Trevor Horn: ‘Music business debauchery in the 80s? We were too busy earning a living’

Trevor Horn formed The Buggles with keyboard player Geoff Downes - Gered Mankowitz
Trevor Horn formed The Buggles with keyboard player Geoff Downes - Gered Mankowitz

“Anybody can make a record these days,” according to Trevor Horn. Sometimes billed as “the man who invented the sound of the 1980s”, Horn is the studio wizard responsible for hi-tech mega productions for Frankie Goes to Hollywood, ABC, Grace Jones, Art of Noise, Propaganda, the Pet Shop Boys, Simple Minds and Seal, productions which came to define the most over-the-top era in pop history. He doesn’t seem particularly impressed with the current state of the art.

“All the things that took us ages, locked in a studio – now you can just buy a program and do them at home in an instant,” Horn shrugs. “The analogy I make is cooking out of packets. If you have a kitchen where you’re making everything from scratch, you need a great big cooker, lots of pots and pans – and you need to know what you’re doing. But if what you’re making comes from a packet, then you only need a hotplate and a saucepan. That’s music now. Nobody makes their own sauce anymore.”

Horn has his own home studio these days, albeit a little bigger than most, occupying the ground floor of a double-fronted, Georgian townhouse in north London. Some of his four adult children share his home, and there are bicycles and muddy boots, signs of messy family life, dotted amongst instruments and equipment.

Wandering in, Horn briefly plucks at a double bass – his first instrument – before being distracted by an affection-craving Jack Russell Pug. Relaxed and amiable at 73, with a gentle, Durham accent, the white-haired, bespectacled muso doesn’t exactly come across as a record-industry titan.

“I never had a grand vision,” Horn insists. “I like songs, and I’m always looking for ways to make something special. Music is in the execution of it, rather than the theorising.”

Record-industry titan: Trevor Horn relaxes at home with his dog Cleo - Andrew Crowley
Record-industry titan: Trevor Horn relaxes at home with his dog Cleo - Andrew Crowley

Horn achieved success in partnership with his wife, Jill Sinclair, who was left severely brain-damaged when one of their children accidentally shot her with an air rifle at home in 2006. After eight years in a near-coma, she died in 2014, which goes some way to explaining why his superb new autobiography, Adventures in Modern Recording, concentrates on the joy of music-making and ends in 2004.

“It’s been very difficult, and we’re still dealing with it in different ways, but the family stayed together,” he says.

The memoir should be required reading for anyone who wants to learn more about the passion, patience, skill and serendipity that goes into recording. “Anybody can make a flop,” notes Horn. “I was determined that everything I did was going to be a hit.”

Horn’s father worked in a dairy, and was a semi-professional musician in dance bands. It was the remnants of that scene that gave Horn his entry into music, the future architect of 1980s electropop spending over 10 years as a jobbing musician around the ballrooms and supper clubs of Britain. Not that it holds much affection for him. “You could go insane with boredom playing those old songs,” he says.

He recalls a challenging stint with veteran instrumental outfit Bob Miller and the Millermen. “Everyone was always so drunk. The last night I ever did with them, the drummer fell backwards off the stage mid-song – huge crash, no drums anymore. Meanwhile the keyboard player passed out on his keyboards. That left me and the guitarist playing the quickstep for 300 people. I remember that being a pretty low point.”

The Buggles are best known for their debut single Video Killed the Radio Star which reached number one - Gered Mankowitz
The Buggles are best known for their debut single Video Killed the Radio Star which reached number one - Gered Mankowitz

By the late 1970s, Horn had a sideline helping other musicians write songs and arrange demos, eventually forming The Buggles with keyboard player Geoff Downes. Powered by a new Prophet-5 synthesiser owned by their friend (and future Oscar-winning film composer) Hans Zimmer, their debut single, Video Killed the Radio Star, reached number one in 1979 and propelled Horn onto a new path, aged 30.

By then he was dating Sinclair, who ran the influential Sarm studios in east London, and suggested his talents might lie in production. Together they formed ZTT Records and revolutionised 1980s pop. The time and money spent making hit records in that era seems wildly indulgent from a modern perspective, with Horn and a trusted crew often spending months and tens of thousands of pounds working and reworking a song. “We put in a lot of effort to try to get things just right,” he says. “Not perfect. ‘Perfect’ is a stupid word. But it had to have the right emotional impact.”

He rejects the notion that the 1980s was awash with drugs. “It made me laugh when people used to talk about music-business debauchery. Get out of it! Go down to the City if you want to see all that stuff. In the studio, we were too busy trying to earn a living.”

He does admit, however, that getting the music “just right” sometimes required a certain amount of smoke and mirrors. When it came to recording Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s controversial 1983 debut, Relax, for example, Horn dispensed with the services of every member of the band except singer Holly Johnson. “Holly had a great voice, but there wasn’t much point in having the rest of the lads play on the song,” Horn says politely. “It can be hard to record a band if you can play better than them.” Instead, he recruited Ian Dury’s backing band, The Blockheads. “The Frankie blueprint was ‘Kiss meets Donna Summer’. So that came from the lads. I always had that in my head. But they went back to Liverpool to sign on the dole, and we did the rest.”

Trevor Horn with his late wife Jill Sinclair at the Q Awards in 2005 - Tim Matthews/LFI
Trevor Horn with his late wife Jill Sinclair at the Q Awards in 2005 - Tim Matthews/LFI

He says the best vocalist he ever worked with was Rod Stewart, for Stewart’s 1989 top-10 cover of Tom Waits’s Downtown Train. “Let’s face it, Rod’s a hell of a singer. He doesn’t need reverb – you can put his voice bone-dry on a track and it sounds great.” The only issue was that, after weeks of expensive work, Stewart arrived to announce: “Great backing track, Trev, but it’s in the wrong key.” He wanted it three semitones higher. Today, you could do that with the touch of a button; in 1989, Horn had two days in LA to replay and re-record the whole thing, including transposing a full orchestra with synthesizers. Stewart returned to sing the song, leaving the highest note until the very last take.

“He asked for a mic stand to hold, which he referred to as a “farting post”. We rolled the track and Rod gripped his farting post with both hands then threw his whole body back as he sang. It was a Rod moment I will always treasure.”

He is also a fan of Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys (“[Tennant] has got a beautiful voice. He sings in English, whereas most English singers sing in American, like Elton John”), Seal (“You don’t need to do anything to his voice, just let him sing. He’s my favourite artist to work with”), Yes, and Robbie Williams. “Robbie’s a lot of fun. And he lets you get on with it. I said to him, ‘What hours do you like to work?’ And he said, ‘Friday,’ which suited me fine. I could work the other four days, and then he’d come in and say, ‘I really like that and that, but I don’t like that,’ and we’d change it. That’s a good way of working.”

Horn is famed for his mega-hits, yet he also made some of the boldest, strangest records of his time, including Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren’s influential 1983 hip hop-world music mash-up, Duck Rock. Horn credits his late wife with supporting his more eccentric choices. “She’d say, ‘If you do this band you’ll earn a lot of money, if you do Malcolm you’ll learn a lot. I’d say, ‘Well, I’ll go and learn a lot.’ ”

Horn is visibly overcome with emotion talking about Sinclair. “Jill was funny, she was a great manager, she had more balls than most people I know. And she was… just… it’s very hard… still.” He lapses into silence.

The recording studio remains a sanctuary for him. And, although what he refers to as his “imperial age” might be over, he is still a top producer. “[The studio] is a really nice place to be, with other musicians, making music no one’s ever heard before.”

He relates the story of a recent encounter with a taxi driver. “He said, ‘I remember back in, like, 1983, I said to my friend, “Have you heard that band Frankie Goes to Hollywood? They’re effing great.” My friend says, “No, they’re not. It’s just that Tony Horn f------ about.”’’ Horn laughs. “That’s what I should call my next album: Tony Horn F------ About.”

‘Here's Grace!’ Eventually

Trevor Horn on the making of Slave To the Rhythm

I first met Grace Jones at a studio just off Queensway in London. She was smaller than I expected but somehow seemed to grow larger as I got to know her, purely through the force of her personality. She threw herself into the recording with enormous gusto, marching around the place, but I wasn’t keen on the end result – it sounded a bit like one of those aerobic workout tapes that were popular at the time.

The thing was that I wanted to do a really good record with Grace, not just some throwaway song, and that’s what the original of Slave to the Rhythm sounded like. In retrospect, I should have finished there and then, and saved loads of time, money and energy. Instead, I decided that we would rewrite the song and play it over a go-go beat.

I told my idea to Island Records owner Chris Blackwell, who was paying the bill, and asked him if he could hire a go-go rhythm section for me in New York. Somewhat baffled, since it wasn’t an obvious direction for the song, he put a band together, who we were to meet in the Power Station Studios in New York.

My engineer Steve Lipson was with me when I went out to New York, as was the song’s co-writer Bruce Woolley. The first shock we had was when they told us that we could only have the studio from 9am to 6pm because they had another booking. I’m not into 9am recording sessions. Still, we were there and we had the musicians there. But what we didn’t have was Grace.

At 6pm, we were kicked out of the studio and as the band headed out to their motel for a night of debauchery, me, Bruce and Lippo made our way back to the Parker Meridien hotel carrying drum machines, guitars, keyboards and loudspeakers.

That evening, Bruce wrote another version, aided by me and Lippo, and his beautiful chords helped us to mould the song in a new way. Over the moon and overexcited, I phoned Chris Blackwell, who was just around the corner. He came down, I played it to him, and he got the shock of his life: the song had gone from being this big, bombastic, 120bpm thing to something else, something funkier and more sinewy at 90bpm.

Everything seemed to be going well, and we were ready for Grace to sing. I rang her to see what time she would arrive: “Grace, we’ve got the tracks down, they’re really cool, you should come down.”

She said, “I’ve just set fire to Dolph’s clothes.” This was the Swedish actor Dolph Lundgren, who was her boyfriend at the time. “Well, this’ll get you out of it. You can come down and sing,” I said. She finally agreed to come on the Sunday.

A strange thing happened the night before she arrived. It was the weekend, and the studio was now ours for as long as we wanted it, so of course we were working crazy hours.

Grace Jones performing at Wembley Arena for Trevor Horn/The Prince's Trust concert in 2004 - Tabatha Fireman/Redferns
Grace Jones performing at Wembley Arena for Trevor Horn/The Prince's Trust concert in 2004 - Tabatha Fireman/Redferns

It was 2am on Sunday and the assistant on the session brought us a note from Jim Steinman, who was working in the next studio to us. Would we like to pay him a visit at 4am? Of course we would.

Jim asked us what we were working on. I told him and he came into our control room, where we played him two versions. Jim was enthusiastic and suggested we join all the versions together and make an epic.

Meanwhile, Grace showed up three days late but fighting fit. We learned of Dolph’s infidelity and the subsequent torching of his wardrobe. When we played her the track, she purred, “I imagine it’s a warm evening and I’m sitting on a bench on the deck of my house as the sun’s going down.” With that, she started rolling.

At 5am, Bruce and I helped her down the stairs. As we gently lowered her into the back seat of her limo, she fell off it and lay on the floor on her back. I realised she was trying to tell me something, so I leaned in through the door. “Make it great,” she said. Okay, Grace.

Back in England, the new version of the song just seemed to get better, but now there were four different songs called Slave to the Rhythm. Thinking back to Jim Steinman’s advice, I had started mulling over the idea of a true epic. An album featuring different versions of the same song. When we told our idea to Chris Blackwell, he went into shock. After all, he’d only wanted one song. Still, we were doing it anyway, especially when we got in touch with Grace, who was totally up for the idea.

One night, I was out at Giles Fish & Chip Shop when I happened to look across the room and saw the actor Ian McShane. He had been a Yes fan, and in return I loved his work, so I went straight over and said, "What are you doing? Do you want to come down to the studio?" He remembers is slightly differently, saying that I opened proceedings by saying, "Ian, Orson Welles is dead, so only you will do," but either way, he came down and he did it in one take, all of it, "Ladies and gentlemen, Miss Grace Jones, Slave to the Rhythm," and off he went again. I told him, "I’ll send you a crate of champagne," but I never did although I think he’d stopped drinking by then anyway.

By now our epic needed a climax which the song didn’t have written in it, we needed to put something together. I saw Grace on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson promoting some movie she was in and thought, Why not use the opening line from his show? Hence, "Here’s Grace!" Grace loved the idea and did it in one take.

All in all, we worked on the album for about six weeks in London. It proved to be expensive, though, partly because I flew to New York on Concorde to master it, partly because we had a horn section and string section on it. I think it’s fair to say that I got carried away.

The funny thing about the single of Slave to the Rhythm is that although everybody remembers it now, it wasn’t a huge hit at the time. The video by Jean-Paul Goude was brilliant. Grace performed it on Wogan in a full-face covering. I know now that she was years ahead of her time. It probably wasn’t great for the song’s commercial prospects.

Chris Blackwell said the single was just about the best sounding record he had ever heard. Looking back, I think people were shocked that the song only got to number 12 because up until then just about everything I’d done was such a big hit and it felt like the ultimate Trevor Horn remix project. For maybe that reason it was after Slave that I stopped doing 12-inches. I was tired of them. So that was where that period ended. The end of an era, you might say. Still, even if I’d had enough of remixes, I was still in love with orchestras.

Extracted from Adventures in Modern Recording: From ABC to ZTT by Trevor Horn, published by Nine Eight Books at £22, published on October 13. To order your copy for £19.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books