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Perfect 10: Produced by Trevor Horn

Beware the savage jaw, he’s just turned seventy-four…

Trevor Horn is a name that is synonymous with the minutiae of music creation. Over the course of his impressive career, the bespectacled boy from County Durham went from small to monstrously huge: from ’70s session musician (bassist for then girlfriend Tina Charles) to songwriter for Dusty Springfield and vocalist for Buggles.

Taking in the odd remix job along the way (hello The Korgis, Spandau Ballet and Anne Pigalle), Horn then became famous as a sonic synthesist by producing a massively diverse range of heavy hitters, including (deep breath) Alison Krauss, Belle & Sebastian, Bryan Ferry, Céline Dion, Cher, Chris Isaak, Elton John, Faith Hill, Jeff Beck, Kelly Rowland, LeAnn Rimes, Lisa Stansfield, Macy Gray, Marc Almond, Mike Oldfield, Pat Metheny, Paul McCartney, Peter Gabriel, Robbie Williams, Rod Stewart, Seal, Simple Minds, t.A.T.u., Thomas Dolby, Tori Amos, Tina Turner, and Tom Jones. Phew.

But there’s more, because, ultimately, the man who sang Video Killed The Radio Star is best known for his groundbreaking production work in the 1980s for an entirely different set of artists, cultivating a repertoire of strange arrangements as varied as the decade itself. He saw songs like mini movies where every frame needed to do something. Indeed, in many ways his bombastic but meticulous everything-including-the-kitchen-sink epics defined the entire era. So sit back, as we focus on a Perfect 10 of classic cuts produced by Trevor Horn in the eighties.

Dollar — Mirror Mirror (Mon Amour) (1981) 

After trying out his nascent production skills on the likes of Amanda Lear and Imagination frontman Leee John (all so far unreleased), Trevor Horn reconvened Buggles, his “fantasy band” with Geoff Downes and Bruce Woolley, for a second project to build on the success of Video Killed The Radio Star (1979) and its attendant album The Age Of Plastic (1980).

During the recording of that sophomore and ultimately final set, Horn also agreed to produce a third of the third LP for variety show favourites Dollar, a kind of half-measure sparkly sweet Bucks Fizz with less champagne and more orange juice.

Imaginatively titled The Dollar Album, all four of its Horn-co-written and produced tracks were released as singles. The quartet represented the high point in the vocal duo’s career, giving them their only Top 5 45s in the shape of Mirror Mirror (Mon Amour) and Give Me Back My Heart.

With sessioneers including guitarist Danny McIntosh (future Mr. Kate Bush) and Richard Cottle (David Bowle’s Glass Spider Tour), Horn envisioned the group as “Vince Hill does Kraftwerk”, and a “techno pop orchestra” playing at the Vermillion Sands hotel (the subject of one of the album’s deep cuts).

The LP also spawned the Top 20 hits Hand Held In Black And White and Videotheque, and though Hand Held is a particular favourite of Neil Tennant, the production isn’t quite there yet. It’s tempting to go with the more widescreen Videotheque, particularly as the Buggles’ demo isn’t drastically different, though I’m plumping for the shiny pop brilliance of Mirror Mirror, for sentimental reasons.

Sometimes subtitled Mon Amour (“my love” en français), Mirror Mirror was the duo’s biggest hit and the first Horn-related record that infiltrated its way into our house – though not via Buggles and Dollar’s French label Carrere but kind of by proxy, when the song was included on a K-Tel compilation called Action Trax 1 & 2 (an early example of BOGOF in more ways than one). Placed on the second volume along with ABBA and the Pretenders, the 45 was instrumental in helping Horn form the idea of songwriting and production concepts for so many acts to come.

ABC – The Look Of Love (1982) 

This is when it really gets going. ABC’s first single Tears Are Not Enough produced by Steve Brown was dense, scratchy funk that fitted in with the times. When Wham! nabbed Brown, the Sheffield combo approached Horn to hone their sound.

There is a pervasive argument for the “mini opera” of Poison Arrow being the better song (and end-of-the-night-smoocher All Of My Heart certainly being the most beautiful), but everything that’s good about a classy trademark Trevor Horn production is contained in the three minutes and 26 seconds that is ABC’s The Look Of Love. 

The rich Anne Dudley orchestrations, the xylophone and the occasional harp plucks, and Martyn Fry’s talkie bit in the middle – it’s a cinemascope of romance spun out into perfectly immaculate pop. “Sisters and and bro-THERS! … should help each other” declared Fry, who for several years had been my NW2 neighbour where Kilburn meets Cricklewood. 

The chemistry of all involved led to a musical masterpiece of the era, The Lexicon Of Love. Released as the third single from the epochal album, my own sister claims the 7” was the first record she bought. Alas, I have a distinct memory of her blue-tacking the poster sleeve that came with Bucks Fizz’s My Camera Never Lies above her bed, which was out for several weeks the ABC 45. Who’s telling porkies? If I knew I would tell you. 

Malcolm McLaren – Buffalo Gals (1982)

Writing warmly in his book, Trevor Horn had a remarkable amount of patience with Malcolm McLaren’s unconventional schemes and exploits. Indeed, the trials and tribulations of working with ex-Sex Pistols manager on what would turn out to be 1983’s Duck Rock album is as hilarious as it is eye-opening. Trev and Malc, in cahoots with engineer Gary Langan, followed their muse and their noses, and travelled the world (New York, South Africa, London) soaking up sounds, influences, and rhythms. 

Artful Dodger-ish to the end, McLaren certainly had a penchant for spending other people’s money. Charisma Records were on the hook for over 200k of expenses, which included the wandering Brits paying a group of Soweto musicians £1000 each for a couple of week’s work – “an absolute fortune” recalls Horn, for players who were “used to recording a whole album in an afternoon and getting £4.50 for it”. 

What’s remarkable is that despite McLaren having “no sense of pitch or rhythm” the crack producer, now on a roll, came up with a way to fashion two UK hits – the brilliant Buffalo Gals and Double Dutch – from the chaotic-sounding sessions, and the end result was an innovative hotchpotch and incredibly influential. As was this next oddity.

Yes – Owner Of A Lonely Heart (1983)

Though he’d started making a name for himself as go-to sonic synthesist, in 1981 Trevor Horn paused work on the second Buggles album to join Geoff Downes in prog-rock dinosaurs Yes, where the press dubbed the new line-up Yuggles (ho ho ho). Stepping in for founder member Jon Anderson did keep the lights on while the Buggles flopped out of existence, though the unholy liaison soon floundered.

With line-up changes even more frequent than Madonna’s plastic surgeries, the band reconvened in 1983 with Horn shifted to production duties and Anderson back as lead vocalist after a duophonic spell with Vangelis. 

The result of this intersection was an eye (and ear opener) for Yes heads. The melding of new guitarist Trevor Rabin’s songwriting and Horn’s desire to put his studio tech and Fairlight to ever greater use pushed the outfit towards a more new wavey AOR direction and created a tune that’s as quirky and mismatched as the patchwork of talent that put it together.

Preferring to immerse himself in contemporary constructions, Horn was unhappy with the input of keyboardist Tony Kaye, a veteran from David Bowie’s 1976 so-called Station To Station tour, and opted to focus on the more experimental possibilities offered by a new emerging team. 

With Gary Langan and JJ Jeczalik on programming, the pièce de résistance of the 90125 sessions was its first single Owner Of A Lonely Heart, which contained the first use of a sample as a breakbeat, on top of the stabbing “whizz, bangs and gags” effects that punctuate the soundscape and provide a distinctive counterpoint to the part Police-style finger-picking, part jazz orchestra and horn-fuelled power chord boogie.

With the addition of gossamer tight programmed drums, the track snaps, crackles and pops through its movements, throwing out ear-candy artillery wherever there’s a gap in the vocal. 

While it’s acclaimed as a groundbreaking, unorthodox creation, and, according to Horn, “technically the best record” he’s been involved with, Owner Of A Lonely Heart was also written into history as Yes’s only American Billboard number one. Though it’s worth noting that despite considerable airplay on TV and radio, the single only reached 28 on home turf, the same week where Calling Your Name by Marilyn was sitting “pretty” at No. 4. As his gender-bending mate Boy George said, people are stupid. 

The 45 at No. 55 that November week? Ladies and gentlemen, let me present Frankie Goes To Hollywood.

Frankie Goes To Hollywood – Relax (1983) 

There have been many controversial smash hits over the years, but none courted chaos and attention quite like Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s. Their initial singles were the ideal combination of Horn’s Fantasia production world, clever pop formatting (how many mixes?) and exploratory digital technology. Each of them were months in the making, released to huge fanfare with landmark promotional videos and carefully crafted press campaigns by the media savvy ZTT.

Released in the autumn of 1983 to a muted response, it would take until the New Year for Relax, the debut release from the Liverpool lads, and its lyrical references to “suck” and “cum”, to start rising, helped in no small part by sexually suggestive newspaper adverts and the record’s own sleeve image. 

With not only its flagrant innuendo, but its wide-open synths, and pulsating, psychedelic disco structure, Relax was a complete wildcard in every way – and the band performing it even more so. At a pivotal, deeply conservative time during the midpoint of Thatcher’s Britain, FGTH’s crowning glory was what they brought out of the shadows and thrust into the light.

The BBC would famously go on to ban the track from being played on the radio – but that didn’t stop the juggernaut 45 finally reaching the summit in January 1984, by which point the 14 year-old me hid my 12” under my bed to prevent it being confiscated by my parents. Alas, they found it, and, after a brief debate, let me keep it, amazingly. 

Proof that, besides tragedy, nothing brings the UK together quite like a bit of end-of-the-pier pants scandal. Oh, aye yeah, well hard.

Art Of Noise – Moments In Love (1983) 

During the Yes sessions, the first fruits of an experimental side project were emerging when the Horn team took unused riffs from the band’s drummer Andy White’s and, using the device’s state-of-the-art sequencer, fed them into a fascinating new piece of tech Horn had become obsessed with, named after a harbourside suburb of Sydney. This was the first time entire drum patterns had been sampled into such a machine, as Anne Dudley recalls:

“We started playing together in our own time. Trevor had got a new synthesizer from Australia, a Fairlight, which fascinated us. It made it relatively easy to put in a sample of, say, a dog barking, and then play it in different pitches.” 

Showcasing the new prototype sound, Into Battle with the Art Of Noise was an EP of firsts. This was the debut record by the Art Of Noise, the name given to the beatbox collagists collective featuring Horn, Dudley, Jeczalik, and Langan, plus the added conceptual ‘talents’ of Mr Media – motormouth NME journalist Paul Morley. Plus, it was also the very first release by ZTT, a fledgling indie founded by Morley, Horn and his wife Jill Sinclair and distributed by Chris Blackwell’s Island Records.

Running to nine musique concrète constructed tracks, the 12” and cassette mini-album was also where the original 10-minute version of Moments In Love first appeared. Featuring ethereal vocals by Camilla Pilkington, the track wasn’t released globally as a single in its own right until 1985, when it was somewhat incongruously featured on the soundtrack to the less than powerhouse movie Pumping Iron II: The Women. 

A certain Smash Hits journalist and fledgling songwriter was furiously taking notes.

Propaganda – The Nine Lives of Dr. Mabuse (1984) 

Formed in Düsseldorf in 1982 by Die Krupps’ Ralf Dörper, Propaganda were, in a way, Germany’s Teutonic answer to ABBA, an English-singing male/female outfit that favoured the melancholic darker edges of pop over the industrial noise of Dörper’s previous incarnation. 

A key element in the quintet’s sonic tapestry was the sonorous and distinctive voices of Claudia Brücken and Susanne Freytag, while, like the Swedes, the fellas – Dörper, Mertens and Thein – generally took care of the music. 

Relocated to the UK, the band made great waves with their debut 45, and duly became part of the ZTT roster only to be sidelined when the label’s attention (and cash) primed the pump for Frankie’s rapid rise.

Happily, the Horn-helmed Dr. Mabuse was nothing short of a revelation, and as far as debut releases go it’s up there with Roxy Music, Kate Bush, and the Human League as a startlingly audacious way to kick off a career.  

Mabuse’s dystopian lyric sears its way through a slanted slice of synth-rock, while the powerful mechanical grooves are tight enough to keep it flowing. An astounding, austere psychodrama, this pinnacle of darkwave still sounds contemporary yet completely futuristic today as it ever was.

Incidentally, towards the end of the song, just before the explosive climax, some Faustian gibberish appears. It’s actually a question auf Deutsch “Warum schmerzt es, wenn mein Herz den Schlag verpasst?” played backwards. The English translation is pertinent: “Why does it hurt when my heart misses the beat?” is also the opening line of the song. 

Though work on the rest of the album was delegated – it’s produced by Stephen Lipton “under the supervision” of Trevor Horn, when A Secret Wish finally appeared in 1985 it was worth the wait. It’s wonderfully Wagnerian, with an eye toward baroque orchestrated pop as well as a smidgeon of sampler experimentation in the grand ZTT tradition.

Godley & Creme — Cry (1985)

Now if ever there was a match waiting to happen. The synthesised distorted textures of 10cc’s I’m Not In Love clearly had an influence on the nascent Horn. And after two of its members quit the band, Kevin Godley and Lol Creme’s art-rocking appetite for studio wizardry with tracks like 1981’s Babies (flip side to the more conventional Wedding Bells, found on the aforementioned Action Trax comp) led them to be dubbed “the older generation’s Depeche Mode” by none other than Smash Hits magazine. 

The duo were masters at pushing boundaries in video too, directing a host of pioneering promos for everyone from Duran Duran‘s semi-pornographic Girls On Film to The Police’s moody Every Breath You Take and Herbie Hancock’s still dazzling Rockit. It was while helming the much talked about films for Frankie’s Two Tribes and The Power Of Love that they ended up working with Trevor Horn. 

The 1985 single Cry is the best example of both those worlds dovetailing in curious harmony. Its similarly impressive visual counterpart anticipated the digital effect of morphing by consisting of a succession of lip-synching cross-faded faces blending into one other, the final framed visage being Trevor’s.

Almost sparse by Horn’s standards with a metronomic tension alongside minimal guitar, Cry was a bold and memorable pop statement. As such, the idea of hearing the audio without seeing the video is vaguely unconscionable, even though an entire generation of gamers found the song via the Grand Theft Auto IV soundtrack. 

Perhaps it needs a visual medium in which to flourish. It wasn’t Godley & Creme’s most outlandish idea but its vaguely operatic leanings and strange, pitch-shifted vocals make it an eighties hit like no other. 

Grace Jones — Slave To The Rhythm (1985) 

And now ladies and gentlemen… one classic track, done in eight extremely different ways (thanks, Basil). 

Grace Jones’s seventh studio set wasn’t really an album at all, but merely the brilliant title track stretched in various directions and wildly varying treatments interspersed with the odd bit of dialogue (culled from interviews with Paul Morley) in what seemed like a slightly cynical attempt to fulfil label obligations. 

Befitting Grace’s grand stature, it was an elaborate, over-the-top concept album that mined her charisma for all it was worth, not to mention a showcase for Horn’s skill as a producer; his high end symphonic production work was lush and lurid, ornate and opulent. And the spell cast by this bolder than bold black woman with that bulletproof veneer singing about slavery was profound; the lyrics coaxed infinite interpretations.

Ironically, they gave Grace her most successful single and album in the UK when both reached number 12 in autumn 1985. Of course, by this time she was a visually arresting actress in films such as Conan The Barbarian, and one of the most terrifying ‘Bond Girls’ as Mayday in A View To A Kill, and this newfound status helped her timely released retrospective of her years at Island/ZTT.

Rushed out to capitalise on her newfound bankability, the compilation LP, Island Life, also included the Slave single and gave Grace a UK #4 in early ’86, and topped the charts in New Zealand, where the striking star has always had a formidable fanbase. 

Pull Up To The Bumper aside, it’s arguably Grace’s signature song, which is all the more disconcerting when you realise Horn had intended it for his pop protégées Frankie Goes To Hollywood. No matter, because The Face — Britain’s authority on all things hip — declared it the single of ’85, because Slave To The Rhythm is the eighties.

Pet Shop Boys – Left To My Own Devices (1988) 

Nothing illustrates the literacy and poignancy of Pet Shop Boys better than the seminal Left To My Own Devices. Its epic, glorious swirl of strings strikes up an immaculate contrast between Neil Tennant’s typically underplayed vocal — here largely confined to a spoken near-monotone — and Richard Niles’ surging, romantic orchestral arrangement, packing a formidable sensory and emotional wallop.

It’s a stormer by anyone’s standards, and a brilliantly batty anthem Marc Almond would have hocked his last bottle of man milk to have recorded. Admit it, you can hear him breathe that immortal line now, “Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat”, can’t you? 

Pointing the way to a project for a later decade, that infamous lyric was a concept coined by Horn while he was working in the studio with Tennant and Chris Lowe, as the frontman recalls: 

“What normally happens is we start off with a pretentious idea that we try to then wring all the pretension out of. The middle of Left To My Own Devices — “Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat” — was gratuitously pretentious. In fact, it was Trevor Horn who originally said that when were were working with him. He said, “Ooh, I’ve always wanted to put Debussy to a disco beat.”’

“Trevor had this idea that we‘d programme the machines, get the orchestral score in get everyone together and record the track all in one day… and six months later it was all finished. Then I saw an interview Trevor gave and he said it took a month; well, he‘s wrong. We started it early in the year, like February, and it wasn‘t finished til July. Trevor was also making albums with Paul McCartney and Simple Minds, so he couldn‘t devote all the time to us.“

One of the most dramatic Pet Shop Boys recordings, that took in the then ubiquitous form of acid house augmented by the opera stylings of soprano Sally Bradshaw, the phrase tour de force could have been invented for it. Or for Trevor Horn, who would go on to title the final Art Of Noise album The Seduction of Claude Debussy in 1999.

The nineties? Yeah, we’ll get there.

Steve Pafford

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