MBW’s World’s Greatest Producers series sees us interview – and celebrate – some of the outstanding talents working in studios across the decades. This time out we meet Trevor Horn, the producer behind a string of 1980s pop classics, with an influence that stretches into the present day. World’s Greatest Producers is supported by Hipgnosis Song Management.
It wasn’t until Trevor Horn scored his first No.1 hit that he realized he was never going to cut it as an artist.
The Buggles’ Video Killed The Radio Star might have topped charts around the world in 1979 and become the first video ever shown on MTV two years later. But, as Horn struggled to come up with a similarly blockbusting follow-up – and the fallout from a brief, ill-fated stint as the singer in his favorite prog rock band Yes (“A crazy thing to do!”) – his then-wife and manager, the late, great music executive Jill Sinclair, told him some home truths.
“She said to me, ‘I think you’d do better as a producer’,” he shrugs. “‘You could be one of the best producers in the world, but as an artist you’ll always be second division’. Harsh? Yes, but sometimes good advice can be harsh.”
And Sinclair’s suggestion certainly proved to be sound. Horn had had a curious career up to that point, earning a living as a session bassist and playing live “every night of the week – but playing mainly crap at various levels”, before the big Buggles breakthrough.
His stint as a producer didn’t look set for the most auspicious start either, as Sinclair hooked him up with naff pop duo Dollar (“I was like, ‘Dollar?’” he chuckles. “‘You think that’s good for me to produce? I’ve been in Yes! I did three nights at Madison Square Garden!’”). But, regardless, he delivered a state-of-the-art production on singles such as Mirror Mirror and Hand Held In Black And White and it proved to be quite the calling card.
From there on in, Horn’s high-impact, tech-friendly style reconstructed the sonic architecture of the 1980s, helming classic albums, from ABC’s The Lexicon Of Love to Malcolm McLaren’s Duck Rock to Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Welcome To The Pleasuredome. Along the way, he, Sinclair and NME writer Paul Morley set up ZTT Records, taking Frankie to global, controversy-strewn ubiquity and making unlikely stars of Propaganda and Art Of Noise (featuring Horn himself). He even returned in triumph to Yes, producing their 90125 album and delivering their only US No.1 hit, Owner Of A Lonely Heart.
“I had a white-hot few years, but nobody can keep it up, you know?” he says, but, in fact, his legacy has endured far beyond the decade in which he made his name. He and ZTT took Seal to superstardom, and he has worked with everyone from t.A.T.u to Belle & Sebastian, Robbie Williams to Rod Stewart, as documented in his excellent autobiography, Adventures In Modern Recording.
His latest project is the Trevor Horn Presents Echoes – Ancient & Modern album, out now, which he bills as “a collection of singles from the past, done in a very different way”. So, Toyah & Robert Fripp reinvent Relax (“This time it’s much more literally relaxed!”); Iggy Pop (“A serious pro!”) makes Personal Jesus his own; and Lady Blackbird (“Great voice!”) takes on Slave To The Rhythm (Horn also produced Grace Jones’ ground-breaking original).
Today, he welcomes MBW into his well-appointed North London home. There’s a “fantastic” studio downstairs and the front room is littered with the spoils of a life in music. His Grammy for Seal’s Kiss From A Rose is on display, along with copies of Viz and Classic Pop magazine and Bernie Taupin’s memoir. A wooden model of himself sits above the smouldering fire that’s keeping the early winter chill at bay.
Horn’s own fire, however, seems in no danger of going out. Multiple projects keep him in touch with music and production (Dr Dre is his favorite producer, while his son Aaron was Grammy-nominated for his own production work with Doja Cat), and he is contemplating both a Los Angeles-based concept album and a Buggles tour for next year.
Time now though to sit back, relax and listen to some tales from his remarkable career…
WHAT WAS IT LIKE REVISITING SOME OF YOUR OLD SONGS FOR ECHOES?
The whole album was a bit like a journey where you don’t know where you’re going. It started off one way and ended up another. I knew I didn’t want to do another orchestral album. Initially, I was going to do a really stripped-down record, but I tried it and didn’t like it. This is what I like really.
The one I wouldn’t do was Video Killed The Radio Star, I couldn’t face it! It was bad enough with Relax. At first I was like, ‘No way, I’m not doing another fucking version of Relax!’ And then you have an idea.
I realized, when I did it the first time, I knew it was a hit idea, but it took time to work it out, because it was like a chant and to make it into a record was quite a thing. But this time, I didn’t have that pressure. Back then it was hard because I was dealing with a group – here, I could do what I wanted. I just had to stop myself from messing around with it.
When you’re making records, there’s always the odd moment when you don’t know what the hell you’re doing, but it generally passes and, if you keep doing it, something will become apparent. Don’t panic is the important thing, I always think.
DO YOU LIKE BEING SEEN AS THE PERSONIFICATION OF A MUSIC PRODUCER BY MANY PEOPLE?
Recognition for what you do is always nice. Not that people always like what I do, but I was very lucky. There was a brief period where I had the drop on everybody, because not many people knew how this new digital thing was working.
In the ‘80s, I was a man on a mission. I was a bit like Kid Harpoon – who I actually produced. He was a good artist, he only missed it by that much, he definitely had talent. But it makes for interesting producers.
It’s so difficult to be a successful solo artist, it’s like being a leading man. It’s not just about having the talent to do it: if you’re going to be a leading man, you’ve got to have at least three good angles. You can’t just have one good angle.
DID YOU REALIZE HOW PRESCIENT VIDEO KILLED THE RADIO STAR WAS?
No, I just remember the line popping in my head and Bruce [Woolley, Buggles member] saying, ‘We can’t use that!’ ‘Why can’t we?’ ‘Because there’s two bands, one called the Radio Stars and one called Snips And the Video Kings’. And I said, ‘They’ll probably be gone by the time this comes out!’
I was reading a lot of JG Ballard and I was taken with this story [The Sound-Sweep] about this opera singer who’s now out of date because people aren’t listening to music anymore. It was just the idea of technology passing you by. I think it’s one of the reasons the song stuck around, because the lyrics aren’t about love.
WHEN YOU WORKED WITH DOLLAR, WERE YOU AWARE HOW MUCH OTHER WORK THAT PRODUCTION STYLE WOULD GET YOU?
Jill said I should essentially make a Buggles record and they’d front it. So I had a meeting with them and basically said that to them: ‘I’ll make a record and put you on it, are you OK with that?’ And they were like, ‘Whatever you want us to do, we’ll do’. And it turned out really well. [The Dollar Album] is a funny, odd record but loads of people really liked it – even Hans Zimmer said to me that he liked it at a party.
I wasn’t thinking about attracting other people. But in fact, that’s one of the reasons ABC wanted to meet me, because they really liked Hand Held In Black And White.
THE LEXICON OF LOVE WORKED OUT PRETTY WELL, TO BE FAIR…
They’re still touring it! When I go back and listen to The Lexicon Of Love, I can see we were trying to blend Bob Dylan and Chic. Chic records were really great, but the lyrical content was fairly limited, whereas Lexicon Of Love had wonderful lines. Great stuff!
WHAT WAS IT LIKE WORKING WITH MALCOLM McLAREN ON BUFFALO GALS, WHICH MANY PEOPLE SEE AS ESSENTIALLY THE FIRST BRITISH RAP RECORD?
There were definitely a couple of moments where I tried to bail on Malcolm. One time, I really tried to go, but he wouldn’t let me and talked me out of it. It was just so difficult to figure out what we were meant to be doing.
That album was definitely a trip but, right at the end of it, Malcolm had this idea to do a rapping, scratching version of ET Come Home. And I said to him, ‘Why don’t we do a rapping scratching version of Buffalo Gals?’ We’d recorded [a country-style version] down in Tennessee and it sounded fucking awful to me. I hated it.
I’d met Afrika Bambaataa, so I knew what those guys were doing. It still took time to do because the World Famous Supreme Team wouldn’t rap it. They were very suspicious of everything.
I said I’d show them, got in the studio and rapped two verses. I looked in the control room and I couldn’t see them. I thought they’d gone, but they were just laughing so hard they were crying! ‘Trev man, we didn’t know you could rap!’
WHAT WAS IT LIKE BEING CAUGHT UP IN THE FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD MADNESS?
That was an interesting dynamic for a while, having the band allow us to run rampant whilst they went out and promoted it.
Relax was an interesting idea, it wasn’t a song really, but it had a certain quality to it. I’d heard the demo and, for some reason, it really clicked with me that there was a hit in it. But the reality of it was very sobering for a while.
It took a long time for the literal meaning of ‘When you want to come’ to sink in – I didn’t really think of it like that. In the same way that, when I was a kid, it never occurred to me that that, ‘Good golly Miss Molly, you sure like to ball’ was really, ‘Good golly Miss Molly, you sure like to fuck!’
It was banned, but it was too late to stop it going to No.1 and, in fact, it worked for us, because you didn’t get to hear the record too much.
I wasn’t basking in it though, I was desperately trying to get the follow-up ready, and it was pretty challenging to get Two Tribes to work. We tried a few other songs before we ended up with that one and it was a case of, well, this is the only one, we’ll have to get it to work. We’ve got no choice. In the end, it was amazing.
WAS ZTT AS MUCH FUN AS IT LOOKED?
It was fun for a while, but there were some sad moments. If I knew then what I know now, there would have been a few things I’d have done differently.
For a kick-off, I’d have hired loads of people and employed them to just talk to the acts all the time, so that other people didn’t talk to them!
It’s so hard to make anything successful in this business – if you think about how many records are made each week, the failure rate must be 90-95% and it’ll guzzle money up quicker than even having a boat! So, whenever you get something actually selling and making money, the thing that’s absolutely guaranteed is that everybody else in the music business will be sniffing around your act to see if they can get them, because it’s something that they know is going to sell.
We hadn’t anticipated that and, of course, once they’re successful, everybody can get a better deal than the one they’ve got with you. It’s very hard to keep acts when you’re that successful.
But I liked the idea that we could get people interested in a record, just because it was on ZTT. There aren’t many labels like that now. XL is a good label because [Richard Russell] signs people that he likes, good musicians. I had maybe too romantic an idea of what a record label was actually like. I thought it would be a creative thing, but it only is up to a point.
YOU’RE FAMOUS FOR PRODUCING ALBUMS, BUT IS THAT A DYING ART IN THE MODERN MUSIC INDUSTRY?
People say nobody buys them anymore – I don’t know if that’s true, but of course it’s tempting to just buy one track.
Another thing that used to annoy me was when people would say, ‘That’s not a single, that’s an album track’. The last thing I want is an album of failed singles. That’s like a Spice Girls album, where the first two or three tunes are OK and then it gets murkier after that.
“when people say albums don’t sell anymore, that’s because people don’t make albums properly. They think an album is just a dumping ground for a few singles and a load of shit.”
But a good album track is a good album track. If you think of Seal’s first album, there are tracks on it like Violet and Deep Water that you wouldn’t have put out as a single, but they’re great tracks and we worked on them just as hard.
So, when people say albums don’t sell anymore, that’s because people don’t make albums properly. They think an album is just a dumping ground for a few singles and a load of shit.
DO ARTISTS EVER MIND YOU BEING SEEN AS SO INFLUENTIAL TO THEIR RECORDS?
It depends how grown-up they are! Somebody like Rod Stewart isn’t exactly insecure so, if he sounds good, he’s fine.
When [ABC’s] Poison Arrow came out, the first time it was on the Top Of The Pops, whoever was introducing said, ‘The new one by ABC, produced by Trevor Horn…’ and I thought, ‘Fuck me, that’s amazing’. No other producer got a namecheck, so I thought, ‘I’m going to be famous’.
YOU’VE ALWAYS USED TECHNOLOGY, BUT WHAT IMPACT WILL AI HAVE ON PRODUCTION?
Look, back in 1968, you could buy a Marshall amp and a Gibson Les Paul, but it didn’t make you Eric Clapton – and technology’s the same. The technology is just a stepping stone towards realising the idea.
Technology’s great – there are lots of tedious tasks that used to take a long time that you can do a lot quicker. Compiling vocals would take a whole day, now I can chop my way through it in a couple of hours.
I don’t use AI, but if I was doing music for TV shows or film, I probably would. My son did a thing where he got Elvis to sing Video Killed The Radio Star with AI, but the trouble was, it didn’t sound like Elvis. It sounded like Elvis copying my phrasing. Maybe it would have worked better if I’d done an impression of Elvis, then they made it sound like Elvis.
IF YOU COULD CHANGE ONE THING ABOUT TODAY’S MUSIC INDUSTRY, RIGHT HERE AND NOW, WHAT WOULD IT BE AND WHY?
I wish the major labels would invest more in live venues for kids to play in.
Making records now is more like cooking using stuff from cans and dried food: you don’t go and make your own sauce, it comes in a packet. So, you only really need a couple of burners and some pans. If you made it all from scratch, you’d need a much better kitchen. The thing I miss the most is people playing together, it’s so rare now.
ARE THERE ANY ARTISTS THAT YOU HAVEN’T WORKED WITH YET THAT YOU’D LIKE TO PRODUCE?
No, I’m more interested in the songs. That’s what always gets my interest, rather than just a person. Because I like making records and it’s hard to find a good song these days.Music Business Worldwide