Well, He Was Right About That

Is it a cover if you’re just playing the music again with different people? When MTV used The Buggles’ “Video Killed The Radio Star” to open the channel in 1981, very few people realized that they were hearing something between a cover and a remake. The original version was written by a trio of British artists and recorded in early 1979. Half a year later, two of the three got back together as “The Buggles” and recorded the definitive variant.

While looking for the lyrics of “Video” today for an Avoidable Contact column, I came across the above live peformance from 2004. Trevor Horn, the bassist and vocalist, is in fine form, as are the original backup signers from 25 years prior. It’s a true pleasure to watch, even if Horn commits one of the few mortal sins in music by playing the electric bass with a pick.

Were The Buggles a one-hit wonder? Possibly — but Trevor Horn was anything but. He produced everything from “Owner Of A Lonely Heart” to Seal’s debut album. Along the way, he was executive producer on Jeff Beck’s infamous “Emotion & Commotion”. Oh, and he also was the actual musician behind Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s “Relax”, playing all the parts himself after the band couldn’t quite make it work in the studio.

It’s easy to see Trevor Horn, the prototype of the inventive and technically flawless musician/producer, as a dying breed. But not only is the idea of the bass-playing producer alive and well (cf. Fiona Apple’s dueling bassist/producers, Jon Brion and Mike Elizondo), Horn is also partially responsible for the changes in music between his performing heyday and today. In the course of producing Poison Arrow by ABC, he learned how to program the Roland TR-808, then learned how to trigger it via MIDI. So in a way, Horn wasn’t just a prophet of video killing the radio star, but also an instrument of digital music killing the analog star. Oh-a, Oh-a!

34 Replies to “Well, He Was Right About That”

  1. AvatarJohn Van Stry

    As a bass player, using a pick isn’t a cardinal sin (I’ve used one on occasion for a certain sound). There are some very famous players who used a pick – Chris Squire for example, used a pick (then again, he often used his ring finger and pinky as well at times).
    It’s really more a stylistic choice than anything, though the debate has been going on for decades….

    Reply
    • AvatarI COME IN PEACE

      Yeah, pretty much. beat-dead-horse.jpg

      But…lemme tell ya, I started using metal picks a few years ago (http://ice-pix.com/brands/ICE-PIX.html) and it really adds some zingy huevos when I use them.

      P.S. Speaking of bass-playing producers, I’m going to do the shameless plug thing and link to a ‘record’ I made by myself over much of 2020 (except for the vocals/lyrics) – no guitars were played!

      https://gildedcharlatan.bandcamp.com/album/gilded-charlatan

      Reply
      • AvatarRonnie Schreiber

        Paul McCartney uses pennies flattened on railroad tracks as picks.
        I’ve considered buying one of those collectible penny presses, and get dies with Strats, LPs, Teles and PRS guitars, and put it in a Guitar Center or Sam Ash store.

        Reply
      • AvatarEric L.

        Dang. I always suspected I’m a few std deviations below the average amongst the anonymous commenters here. This further proves it. Excellent atmosphere and vocals on CRAWLING, she has a great voice!

        I was expecting some Courtney LaPlante at the halfway mark. Have you heard Spiritbox’s insane “live” show for Sirius? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oRqIbpu2ekA Blessed Be, ugh, such a fantastic track. Rule of Nine from Part I is also pure 🤘.

        Reply
  2. Avatarstingray65

    Video Killed the Radio Star reminded me of the 1929 song If I Had a Talking Picture of You, which is done pretty well in the link.

    Reply
  3. AvatarGene

    YOU FORGET he is also responsible for one of the best (and underrated) Yes albums made – DRAMA. Nothing like Machine Messiah or Tempus Fugit. Ass kicking songs – and Chris Squire is fantastic on those tracks, regardless of whether he plays with a pick!

    Reply
  4. AvatarRyan

    Poison Arrow is such an excellent song. One of my favorites for 80s karaoke night.

    About 10 years ago, we had a channel called “Cool TV” or something that would play real music videos. Late one night, they played a live version that I have yet to find on YouTube.

    Reply
  5. AvatarPanzer

    The music video for ‘Relax’ has to go down as the gayest Music Video of all time – It’s literally an orgy at someone’s villa somewhere.

    Reply
  6. AvatarTomko

    And I always thought Trevor Horn was the guy who played the Taj Mahal – but it turns out that was Paul Horn…

    Spun the Lexicon of Love incessantly until my Shure V15 Type IV gave way to my still stalwart reVox B225.

    I also attended the first ever performance of Frankie goes to Hollywood in the new world. They weren’t exactly virtuosos and were more than likely jet-lagged. But Holly Johnson sang well. Maybe 400 people in the room. Ahh, to be 19 years-old in third year again…

    https://www.setlist.fm/setlist/frankie-goes-to-hollywood/1984/porter-hall-carleton-university-ottawa-on-canada-1bcbb558.html

    Reply
  7. AvatarRick T

    I discovered this video a few years back. I play it occasionally when I think of it and it’s always a joy to watch. Thanks for the reminder!

    Reply
  8. Avatarjwinks6500

    I use a pick when my fingers start to bleed. I mainly play guitar so mr calluses are in the wrong spots. Different sound and attack, both valid. Good article, but too short! You write about music artfully. I’m a big Trevor Horn fan. He and Geoff Downes saved Yes and let them escape prog purgatory much like Phil Collins did for Genesis. I think Drama is among their best albums.

    Reply
  9. AvatarCJinSD

    I have eclectic musical tastes. Very little of what I listen to ever topped the charts that pay. That being said, a friend’s older brother essentially claimed to be the studio musician who laid down every track of the Dave Matthews albums that made the band, except for those performed by Boyd Tinsley, when he was recording them in the early ’90s. He said he gave them as many chances as he could to lay down a track before they ran out of studio time. When they all failed to perform, including Dave Matthews who some philistines consider to be a good guitar player; he picked up their instruments and performed their music at a level worth recording. I don’t know if it is true or not, but I used to go see Dave Matthews band perform at Trax in Charlottesville every week when I was in school. They were terrible, but it was a good social event.

    Reply
  10. AvatarJohn C.

    It is interesting to think of the hit making machine that was around Trevor Horn, I think you should include his orchestra both digital and analogue. We can see how lost Frankie and ABC were without him. Remember when ABC had an AC semi hit telling you to listen to Smokey Robinson, almost today levels of self loathing and mockery. It is too bad Mr. Horn was not able to create a full line hit factory in the manner of Barry Gordy or Mickey Most that kept their slate of performers under contract and supplied with support and new material.

    Reply
  11. Avatarjc

    Well, Jack, I think you ought to call up Carol Kaye and let her know she’s been playing electric bass wrong all these years. I’m sure she’ll be interested to hear it. I’d like to hear her response (Ms. Kaye is well known to speak her mind in terms vivid yet concise).

    Reply
    • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

      I was making a joke but truthfully, we are all doing it wrong. The Fender Precision Bass was intended to be played with the thumb, but Leo also thought people might use a pick in traditional guitar fashion, which relies on thumb and forefinger movement.

      Playing upright style with two fingers was a Sixties development. Carol Kaye plays with a pick but hinges from her wrist. She did this because she wasn’t strong enough to play “normally”. I think the Buggies fellow also uses the Carol Kaye method.

      Then you have Larry Graham’s thumb method, which led to slap and pop.

      Reply
      • Avatarjc

        Given that Carol Kaye was a professional studio guitarist before she ever picked up the electric bass, I rather doubt she “wasn’t strong enough” to play bass however she wanted. I’d believe that her particular pick technique was a considered choice.

        Reply
        • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

          I’m not implying that she was a wilting flower — rather that picking the bass with a couple of carpal-tunnel tendons is so painful and difficult over the long run that a lot of grown men give it up after playing far fewer hours in a week than she had to.

          Let’s put it this way: I’m not a tiny person. There are times in my adult life where I have benched 245 pounds for reps, I can bunnyhop a 290-pound bike-and-rider combo two feet in the air, and I can pick up a Lotus Esprit long block by myself then carry it across a shop. I have a firm enough grip to ride a mountain bike downhill over rocks at 40mph. But I find picking the bass to be an authentic hassle.

          But don’t take my word for it; take hers. Tip 103: https://www.carolkaye.com/www/education/tips101.htm

          The history of stringed instruments is filled with anecdotes like that. Jaco started playing the bass because he had a hand injury that kept him from playing the drums.

          Reply
          • Avatarjc

            I wonder if the “pivoting from the wrist” isn’t really the best way for guitar as well, and people just get away with using the small muscles of the fingers because electric guitar’s easier to pluck. Someone like Joe Pass or John Patitucci, Herb Ellis, guys that play a ton, how do they do it? I never realized till recently that Wes Montgomery did all his picking with the thumb! And Freddie Greene – all wrist and forearm action there, just watch a video. (No solos, though…)

          • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

            Picking a guitar is MUCH easier than picking a bass. The string tension on a bass can be as much as four times that of an equivalent guitar string. The string itself weighs several times what a guitar string does. Picking an electric guitar with .011 strings or below is almost effort free. With a bass you have to physically move the string out of your way. Multiply that by a couple thousand motions a day and things get odd in a hurry.

          • Avatarjc

            Well, a quick search of the internet (so you know it’s guaranteed accurate) turns up a lot of guitar instructionals telling you to play with your wrist motion not the motion of your fingers. Which sounds a lot like what Carol Kaye recommends for playing bass with a pick.

            So is it perhaps that Carol played guitar with correct technique and then transferred that correct technique over to electric bass when playing with a pick? In other words, there’s no contradiction and those who play guitar (or bass) picking with the small muscles of the fingers, are actually not doing it correctly?

            As not a guitar player, an infrequent electric bass player, and a double bass player (totally different technique), I have no dog in this fight…

          • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

            Anything is possible, but in general it’s hard to get full speed out of the wrist. She doesn’t need it — I can’t think of anything she ever played that my 11 year old son couldn’t cover in a couple takes. (To be fair, he can also play much of Teen Town.) Her genius was in knowing what to play, not how she played it.

          • Avatarjc

            Thing is, Pastorius played that as an improvised solo.

            Similarly, typical Carol Kaye bass parts are about groove and timing, not about notes.

      • AvatarRonnie Schreiber

        Phil Lesh, from the Grateful Dead, uses a pick.

        Also, Carol Kaye may have created some great bass lines but her taking credit for James Jamerson’s work with Motown just because Barry Gordy decided to recut some tunes after moving Motown to LA hardly reflects well on her.

        Reply
  12. AvatarI COME IN PEACE

    I finally watched the video posted – I never was a fan of the band or song, but the production on their performance was top-notch. A deceptively simple song that when seen in a different light is actually more complex/interesting.

    Reply
  13. AvatarJMcG

    I’m going to betray my stone ear here, but was Trevor Horn’s vocal auto tuned in that performance? His voice seems unusually pure and pitch perfect.

    Reply
        • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

          I don’t THINK it is Auto-Tuned. He is using the same echo effect, or most likely a plugin designed to mimic it, but his curiously hollow voice was like that before ProTools ever existed. Also impressive: his original backup singers hitting all the notes.

          Reply
          • AvatarRonnie Schreiber

            Dave Grohl made a movie called Sound City, about the studio in LA, which declined as digital tech took over the recording industry. Someone in the film asked how come today we have all sorts of technical tools that can do amazing things with perfect pitch and perfect timing and the music is nowhere near as good as it was when there were technical challenges.

  14. Avatargalactagog

    I always hated that Buggles song, but have to admit the live performance is fantastic. The piano & violin bit at the end was superb.

    Had no idea of his pedigree other than “Yes” which is impressive enough, but wow!!

    Frankie was a huge sound: I remember when that came out. Great wrestling video too, didn’t it have “spitting image” UK parody guys involved? Reagan & Gorbachev in the ring?

    I previously thought the Buggles were guys dressed up in furry kid costumes: maybe confusing with Teletubbies.

    thanks Jack!

    Reply

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