My Life In Vinyl: Trevor Horn
By Classic Pop | October 2, 2019
Trevor Horn, the legendary producer and erstwhile Buggle, casts a chronological eye back over the albums that made an indelible mark on his glittering career…
If anyone could be said to define the sound of British pop in the 80s, it would be Trevor Horn. If the idea that someone who had previously earned a living playing in the band on Come Dancing would be the architect of the most forward-thinking pop of the decade seems unlikely, it’s nevertheless true. After hits with The Buggles, and an even more unlikely stint with prog-rockers Yes, he became a full-time producer, working with Dollar in 1982, which led to one of pop’s great imperial periods.
The Horn sound, where dazzling sonic modernity was lavished on great songwriting, became emblematic of one of pop’s golden eras, applied to old rockers reinventing themselves (Yes’s Owner Of A Lonely Heart), young guns in search of their first hit (ABC, Frankie Goes To Hollywood), sophisticated art-pop (Propaganda, Art Of Noise) and cross-cultural collisions (Malcolm McLaren’s Duck Rock). It’s one of British pop’s great CVs.
Sitting in the conservatory of his London home, looking in over his basement studio, Horn reflects on his life and career to select 10 albums that shaped his view of what music could be and how he put that view into practice.
The Beatles – With The Beatles (1963)
“This album made me want to be in a band more than anything. The early Beatles records were chock full of filler, but there was so much energy in With The Beatles. Most of the music I was playing at that point was either classical music in the orchestra, or the double bass with my dad’s band – I was 14 – and The Beatles were like a breath of fresh air. When I listen back to it now, I realise a lot of it was live recording and that it had that BBC sound to it: whereas in the 60s the Stones went to America and recorded at Chess on an MCI board – MCI boards sounded gritty, and the Stones’ records had a gritty kind of texture to them – The Beatles sounded like the BBC. But compared to everything else that was happening at the time it had so much freshness to it. It just banged at you from the get-go, and the sound of the three voices together was amazing. The harmonies was the best sound, and that had a huge impact on me at the time. It made me want to be a musician.”
Yes – The Yes Album (1971)
“I was 22 in 1972 and I heard a band do a song called I’ve Seen All Good People in a pub. I was tripping on LSD at the time, and I thought, ‘God, this song’s brilliant!’ I said to my friend, ‘Did they write this song?’ He said, ‘No, no – don’t you know it’s by a group called Yes.’ So I bought The Yes Album and fell in love with it. I was a bass guitar player by then, and if you’re a bass player, how can you not fall in love with Yes? Chris Squire was just amazing. And then in 1980 I joined them. I knew if I joined the band I’d be onstage at Madison Square Garden in front of 24,000 people. Chris Squire said to me: ‘Haven’t you got the bottle, then?’ And I thought, ‘How many times in your life is someone going to offer you something like this? Are you going to turn it down because you’re scared?’ My late wife Jill [Sinclair] was furious with me. But I did it, and it was an amazing experience. To go all over America in your own plane and play these massive stadiums was incredible.”
Joni Mitchell – Court And Spark (1974)
“Luís Jardim, the percussion player, turned me on to this. I love Dylan’s lyrics – I could probably sing Desolation Row from one end to the other, even now – but I love Joni Mitchell’s lyrics just as much. I used to sing along with Court And Spark all the time: I’d never heard such good lyrics. Lyrics are very important to me in making records. They can be simple in pop records, like Relax – they don’t have to be poetry. With Seal, I always used to know what the songs were about, even if the lyrics weren’t direct, and that gave me a picture, so I had a feeling for the atmosphere of the record. The best lyricists I’ve worked with would include Martin Fry – let’s face it, the lyrics on The Lexicon Of Love are absolutely brilliant – and Neil Tennant. He nicked a line from me for Left To My Own Devices. He’d asked me what I was going to do after working with them, and I said, ‘I’m going to put Debussy to a disco beat’. So he gave me a share of the B-side for that.”
Kraftwerk – The Man-Machine (1978)
“This was a massive shock to the system. At the time, I was playing at the Hammersmith Palais five nights a week with the Tony Evans Band to earn a living, and I was producing during the day. Hearing Kraftwerk and I Feel Love, it felt obvious: we should do this. Finding new sounds was very important back then. In the 70s, rock got incredibly sophisticated, so we had to follow all of that and come up with something people were going to prefer. That was a fucking high bar. And techno was like, ‘Wow! This could be it’. [Fellow Buggle] Geoff Downes went to a party and did some poppers, and we ended up in the kitchen with a guitar and wrote a song called Baby Blue. Our demo was with a drum machine and a telephone directory that we were hitting with a wooden spoon and putting through a fuzzbox. We got it covered by Dusty Springfield, but when I heard the record, I was, ‘Oh God, why didn’t they listen to what we did? It’s so much more interesting.’”
ABC – The Lexicon of Love (1982)
“It came out really well, it came out at the right time, it was the right kind of record, and it caught everybody’s imagination for a while. It was about the same old things – losing love and feeling rejected, and the anger – but I loved the way Martin Fry wrote. There was a moment at the start where I was doing some keyboard overdubs with Anne Dudley, and she was playing a Rhodes [on Many Happy Returns]. It was such a beautiful thing she played that I lengthened the track. And in analogue days that was a big job. I was doing this and the group weren’t there, and I suddenly thought, ‘If they don’t like this, it could be a problem’. But they loved it, and from then on I just went at it. You could chuck something at them and they would go off into a room and come back with the answer. That’s when being a producer is really good fun, because they’ll make the running, and you’re pushing them and they’re discovering stuff. You have to be patient; you can’t be overbearing. You’ve got to let the artists know: ‘This is going to get done. Might not be done today, but we’ll get it. It will happen. Don’t worry. Don’t get frightened. You’ll get there’. You form a team.”
Frankie Goes to Hollywood – Welcome to the Pleasuredome (1984)
“When I go back to it now, there’s some excess on it. We did San Jose (The Way) just because I had always wanted to cut that track. Fucking stupid. Holly said he’d sing it, so why not? But it’s a good album. I first heard them when I was sitting with Yes having dinner, and Relax came on The Tube. Chris Squire said, ‘This band might be good for your label’. I looked at him and said, ‘Nah’. A little while later, I was driving home and Kid Jensen played the version they’d done for a BBC session, and he talked to them afterwards. And when I heard that, I thought, ‘This is a fucking hit. Not like this, but it’s a hit tune’. I did four versions of it trying to get it right.
I lost the second ABC album because of it, because I felt I had to give them the real effort. We made Two Tribes once using the Fairlight, and it was a pretty good version. But we’d just got a Synclavier, and the sound quality was in a different league, and Relax was still in the Top 10. I knew this had to be really good coming after it, or we’d be fucked, so I made everybody start again. There were two magic days on Two Tribes. The first was when Steve [Howe, of Yes] played that guitar part for the first time. I loved that. Brilliant guitar part. The next great moment was when we did the 12″ with the ‘If your mother (or grandmother) or any other member of your family should die whilst in the shelter…’ bit on it. I had the tape recorder and was winding it backwards and forwards, playing that bit over and over again, because I liked it so much. As soon as we had that, I was confident, and we let it go. We had an amazing time with the Frankies.”
Seal – Seal (1991)
“The second Seal album is really good, but I love the first one. It took three months to do Crazy and two months to do the rest of the album. There were two songs, one called Deep Water, and another that was in a totally different tempo that Seal wanted to run together. I told him, ‘No problem, we’ll put a miasma in the middle and fade this one out into the miasma and we’ll come out in the middle of the other one’. And he was: ‘What’s that?’ ‘Watch: you’ll enjoy it’. There was one song on it I just couldn’t get a good version of, called Whirlpool. And then Wendy & Lisa came and did some work on it. Seal used to play guitar while he sang it, and there was one bit he played differently every time. All he had to do was play the song once for them, then Wendy grabbed the guitar and Seal didn’t get to play the guitar again. Wendy played it right every time. That was the most amazing afternoon, and it got even better, because suddenly Wendy’s twin Susannah arrived. She was Prince’s fiancée for a while. They said they had an idea for a vocal at the end, and the three of them went out and it was fucking great. There was a moment where Seal was on the sofa with Wendy and Lisa and Susannah draped all over him, and I said, ‘See, session musicians in LA are definitely a cut above the ones in England.’”
Art of Noise – The Seduction of Claude Debussy (1999)
“I still really like this album. There was a lot that was interesting about it, even though it wasn’t commercially successful: I was experimenting, so I was bound to take a few falls. What attracts me to projects is content, or the person – how much I like the person and if it looks like it will work. It’s no good hiring me if you want to do something dreary and small. I’m always going to be prone to wanting things to be lively. But I’ve been in a recording studio for 40 years and I know how to record things, and I know what they’re going to sound like. I don’t know what anyone expected to endure among the records I’ve made, but it’s surprising how things like Art Of Noise and Propaganda have. We realised that we lived through a bit of a golden age, where music was important, and I’m not sure if it’s as important now. It’s still all out there, but it’s different. If you’ve got a new band now, how the hell are you going to break it? It’s really hard. But do you know, it always was hard. Imagine making a dance record because you’ve listened to Fantasy or September by Earth, Wind & Fire. You can’t compete with that.”
Belle & Sebastian – Dear Catastrophe Waitress (2003)
“My daughter Ali had played me some of their stuff, but it sounded a little bit raw for me. And Stuart Murdoch sounded a bit wispy. But then I heard this track that I really liked, called Stars Of Track And Field. I loved what he was saying in it: it was kids at university being funny. They were on at Coachella and the housekeeper in my LA house was also the lady that decorated the artists’ cabins at Coachella. She met them and when she told them that she worked for me, they were interested. They were looking for a producer for this album, so I met them, and they were really nice: this album is mostly played live. I contributed a little bit, I did some strings for Step Into My Office, Baby, and they were so generous with my credit. My daughter kept saying to me, ‘Daddy, I hope you’re not going to mess it up.’ On an album like that, you’re making sure it’s recorded properly, and you get the right performances out of people. That’s just as valid as with things like Frankie, where you’re compensating – if they’d all been brilliant musicians who’d been playing that stuff for 10 years on the road, I would have just recorded them, too. But Belle and Sebastian was a totally different kind of production. I think they want to do something slightly better.”
Trevor Horn – Reimagines – The Eighties (feat. the Sarm Orchestra) (2019)
“I better put the new record in, because it’s the whole point of being here. This was my chance to go back and do different versions of some classic songs from the 80s with a 65-piece orchestra and anyone I could talk into singing on it. It turned out to be a whole lot of fun. I’m not adding strings to recordings that already exist – these are completely new arrangements, so it’s quite unlike any those other orchestral albums out there. I tried to play that 80s Symphonic album, and I couldn’t listen to it. And I think that’s probably put people off the whole idea, because they were adding strings to the original record. The fucking record didn’t need strings, and if it did, they should have been on there! But this just seemed like a really good idea, so I’ve just done different arrangements of whatever songs from the 80s appealed to me. I still love the studio and making records, but, ultimately, it’s about finding something worth doing.”
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