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Trevor Horn Reimagines the Eighties

Here at Glasgow Music City Tours, we are not ashamed to admit that The Buggles’ smash hit Video Killed the Radio Star- the first video ever shown on MTV – is our go-to karaoke song. So we are more than a little excited that Buggles frontman and all-round production ace Trevor Horn is playing in Glasgow this weekend.

Horn is best known for his work as a music producer in the 80s when he worked with the likes of Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Dollar, The Pet Shop Boys, Malcolm McLaren and Ms Grace Jones (on the immaculate Slave to the Rhythm) as well as briefly fronting prog rock titans Yes and forming the trailblazing studio outfit Art of Noise.

Closer to (our) home, he has gone on to produce Simple Minds and Belle & Sebastian – and when we spoke to him about his album and show, Trevor Horn Reimagines the Eighties, he also told us he has a boat in Troon! “I’ve been tracing Captain Para Handy’s exploits,” he says.

But that’s not the only unexpected thing we learned about his long career, stretching back to the 60s when he started out as a Bob Dylan tribute act. Here’s Trevor on…

Reimagining the 80s
If someone is going to give you the opportunity to do the best songs from the decade with a 65-piece orchestra it’s an opportunity not to be missed. It’s not like the other sorts of albums where you put an orchestra on something that already exists, it’s quite different, we decided to re-imagine songs. For instance, I thought ‘imagine if Simple Minds had written Brothers in Arms’.

His years as a session player in the 70s
It was a good apprenticeship in some ways because I got to play a lot and it helped me arrange records later. For years, I just played whatever was in the Top 40. I played on loads of those cheap albums you got in Woolworths where you did the whole thing in a day and they always used to get me to do Bryan Ferry because they said ‘you can sing out of tune’. The last one I did of his was Tokyo Joe – do you remember that? It took me a day to learn the damn thing, it was hilarious. I remember being in a restaurant once and the muzak was playing and I heard this thing and thought ‘what is that?’ It was me doing Let’s Stick Together.

His early productions
When I started to learn about record production, it was the late 70s and you’re competing with Elton John, David Bowie who sounded great. It took me a few years to learn about making records. I would do anything to get in the studio. I think the year before Video Killed The Radio Star happened, I did 48 songs that I produced for a publisher. I earned £2000 for the year so I wasn’t earning a lot but, like anything, if you do it enough you start to figure out a few gags like nobody else had – and then I put them all in Video Killed the Radio Star!

Finally finding fame
Video Killed the Radio Star sold millions and millions, so it was like winning the pools. But then I joined Yes as their singer, which was a lunatic thing to do, and then my late wife told me ‘you should go back to being a record producer’ so that’s what I did for the next thirty years. When I got a couple of big chances, I got them right.

The perils of production
Ultimately I’m the person behind the scenes. Sometimes in the 80s it really worked against me being a bit high profile because people would be afraid, they’d have this idea that I was some kind of martinet. But the artist is the important person. Frankie was more than that, we were all in it together and it worked, it was a really great team of people.

His favourite voices
You’ve got to have the right voice. When Seal first sung to me, I got goosebumps. I wanted to get a microphone in front of him. Guy Garvey has got the most beautiful delivery of anybody in a band. The guy in The Killers has got a great voice.

I remember I did a track with Rod Stewart, Purple Heather. I had his band set up in the summerhouse of his house in LA and Rod said ‘ere, you sing it while we rehearse Trev, I’m a bit tired today’. So I sang the song about four or five times. It’s very high the way Rod’s got it pitched and everyone was laughing at me. Then Rod got up and the difference between his voice and my voice in that pitch was extraordinary. My voice was thin and weedy, his voice was thick and beautiful.

Working with Belle & Sebastian on Dear Catastrophe Waitress
My daughter used to play Belle & Sebastian in the car and I was never quite convinced until I heard Stars of Track and Field. I loved the lyrics. I went up to meet them, and I thought they were great. There were eight of them – on some songs, one person just played the shaker but, boy, they played the shaker in the right place, I was really impressed! And so we ended up making a record together and I think it’s a good album, it came out well. My daughter said ‘daddy, please don’t spoil them – you’re not going to make them sound like Frankie Goes to Hollywood?’

Modern technology
I admire that technology but I don’t necessarily use it because I’m more into working with people. I suppose I still like sonic quality, I still like a combination of real drums and programmed drums, the best of both worlds.

The thing is I don’t know what cutting edge would be now because the musical world’s upside down in some ways. What you’re missing a little bit at the moment is imaginative young people doing interesting pop music. I think Paolo Nutini’s absolutely brilliant. My daughter’s ordered me to listen to Lewis Capaldi so I’m going to put in a bit of time and have a listen.

Trevor Horn plays Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on 27 July