Heroes (Part 14)
Trevor Horn considered
Our history of record production reaches the run-out groove as John Morrish samples the product of the Trevor Horn industry (Trev as Buggle, above). On page 83, Morrish chooses his 12 favourite records from the series, from Elvis Presley to Talking Heads.
It was 30 years ago that Elvis Presley was in Memphis, Tennessee, recording his first sides with Sam Phillips, the first of our production Heroes.
Thirty years ago. But where is production going now? Casting around for ways to bring this series to an end, I identified two themes. One lot of producers seemed to be looking forward and outward, and those I dubbed "Futurists". In the end I settled just for Brian Eno.
Another group seemed to be looking backward and inward, taking the music itself as its own material. These I dubbed "Decadent", but in the end I didn't write about them. Jeff Lynne is the leader of the gang, which says it all.
And finally, I identified a third group, whom I called "the professionals". They are not pushing anybody anywhere, they'll do what the paying customer wants. We met a couple of those last month.
But the dominant production figure of 1984, Trevor Horn, owes something to all three groups. Clearly he looks forward technically and in terms of his ideas, not all of them musical. But he looks backward, too. Take the record that brought him to fame, "Video Killed The Radio Star", written with Bruce Woolley for his Camera Club project, and then revised for the two-man outfit The Buggles. It seems designed to fit the old music-biz adage that you can't fail with a record that mentions radio and disc jockeys.
And it is deeply nostalgic, as is the whole Buggles album "The Age Of Plastic" (for which keyboard player Geoff Downes must take half the credit). The whole album also shares the single's obsession with its own milieu, being full of songs about people making records and film soundtracks.
Horn and Downes wrap this rather empty music up in synthesised orchestras, tracked-up choirs and layer upon layer of uncredited session-musicianship. It's a triumph of perfectionism, with "Video Killed The Radio Star" going through four mixes before the Buggles got one that would both sound "very, very hard" and would cut.
Before that, the pair had been session musicians, later graduating to demo production, and then breaking through with a hit for the Jags, "Written On The Back Of My Hand". They took the song, remixed it, added an intro and a layer of keyboards, and produced a hit that was universally condemned as a rip-off of Nick Lowe's Elvis Costello records. Even the band hated it, or so they claimed. But the Buggles marched on, carrying a name that was supposed to be deliberately unfashionable, but to these ears sounds like an attempt to reconstruct The Beatles. You get it? Beatles, Bugs, Buggles... And then came Yeggles, a brief liaison with the ailing supergroup Yes.
That was not the surprise it seemed, given that both Buggles had evinced a long-standing enthusiasm for musicianly groups with an interest in inflated forms and textures. When they came to produce a second Buggles album, "Adventures In Modern Recording", they took some of those textures back with them, but the nostalgic vein was still there, with a synthesised Glenn Miller arrangement on one track. And the subject matter was, by and large, the same: the medium itself.
In a way, the group that the Buggles most resemble is 10cc, those early-Seventies "art rockers" who tried to avoid rock's essential lyric quality of directly expressing personal emotion by inventing dramatic forms and "characters" to sing their own stories. Their innovative "I'm Not In Love" is a constant presence in the Buggles' recordings, as are their funny accents and filtered voices.
But when Trevor Horn left the Buggles and began to work for other people he was happy to let them choose the route of direct expression if that suited them. Take ABC's "Lexicon Of Love", where singer Martin Fry saw himself as undeniably the suffering artist. Around these over-wrought psycho-dramas Horn wrapped an appealing mix of snappy bass, thunderously crashing drums and an artful balance of real and artificial brass and strings crisply arranged by Anne Dudley, whose name will recur in the Horn saga.
Also listed on the sleeve is "Fairlight programmer — J J Jeczalik", another important contributor to the success of the Trevor Horn industry. Apart from the vexed question of the Fairlight's capabilities for sampling and regurgitating instrumental and vocal lines, it is to that expensive machine that we owe the crashes and scratches, sounds like people kicking the echo plate, and so on, that are the hallmark of most Trevor Horn productions.
Most, but not all. One area where those apocalyptic sounds are absent is the saccharine collection of songs that Horn produced in the name of Dollar. I say "in the name of" because it is clear that the amount contributed by Mr Van Day and Ms Bazar to this project was fairly limited. Not that there's any particular shame in their non-participation. Indeed, with the Dollar saga the British Public learnt for the first time that impressive vocal lines can be built up on keyboards, as in Therese's "La la la la" in "Give Me Back My Heart", where you hear the envelope open and shut around each breathy "la". And no-one really minded.
In some ways these singles, and the Buggles LPs, represent the best of Mr Horn. Defiantly anti-fashionable, they are skilfully crafted and unashamed. The five-minute magnum opus "Give Me Back My Heart" apologises to no-one, except to Godley & Creme for stealing the intro of "I'm Not In Love" and to George Martin for rounding things off with "Penny Lane"'s piccolo trumpet. Horn got more kudos for his production of Yes's snappily-titled "90125" album, and in particular the single, "Owner Of A Lonely Heart", fellow producers' favourite production in our recent survey (June '84 issue).
It's an impressive, at times even astonishing, record. A lot of it can be put down to skilful use of that under-used device, the panpot, which Horn employs to help defeat some of multitrack's inherent flatness, by creating a lot of left/right activity and then sending a guitar solo on a long and winding odyssey between the poles. And in his use of different echo ates, Horn is reminiscent of Phil Spector. Fantastic, you think, a stereo Spector! But for all his obsession with massive textures, Horn is not quite that, as the Frankie saga shows.
In a way, the most important aspect of the whole saga is nothing to do with the band Frankie Goes To Hollywood and everything to do with the creation of Zang Tuum Tumb records, the latest in a long line of "producer-run"-companies, and probably the most successful since Spector's own Philles.
Certainly, with his own mini-McLaren at the helm in the shape of former NME hack Paul Morley, Horn's company has a rather higher profile than any previous producer's attempt at gaining the rightful fruits of his labour. For let us make no mistake, the producer is, as the name tells us, at the centre of the act of production that changes a (probably valueless) song into a (potentially priceless) master tape. The salaries earned by people like Smokey Robinson and George Martin barely recognised that, and neither did the marginal royalties traditionally earned by producers.
By marrying Jill Sinclair, a studio owner-cum-manager, and renegotiating his producing deal with Island so that he has his own record company, Mr Horn has placed himself at the heart of the commercial transaction that is record-making.
But there's more. By investing the considerable sums his talents have brought him in ever more advanced equipment, he has achieved another interesting feat.
Music was always a labour-intensive industry. If we were to count the number of people involved in making a Phil Spector or Brian Wilson session work, it would soon run into three figures, if we count the engineers, the string players, the air-conditioning engineer and the guy who looks after the studio car park.
Mr Horn, and others like him, have changed all that. Now music has become, like so many other industries, capital-intensive. You buy a Fairlight, or an Emulator, and a good multitrack machine, and a sampled drum machine with some spare chips to cater for all tastes, and you make a record. You get some photogenic youth to sing, you teach the rest of the band to dance and look tough in the video, and away you go. One engineer, no string players, no car park attendant. If the air-conditioning breaks down, you and your engineer get warm, but there's no mass walkout of studio personnel — because there are no studio personnel.
And every dollar you earn goes towards some new toy to give your records that little extra sparkle. So that as you climb up, you pull up the ladder behind you.
The stories about Frankie's sessions proliferate. It is said that they were so musically inept that, after buying their publishing rights, Mr Horn brought in The Blockheads to make a saleable "Relax". The Frankie version took five weeks to record it is said, and cost £70,000. And everybody knows about the bass playing — glowingly praised in Melody Maker — and the drumming. Congratulations, Mr Jeczalik, that's what I think.
But the question of who played on the records is not of prime importance. More interesting is what happened to the tapes after they were originally recorded: the remix syndrome. Already a vague necessity amongst UK record companies in imitation of US practice, the role of the remix took on a new significance under Mr Horn's regime. Trevor and his gang managed to make people buy the same record two or three times simply by remixing it, or at least that's what the figures suggest.
In the end, he saved his least impressive mixes for the album version, and since the two singles are the only half-way decent songs on the whole sorry package, that doesn't make it a good buy. Not good enough, anyway, to put up with a side of crappy Radio Two cover versions and a reading list courtesy of Mr Paul Morley (Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Kropotkin, Rimbaud...).
It is time, now, to tot up Mr Horn's place against all those master record producers of the past who we've covered in "Heroes". How do we compare him with, for instance, Sam Phillips, the man who started it all? Well, the comparison is not so foolish as it sounds.
Phillips, after all, had his own studio, his own record company, his own regular musicians and a strong idea of what he wanted. But at the end, he could do no more than plead, cajole, encourage — and record what happened.
Perhaps Horn has more in common with Leiber & Stoller, who introduced multitracking, and dropping-in, and looping, and all the other tricks of the trade. Were not their sessions as "artificial", as "contrived" as anything Horn has touched?
And what about Spector? Is not Horn's "cult of the producer" status, all those little "advertisements for himself" that you find on his records, just a remake of the Phil Spector story? Well, no. In Phil Spector's list of instructions to himself, number one said, "Music must be emotional and honest." For Spector, the song was paramount, the production just the frame in which it was presented. As such, every production had to be complete, finished and perfect. Phil never remixed his records once he'd finished them.
That's not an inhibition that affects Trevor Horn. And that's a shame, for in the same breath as he exalts the role of the producer, he destroys it.
If the producer does anything at all, he makes the final decision. Mr Horn destroys the mystique of the person who makes the final mix, by showing us that there is no final mix. The refusal to create a finished "work" has dire consequences for any consideration of the producer as an artist.
Moreover, in the field of aesthetics, it is commonly said that a work of art, be it a poem, or a painting, or a film, can only be done one way — change it and it's something else. The subject matter and the method of representing it are supposed to be so intimately connected that the representation could not be done in any other way.
In some of Mr Horn's work, the material, the subject, serves only as the background against which the method displays itself. Is it any wonder that record companies are quite happy to move material from one producer to another until they get the "sound" they want — irrespective of how appropriate that sound might be? And if that happens, where does the producer stand? An artist? Or an employee like the car park attendant?
But Mr Horn's mania for remixing suggests another possibility. How long is it before some enterprising corporation starts putting out play-only portastudios, with a built-in echo machine and a stack of 4-track dubs of famous albums to play on them?
Imagine remixing your own "Revolver", or "Pet Sounds", with all the studio backchat, the missed cues, unexpected harmony lines and all the rest there under your hands. Who would choose one of Mr Horn's records? The most you would find would be a spot of mains hum, or a stray synthesiser oscillation.
All the best records I have discussed in this series have been alive with human emotion. And where there's humanity, there's imperfection. Thankfully.
Now, no-one is saying that computer-controlled music is any more remote or inhuman than that made by a well-disciplined band. Not necessarily. But if one person decides to control every element of a musical event to the degree that computer control makes possible, then that person needs to be very good indeed — and needs to have something to say.
I'm not sure Trevor Horn does.
The Buggles: "The Age Of Plastic"; "Adventures In Modern Recording". Yes: "Owner Of A Lonely Heart" (I should skip the album...). Dollar: "Six Song Album" (A German compilation with all the Horn stuff). Art Of Noise: "Who's Afraid Of The Art Of Noise?" (If they'd called it "Who Gives A Shit About The Art Of Noise" that would have been closer to my feelings). Malcolm McLaren: "Duck Rock" (great for rope-dancing New York hillbillies). Frankie Goes To Hollywood: "Welcome To The Pleasure Dome" (probably the worst double album since "Tales From Topographic Oceans", and for all the same reasons).
May I take this opportunity of thanking the esteemed editor and staff of One Two Testing, the world's greatest magazine for musicians etc, for allowing me to do this series. It's been great. And thank you, gentle reader, for getting to the end. Next: the complete history of string.
Feature by John Morrish
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