A musician, songwriter, label owner, and GRAMMY-winning producer, Trevor Horn has been a defining presence on the British pop music scene since 1979 when he had his first hit with the Buggles. Their song, "Video Killed The Radio Star," may be one of the most prophetic pop tunes ever written, predating the birth of MTV.
Horn launched his career as a producer in 1981 and soon hit No. 1 on the British album chart with ABC's 1982 debut album The Lexicon Of Love. He proceeded to helm hit recordings such as Frankie Goes To Hollywood's "Relax" and "Two Tribes," Grace Jones' "Slave To The Rhythm" and 808 State's "Cubik," among others. In 1980 he replaced Jon Anderson as lead vocalist of Yes and earned production and songwriting credits for their album Drama. He co-wrote and produced the band's biggest hit, "Owner Of A Lonely Heart," which was featured on their 1983 GRAMMY-nominated album 90125. Horn's often-imitated production style led British music critic Simon Price to label him "the man who invented the '80s." Proving he was a man for all decades, in 1995 Horn took home his first career GRAMMY for Record Of The Year for Seal's worldwide smash "Kiss From A Rose."
ZTT (Zang Tuum Tumb) Records, the game-changing electronic pop label Horn co-founded in 1983, recently celebrated its 30th anniversary with the compilation The Organization Of Pop: Music From The First Thirty Years Of ZTT Records. The retrospective features 27 tracks, including songs by Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Art Of Noise, 808 State, Propaganda, Shane MacGowan, and the Frames, among others.
In an exclusive GRAMMY.com interview, Horn discussed the new ZTT Records compilation, his production philosophy and using the studio as an instrument, and the architecture of "Kiss From A Rose," among other topics.
Did you really invent the '80s?
[Laughs] I get that quite a bit lately. I did make some of the first modern-sounding records, but a few other people were doing [similar things]. After the first samplers and sequencers came along, you could give a mechanical feeling to rock music. You could lock machines into playing rhythms together and rock out in an interesting way. We all got the idea from Donna Summer, Giorgio Moroder and Kraftwerk. We wanted to make records that sounded like Donna Summer meets Kiss.
With so many hits to choose from, how did you select the tracks for The Organization Of Pop: Music From The First Thirty Years Of ZTT Records?
I have to be honest. I didn't select them. The enthusiasts that run the label sequenced them, but I'm happy with what they chose. I have a few things I would have liked on it, but they may be on volume two. There's one track, "We Can Fly From Here (Part One)" by the Buggles, that marks the first time I ever worked with Chris Squire from Yes. He came down to the studio and played bass on it back in 1980.
Today you hear profanity on cable TV every 20 seconds. In hindsight, is it hard to believe the lyrics for Frankie Goes To Hollywood's "Relax" caused such a stir?
It is quite innocent compared to everything today, but I don't think the banning thing over here had to do with the song. They were trying to stop what was written on the back of the single, things like, "Frankie says: 'Lick the s*** from my boots.'" I never saw it myself, but it must have slipped by the production department. We created a new system after that one got by.
Did the Italian futurist writer Filippo Marinetti have any influence on your musical vision, besides giving you a title for your label?
We admired his stage presentation and his futuristic outlook. His famous pamphlet [a long poem that used the noises of gunfire and explosions as words] was called Zang Tuum Tumb. He coined the phrase "the art of noise." For his live performances, he used sound generators. It wasn't music, but it forced you to pay attention.
You use the studio as an instrument, almost a room of sound versus a wall of sound. How did you form your methodology?
I never had a conscious idea about making a larger-than-life sound, but I like to do exciting records. [Phil] Spector made a specific kind of record by getting musicians to play what they normally wouldn't play. Many people copied that sound, but I was bouncing things from track to track [on tape recorders] since I was a kid. I loved the way overdubbing changes a sound, but it took a long time to learn. I played bass in a society band, doing weddings and parties, until I had enough money to build a studio and go into production. The things I've done sound big, but I never consciously copied anyone. When you make a pop record, you want to allude to what others have done in some way. But coming from England, I had a different sensibility. I just wanted a sound that would hold your attention to the end [of a song].
You won a Record Of The Year GRAMMY for Seal's "Kiss From A Rose." Do you have any recollections of the 38th GRAMMY Awards in 1996?
I was thrilled; I thought our approach [to the arrangement] was too old-fashioned to be played on the radio, but I didn't see any other way to do it. A song like that doesn't come along very often. I went to the ceremony, got the award and followed Seal into the media room where everybody clustered around him. It was overwhelming. When it was my turn [to talk to the press], I said, "Thanks guys." And then I was off. It's the upside of being a producer. I only have to say two words and I'm off the hook.
What was the mindset for the production of that song?
When Seal played me the song, it sounded like an Elizabethan waltz set to an R&B rhythm. He'd made a very cool demo and I wanted to preserve the feeling of it. We changed a few bits, switched the key in the middle eight and brought in a real string section. He had everything in his head and, when we started working, it came out fast. We did all the vocals, with all his harmonies, in one of those great creative afternoons.
(J. Poet lives in San Francisco and writes about Native, folk, country, Americana, and world music for many national and international publications and websites.)