by Kevin Burton
In J.G. Ballard’s short story “The Sound-Sweep,” the main character is a non-verbal boy who has the job of vacuuming up all the stray sounds in a world without music.
He befriends an opera singer living in an abandoned recording studio. The opera singer is destitute, having been displaced from her featured place on the radio. All previous music has been rendered obsolete thanks to advances in “ultrasonic music.”
This science fiction story was a major influence on Trevor Horn, the producer and session musician who along with keyboardist Geoff Downes and songwriter Bruce Wooley, wrote the 1979 Buggles hit “Video Killed the Radio Star.”
My series Raised On Radio, a look at the golden age of radio, how it felt for those of us who lived through it, had to reach the Buggles sooner or later, right?
Video Killed The Radio Star is insistent and convincing both in sonic and video forms. Horn was also influenced by Kraftwerk, a German band formed in 1970 that is widely considered innovators and pioneers of electronic music.
“(Kraftwerk’s) ‘man-machine’ approach to music had Horn thinking about the possibilities of record labels having vast banks of computers in subterranean vaults that would in the near future be tasked with writing and performing all of humankind’s music,” wrote broadcaster and commentator Alan Cross in a 2019 piece on the Canadian news outlet Global News.
“The Buggles were predicated on the idea that everything in life is artificial, including music. That’s why Trevor Horn sings in a robotic voice and why the instruments are all processed for a computerized feel,” according to SongFacts. “It was a commentary on the intrusion of technology into every aspect of our lives.”
“Trevor Horn said of this song in the book I Want My MTV: ‘It came from this idea that technology was on the verge of changing everything. Video recorders had just come along, which changed people’s lives. We’d seem people starting to make videos as well, and we were excited by that. It felt like radio was the past and video was the future. There was a shift coming,” SongFacts wrote.
“Through the latter half of the 1970s, some areas of the music community were having a Marshall McLuhan-esque existential crisis thanks to the rise of synthesizers and the adoption of new studio technology,” Cross wrote.
“The new machines, many of which could perform tricks that no human could ever duplicate manually, were driving music into new territory at a fearsome speed. Was humanity being sapped from music? Were humans going to lose control of music? And were these new artificial sounds, methods of recording, and programmed robotic performances actually music in the first place?”
“The Buggles were envisioned as part of that, a “robot Beatles” that would never be seen — or at the very least, never play live,” Cross wrote.
Video killed The Radio Star was a big smash worldwide, number one on 16 national charts after its 1979 release.
But in the United States it made only the briefest of appearances on the top 40, peaking at number 40 the week of Dec. 15, 1979. It wasn’t until August of 1981 and the advent of MTV that the song had its full impact.
It was the obvious choice to be the first video played on MTV at 12:01 am Aug. 1, 1981.
In those opening minutes, VJ Mark Goodman promised that we’d “never look at music the same way again.”
“The best of TV combined with the best of radio,” he said. “We’ll be doing for TV what FM did for radio.”
The threat to radio was plain, but it was delayed because not many cable outlets carried MTV at first.
“But then a strange thing began to happen. Cities that did have access to MTV saw dramatic spikes in the sales of records by artists whose clips were played on the channel,” Cross wrote.
“Why would an unknown band like, say, Duran Duran, start selling records by the ton in Oklahoma City? Sales stats like that combined with the channel’s aggressive “I want my MTV” campaign resulted in a massive uptick in public demand. Soon, all cable companies were offering it,” Cross wrote.
“Billboard ran a story quoting a record store owner in Tulsa as saying he had 15 copies of the (Buggles) album sitting in a bin for eight months, but weeks after MTV launched, they were all gone.” SongFacts wrote.
Cross maintains that video never killed radio at all, that the two learned to co-exist “in a sometimes competitive, sometimes symbiotic state.”
But Cross also wrote that “radio is still just fine, thank you.” In my estimation, it is not.
The fight for the soul of radio turned out to have little to do with television, more with soulless corporations taking over the music industry and radio stations.
That topic and some personal reflections on music with and without video, Friday on Page 7.
From what little I’ve been told through the years, the interesting thing to me about music videos is that the little “movie” they show is often not really the story told in the song. Seems very strange to me. Also, while electronic music has a certain place, I’m all for acoustic, stripped down and basic playing with honest to goodness instruments and human singers that are not autotune corrected. 🙂
Tracy Duffy firstname.lastname@example.org
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