Trevor Horn - A Studio Wunderkind and His Quiver of Production Arrows

By Freff, 1984.

Anyone can make off-the-wall stuff. The challenge is to make off-the-wall stuff that sells. And in order for something to sell it has to communicate clearly, even if it's crazy.

That was Trevor Horn speaking. And now for a word from some of his sales figures: Single of "Video Killed The Radio Star" five million copies, single of Malcolm McLaren's "Buffalo Gals", one million copies, the new Yes album, 90125, one and one half million copies in its first three weeks and rising fast...

Despite prevailing record company wisdom, it appears that you can make off-the-wall music, assemble songs from virtually nothing, play drastic games with people's preconceived notions, choose your projects much the way Don Quixote Tilted at windmills, and still Sell Big in the battle for a piece of the world's entertainment budget.

Of course, you might have to be Trevor Horn to get away with it, and that's not a job everybody is suited for. WANTED: record producer with perverse sensibilities for work involving long and ludicrous hours, insane risks, major setbacks, rising costs, ego management and total contradictions of logic and sense. Must have weak eyes, wide vision, writing talent, a foot in every camp and the capacity to see nothing unusual in producing both Malcolm McLaren and Foreigner. Applications will be accepted thirty-four years ago by Mr. and Mrs. Horn, County Durham, England.

Trevor's dad, a dairy engineer, played acoustic bass in a local Durham dance band. Trevor was thus addicted to music from childhood, the final fix supplied by early 60s English radio. Deeply hooked, nursing a reverence for the Beatles and Dionne Warwick that bordered on pantheistic, he started to sing and play in groups of his own. A move to Leicester in his late teens did nothing to halt the slide of his schoolwork; it just gave him a whole new set of clubs to haunt with his Bob Dylan act. ("I used to say, 'Name any Bob Dylan song and I'll sing it for you.' That was my gimmick.") He quit college for a day job, couldn't stand it, and finally turned pro as a bass player at the age of nineteen.

One of his few distinctions was that he could sight-read bass guitar music, a rare skill in these early days. So for the next four years he parlayed that edge into a string of jobs with dead-end jazz bands and dimestore record sessions. There was also a disastrous brush with touring in Gary Glitter's band, at the age of twenty-two, when he got drunk in Manchester and started a fight with the police. This adventure lost him both freedom for a weekend and gainful employment ("You're fired!"). He's been a teetotaler ever since.

Getting nowhere fast as a session player? What next to do - it's so obvious, right? - but get together with a friend and build a recording studio. That's build, as in "from the ground up": foundation, frame, bricks, mortar, rafters, tile, the lot. "There wasn't any money to rent with, so we built. We called it Drumbeat Studios, and it had one of the first half-inch 8-tracks in England. Our best business in those days was for song contests. People would bring in these half-complete songs to do, and I would re-arrange the tunes and get the musicians together, and make demos for the people to send in to the contests."

That lasted six months before the partnership tattered. Trevor's next oddball step towards fame and royalty statements was getting romantically involved with Tina Charles, a singer with a string of hit disco singles. "I think she was living with me at the time because she wanted a bit of a change. She wanted to try somebody intelligent, to see if the idea grew on her, you know? Because she was making big records, and, being her boyfriend, I tagged along to things like Top of the Pops and got to see how it all really worked. And I just knew it was what I really wanted to do. In the end I used Tina as a bit of a stepping stone, I guess, because I'd gotten the job as her musical director, and even after she ended up marrying someone else, I kept it. I put her band together for her. Tina Charles' records were quite heavily orchestrated, so I put together a six-piece lineup with a multi-keyboard player to approach that sound live. I really worked the band, like they were in a physical exercise class."

The multi-keyboardist he'd hired was Geoff Downes, Trevor's future partner in the Buggles and Yes (now with Asia, and current holder of the Enough is Enough Already award for extravagance in keyboard stacks). Trevor smiles ruefully. "Poor boy, what did I start him off on?" The band did well enough, but fell apart after the tour. The Horn-Downes musical partnership that grew out of it proceeded to spend the next four years slogging from one demo project to the next.

Then came the breakthrough, the birth of the Buggles. "All this time we were working for other people. Finally, in a fit of absolute desperation, we decided to become the artists. We tried to put everything we'd learned in four and a half years into four minutes... and had our first hit, 'Video Killed the Radio Star'" (An unerring piece of prophecy.)
The inspiration for the song was a sci-fi tale by J.G. Ballard called "The Sound-Sweep", about a young man with a kind of "sound vacuum cleaner". It took them three months to polish into final form, the result of sheer, unadulterated perfectionism. "God, I was freaked out about things like drum rattles getting onto the track. If the Buggles could have had a LinnDrum, it would have been heaven, because that's what we wanted. We made Richard Burgess sound like a Linn. If there was a single buzz, if we even suspected he'd slowed down on one beat of a take, if it wasn't perfect - we wouldn't keep it."

They chose a deliberately repulsive name and saw their joint work soar to #1 in sixteen countries around the world. "The Buggles name... that was a joke. We used to think that group names, especially in the punk era, were just absurd. When you've been busy recording people who call themselves things like the Unwanted, you become much too cynical to take it all seriously. Of course, now I see that you do have to take it seriously, because often people don't see the joke."

Sudden fame, after years of starvation. Success, record sales, and satisfaction. What to do next, of course, but screw it all up?
"Joining Yes," says Trevor, "was one of those stupid things that you do sometimes. I had this awful sense of inevitability when I met Chris Squire. He'd really liked our album, Living in The Plastic Age; and Yes was going through those terrible changes, and Geoffrey and I gradually got drawn into it." Looking back now, he calls it "one of the two or three times in my life that I've done something that I knew was wrong." The experience was, in a word, awful.
But also very educational. There was, for example, a lesson in the omniscience of management. Trevor had been under the misconception that groups like Yes were properly organized and that their management was all-knowing and all-seeing. He discovered quite the opposite. "Would you like to know how much Brian Lane, the band's manager, understood their music? He was always pushing me to 'get the guys to record a single.' Well, I could have walked into his office with 'Sugar Sugar', by the Archies, told him that I'd pulled the guys around and here was the single - and he would have said, 'Great! It'll be a big hit.' That's how much he understood."

And then there was that singularly unpleasant moment sitting in Madison Square Garden for the very first time, knowing that in mere hours he would be facing tens of thousands of screaming Yes fans, every one of whom would be measuring him against the impossible standards of the Converted. "I remember thinking - how could I ever be worried about making a record again, or getting a mix right, after something as truly horrific as this? And I suppose a bit of that has stayed with me ever since, because I've put out several records that other people would have been quite nervous about."

Yes broke up. Geoff Downes split from the Buggles, to go off and be a keyboard hero in Asia, leaving Trevor to polish up some of their pre- and post-Yes demos as the Buggles' last album, Adventures in Modern Recording. "There I was, sitting around being as cold as yesterday's rice pudding - yet again - and this little MOR group named Dollar came to me and asked me to make a record for them like 'Video'. I did it as a laugh, really." The tune was "Handheld In Black And White", and it was more than a little out of Dollar's usual mold. The drum part was a Roland TR-808 overdubbed with toms. The bass was deliberately detuned. Trevor just started doing crazy things to the tape, switching it on and off, "mucking about generally and keeping what was good."
It was Dollar's first smash, selling half a million copies in England alone. Three more hit singles followed. Trevor started organizing his own string of studios, called SARM - Sound And Recording Mobiles - with his wife and his brother-in-law/producer John Sinclair. His star was ascendant again, and about to rise even faster because of a little-known band from Sheffield called ABC.

"They had one good record out, but it was a bit rough. And I said to them that I could make a record for them, but not one like that, because it sounded too low market for me; I like things that sound expensive. And they said good, because that's precisely what they wanted to do, to make something like Quincy Jones. It was really an interesting sort of perversion, to take a fairly inexperienced group who had all these ideas, and then try to make their dreams come true. We went all the way and used a real orchestra because I was sick to death of string machines. I'd had six years of string machines and never wanted to hear another one."
Bang! More hits straight out of the box, with "Poison Arrow" and "The Look Of Love". The orchestrations were lush and resonant. The sound, crystal clear. For the first time, Trevor's name started popping up in the rock press without a sneer attached to it.

Then came Duck Rock, the Malcolm McLaren record mentioned earlier. Duck Rock is a true piece of history in vinyl, not just because it broke widely in the fashionable underground with tunes like "She's Looking Like a Hobo Scratch" and "Buffalo Gals", but because it was the first time that the black radio phenomenon called "scratching" was ever recorded to disc. Scratching is unique. It started with radio and club DJs creating their own jagged and rhythmic music by hand-spinning records back and forth on their turntables, and has developed into an art form of its own, just like the breakdancing so often done to it. Trevor considers some of the scratched tunes on this energetic album to be among the best he's ever done.

"In 'Buffalo Gals', just about everything but the beatbox is scratched off a record. The promenade, the backing vocals, everything, was scratched off acetates I'd had made, which had bits of different things cut onto them. And the opening track, 'Obatala', that started out as a recording of a lot of Cubans drumming and singing this Cuban folk tune together. I edited out the voices, replaced them with a synthesizer, and generally went at it. There's the blueprint for ten other albums in that album, just the ideas. Because what Malcolm would do was to bring me these great big slices of chaos, and I'd have to make it into a record. I evolved a whole technique of making something out of nothing with Malcolm. It was great."

And now for something completely different. Which is to say, Yes. Or actually Cinema, as the Chris Squire project was called when Trevor signed on as producer. Trevor had finished Duck Rock on a Sunday night at 9 p.m. He was in the studio for Cinema's launch at 10 a.m. Monday. And all because he wanted to try something new. "I wanted to work with a group that actually played. And I wanted to see if I could do an AOR thing, if I could manage to get inside that AOR format and pervert it from within."
Judging from the success of the album and the single, "Owner Of A Lonely Heart", he hit the target with vengeance. Yes with a hit single? Stranger still, Yes with a successful dance club 12-inch of the same song? Stranger things may have happened in recent musical history. But not many.

The single, "Owner Of a Lonely Heart", is very much Trevor's track. His stamp on it is unmistakable. "It was imperative, coming back after such a load of shit, that Yes have a single. I would have killed to get that. That song was our best shot, so I made sure that it was as right as I could get it. That meant turning its weakness to advantage - the way it was so episodic, and kept turning off in tangents - by making each little bit so interesting that you wanted to go back and hear them again and see how they fit together."
Hence the power chord opening, meant as nothing less than a parody of the corporate rock represented by bands like Asia and Journey; the sharp snaps of unidentifiable sound against percussive vocal; the Fairlight-sampled heavy metal shrieks of Trevor Rabin mixed together into bits and pieces of big band horn work; the guitar solo that Trevor, Hendrix-inspired, panned wildly from place to place in the mix. "The information in a single has to be arranged in the right bursts. Everything else is secondary. The drum sounds, the tricks, the lyrics, everything, they're all less important than the arrangement of the feel. Records with a bad feel to them are never hits."

Giving credit where it's due, Trevor feels that the other Trevor in the Yes project, South African-born guitarist Trevor Rabin, was an essential part of 90125's success. "He made much more of a difference to Yes than Geoffrey and I ever did as members of the band. Not just because of his playing on guitar and keyboards, and his singing, even though all are extraordinary, but because he has this kind of naive stubbornness that's a strength. Even when he didn't get his own way he was strong enough to pull things off in a certain direction, and that direction was a healthy one."

These days, Trevor is in America, confounding people yet again by co-producing the new Foreigner album. ("From a production point of view, I always like to do things in a different way. And therefore Foreigner was attractive to me because it was something nobody would expect me to do.") He's seven weeks into it, still recording ground tracks, with the end nowhere in sight - but Mick Jones perfectionism is an easy thing for him to understand.

Foreigner, however, is going to be his last outside project for some time. There are lots of other irons in Horn's fire...
Like his four SARM studios in England, which he has consciously set out to make "the best in the world". Three of them have Solid State Logic mixing desks and 48-track recorders. The fourth, an overdubbing room that's still under construction, is going to have to limp along with the relative unsophistication of a new Neve (how appalling). He's particularly proud of SARM #1. "It's a huge room, and the speakers are specially designed and set into concrete. They're like an enormous set of home hi-fi speakers, because for the last few years I've been working off a set of AR-18s. I don't like to listen to mixes loud, on big speakers; I prefer to save my ears."
Or ZTT, his Island-distributed record label. There are two acts currently on the label, Frankie Goes To Hollywood and his own group/non-group, the Art Of Noise, a foursome dedicated to what their name implies. ZTT, by the way, stands for "ZankTumTum". ("It's just noise, like karaang bang blat, or boom-blankboomblank - the art of noise.")
Or some unusual recording and film projects, like one that he's been discussing with rockers turned video directors Lol Creme and Kevin Godley, in which he would record a straight orchestral Rhapsody In Blue and then mix it as if it were a rock record. It's all a long way from building your own studio, or taking up the artist's reins out of desperation.

Some of the changes can be seen in the gear he's elected to keep with him. There are six guitars (a Gibson acoustic he played while with Yes, and still travels with; a Yamaha acoustic; a "really great" old Martin 12-string; Washburn and Fender Telecaster electrics; and a virtually antique 4-string thing called a Don Siver model combination Hawaiian and tenor guitar, the first stringed instrument he ever owned); three basses (an Alembic, an Aria Pro 1000 and a Fender Jazz with a Precision neck), and a wide variety of electronics and synthesizers: Fairlight, Prophet 10, OB-Xa, Minimoog, Oberheim DSX sequencer, a set of Simmons electric drums, a Roland sequencer, the Roland TR-808, an English device called The Conductor that allows you to control other instruments with the Fairlight's sequencer page, and both a LinnDrum and an Oberheim DMX.
"Eventually, I hope to build a really huge computer and sign it to ZTT - Elvis Computer. You could conceivable do anything with it."

But his use of the gear, more than the gear itself, indicates how far he's come. Take those drum machines: "I prefer the sound of the DMX for making records. It's got a thicker sound and while it doesn't feel as flash as the Linn when you first put it up, it actually sits in a record better." This, from the original anti-drummer man? "Oh, yeah, the Buggles hated drummers. But now I kind of appreciate them, I get bored by rhythm boxes that have been programmed by people who don't understand what a good feel is. If you look at the heart of a record that was played by a machine, and the heart of a record that was played by someone, you'd see a difference. In the one that was played you'd see the imperfections that make it really beautiful."

That's a far cry from his early days of techno-perfection, when three months spent glossing up one single seemed the right way to do things. When asked if he felt he was naive in those days, Trevor answers "yes" without the slightest of pauses. "It's kind of a cliche," he concludes, "but the simplest things are the hardest to play, because they've got to be dead right. I suppose that, in the end, I have the most respect for people who can play really simple things - but play them beautifully."

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Title: A Studio Wunderkind
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