Record Review: The Buggles – The Age Of Plastic [part 2]

The promo shot that launches a number one single in over a dozen countries

The promo shot that launches a number one single in over a dozen countries… but little more

[…continued from past post]

“Kid Dynamo” was a more straightforward number with synths used for embellishment over a foundation of your basic guitars, bass, and drums. At the time this seemed like wholly synthetic music, but we were young and innocent then. This was down to pre-MIDI analog era technology, where, as typical of the time, synths were just another flavor in the mix. This track proffered an upbeat, insistent energy, that was typical of the album as a whole, but not all of its songs. The following “I Love You [Miss Robot]” was the subdued chillout track [way before we had a term for it] to close out side one of the original album. Horn’s bass was right up front and in your face to counterpoint the vocoded backing vocals and the phased Fender Rhodes electric piano. The drum track here sounded like a Roland Compurhythm reduced to a click track with a smattering of keyboard percussion added for emphasis here and there. The vocoded vocals act like a mantra here and the straight female vocals keep it all light and airy.

buggles - cleancleanUK7AThe third single, “Clean Clean” was one of the two songs on the album that had been co-written with Bruce Woolley, who recorded his versions of this track and “Video” on his own “English Garden” album. Which, if one can believe it, I’ve never heard. The single was released at a time when the followup single to their #1 smash peaked only in the UK top 20. “Clean Clean” did worse, not even going top 30. It’s an insistent, fast paced number with an equally fast paced, double time marching band middle eight done entirely on synths.

Maybe it was the strange lyrics laying forth a [possibly atomic] war scenario, but I’ll wager it might have come down to the single sleeve art. For the record it looked like the illustration of Ian Gibson or possibly another of those 2000 A.D. cartoonists to my eyes. It depicted Horn and Downes as rotating shooting gallery targets with the upper half of their bodies depicted as males clothed in military garb, with their hips and legs being those of lingerie wearing females! Can anyone out there explain this conceit to me? Was this some British cultural thing that didn’t translate to my American brain?

bugglrds - elstreeUK7AIsland pulled a fourth single off of the album, but the dignified and melodic slice of cinematic references didn’t trouble the charts. The track here began with a piano led intro before the synths came home to roost. This was the one track here with almost no guitar among the piano, trilling synths, string patches, and methodical drumming that suggest a machine but probably wasn’t. It represented a much more sophisticated point of  point of view with music to match than did the similarly nostalgic “Video Killed The Radio Star,” but I imagine it’s easier to really sell what amounted to a [however clever] singsong nursery rhyme than music that did reflect a more orchestral bent. It was a finely etched number, complete with foley effects on horseback at the end for the full cinematic effect.

“Astroboy [And The Proles On Parade]” began with a Roland Comuprhythm with deep bass line, not unlike that on “I Love You [Miss Robot].” but once the intro was passed the song took a left turn with its dreamlike melodies and flowing sci-fi lyrical images. It came omplete with airbrushed backing vocals right out of 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love” signifying that this was the most beautiful track on the album. That Horn eventually linked up and produced Godley And Creme in the 80s was no accident. That was a meeting of like minds that was inevitable. That Horn and Creme ended up in The Trevor Horn Band [née The Producers] in the new millennium is manifest destiny writ large. All of these musicians share a penchant for tight, intelligent arrangements and a resistance to pandering.

The closing “Johnny On The Monorail” returned to a motorik pulse driven piece of glittering technopop to close out the album on a suitably cinematic scale. Everything but the kitchen sink showed up here among the layers and layers of keyboards: acoustic guitars, doo-wop inflected backing vocals, and dogs barking. There was a palpable sense of desperation and urgency on this number that probably mirrored the drive that Horn and Downes had to write and complete this album after the first single had proven to be an unstoppable hit. They were signed to Island on the strength of their three song demo, and they had five more songs to go before that could have an album’s worth of material. The push was for the album to make the lucrative Christmas sale market.

Finally, this CD came complete with three bonus tracks. Three of the B-sides that accompanied singles two through four. “Island” was a throwaway cod-techno-reggae instrumental probably built to serve as a jingle for their home label. The only lyrical content is the name of Chris Blackwell’s company. This was on the flip side of “Living In The Plastic Age.”

I cannot believe that it took me until 2015 before I heard a Buggles track called “Technopop!” Could there ever be a more perfect synthesis of form and content as this? The synths and plucked nylon guitar strings in the intro to this number soon gave away to a retro organ riff right out of Joe Meek’s “Telstar;” letting you know exactly where they were coming from on this lost treasure of a Buggles track. The chorus consisted solely of the title, repeated with a slight Japanese inflection that was perhaps a nod to YMO. The phased drums and synth breakdown of the first half of the middle eight scream “high tech” but the mood was slightly undercut by the very 80s honking sax solo that competed with the synths for the rest of the middle eight. The organ flourish at the end was delightfully cartoony.

Finally, the B-side to “Elstree” was the appropriately named “Johnny On The Monorail [A Very Different Version]” and the foreboding synths in the intro as gated white noise ala “Stationtostation” doppler shifted from the left to right channels set me up for exactly what was not delivered. Once Horn opened his mouth, the synths were almost entirely banished for a guitar, piano, drums and bass-centric version of the familiar tune.

The best way to describe what it’s like is to invoke the alternate version of Thomas Dolby’s “Radio Silence.” You know, the one on the American copy of “The Golden Age Of Wireless” album without a million synths. Both versions came from the same place of performing a song with perhaps the intent of aiming for the synth-wary US audience. Or maybe it’s the demo version, but this would be a very elaborate demo. For the record, I think it succeeds far better than Dolby’s attempt at synth-free synthpop. It’s still a cracking number, with more energy than the LP version and highly indicative of the golden ear for arrangement that Horn brought to the table.

Finally, the accuracy of this particular pressing must be lauded with the highest praise. The Japanese labels make their reputation with  Monk-like reputation for accuracy and attention to detail. The British 1st pressing LP was the target that they admirably hit. That means that a fully reproduced inner lyric sleeve in the kami sleeve holds the CD. Since this is a Japanese product, there is a secondary anti-static semicircular sleeve as if this were a 12” LP inside of the paper inner sleeve to gently contain the disc. The disc is printed to replicate the LP label as closely as possible, and there is a further foldout liner note/lyric sheet with more legibly large lyrics printed in addition to a Japanese language essay beyond my ken. But those are just the visual accuracies.

The actual mastering of the music is beyond superb! Enormous amounts of detail were present in the sound with many subtle effects [particularly in the intro the the first track] being discernible for the first time ever to my ears. I was literally hearing things that I had never caught on this pressing. The detail was enormous, and yet there was still a bit of residual tape hiss I could catch on headphones. The heavy hand of Jon Astley, who thinks that noise is to be eradicated at even the expense of the music, would have no patronage in the East where mastering values are closer to the ideals that I espouse in the rare times that I actually master from vinyl. Mastering is like camping; strive to leave no evidence of your presence. It goes without saying that this 2011 mastering is the furthest thing from brickwalled!

Revisiting this long-familiar album has been most rewarding and it helped me to reflect on the time in the recording arts when the stars were in alignment for my ears. Horn is on the record about the influence of Kraftwerk being paramount in the creation of this music, and its vibe certainly in the rhythm section holds sway here. It’s not for nothing that “Living In The Plastic Age” opens with a quote from the intro to “Radioactivity” with its methodical pulsing synths laying down an austere rhythm before the track began to build in complexity in the Horn fashion.

The drummer on that track was famed producer Richard James Burgess, and Horn has recounted Burgess looking pale and weak after laying down the drum track to the title track. The band were adamant that the drumming be as precise and methodical as possible for the “techno” feel that Horn and Downes were aspiring to here. There were very little actual drum machines used here; primarily canned rhythms from the Roland CR-78 that figured on two numbers. That’s about all that existed in the day! Warren Cann was reduced to having his units modded for more but that was the bleeding edge of rhythm synthesis in ’78-’79.

What I especially love here was the sense that it was reflecting the high end of analog synth and production development before the world turned digital. The music here represented a peak experience of craftsmanship that would be abandoned in a few years, as the notion of sweating over un-synchable sound sources and devising [brilliant] workarounds with spit and bailing wire had little appeal to the instant gratification generation. This music slotted effortlessly next to that of similar minds such as Tony Mansfield of New Musik, who was working in much the same idiom and at the same time, no less! It was pop made by musicians who were at home wearing the white coats of engineers who brought both hemispheres of their brains to the end product.

It was The Golden Age of Technopop, as opposed to synthpop, which was another beast entirely to my ears. Those plowing this field at this time were there for reasons of passion, and it’s felt in the inventive, engaging music. Hornes and Downe created during this fertile period. The Horn densepack sonic philosophy of filling the tunes with inventive treatments every four bars certainly manifests here in spades, except for the instro “Island.” The cashing in on this groundbreaking work was to come later in the synthpop explosion of ’81 to ’85 with a sad parade of diminishing returns as synthesizers and high technology became commonplace. Even banal. But that’s a whole different posting [or thread].

– 30 –

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13 Responses to Record Review: The Buggles – The Age Of Plastic [part 2]

  1. Echorich says:

    Clean Clean is my favorite Buggles and Camera Club track. I think it’s the songs pure New Wave DNA that always attracts me to it. It is completely over the top and VERY BRITISH!
    TAOP is a very successful album that still sounds very contemporary in many ways. The precise and well placed orchestrations are something so many artists and producers strive for today and The Buggles made it sound effortless. Horn and Downes did surround themselves with some amazing collaborators in Bruce Woolley, Richard James Burgess and the like. Woolley remained a sort of secret weapon for Horne for years, contributing to work for Frankie Goes To Hollywood and Grace Jones especially. His song for Jones – Storm, from The Avengers Soundtrack back in the late 90’s was a missed opportunity for a Bond Theme IMHO.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Echorich – Hmm, a loose Grace Jones track on some loser OST? Whenever I see used CDs I always think that I should look at OSTs full of largely awful pop music for the loose rarities by artists that I may like, but it always seems like too much work. My friend [and commenter] JT once compiled a fantastic DEVO comp called “DEVO Goes To The Movies” compiled exclusively from mostly 90s soundtracks. Their version of “Head Like A Hole” from the “Supercop” soundtrack was a revelation!

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  2. It did my heart good to see Woolley on stage with Horn and Downes for that Buggles lost gig (or perhaps the Prince’s Trust event — that was a stunner as well, that saw Woolley working it for Jones and Dollar as well (sheer heaven to these ears!).

    “Kid Dynamo” was the opening theme tune to a Japanese superhero show that never existed, while “Elstree” really did manage to recapture the feel of those gauzy 70s UK movies that somehow (despite mostly being crap) always managed to pull me in. I never try to pick a “favourite” version of VKtRS or Clean Clean between Woolley and Horn, they are both fabulous.

    And speaking of which, you really must rectify the omission of English Garden in your Cell, oh Monk! That record, while quite different to the Buggles’ product, is wholly wonderful with loads more pop gems, the debut of Thomas Dolby, and more than a touch of Bowie/glam influence. “Baby Blue (Victoria),” from the extended remaster, is a particular favourite (and not because I live in Victoria!).

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    • Echorich says:

      Chas you beat me to the Thomas Dolby connection for Woolley. One thing I wasn’t aware of for a long time was that Woolley with Horn and Downes was responsible for the first comeback/resurgence of Dusty Springfield some 8 yrs before the Pet Shop Boys put her back on the pedestal she rightly belongs on. Baby Blue is a track that seems to have given her a contemporary affinity at the end of the 70’s and still resonates with fans.

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  3. Simon H says:

    Sad to think this great album’s reputation has probably suffered because some presume it’s one massive hit plus filler…
    Monk have you any idea if the mastering on the Japanese CD is different to the standard Island remaster (which has the same bonus tracks)? It sounds pretty great as well.
    Re Bruce Woolley, I’m ashamed to say I have the album but haven’t played it….! Will put that right this weekend.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Simon H – I will check the JPN CD credits when I get home from work. Yes, I am aware it’s Saturday! Speaking of Woolley, I arrived home from work yesterday to find a parcel on my deck by the door. Chasinvictoria had sent me [apparently with overnight delivery!] a copy of the Cherry Red CD from 2009! I’m listening to it as I type these words. Will report back with my findings soon… But who does Woolley remind me of vocally? Yes, there’s a lot of Russell Mael there, but specifically another voice comes to mind in his phrasing… but who?!

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  4. Simon H says:

    Thanks! Have been indulgent and has ordered a Japanese SHM mini lip version via CD Japan (had some loyalty points to spend…that’s my excuse). Couldn’t resist, price was reasonable.
    On the subject of Sparks – have to share my story from last week…was staying overnight in Glasgow. Went down to breakfast to find Ron and Russell (then later Alex Kapranos) at the next table, happy to report they dealt with my fan boy conversation like total gentlemen! FFS had been playing in Glasgow a few nights before. Their album sounds great by the way.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Simon H – Did you order the priced down SHM +9 edition? It’s complete Monastic Canonical Perfection for $13.50?!! I need to order one of these bad boys as it has the 12″ mix of “Clean Clean” and the 7″ version of “Kid Dynamo” in addition to the many 7″ edits! I was not aware of CDJapan.com but I am now! Thanks!

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Simon H – The laundry is now hung, so I can get to the meat of your comment. A Sparks encounter! How delightful for you to be at the right place at the right time! And of course they were polite and civilized about a fan in their presence at the breakfast table. They are the Mael brothers! They are not garden variety, crass, vulgar, sub-Neanderthal “rock stars.” I have a fantasy about meeting them at an art museum or fine dining establishment, because that’s where it would most likely happen! And it would be fine. We sampled the FFS album with my wife and she put it succinctly, “it just sounds like Sparks!” And there’s not at thing in the world wrong with that. I’m still glowing over finally seeing them in late ’13 in Atlanta. Such a wonderful evening. Even the fans we met there and had conversations with were several cuts above. It’s a Sparks Thing.

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      • Simon H says:

        Ron in particular came across like your favourite uncle who just happens to be in the band who made the first single you ever wanted to buy! At the time on the grounds of it being better value my dad instead bought me one of those albums we had in the UK where studio hacks do quick and dirty covers of current hits…they were called ‘Top of the Pops’ and bizarrely featured scantily clad models on the cover..very 70s. Ron said he had a couple of the albums.
        My wife and I bumped into them again later in the day..and no we weren’t stalking them!
        A very surreal experience.
        And yes I did apologise for interrupting their breakfast…
        Agree the album is hugely Sparks like, which of course is fine.

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  5. Simon H says:

    They’re very efficient and the prices aren’t that bad.
    Must admit I didn’t notice that one! I really wanted a mini LP style version, can’t resist them so went for one that sounds like yours, shame would like the bonus tracks.

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