Superproducer Trevor Horn Recounts “Adventures In Modern Recording” In His Autobiography

trevor horn avd entures in modern recording
Nine Eight Books « UK « 2022 | 311 pp. | hardcover

I’m not sure that I ever mentioned this one here, but this might have been a case where my wife saw the book was out and ordered it for the library where she works. Due to a shipping snafu, she received two copies and the vendor told her to keep the second one so I now own a copy of this. We were always fans of Trevor Horn from the days of “Video Killed The Radio Star” through the shaky [but impressive] time that he and Geoff Downes joined Yes for their divisive 1980 album “Drama” and then came the production career that stunned the world. I can’t put it any other way. Trevor Horn was responsible for the hit records that descended from heaven on a stairway of otherworldly technology. And existed as harbingers of the future days to come in Pop music.

trevor horn boy
The three ages of Trevor Horn – young boy

Horn began his tale at the start, as a young boy besotted with music [weren’t we all?] making his first feeble musical attempts as a child whose father played in a band at nights as a balm for his day job, taught him about chords and triads. The chapters here were all based on pivotal pop songs either from his development, or by chapter five, those he helped to develop. It was a typical musical maturation in the 60s and 70s as young Trevor ended up playing double bass in his father’s band by his pre-teens while being enraptured by The Beatles like just about anyone else.

As most of us discovered him when The Buggles hit became a worldwide hit, it was most fascinating to read the several pre-fame chapters that recounted his days as the music director of the Tina Charles Band or playing in various hotel bands while he attempted to get his recording and production career off the ground. As he was a sight-reader, he could get paying gigs fairly easily, and it was in that “gigging musician” environment where he met so many of his long-term collaborators. Musicians like Anne Dudley, Geoff Downes, Bruce Woolley, and Louis Jardim. I really enjoyed reading about records on my want list like the Chromium “space disco” album he was making in 1978. Just prior to The Buggles getting off the ground, and an important first step in a budding production career. Not only was Horn meeting and forming strong bonds with musicians he’d work with for years, he also met his future wife, Jill Sinclair, since her father owned the SARM studios the project was being recorded in.

But the Chromium “Star Star” album is a footnote for Horn obsessives. The flashpoint for Trevor Horn was when The Buggles [originally Horn, Downes, and Woolley] began writing and got signed to Island Records and set about making their debut single “Video Killed The Radio Star.” It’s fun reading about the obsessive technique that Horn and the others applied to make an airbrushed production sound that was spotlessly futuristic in spite of the not quite there technology which was being pushed to its limits by plain and simple hard work. That was how you aspired to Kraftwerk-like machinemusik in the very analog 1979 timeline.

Once “Video Killed The Radio Star” hit and became number one in 16 different countries, Downes and Horn found themselves swept up into the publicity machine that saw them hopping around the world lip-synching on various TV shows. Bruce Woolley had opted out of the band after writing the hit with them for a solo career, so the two of them quickly realized that writing the rest of their album while working all of this promotion was going to be difficult. But they eventually did it and for readers of this blog, “The Age Of Plastic” remains a triumphant touchstone of the glory of pre-digital Technopop. None of the other singles managed to catch the public ear in the same way and Horn found himself being asked [via a common manager] to step into the vocalist role in his favorite band; Prog titans Yes, after their singer and keyboardist [Jon Anderson + Rick Wakeman] had bailed out following the wretched and underperforming “Tormato” album of 1978.

yes 1980

I can remember the shocking news that Horn and Downes would now be ensconced in one of Britain’s biggest Rock bands, but in all fairness, Yes had peaked in 1973. Their 1977 album, “Going For The One” had a few sparks but was woefully out of synch with the rapidly changing times. The next year their awful “Tormato” album saw the former titans hit the cutout bins in record time. If Horn was unmoved by flitting from studio to studio, lip-synching the Buggles hit in 1979, he was hardly prepared for the high anxiety of stepping out into 15-20,000 seat arenas in America and getting booed by Yes fans who would not accept anyone but Jon Anderson singing the hits they grew up with. While l enjoyed the “Drama” album [it’s the single Yes album I still own] that put me in the minority of even lapsed Yes fans. Following their one album and tour Horn was unceremoniously ghosted by the band who then broke up for good. [or at least one year…]

Ironically, after the dead end of Horn getting to front his favorite band ever under what were trying circumstances, his future manifested when Jill Sinclair told him that as an artist he’d always be second division, but if he focused on production, he could be the best in the world. As if to prove her point, she found the duo Dollar and dropped them in his lap to produce. Dollar were a blow dried couple act [literally an act as they had split up but kept the impression they were still an item for their career] who Horn memorably summed up in the following way.

dollar

“Lovely though they both were, there was no denying the aroma of cruise liner that hung around Dollar.”

Trevor Horn

I had the fortune to have heard the Horn-produced single “Mirror Mirror” from 1981 and it was a dazzling construction built on the foundation of the game-changing Fairlight CMI. It sounded like a Buggles record recorded in heaven. Where Horn could sample Therese Bazar’s vocals and craft a digital chiffon chorale of her multi-tracked voices in ways that were even harder with analog technology, yet still a far cry from even the capabilities which would later come to the Fairlight with its second generation Page R sequencer. To say nothing of Pro Tools. But in the 1981 period, it gave the band hits. Big hits. Big hits that even intellectual critics like Paul Morley had to become enraptured with.

trevor horn buggles 1982
Stage two – Portrait of Trevor Horn as a young man

Those Dollar singles led to ABC★★★…which led to “Duck Rock,” …which led back to Yes and platinum records, …to The Art Of Noise and the dawn of the ZTT empire. By which time Trevor Horn was the most famous record producer going for most of the 1980s. It’s a lot of fun hearing Horn’s thoughts on it all happening. He’s reasonably candid about the difficulties as he was negotiating his way through it all. Dealing with egos and recalcitrant musicians he had to literally beg in some instances to achieve his vision; which was unfailingly successful once capitulated to.

Still, it’s telling that the ZTT triumvirate of himself, his wife and Paul Morley, who he thought would make a good foil in his new label was a case of “one of these things was not like the other.” Both Jill and Trevor had their doubts about the brilliant [though prickly] Morley, whose every act was a provocative affront to the norms of commerciality. For a while, as with the brilliant Frankie Goes To Hollywood campaign, Morley re-wrote the rule books of Pop as these records, issued as from the Head of Zeus, dominated the pop landscape of 1984-1985. Before ultimately being ousted as the label lost its allure following Live Aid and the collapse of the high ZTT era.

Horn also is candid over the mistakes that he feels he made, even if it didn’t seem that way at the time. Mistakes like not letting the band he was ostensibly producing play [namely Frankie] on their own records. It was bad enough having a reputation for booting the original bass player for ABC after determining he was not up to snuff, and then getting keyboard player Tony Kaye banished from the Yes “90125” sessions for the same reasons. It’s almost diva behavior, and Horn takes the opportunity to regret it even though the success of those albums underlined his justification for such high-handed behavior. Not surprisingly, after making their marks on ZTT, bands like The Art of Noise, Propaganda, and Frankie Goes To Hollywood underwent protracted court battles to leave the label. But those ZTT acts were not the only ones with “issues.”

No pun intended, there was a lot of drama surrounding his work with Yes. Having off-handedly heard the demo of Trevor Rabin’s “Owner Of A Lonely Heart” [never intended as Yes material] and convinced that it was a number one record in the making, the tale of how he had to fight the entire band tooth and nail to record his vision of it was pretty astounding. To the point that Ahmet Ertegun, who had loved the work he was hearing from Horn’s studio on the single, later heard a Horn-free version the band cut on their own in an attempt to cut Horn out of the equation, and threw the cassette against the wall in disgust. And it was not an easy thing for Horn to have a face-to-face with Jon Anderson, the man he replaced [disastrously] in 1980 and ultimately convince him that he was the man to sing “Owner Of A Lonely Heart.”

grace jones slave to the rhythm

Occasionally, Horn also got to be on the receiving end of diva behavior from a world champ. Ladies + gentlemen, Miss Grace Jones. The song had begun life as a FGTH track that never happened, and when Horn found himself making a new single for Jones’ proposed “Island Life” compilation, the version he cut wasn’t doing it for him. That would be the version that was called “Jones The Rhythm” on the album but was not the hit single version of the song. Horn then became convinced that the cut needed to use Go-Go rhythms and re-thought the song to its successful conclusion.

Back when I reviewed “Slave To The Rhythm” I facetiously suggested that it was perhaps a ZTT accountant who suggested turning all of that music recorded for the single into an album, but the reality was even more fascinating. It turned out that Horn was working late night in the same studio as Jim Steinman, who sent over a courier with a note: would he like to pay Steinman [and Todd Rundgren] a visit at 4:00 a.m. and hear what he was doing? It was a Bonnie Tyler epic: Loving You’s A Dirty Job [But Somebody’s Gotta Do It].” Horn and his right hand man Stephen Lipson found the track to be an epic of many crescendos. Then they played him the work on the “Slave To The Rhythm” track and an enthusiastic Steinman suggested cutting all of the versions together to make an epic. With four discrete versions already on tape, it made sense to Horn, who convinced Jones and Chris Blackwell, who had already paid dearly for a single, also concurred.

The material that came after his Pet Shop Boys work was largely unknown to me. Let’s face it, 1979-1987 was why there’s a Cult of Horn. It’s disheartening enough to find that Horn ended up working on Boomer records by the likes of Rod “The Mod” Stewart and Paul “The Cute One” McCartney. But by the time he’s making records with Leann Rimes and faux-lesbian Russians, one can only breathe sighs of how the mighty had fallen. And learning how many times in the last 30 years that a piece of software saved his scalp lets us know that the Trevor Horn era of music was done and buried by 1990.

trevor horn 2022
Stage three – Trevor Horn as an old man 2022

It’s actually hurtful to hear him pontificate on how he refuses to hire backing vocalists he has to save in AutoTune® but otherwise he thinks nothing of using it on the ostensible star of his productions. That the seeds of the control that technology allowed Horn to wield as the God-Producer of his day have culminated in the repellent Cyberpop era we now live in is a depressing one. A world where every record represents a Horn-like control of its elements; never a picosecond out of time and processed more thoroughly than aerosol cheese represents a culture I have erected a solid firewall to keep out of my mind. In a world where every piece of music has the potential to sound like a Trevor Horn production, there’s paradoxically no value in such antics any more, but it was fascinating to read of the story what captured us for an entire decade in what was obviously Horn’s own hand.

-30-

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37 Responses to Superproducer Trevor Horn Recounts “Adventures In Modern Recording” In His Autobiography

  1. Michael Toland says:

    You’re not the only one who likes Drama (the Yes album, not the personal interaction with difficult humans) – I think that’s one of the most underrated items in Yes’s body of work (of which I own a considerable chunk). It’s a transitional record (which often prove to be some of the most interesting in an act’s catalog) – its roots are in the band’s 70s stuff, but you can hear hints of what was to come on 90125*.

    Horn was a genius producer in the 80s, grokking the potential of sampling technology way before anyone else. But yes, the argument could be made that he set up a lot of musical culture to become cold, lifeless and stale – so much of today’s pop music could be made out of polished aluminum, and you can lay part of the blame for that at Horn’s feet.

    As an addendum 0f sorts to his production methods, there’s a video floating around on YouTube of Horn performing “Close (To the Edit)” during a career retrospective with a band of actual musicians performing all those parts that were originally samples. It looks like everyone’s having a blast playing it and I return to it a lot.

    I think I own one album’s he’s produced since the eighties (Belle & Sebastian’s Dear Catastrophe Waitress, which is one of their better records, I think, and is very organic sounding, though for all I know it’s sampled within an inch of its life).

    *I read a Yes bio several years ago in which most of the band participated, and the sessions for 90125 sound like agony. The band would probably shun it if it wasn’t so phenomenally successful. For years Howe refused to play anything from it, though I believe he’s since softened that stance.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. *Mike B.* says:

    Mr T H. loved how he was tapping in to so many bands in I’ll say early 80s onward. The finished product from T H. work was outstanding. There is probably so much more on T H. to write about and more stories to tell (One will never know!).

    Like

    • postpunkmonk says:

      *Mike B.* Well, TCH made the decision to stop the book’s scope with the 2004 Prince’s trust “Produced By Trevor Horn” due to his late wife’s terrible accident and his desire not to revisit those wounds. So it’s not likely that a volume two would be in the works. At least it’s apparent that it was not ghost-written as almost every “autobio” is.

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  3. Like the Monk, I haven’t sampled too much of Trevor’s lesser works since his heyday, but I would like to second Mr. Toland’s comment about B&S’s “Dear Catastrophe Waitress.”

    It’s a fine album that throws off (or at least disguises) any hints of having been “built” and comes over as simple, cheerful-with-a-dark-edge pop of their usual variety that is very cleanly produced. Kind of the opposite of Yes’ “Owner” cut-up style.

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  4. RML says:

    Pereceptive review, and like others here, Drama is an outstanding Yes album. I avoid the Rabin era totally but admit Owner of… is an awesome single, though it’s hard to see it as a Yes song. I also have a soft spot for a couple of those Dollar singles and some Frankie Goes to Hollywood.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      RML – Welcome to the comments! I used to own the “Red + Blue” 12” of “Owner Of A Lonely Heart” and have come to regret getting rid of it in The Great Vinyl Purge. I wish there was a Dollar EP with only the TCH material I could buy. I never tire of “Mirror Mirror.”

      Like

      • rupertl says:

        hi, we have corresponded before… I used some quotes by you in an academic essay. i think my singles MP3 folder has Mirror Mirror and Give Me Back My Heart in. And I have a CDR with 11 different versions of Owner on… best wishes R

        >

        Like

        • postpunkmonk says:

          rupertl – Ah! The effect of “what name did I comment with last year?” syndrome! When on a desktop, I can look at the site dashboard and run a comment search to make sure it’s actually a new one if I get that Spidey-Sense telling me this might be from a former commenter. On my personal device, that’s not possible. Those are the two Dollar singles I have on UK Ronco type albums. I have needed to hear “Hand Held In Black + White” for 40 years now! That’s one of the most entrancing titles ever. I can’t imagine the song being in any way disappointing.

          Like

  5. Tim says:

    The Grace Jones paragraph is I think the best thing I have ever read in this blog

    Like

  6. SimonH says:

    Your comments on modern day recording sterility struck a chord with me! I think I’m allergic to it, it’s as if a quiet revolution has taken place and very few people seem bothered…

    Liked by 1 person

    • postpunkmonk says:

      SimonH – All I can say is that the thrills to be found in the unbridled chaos of a song like Associates “Kitchen Person” are impossible in a Digital Audio Workstation. And Trevor Horn, for all his talent, has always been incapable of making such a record. My favorite bands still going are OMD and Simple Minds. Any records they have made in the last 30 years no mater how well written, have been polite, sterile productions. For the record, OMD negotiate the pitfalls of a DAW better than Simple Minds. It makes me sad that they persist and yet let me down in the execution where the cake either rises or falls.

      Like

  7. Khayem says:

    I received a copy of the book via Santa Claus, but I’ve yet to read it. It’ll have to go some way to be as entertaining a read as your post. Thanks as always, PPM!

    I’ll echo Michael Toland’s comments about the Belle & Sebastian album, although I concur with both of your comments about the ‘organic’ sound. I can’t imagine TH would be able to help himself!

    Liked by 1 person

    • postpunkmonk says:

      Khayem – Well, as a writer, Trevor Horn is a fantastic Record Producer! That’s how I was confident that a ghostwriter was not employed here [for a change]. And as for B+S, it’s possible that TCH had a revelation and simply recorded the band well, and transparently. But really, how likely is that? Here’s a guy who practically invented triggered drums…and told ABC★★★ if they wanted to make the best record possible, they would have to re-record every note they had just played to his specifications [and add a lot more besides]…and oh yeah, Mark Lickley, your bass player, is sacked.

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  8. Steven says:

    Get over yourself. There are plenty plenty of Yes fans who loved Drama in 1980 and still do.

    Like

    • postpunkmonk says:

      Steven – Welcome to the comments! One of the nicer things about 40+ years later is that it’s easier to find Yes fans who appreciate “Drama” and are willing to speak out on the issue. The “lightweight” Buggles injection in the group nevertheless resulted in “Machine Messiah.” One of the heavier Yes tracks ever.

      Like

  9. Ian says:

    I loved and still love Street Fighting Years, was hoping it’d get a mention. Great blog, glad I’ve found it.

    Like

    • postpunkmonk says:

      Ian – Welcome to the comments! But if you even barely scratch the surface here [Simple Minds is one of my very favorite bands] you will probably find numerous references to “Street Fighting Years.” None of them complimentary. So I just wanted to get that out of the way up front! [gulp!]

      Like

      • Ian says:

        Thanks. I know you do, I remember you from the old forum days, had some really good, informing and interesting chats. My SM era began as a 14 year old in 1985 and worked first forwards, then backwards. SFY though was a constant companion for a long time.

        Like

        • postpunkmonk says:

          Ian – Ah, so you were from the SoSimpleMinded.com days? How I loved the discussion on that forum. I missed all of those people being dedicated SM fans weighing in with their opinions.

          Like

  10. Pingback: Against All Odds, The Buggles Will Tour America, Opening For Seal In 2023 Hits Tour | Post-Punk Monk

  11. Ian says:

    Yes indeed, and I miss it too. Wonder how Bruce is doing?

    Like

    • postpunkmonk says:

      Ian – Presumably Bruce was a mover and shaker for SoSimpleMinded? I didn’t really know any of the people there. I can’t remember when I first clapped eyes on the forum. Probably around 2008-10 [?] following links from the official site, who were liberal about linking to fan sites. Even those that hosted [amazing] bootleg recordings, like “Songs For the Tribes.” Hearing some of those live bootlegs actually made me a more committed fan nearly 20 years into the game!

      Like

  12. Ian says:

    Bruce set up and ran the site, really good guy. For me it would’ve been after the OS forum closed, what a strange affair that was incidentally. SM were/are cool like that and I agree it just helps revisit some cracking gigs.

    Like

  13. Kurt says:

    Mr. Monk,
    First time here and thank you for your insights. Always deeply into Plastic Age and parts of Adventures. After that, as a Yank, it was more difficult, and made worse by my eclectic (but never main stream) tastes. Often found something interesting or great, then discovered after the fact that TH produced it. Your words regarding how certain music matches our “ears at a specific time” is so profound – I have pondered and tried to express that phenomenon for most of my adult life as a music lover. Perhaps the true credit (for that magical timing) is due the artists. It’s taken me half of my six decades to figure out what attracts me to certain music (usually some form of fusion b/t genres, and complex production, I’ve concluded). Do you ever over think things that way? Not to worry, it doesn’t ruin my enjoyment. Thanks again.

    Like

    • postpunkmonk says:

      Kurt – Welcome to the comments! As for music matching our “ears at a specific time,” I don’t know which post you are referencing [there’s 2500+ here] so could you let me know where your compliment is coming from? I was curious at what I’d done right! I over think everything. It’s why I had to get those thoughts out of my skull to make room for more with this blog. And I’m a Yank as well. The blog is certainly Brit-centric, owing to the time period we are obsessed with, but I’ve been a lapsed Anglophile for over half my life by now.

      Like

      • Kurt says:

        Think it was in lengthy retro review of Plastic Age. Could be wrong to attribute the thought to you….Going to try to make the scene in May in Toronto or Philly. Woo woo.

        Like

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