley interview — has happened because you collaborated with Dollar. Did you envisage people noticing what you were getting up to? I mean, I did, and Martin did, but there are a lot of cool-ed dull-ed snobbies about.
Dollar came along and they said we want you to make us a really good record, we loved ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’, you make us a record and we’ll be no trouble.
So I write ‘Hand Held In Black And White’ and ‘Mirror Mirror’ one Tuesday with Bruce Woolley… Vince Hill meets Kraftwerk… but I wasn’t being silly… I thought the best thing about Dollar was that whatever I was trying to do from a personal point of view with them I think the whole point of a pop record is that however much you or I might theorise about it, if it doesn’t sell, if it doesn’t appeal to people who don’t know you and who don’t know me then it’s a waste of time… and with Dollar you already have in a way your route through to people.
WELL, IT’S a great feeling just on the straightforward level that you spend half your lifetime in a bunker underneath the East End and it’s great to hear it on the radio and see it in the charts… that is a form of applause really. It’s the only genuine feedback you get. It proves that you’re not mad when you’re in the studio and you know that you’ve made something that is really good… and believe me I feel I know when I’ve done something really good.
Most of the records I’ve made there’s been a point where I’ve been jumping about because I’ve been so pleased with it. But to have the hit isn’t that be all and end all… then again I had one horrible week when ‘Mirror Mirror’ struck at 41 and I panicked and I actually sat down and thought well I’m wrong, it’s not going to work, I’ll have to re-think, I’ll have to adjust everything. And I thought about it for a week and I just couldn’t work out what was wrong… and then it shot up the next week and everything was alright! Hahahahahaha…
There are some visitors from far away planets who have it that ‘The Look Of Love’ was a weak song successful simply due to production elevation.
Oh, it wasn’t weak at all. That is stupid. I’ve got a cassette of them playing it and it’s a great song. That’s just getting into daft arguments about whether someone thinks a song is strong or weak and that’s a matter of personal opinion…
Too true. I think if people talk about going too far with ‘Look Of Love’ they’re talking about it being too good!
It seems like there are those who have a reluctance to admit there can ‘still’ be great pop.
And the joke of it is that it hasn’t all been done before because I think we’re coming into a phase where we’re starting again… people are coming to terms with the studio and applying the new technology to a natural way of making music, cutting out the bullshit, going the other way from making everything sound the same, very even, very unsurprising…
Because everything is so competitive these days the records have got to be better.
I mean, I know that Simple Minds sat down specifically to write a single because they were fed up with not selling records and they made a beautiful record. The Associates as well. And these groups can still get better. I think The Human League were instrumental in this new realisation that your music has to sell for it to have some real worth, at least on the levels of communication. Think about the difference between Reproduction and Dare…
Doesn’t this say a lot about the need for the producer?
Well, that’s difficult… I always think the people he produces should be much more interesting that the producer himself. I wonder how relevant the producer is to the kid in Huddersfield. I don’t think they would go and buy a record just because I produced it.
But Rushent invented the common sense for the League.
Well, yes and no. Any producer who claims it’s all him is a liar.
But can’t the producer put it into focus: the difference between ‘Tears’ and ‘Poison Arrow’… c’mon, Mr Horn, I’m massaging you…
But that’s what ABC wanted. It all came from them. I helped them. And everything that happened for the League initially started with them using skills Rushent had.
It’s a team. One doesn’t work without the other. I would never have been able to make Dollar records without Dollar because in a way Dollar were the perfect group for me to invent this fantasy world. In that way Dollar were the perfect Buggles. When it was Buggles it was always me having to go onto the TV and act the star without the guitar plugged in, and seeing the whole joke and naffness of it and not be comfortable, whereas Dollar can work through that medium and really sell themselves.
WHAT QUALITIES do you have as a producer, Mr Horn?
I don’t know the answer to that question… well, I think it’s important that I was an artist, that I understand how performers think…
You seem to convey important enthusiasm to the musicians: there is a purpose in all this, we will make The Whole Single, the Holy Single… it’s quite religious.
It’s important to make it clear to the artist that you’re making a hit single. Y’know, this is going to be great!
What’s the point of making a record if it’s not going to be number one?
Exactly. We’re going to be great and everybody’s going to love this record. Just wait till everyone hears this! That sort of attitude can rub off on the people, they start to believe it too. We’re going to make history.
But I’m very finicky, very fussy, I know how important certain things are. On one level you have to be really professional and know what you can get away with and what you can do from the point of view of whether the factory are going to send back the record. You should try and be crazy with a kind of reference point somewhere.
On one side you’re really shouting at and encouraging the singer, you’re being stupid, and then on another side you’re re-mixing the record like four times to try and get every inch right… there mustn’t be one second of the single that I don’t know what’s going on and why it’s going on.
Let’s leave these technicalities, Mr. Horn.
Let’s move on to discussing those dusty cool cats who have decided that a certain type of music has moral or poetic superiority over another…
Are we talking about you and Iron Maiden?
No, Mr. Horn, I was right there — that wasn’t cool, that was class. I’m thinking of a group of people, who think that they can save people… I don’t know what they think they’re giving us, immortality or the ability to decipher Finnegan’s Wake or awesome sex, but they refuse to accept that those private ecstasies can exist through all musics providing that music began it’s life inside those vague basics we were talking about before.
Well, we’re talking about musical snobbery, people not listening to a kind of music because they consider that it’s not clever… I understand that because I went through a phase of being a jazz-rocker, unless it was jazz-rock, unless it was difficult to play, I thought it was shit.
And then you saw the light.
Something like that. In actual fact people who believe that it is simple and banal to make great pop singles should actually go and try it. The truth of the matter is that people like John Coltrane are John Coltrane, and they don’t theorise about it, and the people who are trying to be John Coltrane sneer at other people who are doing what they do well — and they can never be John Coltrane because they will always be stuck in the middle.
There is no constructive reason to sneer at pop records. These people should go and try and make a good one, see how far they get.
To make a single that involves extremes and that is still accessible is a lot more difficult than it looks. It’s very difficult to be a great musician, but it’s just as different in its own way to produce or make the great pop single. These people who aspire to musical greatness but sneer at everyone else. Well! You have to be open-minded!
Not true. Y’know, Paul, writing about music must drive you up the wall sometimes. I mean, how much can you say?
I can say an awful lot, Mr. Horn.
Yeah, you can say a lot…
I feel that it’s responsiveness. We both share it. A passion for the little moments, the odd turnings, the surprising details… the perverse meetings. They’ll always be around and around… keep us going around…
Oh yes… there can be an infinite number of new categories. Every record of merit deserves it’s own category, if you like. With a lot of music there are far more clichés than with pop, because in a way pop can be anything you want it to be as long as it retains a particular appeal.
With pop music there are no rules. You can put a bit of trad jazz into the middle of a single, slice in some modern jazz, you can do anything you want. You needn’t wear a straightjacket. I just love recording sound, y’know, I just love making records. I just think pop records are exciting! I suppose I’m just trying to make the ultimate record with everything that I do… I mean, why not? WHY NOT!!
I know what you’re saying, Mr. Horn.
© Paul Morley, New Musical Express, 3 July 1982