Trevor Horn: The artist of noise

Music produced by Trevor Horn provided the soundtrack to the Eighties - and now he's back. Fiona Sturges meets him
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"People don't listen to records in the way that they used to. I always had this idea that a record was like a journey. It led you somewhere, and by the end you felt like something had happened. Nowadays, records begin at the end of the journey and don't develop into anything. Pop songs start out loud and try to grab everything in the first 30 seconds."

"People don't listen to records in the way that they used to. I always had this idea that a record was like a journey. It led you somewhere, and by the end you felt like something had happened. Nowadays, records begin at the end of the journey and don't develop into anything. Pop songs start out loud and try to grab everything in the first 30 seconds."

Trevor Horn pauses, clearly concerned that he's coming across like a grumpy old man. "When I started in this job, I wanted people to listen to music in the same way that they watched a film," he continues. "I wanted to make records that could make you feel a range of emotions, that would make you stop and catch your breath."

Now, of course, this softly spoken 56-year-old is among the most sought-after record producers in the business, a modern-day Midas whose name alone can ensure a record is catapulted into the upper reaches of the charts. Lest we forget, this is the man who managed to turn the unwieldy prog-rockers Yes into a chart-topping proposition in 1983, with "Owner of a Lonely Heart". Having set out his songwriting credentials in the late Seventies with Buggles and their electro-pop classic "Video Killed the Radio Star", Horn went on to produce a host of era-defining artists, including Frankie Goes to Hollywood, ABC, Pet Shop Boys, Tina Turner, Grace Jones and Simple Minds.

More recently, he has sprinkled his fairy dust on albums by the Scottish seven-piece Belle and Sebastian and the Russian pseudo-lesbian duo Tatu. Far from being an anonymous technician twiddling knobs behind a glass partition, Horn has become a celebrity in his own right, a brand name synonymous with big-budget, multi-textured epics - think Seal's "Crazy", Frankie Goes to Hollywood's "Relax" or Pet Shop Boys' "Left to My Own Devices". In the past quarter of a century he has pioneered new mixing techniques and rewritten the laws of pop composition. To quote the writer Paul Morley, Horn's co-conspirator in Art of Noise: "All contemporary pop utilising computers and samplers owes something to the innovations of Trevor Horn in the early Eighties."

Horn is sitting in a sleek apartment at the top of his labyrinthine studio complex off Portobello Road in west London. Rather like its owner, the studio comes with a distinguished pedigree. Before he bought it, in 1983, it was the headquarters of Chris Blackwell's Island label. It's where Bob Marley signed his record deal, where Queen made "Bohemian Rhapsody" and where the Horn-produced single "Do They Know It's Christmas?" by Band Aid was recorded.

An amiable man who has long since discarded the bottle-top specs of his Buggles heyday in favour of more understated rimless versions, Horn is full of stories about the Eighties glory days. So given is he to flights of nostalgia that he clutches a piece of paper with the word "Wembley" written on it to remind him why we are here. Over the years, Horn has rarely involved himself in the grubby business of publicity, but needs must, and right now he's got a gig to promote.

Produced by Trevor Horn is a one-off charity performance at Wembley Arena to mark 25 years in the business, a sort of variety show featuring a selection of his most successful acts. Coming in the wake of tours by Duran Duran, ABC and most of Spandau Ballet, the concert is tapping into a strong vein of Eighties nostalgia. "I felt a bit reticent about it at first," he confesses. "One of the good things about being a producer is that you can hide away; you don't have to come out and do lots of talking. But any misgivings I had about it, I've got over now because all the musicians were so keen to do it. The guys from Yes wanted to play on everybody else's songs because they're so sick of playing their own. The only person who probably won't do it is Holly Johnson [of Frankie Goes to Hollywood]. I think it's to do with his relationship with the rest of the band rather than not wanting to play with me. I'm sad he's not doing it, but it'll still be good fun."

Horn has been involved in music since he was a child, when he joined the youth orchestra at grammar school. Throughout his teens and early twenties he worked as a session musician, playing double bass on records by Tina Charles (with whom he had a relationship) and Shakatak, then a jazz-rock outfit. Among his first London gigs was the BBC's Come Dancing. "I played waltzes, foxtrots and quicksteps - the bass parts for that stuff were dead simple," Horn recalls. "If they did something modern, it was 'Let's Twist Again'. There were hardly any kids around who could play bass guitar and read music, so it was a good way to earn a living. I joined a few rock bands, but I found the experience frustrating, primarily because the other members could never play properly."

Disillusioned with his lack of success, at 25 he moved back to live with his parents near Leicester. At night he played in a house band at a local club, while by day he and a childhood friend set about building a recording studio. A year later, they opened for business. "They had these local songwriting competitions, so we put an ad in the paper. After a while we had some takers, and I started fixing up people's songs, hiring the musicians and so on. One day this guy called Bill Coleman, who used to play with Johnny Johnson and the Bandwagon, said to me, 'You know that thing you're doing? That's called being a record producer.' I said, 'Well, that's what I want to do.' "

In the first few years Horn struggled to find his footing as a behind-the-scenes man. "It was a catch-22. I couldn't have a hit without a decent artist, and I couldn't work with any decent artists without having had a hit. I had come to the end of my tether and decided that if I couldn't find a good artist and a good song, then I'd bloody well have to do it myself. I had this track called 'Video Killed the Radio Star' and I knew it was too good to ignore. Me and Geoff [Downes] had had this idea for a group named Buggles. It was a crummy name, though in those days I didn't think much about packaging or image. I wish to God I had now."

"Video Killed the Radio Star" reached No 1 in 16 countries, and two years later the accompanying video had the distinction of being the first ever to be broadcast on the fledgling music channel MTV. "Sure, Geoff and I had these grand concepts, but we were completely naive about the world beyond the recording studio," Horn remarks. "The original idea was to make machine music - disposable pop that could be produced by a machine and made human input almost unnecessary. Little did we know how that would ring true later on. But we had no time to plan what we were going to do, and we were completely green in interviews. We were very earnest and sincere and thought everybody was nice, and then got trashed. Unless you're a certain kind of person, being a pop star isn't the fun it's made out to be. At least, it never really did it for me."

Among Horn's more questionable post-Buggles career moves was joining Yes as a replacement for the singer Jon Anderson. The band received terrible reviews on their 1980 tour, largely because of Horn's off-key singing. "It was tough," he sighs. "Doing a two-hour show at Madison Square Gardens in front of 23,000 people, singing someone else's songs - not the easiest thing in the world. Anderson had one hell of a voice, and it was extremely high. It was impossible to imitate. My problem was that I didn't know when to admit defeat." After eight months, he quit.

When he worked with Yes again in 1983, it was as producer of the album 90125, which spawned their biggest hit, "Owner of a Lonely Heart". By that time, Horn had left his pop career behind and was working full time as a producer. After four singles with the girl-boy duo Dollar, he went on to work with ABC, the group behind such quintessential Eighties classics as "Poison Arrow" and "The Look of Love". In 1983, he and Paul Morley founded the record label ZTT, the first release on which was "Relax" by Frankie Goes to Hollywood. After being banned from the Radio 1 playlist, the song shot to No 1 in the charts and sold more than a million copies. Six months later came Frankie's second single, "Two Tribes", which went gold in seven days and stayed at No 1 for nine weeks.

The lyrics of "Two Tribes" may have been written by Holly Johnson and co, but the Cold War theme was cooked up by Horn and Morley. "Morley got hold of a bootleg copy of the four-minute-warning tape that the radio stations were meant to play in the event of a nuclear attack," he remembers. "It's pretty chilling stuff - it ends by saying, 'The last voice you will hear is mine.' We wanted to use the tape, but instead we got Patrick Allen, who read on the original, to come in and redo it for us. When he first read the script, he said, 'You know that when I did this I had to sign the Official Secrets Act, don't you?' We were, like, 'Oh, does that mean you won't do it?' And he said, 'What the hell. Why not?' "

Horn's output slowed down in the Nineties - his biggest success was Seal, the soul-pop artist who had several hits in the UK before decamping to the US. Recently, however, he has been enjoying something of renaissance. At his daughter's insistence, Horn listened to Belle and Sebastian's 1996 ballad "Stars of Track and Field", which led him to produce their latest, critically acclaimed album Dear Catastrophe Waitress.

"It doesn't matter how big or famous somebody is; if they haven't got the material, it's not worth doing," he reflects. "If they're completely unknown and have something that blows me away, I'll do it." His work last year with Tatu brought him his first No 1 hit in almost a decade - the single "All the Things She Said" shifted nine million copies worldwide - not to mention some unexpected controversy.

"When I first heard them, they reminded me of [the German synth-pop band] Propaganda - they had that same Euro-techno thing. But it was a shame the way they were marketed. I think their manager was a little sinister, and went overboard on the whole lesbian thing. It's sad, because it meant that no one took their music seriously."

Though he's not ready to be put out to pasture quite yet, Horn is already looking to cut down his workload and spend more time at home with his family. As he points out, 25 years isn't bad going for a jobbing session musician, and you're only as good as your last hit. "One of the realities of being a record producer is, however clever a record you think you've made, if nobody wants to buy it, it doesn't mean a thing. People don't hire me because they like me, or because I'm famous. They hire me to do a job, and if I don't do it I'll be fired just as quickly as anybody else."

'Produced by Trevor Horn', featuring ABC, Art of Noise, Belle & Sebastian, Buggles, Pet Shop Boys, Seal, Yes and others is at Wembley Arena on 11 November (020-7543 1389; www.princes-trust.org.uk/redcarpet)

25 YEARS IN MUSIC

BUGGLES (1980)

Horn met the keyboard-player Geoff Downes in the mid-Seventies, while playing bass with the disco singer Tina Charles. The duo formed Buggles, and a year later, Horn had a major hit on his hands with "Video Killed the Radio Star", one of the precursors of the new synthetic pop.

ABC (1982)

As New Wave turned into the more listener-friendly New Romanticism, Horn seized his moment, releasing a string of ruthlessly commercial but inspired pop confections. Taking a Sheffield outfit, Vice Versa, he transformed them into the polished croon-and-synth hit-machine ABC. The band enjoyed success with The Lexicon of Love and the singles "The Look of Love" and "Poison Arrow". Sustaining it without Horn, however, proved somewhat harder than abc.

FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD (1983-87)

The Liverpudlians came to Horn's attention when they appeared on the music show The Tube and signed for his fledgling ZTT label. He overhauled their sound, and the debut single "Relax", a dance-pop number with a suggestive lyric, went to No 1 in the UK in January 1984 after being banned by Radio 1. The band released a trio of million-selling singles and the hugely successful Welcome to the Pleasure Dome. By 1986 and the release of Liverpool, the magic was gone.

BELLE AND SEBASTIAN (2003)

Horn's collaboration with Belle and Sebastian, Dear Catastrophe Waitress, put him back in the spotlight. The marriage of Horn's burnished production and the mild-mannered indie popsters' trademark whimsy proved not to be the catastrophe that the admirers of both camps might have feared - Horn brought an upfront sound and a new clarity to the band's usual lo-fi strategies.

TATU (2003)

Two teenage girls, Tatu had a huge hit in their native Russia with their paean to schoolgirl lesbianism, "Ya Soshla s Uma [I've Lost My Mind]". Trevor Horn was one of the producers brought in to work on 200km/h in the Wrong Lane, the English-language remake of their album. Knowing when to leave well alone, Horn retitled the hit "All the Things She Said", but otherwise stuck close to the original.

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