Friday, January 10, 2003

here's the first chunk of my promised examination of trevor horn. I'm chopping it up to make it easier to read; look for part two (hopefully) later this evening.

I have six words for you: trevor horn is a fucking genius. as far as I’m concerned, that’s indisputable. with his completely over-the-top, everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach to production, he was to the ‘80s as phil spector was to the ‘60s – only horn’s wall of sound was taller, thicker, and all-around more imposing. if spector’s was the berlin wall of sound, horn’s was the great wall of china of sound.

his achievements are so widespread to be utterly ubiquitous – and even then, his dossier may surprise you. for example, not only did he produce frankie goes to hollywood’s welcome to the pleasuredome and abc’s the lexicon of love – two of the ‘80s most perfect pop albums – but did you know that he coproduced (with ultravox’s midge ure) band aid’s charity classic “do they know it’s christmas?”

I’ve been batting around an essay in praise of horn for a while now, and finally found the axis on which to spin it; I compiled a 2-disc collection of his career highlights, and will write about horn through it.

Not-entirely-random interjection: just imagine shania twain’s you! will! submit! hooktastic up! produced by horn. The mere thought nearly makes my head explode with glee.

trevor horn: a career of brilliance, volume 1
1. “video killed the radio star,” the buggles. yes, first video on mtv blah blah, but have you listened to the record recently? it’s a blissfully future-forward electronic pop record made almost entirely by horn himself – he essentially was the buggles, and is himself singing the vocals on “video.” the rest of their debut (and only) album, the age of plastic, isn’t quite so good, treading a bit in new wave clichés and just so-so songwriting (I considered “living in the plastic age” for this comp, but just couldn’t – it’s really not very good at all). so the buggles were indeed one-hit wonders (except in the u.k.), but what a hit, and what a fine place to start an overview of horn’s career. things were about to take that proverbial great leap forward, however…

2. “poison arrow,” abc. horn starts with a three-note descension on the piano, introduces synth-claps, then a synth snare track (very metronomic), string fills (played on a keyboard), that signature horn motif… and just keeps piling the elements on throughout the song. of course, it’s not all about horn here; let’s not forget the brilliant presence and soulboy vocals of martin fry – he’s bryan ferry without the arched eyebrow and knowing glance. his lyrics as well nail how real people (okay, artsy real people) feel in and out of love, and much of the credit for abc’s success must rest on his shoulders. but it’s horn’s immaculate production that sends much of the lexicon of love over the top and into rarified air; abc never worked with horn again, and never made a better album.

3. “instinction,” spandau ballet. pre-“true,” spandau ballet were a band on the new-romantic bandwagon still searching for their own sound. horn produced this hit (a #10 u.k. single) from their second album diamond, and it sounds simultaneously very horn (in retrospect) and very spandau (in the context of their work at the time). I’m not even sure “instinction” is an actual word, yet horn somehow crafts a hooky chorus around the repeated mantra “it’s my instinction, it’s my instinction.” The production on this one is très high-gloss, just like spandau liked it (you could argue that the only “sound” they ever truly hit on was high-gloss pop). The song’s one surprise is the thundering-down drums in the chorus, which sound very faux-tribal and antmusic to my ears.

4. “the look of love (part 1),” abc. keeping with their soulboy mojo, horn keeps the horns playing on this second single from lexicon (and, in fact, through much of the album). “love” is actually a fair example of a typical horn record: packed with elements, yet with a surprisingly clean, open sound. as the song nears its climax, however – which is, oddly, the song’s last beat (a snare crack after fry’s closing vamping-on-the-chorus “look! of! love!”) – horn starts piling it on, even tossing in a harp for good measure. too much is never enough, as horn would prove with his next set of protegés.

5. “all of my heart,” abc. horn surprisingly holds back on this mid-tempo near-ballad, lending a lush orchestration to the track and pushing martin fry’s falsetto crooning in the bridge, but otherwise letting the song do its own thing – at least, until the coda, when horn can’t resist piling on the reverb and dub chamber effects as the song does its slow death-dance fade.

6. “buffalo gals,” malcolm mclaren & the world famous supreme team. mclaren, one of the world’s most famous musical manipulators (of the press, of his artists, not of his music itself), handing himself over to horn to be produced? it sounded bizarre on paper, but works a charm in practice. On his duck rock album, mclaren worked to marry then-nascent hip-hop with world musics. and it worked. his collaboration with the world famous supreme team, a crew of radio djs from new york city, is packed full of scratching, looped and sampled vocals, and neo-electro keyboards and drums. if there was any question beforehand about the breadth of depth of records horn could produce, this should’ve shut it all up.

7. “double dutch,” malcolm mclaren. and from nyc hip-hop mclaren moved to township jive on “double dutch,” a song about an urban phenomenon that yet sounded as if recorded in soweto. the charm of hearing mclaren’s high-rent posh british voice say “homegirls, how many skips can you do?” has yet to fade. a marvelous record, albeit one on which is doesn’t sound as if horn was called to do much, simply balancing the sound of south africa with a creamy backing chorus (and mclaren’s whiter-than-white talking vocals).

8. “owner of a lonely heart,” yes. in which the prog-rock monsters of the ‘70s are pulled, kicking and screaming, into the ‘80s pop mainstream courtesy of our boy trevor. oddly, while a #1 smash in the states, this couldn't even crack the top 20 in the u.k. the production here is crisp and a perfect complement to yes’ newly-streamlined pop songwriting, very wide open and full of space to breathe. what many folks don’t get about production in general, and horn in particular, is that it’s easy to fill a record up with bells and whistles; it’s harder to keep a record’s vistas clean. horn does both with equal ease, as we’re about to see.

Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?