‘Grace Jones was in a state’: legendary producer Trevor Horn relives his mega-hits | Music

OWhen I ask if I can use the bathroom in Trevor Horn’s house, he shows me the way himself. “Old Bob Hoskins thunder,” he smiled as he opened the door. “He used to sit there and read his scripts, apparently.”

There’s another door next to it, which leads to Horn’s studio. A house that once belonged to a Hollywood star, big enough to accommodate a huge recording studio: it’s the house of someone who did very well, which Horn of course has. His recently released autobiography, Adventures in Modern Recording, details a stellar career as a record producer, filled with hugely entertaining stories that typically involve Horn barricaded in a studio, smoking copious amounts of marijuana while facing the fan. dizzying array of technical issues that just pushed the latest recording gadgets to their limit, then finally emerged with a wildly successful single. ABC’s look of love. Frankie is going to relax in Hollywood. Grace Jones’ Rhythm Slave. Tatu is all she said.

In fact, Horn’s name is so synonymous with massive chart success that it’s easy to forget the particular road he took to fame. He began his career in the early 70s as a bass player with the Ray McVay Orchestra, best known as the house band on the TV show Come Dancing. “It was the highest paid gig at the time,” he shrugs, before correcting himself: “Well, the highest paid shitty gig at the time. We played everything that was a hit, so it was a good base for what makes a good pop record.

He spent time in the backing band of then-girlfriend Tina Charles, before finally hitting it big with the video for Buggles Killed the Radio Star in 1979. The time he and fellow Buggle Geoff Downes happened to do so was the first instance of Horn’s famous song. perfectionism in the studio, which ultimately led to him spending £70,000 – a quarter of a million pounds in today’s money – to make Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Relax. He says he was uncomfortable being a leader. “I liked it at first, but being on a TV show, miming while a guy is sitting there eating a sandwich and it’s Tuesday morning – it’s started to wear down a bit . But I mean, I went from frying pan to fire going into Yes.

Oh yes: Yes. Like Tubeway Army’s Are ‘Friends’ Electric, Video Killed the Radio Star was a single that seemed to predict how the next decade would unfold, but Horn followed it by doing the least imaginable thing of the 1980s and joining the fading titans of progressive rock. as a singer. It was inevitable that Horn would agree – yes, they were his favorite band and mentioning them today makes his eyes light up and starts singing the riff to their 1971 track Starship Trooper ( “I love it, man!”) – but the whole experience sounds like hell: yes, fans were baffled to see the frontman of a pop band take the place of singer Jon Anderson (he is accustomed to cries of “fuck you Trevor!”), he blew out his voice singing too loudly and suffered the indignity of his microphone stand and his tambourine falling apart in front of 20,000 people. At the end of the tour, Yes fired him. “Well, it was fun at first, but it got harder and harder,” he concedes. Then the ardent Yes fan reappears. “But because I was a little weak, the band was playing out of their skin. There are a few live tracks from that time and what strikes me when I listen is how good the band was. They really knew how to do it.”

In fact, he loved Yes so much that he came back to produce their 1983 album 90125. Determined to make them a hit, he landed on a song called Owner of a Lonely Heart. The group refused to cooperate, deeming it “too poppy”, forcing Horn to take desperate measures. “I literally got down on my knees and started shooting [bassist] Chris Squire’s pants, begging them. The owner of a Lonely Heart has become the only Yes number 1 in America.

‘It was fun at first’… Yes in 1980, with Horn on vocals. Photograph: Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy

At that time, Horn was one of the biggest record producers in the world, although his journey to this title was also special. After Yes fired him as a vocalist, he opted to work with Dollar, an implausibly dripping middling pop duo who may have been one of the few artists considered even less hip in 1981 than his former employers. They had, in Horn’s memorable phrase, “something cruise ship about them”. Anyone else could have run a mile, but Horn saw a conceptual opportunity. “I loved The Man Machine by Kraftwerk, this totally techno band idea. And I thought, wouldn’t it be great to mix that with [perennially unfashionable British MOR crooner] Vince Hill?

Horn composed songs that played on the duo’s previous romantic involvement in visionary electronic production. Listen to 1982’s Videotheque, with its booming drums, dramatic synths and sampled vocals, and you’ll hear the sonic future of ’80s pop unfold. Naturally, his reimagining of the irredeemably corny Dollar got Horn noticed: first by ABC, whose Horn-produced debut album The Lexicon of Love was one of the best-selling albums of 1982, then by the former manager Sex Pistols Malcolm McLaren. His 1983 album Duck Rock contained Buffalo Gals, Britain’s first hip-hop single, which might have been less legendary if Horn hadn’t dissuaded McLaren from his brainchild “to make a rap and scratch track based on the movie ET”.

on stage with Grace Jones at Wembley in 2004.
Rhythm… on stage with Grace Jones at Wembley in 2004. Photography: Brian Rasic/Getty Images

Horn says Duck Rock’s chaotic, revolutionary spirit fueled the creation of his own label, ZTT, synonymous with a certain type of ’80s excess, from the flowery liner notes penned by music journalist Paul Morley, to the large number of remixes that Horn released. of every single released by the label (apparently much to his chagrin “because each was like remaking the record”). For a while it worked like a dream. Horn’s own avant-garde band, the Art of Noise, made records so futuristic that when his former Kraftwerk heroes heard them, they were appalled, realizing someone else was now at the point. Meanwhile, Frankie Goes to Hollywood have become Britain’s biggest and most controversial band.

In Adventures in Modern Recording, Horn is careful to credit the latter group’s musical abilities. None of its members, bar singer Holly Johnson, played on their debut single, Relax, which was essentially created in the studio by Horn and his crew – a fact that you feel rather haunts Horn today. today. “I could have let them play on Relax,” he agrees. “It was stupid not to because it created a secret, and the papers always love that. Look what happened to poor Milli Vanilli. But they were good, the bassist’s riffs for Welcome to the Pleasuredome and Two Tribes were great, he’s a talented guy. The drummer also had a thing. He takes a break. “I don’t think when I started Relax I had a clear idea of ​​what I was going into. I was just going to see where it was going. There was no chorus, it was really just a verse and a run-out.

Radio stars… with Geoff Downes in the Buggles.
Radio stars… with Geoff Downes in the Buggles. Photography: Fin Costello/Redferns

Horn seems to have enjoyed every minute of ZTT: employing drummers to smash dishes, a sound he sampled on Propaganda’s Dr. Mabuse; inviting Grace Jones to sing on Slave to the Rhythm, despite the fact that “she was in a state…she found out her boyfriend was cheating on her and set all her clothes on fire”. But perhaps necessarily, it did not last. The artists left due to disputes over money; Frankie Goes to Hollywood argued, an experience that Horn said was “like watching a car wreck”. Horn’s own career continued apace – he went on to sell millions of other records and work with everyone from Rod Stewart to Belle and Sebastian – but he missed the madness of ZTT. “I did. I was a little sad about it. If somebody makes the decision to be crazy and experimental, I think that’s something you end up being because you’re willing to take a few risks with things. So you can’t go back, really.

He says he wonders if technology has made creating discs too easy in 2022. Things that used to take him days can now be done “with a few mouse clicks”, but “there’s a kind Zen thing to having to spend a lot of time”. time on something, having to do it very carefully, little by little”. He seems dismayed by the current wave of court cases for plagiarism. “You notice that guys who write scores for movies never chase each other, and that’s because they all agree that it’s going to be kinda like that, kinda like that.”

Still, he lights up there’s a lot of fantastic music being made in 2022: he’s a fan of Mark Ronson’s productions, among others. And as he leads me to the door, I ask him what he’s been working on in the studio downstairs. Oh, he said, it’s a cover of Kendrick Lamar’s Swimming Pools (Drank). Tori Amos sings it. It’s hard to imagine what that might look like, but the idea itself seems peculiar, which makes it very Trevor Horn.

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