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The Buggles
Adventures In Modern Recording Joseph Stannard , April 6th, 2010 11:51

Never mind the rouged fops of 80s British pop, flouncing about like epileptic candyfloss stuffed into grotesque couture – let's talk about the innovators, the auteurs, the dreamweavers. I'm referring of course to the producers. Mike Hedges, Martin Hannett, Hugh Padgham, Steve Lillywhite and Martin Rushent can all claim to have played a part in shaping the sonic landscape of the 80s. But it was Durham-born hitmaker Trevor Horn who bestrode the decade like a myopic colossus, crafting pocket symphonies for Marc Almond, Grace Jones, Dollar, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Propaganda, Pet Shop Boys and anyone else who fancied a bit of the old epic. All the more curious when one considers the twisted route he took to popworld domination. Following a brief dalliance with Disco, Horn made his mark as one half of oddball duo The Buggles, whose proto-Daft Punk 45 'Video Killed The Radio Star' bubbled to the top of the UK singles chart in 1979, then as a member of Yes, when he and fellow Buggle Geoff Downes were drafted in to replace vocalist Jon Anderson and keyboard player Rick Wakeman. It was a frankly bizarre development, destined to alienate Yes diehards, although it resulted in the Prog institution's sporadically brilliant tenth album, Drama.

Downes and Horn left after a few months, the latter to concentrate on production. Horn's early work with Kraftwerk-meets-Vince Hill (the producer's own description) pop duo Dollar established his trademark style; all pristine synthetic-orchestral textures, stacked vocals and cinematic melodrama. Horn erected the pop equivalent of Oz's Emerald City and cast himself in the role of the Wizard, a bespectacled tech-geek dwarfed by the extravagantly wrought facades of tunes such as 'Hand Held In Black And White' 'Mirror Mirror' and 'Give Me Back My Heart'. In 1982, Horn produced the Sgt Pepper of New Pop, ABC's The Lexicon Of Love, whose Roxy-esque themes of artifice and ennui (the album knocked Avalon from the UK No.1 spot) found a perfect analogue in Horn's ostentatious production. Along the way, the producer came into contact with arranger Anne Dudley, engineer Gary Langan and Fairlight programmer JJ Jeczalik, with whom he would form influential sampleadelic outfit Art Of Noise. He also co-founded visionary record label ZTT and assisted the Pet Shop Boys in recording the finest single of their career, 'Left To My Own Devices'. Not bad going, really.

Somewhere amid all this furious activity – 1981, to be precise – Horn revived the Buggles name for a follow-up to 1980's The Age Of Plastic. A whimsical move, perhaps, given that the debut had disappointed everyone involved with its lack of chart action. Yet listening to Plastic today, the album sounds like unfinished business, a series of good ideas in need of elaboration, and this is precisely what Adventures In Modern Recording delivers. In terms of both sound and songwriting, it's vastly more sophisticated and satisfying than its predecessor. The Ballard-for-beginners chatter of 'Video Killed The Radio Star' has been toned down in favour of the wistful melancholy hinted at in the masterful dreamscape of 'Elstree' and Horn's abilities as a producer had taken a bold leap into the future. The opening title song, for example, loads synthetic and acoustic instrumentation upon a skullcracking rhythm, creating a mood which is simultaneously dreamlike and hyper-alert. The song's all-too-brief reprise at the end of the original album is still more impressive, a vast, crashing wave of melodic noise crying out for a Lindstrom-style expansion. Make no mistake, absolutely nothing about this album is lo-fi. Between his membership of Yes and his association with Dollar, Horn developed a taste for sonic extravagance to equal his pop sensibility and Adventures benefits greatly from an expanded palette, not to mention the introduction of that mythic 80s artefact, the Fairlight CMI, whose sampling capabilities enabled, among other conceits, the sinister faux jazz interlude of 'Vermillion Sands'.

It must have been tempting for Horn to simply write off his time as a Prog voyager, especially in the austere critical climate of the early 80s. Rather more perspicaciously, he opted to salvage what he could from the experience. 'I Am A Camera' is a streamlined revamp of Drama track 'Into The Lens' while the glorious 'We Can Fly From Here' (an outtake included here as a bonus) was originally written for Yes but never recorded by the group. Bassist Chris Squire even makes an appearance, adding 'sound effects' to the title track. The Yes connection was firmly re-established in 1983, when Horn lent his skills to the reformed outfit's astonishingly successful career reboot 90125. In a further narrative twist, one of the singles from that album ('Leave It') would be sampled for Art Of Noise's 'Close (To The Edit)'. Yet the sonic aesthetic explored by Art Of Noise originated roughly three years earlier on Adventures – both the brutalist technopop of 'On TV' and the proto-R&B of 'Inner City' are based upon rigid, gridlike beats which would have slotted neatly into place on 1983's Into Battle With EP. Similarly forward-looking, the machine percussion and treated vocal of outtake 'Blue Nylon' anticipate the electronic grandeur of Horn's later work and the vein of macabre synthpop currently garnering huge acclaim for Swedish duo The Knife. It's also noteworthy that this incarnation of Buggles witnessed the first in a series of imaginary bands masterminded by Horn; promotional photos featured the frontman backed by white-suited showroom dummies in a nod to his Teutonic idols, Kraftwerk.

We've established that Adventures is ahead of its time. All fine and dandy, but what allows it to be more than a producer's indulgence – not that such a thing would necessarily be objectionable – is that Horn is as accomplished a songwriter as he is a technician. The tunes here are smart and memorable enough to kindle the desire for a third Buggles effort, along with the fact that, as the group's videos and TV appearances indicate, Horn was a damn fine pop star. Those specs! That bolshy demeanour! Swoon. Nevertheless, the sonic enterprise of the album cannot be denied, nor its faithfulness to the mission statement outlined in its title. The terms 'trickery' and 'wizardry' are frequently used in reference to studio contrivance, and with good reason. For Horn, the recording studio was – perhaps still is – a portal to another dimension into which the listener could escape for a few minutes before emerging bathed in the golden glow of endless possibilities.