Does Rock ‘N’ Roll Kill Braincells?! – Trevor Horn
In Does Rock ‘N’ Roll Kill Braincells?!, we quiz an artist on their own career to see how much they can remember – and find out if the booze, loud music and/or tour sweeties has knocked the knowledge out of them. This week: Trevor Horn, the veteran hitmaker and creative force behind The Buggles and Art of Noise, takes the test
1You produced Frankie Goes to Hollywood, who were the first major signing to your record label ZTT. But which pop star once wrote an open letter to a music magazine claiming that the video for their single ‘Relax’ was cheap, disgusting and gave “gay people a bad name”?
“I remember that happening, but I don’t know who it was.”
WRONG. It’s Boy George.
“I thought about guessing Boy George, but there you go! It was exciting when ‘Relax’ was selling. Initially the band freaked us out, but for the first eight-to-10 months working with Frankie was really good fun. We got on well. Our relationship only started to fracture when the band itself began to fracture. When people get that kind of success, there’s always people whispering in their ear saying bad stuff about the record label. At the start they were an exhilarating combination – three straight guys and two gay guys was a pretty new thing.”
For a bonus half-point: in the first advert for Frankie Goes to Hollywood, which band did they claim they were making “lick the shit off their shoes”?
“That was so unpleasant, I ignored it really.”
WRONG. The ZTT campaign declared: ‘Frankie Goes to Hollywood are coming… making Duran Duran lick the shit off their shoes.’
“I didn’t even realise they mentioned Duran Duran! That’s how much I turned my back on all that. Paul Morley [former NME journalist and ZTT co-founder] was always trying to sneak stuff past us – mainly small illustrations of sex acts between animals. Duran Duran seem like a nice bunch of guys, so I’m sure they took it in a humorous way. I mean, they and Frankie Goes to Hollywood weren’t Tupac and Biggie!”
2You were the frontman of The Buggles. In 2011, you performed a live mash-up of your chart-topping 1979 single ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ and which rap song?
“‘Check It Out’, probably?”
CORRECT. Originally by will.i.am and Nicki Minaj (which itself used the hook from ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’).
“It’s great fun hearing the record done in a different way. I liked the rap ‘step up in the party like my name was Mr. T’ because my name’s Trevor, so I thought it was quite fitting for me to perform!”
On the subject of ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’, did you see the deepfake of Stalin and Hitler lip-syncing to the track which went viral last year?
“Oh yeah! I thought it was really funny. I wonder what Stalin and Hitler would’ve thought of being made to mime ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’. It would be great to travel back in time and ask them – if they weren’t a bit murderous.”
3When you were recording ABC’s 1982 song ‘The Look of Love’, you rejected an idea for the middle eight by which icon?
“That was David Bowie.”
CORRECT. Bowie suggested including an answerphone message in the middle eight – which you dismissed.
“We were all big fans of Bowie, and it felt strange that he asked to come down and see what was going on. I remember [ABC saxophonist] Stephen Singleton hiding Bowie’s bag to freak him out. When he was in the control room I was the new kid, so I always think maybe if I’d been nicer to him, I’d have worked with him. Would I have liked to work with him? Yeah, I would have been curious. There’s no point regretting it, though, and for me, it’s the material that drives me the most. I’d rather do a new act with a brilliant song than somebody’s 17th album.”
4You produced ‘Feed the World’, the B-side to Band Aid’s ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ which featured messages from artists over its instrumental. Which artist is listed on the sleeve credit as having recorded a message but does not feature on the track?
“Paul McCartney or David Bowie, maybe? Mind you, they both do appear on it. I don’t know – that’s a pretty deep question!”
WRONG. It’s Annie Lennox – whose message apparently didn’t arrive in time.
“Yeah, I remember that now! They finished making the record at 7am, and we went in at 8am and started doing the 12-inch and had it finished by lunch. For years afterwards, people thought I’d produced ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ [Horn was Bob Geldof’s first choice to produce the track] but if I had, it wouldn’t have sounded like that and I couldn’t have done it so quickly.”
5You appeared on Newsnight in 1984 in a report about ZTT. In it, which rock star (who you’d later end up working with) do you describe as looking like “a dirty old uncle”?
CORRECT. Did you end up having a laugh about it with him?
“That was Morley’s influence on me! [Laughs] I don’t think you should repeat it – I don’t think he saw it!”
6Which singer covered t.A.T.u’s ‘All the Things She Said’ in 2020?
“You’ve got me here! I wasn’t aware anybody had covered it.”
WRONG. It was Poppy – for Pride Month.
“I’ll check it out. Nobody told me about it.”
You produced and wrote the English lyrics to the 2000 t.A.T.u original…
“It was hard work, because when we started they could barely speak a word of English. But they were really nice. It took us two weeks to do just the vocals. It isn’t easy to sing in a foreign language, especially convincingly. They were always trying to cadge cigarettes off me because their manager didn’t want them to be seen smoking. He was a crazy Russian who got bored with how slow the progress was taking. At one point, he told me: ‘You’re being too patient. You need to be tougher with them!’, and went out and shouted at them in Russian. Within five minutes, they were both crying.”
Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan campaigned to have the video outlawed in the UK. Did your experience with Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s controversial (and banned by the BBC) ‘Relax’ make you prepared for it?
“I mean, I wrote the lyrics. I was aware that there could be nothing more exploitative than two supposed schoolgirls kissing in a video, but the thing that interested me the most was making an English version of a Russian record. t.A.T.u ended up as the only Russian act to have success outside of Russia. The girls snogging I ignored, I suppose, in the same way I ignored the gay stuff in Frankie. I was only ever interested in the records.”
Even though the song has a complicated history, the lyrics did give a then-underrepresented voice to the emotional tumult in a closeted teen’s head. Did you ever receive any feedback from the LGBTQ+ community about how important it was to them?
“Yes. My son and one of my daughters [who both identify as LGBTQ+] were very pleased with the t.A.T.u record, and Sinéad O’Connor was very complimentary to me about it.”
7Which artist did you have to punch in the chest to get him to rap?
CORRECT. The infamous Sex Pistols manager needed to be punched in the chest in order to keep in time on his 1982 hip-hop single ‘Buffalo Gals’.
“He didn’t have much sense of rhythm, and he was upfront about that: ‘I’m not Dr Rhythm!’ he used to say. With rapping, you’ve got to make the words land on the beat, so I suggested tapping him on the chest. But we did quite a few takes and I was getting tired. And he was telling me off! [Imitates Malcolm] ‘I was doing well there and then you faltered!’ I loved working with him. That song helped introduce scratching to the UK, but I sometimes feel it gets ignored in the history of rap.”
8Which 1996 Number One single samples the Art of Noise track ‘Close (to the Edit)’?
“The Prodigy’s ‘Firestarter’.”
“I got friendly with The Prodigy because they used my studios a lot; I’d hear their albums through the wall. They were seriously rock‘n’roll.”
What were your favourite moments of the Art of Noise?
“When Gary Langan first played lead guitar at the start of ‘Close (to the Edit)’, I liked that a lot. There were a lot of firsts with the Art of Noise. J. J. [Jeczalik] did the first-ever digital drum-loop on ‘Beat Box’, which was a sample of drums played by Alan White from Yes, for a song I was trying to do with them called ‘Red Light Green Light’. I said: ‘People in New York are going to love this’, because I’d met Afrika Bambaataa there who told me his favourite band at the time was The Guess Who – he had a live album and didn’t like the songs, but thought the drum-breaks were great. So I knew we’d have a big audience in New York – and I was right. When I had Rakim come by and rap on the  Art of Noise album ‘The Seduction of Claude Debussy’, he remembered all the early hip-hop stuff I’d done with Malcolm McLaren like ‘Hobo Scratch’ but told me his favourite track was [the Art of Noise’s] ‘Moments In Love’.”
9Seal’s ‘Kiss from a Rose’ (which you produced) appears on 1995’s Batman Forever soundtrack. Who stars as Batman in that film?
“Isn’t it Michael Keaton?”
WRONG. It’s Val Kilmer.
“The first time Seal ever sang to me, he was singing along to a cassette he’d brought with him of the backing track to ‘Violet’. That was a moment, because I knew then the microphone was going to love him.”
People will likely know you for the big names you produced like Seal, Frankie…, Grace Jones etc., but then you’ve also worked with the likes of Shane MacGowan and Razorlight’s Johnny Borrell, the latter on his widely-mocked at the time 2013 solo album ‘Borrell 1’.
“Yes, I worked with Shane MacGowan a little bit. But I don’t think he was a Buggles fan, put it that way! [Laughs] Johnny Borrell was very determined to do something quite weird – which he achieved. That’s all I can say about that! [Laughs]”
10You produced the Pet Shop Boys’ 2006 album ‘Fundamental’. What number did it chart at?
“Oof! No idea. 10?”
WRONG. It was 5.
“Not bad! It’s a nice record and I enjoyed that. Nothing had really changed since we worked together before [on the Pet Shop Boys’ 1988 banger ‘Left to My Own Devices’]. We did a great show after ‘Fundamental’ came out with the BBC Concert Orchestra, and Robbie Williams sang ‘Jealousy’, which was the first time I worked with him. In fact, I’d first met Robbie years before I knew who he was, when Take That were in my studio. As he was leaving, he held the door open for me and I said: ‘You’re a polite young man. You’ll go far – you’ve got good manners!’ Fast-forward to 2009 and I was producing the album ‘Reality Killed the Video Star’ for him.”
The verdict: 5/10
“Well there you go! Brain cells have been addled by rock ‘n’ roll!”
Dire Straits Legacy, featuring Trevor Horn and Alan Clark & Phil Palmer from Dire Straits, will be performing at indigo at The O2 in London on January 15, 2022