Saturday, January 11, 2003

trevor horn: a career of brilliance, volume 1 - part 2

9. “relax,” frankie goes to hollywood. in many ways, horn’s entire career – or at least his signature wall-of-sound-part-2 style of production – can be boiled down to welcome to the pleasuredome, which I’ll endlessly argue is his crowning achievement, the reason that in many ways he was the actual and factual king of pop in the 1980s. horn took a band that, truth be told, was not all that great (it pains me to say it, but holly johnson’s not even that good of a singer), and blew them (with the help of some picture-perfect publicity and feigned “controversy”) straight into the pop stratosphere, a supernova expertly suited for their time.

frankie goes to hollywood were in many ways the sex pistols of their day - not for their music, but for their masterful manipulation of the media (especially the bbc). it only made sense, then, for their music to be completely not just over the top, but to the fucking moon (with no way back) - and horn made certain it was. he piled sound upon sound onto their records; "relax" was merely the initial salvo. the production here is dense as bundt cake, wet as rain. odd, then, that the vocals aren't a huge element of the record - and, in fact, there really aren't even that many lyrics, apart from the chorus, repeated ad infinitum. when do you wanna come?

10. "leave it," yes. just as clean as "lonely heart," but much more fascinating. start with the gorgeously-harmonized vocals. notice the way the track gets heavier and heavier as the song advances towards its chorus, launching into a loud "pop!" of drums and synths - but even then, the overall sound is full of what a print editor would call white space, expertly laid out just so. and the drums in the "bridge" - they're not being played, they're being beaten and abused gloriously.

11. "beat box," the art of noise. by mid-'84, horn was already an established hitmaker. but many hitmakers need an outlet for their more avant garde impulses, and horn found his in a group in which he claimed ocassional membership, the art of noise. "beat box" is essentially a hiphop record made with synthesizers and computers. play it for anyone who was growing up in the bronx in '84, and they'll know it - this was part of the canon alongside afrika bambaataa's electro experiments, early freestyle records, and run-d.m.c. aon's ace in the hole was their astounding sense of what ticked rhythmically, for which horn must be given much of the credit. so while making slick pop gems on one hand (abc, fgth, yes), horn was making records that are still influencing hiphop today ("buffalo gals," "beat box") with his other. that's what sonic innovators do - they're ahead of their times (cf. timbaland, neptunes, george martin, quincy jones, jam & lewis).

12. "two tribes (extended version)," frankie goes to hollywood. as pleasuredome was to sgt. pepper's lonely hearts club band, so was the extended 12" version of "two tribes" to "a day in the life." the single version itself was immense enough, but this mix took frankie to another level entirely - sounding like it was recorded in cinemascope, it's grandiose, it's massive, it's just big. horn eked a strong vocal out of holly johnson, pushing him to the limits of emoting, using his voice to augment the claustrophobia and fear of the track. which was, naturally, about nuclear war (this was pre-glasnost, remember). and which, naturally, featured a reagan soundalike uttering pithy remarks about war and conflict scattered all over the track. as well as a foreboding voice reminding you what to do in the event of an air raid. "two tribes" is a moebius strip, turned back in on itself so many times it makes the listener dizzy.

13. "close (to the edit)," the art of noise. kraftwerk + "rockit" = "close (to the edit)." I hope the prodigy sent horn a thank-you card.

14. "do they know it's christmas?," band aid. not so much a signature horn production (co-produced with midge ure, who I'd assume took a bit of the "oomph" out of horn's work), this still must be included for its longevity - tell me you don't hear it played on the radio every december - and for the ability of the song's crafters to balance all of its disparate elements (er, voices). and it's a gorgeous record, not too bombastic (as it certainly could've been, considering its subject matter: ethiopian famine), with just the right amount of solidity to it, like christmas chocolates.

15. "cry," godley & creme. all atmosphere and soundscape, one of horn's forgotten diamonds. an ocassional guitar stabs the nearly-ambient music in the verses like a star in a black night sky. the track's energy ebbs and flows while horn piles effects on the vocals (notably echo and reverb) and minor chords where you don't expect them. the way "cry" ends, with three ever-higher "cry"s bedded with solid synth chords, then allowing the final cry of "cry" to just stand alone and fade, is masterful.

16. "p-machinery," propaganda. apparently, they were quite big in germany... fairly standard, heavy-handed synth-pop (due only to its time; had this been recorded 10 years prior, it would've been sub-jethro tull progrock). an unsurprising choice for horn to produce, if only because of his great affinity for synthesizers. unfortunately, a fairly uninspiring record.

forthcoming: volume 2.

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