Friday, February 20, 2009

The Buggles Lament The Passing Of An Old Friend

At midnight on August 1st, 1981, the (then) U.S. based cable television network MTV launched operations, heralding one giant leap for the medium of music video. Over the course of the previous decade (actually as far back as the mid 60s, when The Beatles produced custom made videos when their touring schedule precluded them making promotional appearances in person), the concept of the promotional music video had come along in leaps and bounds, aided in no small part by shows like Australia’s very own ‘Countdown’. But until the arrival of MTV, there was no dedicated avenue via which music artists could reach a mass television audience - 24/7. Previously, that territory had belonged exclusively to radio, and the airwaves (or self proclaimed rulers of) often meant the making, or breaking, of up and coming artists. The explosion of the promotional video concept during the 1980s, signalled a decline in the, previously almost singular, power of radio over the fortunes of aspiring pop-rock stars. If radio refused to play your song, there was now another viable mass media avenue via which you could reach millions on a single broadcast wave, not to mention the means for you to add a key visual dimension to your music - it was advertising for your music on an unprecedented scale. It was entirely appropriate therefore, that the very first music video aired on MTV, was ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’ by The Buggles. Whilst the music video medium (which now comprises hundreds of dedicated cable and satellite channels) may not have killed off radio per se, it has relegated the notion of a radio star, to somewhat of an anachronism, and pictures may well have broken radio’s heart, irreparably. With the advent of the internet, and associated broadcast mediums, artists now have a broader, and more direct, range of access options than ever, by which to connect with a wider audience - think Arctic Monkeys and Panic! At The Disco as two recent examples of artists to gain their big break via the worldwide web - prompting the question, will anyone come up with a song titled ‘The Internet Killed The Video Star?’. The Buggles’ original 1979 mega-hit ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’ was an astutely timed portent of things to come, but though its musical prophecy may have come to fruition, well in part at least, thankfully radio still has its role to play, and will likely always comprise at least part of the formula for a music artists road to commercial success.

Whilst The Buggles may have only scored one major hit, that major hit, ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’, remains to this day a key symbolic marker on popular music’s evolutionary road, and the group itself featured two prodigious musical talents in Geoff Downes and Trevor Horn. The pair had originally met during the mid 70s, whilst working as backing musicians for U.K. singing sensation Tina Charles (see future post). The multi-instrumentalist Horn, and keyboardist extraordinaire Downes, had also worked extensively as session musicians during that period, and following their tenure with Tina Charles, both embarked on their respective career paths. Downes spent a period of time penning advertising jingles, whilst Horn took up residency as the bass player at the Hammersmith Palais, whilst honing his production skills on other artist’s work on the side. Trevor Horn then signed a recording deal with Sonet Records, and released a couple of singles under the moniker of ‘The Big A’, but neither cracked the charts. By 1978, Downes and Horn had started writing songs together, in partnership with Tina Charles’ old guitarist Bruce Woolley, with whom they’d toured previously. The trio penned a stack of material (including the track ‘Baby Blue’ by Dusty Springfield), and soon began to entertain the notion of forming their own studio based band called The Buggles. There was one track in particular that gave the trio cause for feeling optimistic - ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’.

The song was co-written by Downes, Woolley and Horn, but the original lyrical inspiration for ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’, came via Horn reading a science fiction story that told of an opera singer in a world without sound, who no longer had the means to express herself. With the burgeoning medium of video spawning a whole slew of (arguably) talentless musical hacks, the futuristic tale had resonance in the present world of the then late 70s. With a hook laden, cutting edge synth-pop sound, ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’ sold itself, and fortunately the magic came through on a demo of the song (featuring vocal harmonies by Tina Charles) offered to Chris Blackwell, head honcho of Island Records, who immediately signed up The Buggles to record the song proper. But Bruce Woolley would not become an official member of the group, instead opting to start his own new wave outfit called The Camera Club (which featured a young keyboard guru by the name of Thomas Dolby - see May 08 post), and who later released their own version of ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’. Woolley’s name would appear in the writer’s credits for a number Buggles’ songs, but aside from collecting the royalties, he had no further involvement with the project.

Downes and Horn set to work recording and producing a studio polished version of their little synth-pop gem. Among the guest players during the sessions, were a young keyboardist by the name of Hans Zimmer (who would become a renowned composer of film scores), and drummer Warren Cann (from Ultravox). There are conflicting accounts as to who re-recorded the female vocal parts (the “ooah-ooah” and vocal harmonies), with the name Rachel Fury cropping up in a couple of sources, and Linda Jarmin with Debi Doss being mentioned in others (though Jarmin and Doss were credited by Horn as being the original backing singers, when the Buggles performed the song live, 25 years later). Up and coming Australian director Russell Mulcahy (who went on to work extensively with Duran Duran) was recruited to helm production on the accompanying music video. The finished product was an inventive use of the storytelling capacity of video, to augment the song’s poignant lyrics. Horn and Downes (with guest appearance from Zimmer), appear in an abandoned recording studio, which resembles some kind of futuristic bunker. Both alternate between looking like futuristic rock stars and scientists, with Horn wearing his (soon to be) signature big rimmed glasses. It was a dazzling engagement of the very medium over which the song lamented. ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’ invaded both radio and television airwaves during the English Summer of ‘79. By early September it had debuted on the British charts, and a month later had rocketed to #1. Soon after the Buggles conquered the Australian music scene, when ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’ hit #1 during December of ‘79, and went on to spend a mammoth seven weeks ruling the charts. The song’s synth-pop charms even made an impact in the U.S., where it delivered The Buggles their only hit Stateside (#40), though following the videos airing on MTV two years later, sales surged once more in the few territories that then had access to the fledgling cable network. ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’ has been covered countless times in the thirty years since, most notably by The Presidents Of The United States Of America on ‘The Wedding Singer’ soundtrack.

Though both The Buggles and Island had confidence that ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’ was going to be a hit, they didn’t foresee just how much of a mega-hit it became. The duo of Horn and Downes had a few more songs already in the can, but they didn’t yet have enough to constitute an album’s worth, which necessitated them writing ‘on the run’ in between relentless promotional engagements. The follow up single from the forthcoming album was ‘Living In The Plastic Age’, but its success was confined almost exclusively to Britain (#16) in early 1980. Having been devised as a studio project, The Buggles didn’t have live touring as an avenue by which to consolidate their profile, but they did play a handful of ‘live’ performances on BBC Radio 1 during 1980, and not to discount the power of television, made several appearances on ‘Top Of The Pops’ and the like. In February 1980 The Buggles’ debut album ‘The Age Of Plastic’ debuted on the British charts (UK#27/OZ#49), and continued the duo’s ‘futuristic’ theme, where humanity treads a fine line between technological splendour, and dystopian nightmare, all encased within a very Gary Numan-esque come Kraftwerk synth-pop package. It was equal parts celebration of the very cutting edge gadgetry the Buggles themselves employed with such wizardry in studio, and the potential compromise of our own humanity, in said technologies cold, spiritless wake. The album spawned two more hit singles in ‘Clean Clean’ (co-written with Woolley, and also recorded by his band The Camera Club), which only managed to clean up a top forty spot (#38) on the British charts, and ‘Elstree’ (in reference to the famous film studios), which signalled the end of The Buggles’ association with the singles charts (UK#55) in late 1980.

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