Trevor Horn won this year’s PRS for Music Outstanding Contribution to British Music at this year’s Ivor Novello awards. Paul Morley caught up with the man for whom the term ‘record producer’ was invented
I first interviewed Trevor Horn for the NME in 1979 when he was a Buggle topping the charts with Video Killed The Radio Star, a jolly retro-futurist novelty song that a couple of years later was to make history as the song that launched MTV. I issued a withering condemnation. By the time of our interview, Trevor had become producer responsible for increasingly dazzling and ambitious music by Dollar, ABC and Malcom McLaren. This time I was a fan, and part of our discussion about the function and purpose of the record producer.
Trevor had no idea how you became one, or even what one was, but was fascinated with how and why records sounded the way they did. ‘I fell in love with the control room in a studio as soon as I saw one,’ he says. ‘In the beginning I was just fascinated with the idea of making records, learning how to play the record studio as an instrument. New technology was arriving all the time and I was dead jammy to be there when all that change was happening.’
During the 70s, as a hard working bassist in dance bands and musical director for perky UK disco queen Tina Charles, Horn slowly built up the peculiar, abstract qualifications that helped him become a record producer.
After our second interview, Horn invited me to work with him and his manager/wife Jill Sinclair at his new label, which I called Zang Tummn Tumb (ZTT). I named and branded his new group Art of Noise.
ZTT and Art of Noise’s opening record Into Battle was a pioneering example of sampling sounds to make new pieces of music. ‘I wasn’t interested in any kind of traditional human feel. I wanted perfection.’ Explains Horn.
The second ZTT record was Trevor’s horniest ever record, Relax by Frankie Goes To Hollywood which, one way or another, became very well known, bursting all over the 80s.
By 1985, Horn’s perfectionist technique for creating extravagant dance pop that blended technological precision with human inspiration culminated in Grace Jones’ Slave To The Rhythm. It was his finest assembly of electric moments, and one of pop’s all time finest moments.
By the end of the 1980s, Horn had laid claim to five dance producer of the year awards. ‘I remember accepting the last one and saying that the next hot producers were going to be DJ’s,’ he says ‘it was a form of production that was clearly going to evolve’.
ZTT never quite fulfilled early potential, but there was Seal in the 90s, and for Horn a little echo of Frankie fuss in 2002 with lippy Russian girl duo Tatu.
Trevor is now re-invigorating Robbie Williams and winning lifetime achievement awards – Robbie’s latest album is of course Reality Killed The Video Star. ‘When he told me and I was a bit shocked,’ says Horn. ‘I immediately said “You’d better tell people that’s not my idea!”
Horn is doubtlessly one of the very greats as a producer of pop sensation, as an inventor of his own sound, as a master of manipulating technology, composition and studio atmosphere to create epic sonic entertainments. ‘I like to make records that are larger than life and to go to extremes to achieve it,’ he says. And then, veering from the mystical to the pragmatic, he explains: ‘Pop fashion and the business have changed a lot over the last 30 years but some things never change. The song and the voice.’
Thirty years after we first analysed record producing, he’s still not come to a definitive answer about what actually a record producer is. It might not be as important as it once seemed to get to the bottom of it all, but he’s still obsessively searching for clues.