Behind the Album: Trevor Horn Looks Back on The Buggles, ‘The Age of Plastic’

Trevor Horn’s list of production credits runs a mile-long and includes some of the biggest names and unforgettable tracks in rock and pop music over the past 40 years. But he was making a major impact on the music world even before he put out a shingle as a producer-for-hire. In fact, there’s an argument to be made that the most influential release to which he ever contributed came as a member of his own band, The Buggles.

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In 1980, The Buggles, which were comprised of Horn and keyboardist Geoff Downes, later of Yes and Asia, released their debut album The Age Of Plastic. It was preceded by the massive success of the single “Video Killed The Radio Star,” a No. 1 hit in Horn’s native Great Britain and later the first video to be shown on MTV. 

“Video Killed The Radio Star” is an understandably iconic track, but all of ‘The Age Of Plastic’ deserves rediscovery, in case you missed it the first time 40 years ago. Horn spoke to American Songwriter recently about the anniversary and how his original idea for the band and its most famous track sounded like science fiction at the time, only to seem more timely with each passing year.

“It was based on this idea that I got from a JG Ballard story (‘The Sound-Sweep’),” Horn recalls. “I had this idea that in the future rather than people playing music, there would be people working at a computer. And a record label wouldn’t sign artists, it would just have computer-generated artists. Most of it has come true in bits of ways, but that’s what was in my head. And The Buggles were meant to be one of those groups that somebody just invented on a computer. The computer would write the songs.”

That idea permeates “Video Killed The Radio Star” and its tale of a faded hero from a different musical age. As a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, the song would help to usher in an era where many established hitmakers would become shuffled aside by forward-thinkers like Horn who understood the potential of the new technology.

Technology aside, however, there’s also no denying the songcraft behind the hit. “I think ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’ has held on as such as standard because it’s a simple song and it’s a lyric that always applies,” Horn muses. “At the time, a lot of the people around me thought, because of its inherently poppy nature, that in some way I had sold out. But I thought that’s kind of what made it iconic, because it was a shameless pop record.”

It’s a song that still sounds as fresh and fantastic as it did all those years ago, which was in part due to the experience that Horn and Downes had been accumulating as up-and-coming musicians. “I’d been making records for five years,” Horn says. “I’d played on loads of things. Me and Geoff, we knew about making records at point. We knew about keyboards and all kinds of things. We put back every bit of knowledge that we had into ‘Video Killed The Radio Star.’ We made every bit of it good.”

With a hit single on their hands, the duo was then faced with a sudden demand for an album, which they hoped would extend the theme begun by the leadoff single. “The single was #1 while we were working on the album,” Horn remembers. “We’d never done an album before. The idea was that all of the songs in some way would be about technology. Not just sort of love lyrics.”

Thus, Horn and Downes began adding to their modest discography to fill out what would become The Age Of Plastic. “We had a couple of the songs already, because our original Buggles demo tape had four songs on it,” Horn recalls. “And when my late wife (Jill Sinclair), who was the first person to really want to sign us, gave us a day of studio time, we went in and did ‘Kid Dynamo.’ She was just seeing if we were the guys who actually made the record.” 

“It’s always a good thing to check,” Horn laughs. “And I had the idea for ‘Ellstree’, the song about the film studios, Britain’s own Hollywood, a long time before. But we had to write most of it pretty quickly.”

They also had to figure out how to make the sounds in their heads with what resources they had. “I always remember ‘I Love You (Miss Robot),’ Horn says. “We spent ages doing that bit. Back then, there were no mobile phones. We had to call people on pay phones. We recorded a whole section using all of the noises from the pay phone.”

Yet for all the cheekiness of the music, there is an undeniable strain of sorrow running through The Age Of Plastic, a sense that the album is just as much about those being left behind by technological progress as those benefitting from it. “Where I come from, we make melancholy music,” Horn says of that dynamic. “That’s sort of the landscape. I always like the sadder chords.”

The Age Of Plastic came out at the very beginning of 1980, the kind of ambitious, insightful project that was apt for the start of a new decade. It seemed to herald an exciting new band as well. But The Buggles’ momentum was interrupted when Horn and Downes both joined veteran prog rockers Yes for an album (Drama) and tour in 1980. Shortly after they began recording their follow-up, 1981’s Adventures In Modern Recording, Downes joined Asia, leaving Horn to largely complete the follow-up by himself.

But Horn wasn’t too down about the turn of events. “We both went on to different things,” he says. “I went into record production. By the time the second album came out, I was much more interested in record production. Going out and playing live, I’d had enough of it with Yes. I wanted to get back in the studio, because ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’ paid off after all of those years. To get back to that, it seemed much more interesting than playing live.”

As such, The Age Of Plastic represents one of the great what-might-have-beens in rock history, even as it stands as one of the most cohesive and enduring albums to come out of the first stages of the British New Wave. Even if one of its main creators tends to look back it with a touch of ambivalence.

“I don’t listen to it very often,” Horn muses. “I’m fond of bits of it. When I do it in a charity show, I change some of the lyrics to say what I was really trying to say. When I do lyrics now, I work much harder on them.”

“It’s funny to go back to things, you know.”

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