At 12:01am on August 1, 1981 – MTV opened its debut broadcast with the perfectly titled “Video Killed the Radio Star.” Written several years earlier in 1978, Buggles co-founders Geoff Downes, and Trevor Horn, along with former bandmate Bruce Wooley saw the future of popular music and culture, writing a nostalgic and yet apathetic reaction to the technological age ahead, and wrapping this reflection in the shimmering sounds of studio technology’s newest developments.
In the late seventies, keyboardist Geoff Downes and bassist Trevor Horn met in London, as both musicians were building their music careers in London. Horn was dating disco singer Tina Charles. Downes recalls: “About nine months after moving to London, I bumped into Trevor. He was living with Tina at the time and looking for people to play in her band. Whenever she did a tour, I’d go on the road with her.”
At this time Horn was also gaining experience as a producer – working on diverse projects from punk rock groups to jingles. Downes and Horn were writing and producing jingles together, when Horn met guitarist Bruce Wooley through a mutual friend. In 1977 and 78, Downes, Horn and Wooley started recording demos together, including: “Video Killed the Radio Star,” “Clean, Clean,” and “On TV”.
In this early demo of “Video Killed the Radio Star” Tina Charles recorded the lead vocals. Downes recalled: “Tina Charles sang on the original demo of Video Killed the Radio Star, made in my flat in Wimbledon Park, but when we got the record deal we had to rerecord it and change the arrangement. I wrote a different intro and middle eight, and we extended the verses. We stayed up for nights experimenting with different sounds. We wanted to cram as many ideas as we could into a pop song. My jingles career helped because you have to get everything across quickly.”
After the demo was recorded, Wooley got a solo record deal, and would go on to record his own version with his group The Camera Club. Wooley’s version was also released in 1979, but didn’t achieve the attention that the Buggles’ version did. Without Wooley, Downes and Horn decided to continue as a duo – now called The Buggles – pulling the inspiration for the name from both their awareness of the rising importance of electronic instruments and studio technology, and the ever-present. gold-standard of pop stardom – the Beatles. Downes explained: “It was originally called The Bugs […] The Bugs were studio insects – imaginary creatures who lived in recording studios causing havoc. Then somebody said as a joke that the Bugs would never be as big as the Beatles. So we changed it to The Buggles.” Horn similarly recalled: “In our heads, the Buggles were a fantasy group that had been dreamt up by a record label that had this huge computer in the basement.”
The demo for “Video Killed the Radio Star” caught the attention of Chris Blackwell at Island Records. However, Jill Sinclair of Sarm Studios, beat him to signing the group. Blackwell wasn’t deterred and put in a much higher offer. Sinclair, who was managing the group and would go on to marry Horn in 1980, released The Buggles from their contract and they signed with Island. Engineer Gary Langan recalled: “Being that Jill was going to marry Trevor, she was also looking out for his best interests…It worked out well for everyone.”
According to Langan, the Buggles recorded the instrumental tracks with Hugh Padgham at Townhouse Studios in Western London before bringing the project back to Sarm Studios. Sarm studios had recently installed a 40-input Trident TSM. The studio also housed two Studer A80 24-track machines, an EMT 140 echo plate, an Eventide digital delay, an Eventide phaser, a Marshall Time Modulator, Kepex noise gates, Urei and Orban EQs, and Urei 1176, Dbx 160, and UA LA2 and LA3 compressors.
Of course, the use of studio technology was essential for capturing the underlying theme of the song – a nostalgic reflection on the humanity of past music, in the midst of a resigned acceptance of its seemingly artificial future.Horn told The Guardian in 2018:
“I’d read JG Ballard and had this vision of the future where record companies would have computers in the basement and manufacture artists. I’d heard Kraftwerk’s The Man-Machine and video was coming. You could feel things changing.”
One key to the song’s success is the balance between the robotic, futuristic sounds of studio technology alongside a romantic vision of the past. Layers upon layers of elements went into the song’s production; Horn explained he calculated that it would take 35 people to play the song live. Still…it was getting that robotic vocal sound just right – which he credits to Downes for suggesting they make it sound like it’s coming from a radio speaker. Langan recalled: “For his lead vocal on ‘Video’, he was looking for something different. In those days, he wasn’t the world’s best singer — like a fine wine, he has improved over the years. So, to help disguise the vocal he wanted a sort of telephone voice, and I therefore sat there for a few hours and put it through some graphics and lots of compression. There were absolutely no dynamics left in it whatsoever by the time it had been recorded, pumped back out through a Vox AC30, and then compressed and EQ’ed again. Beforehand, we’d tried using a bullhorn but it really was harsh — the task was to make the vocal loud without cutting your head off. It still had to retain some softness to it, and it was the AC30 that really gave it that quality.”
He posits that he likely would have used a Shure SM57 or SM58, a Sennheiser 421, or possibly a STC 4038 ribbon.
Another key element for Horn was getting the bass sound just right – dry and loud. The song also brilliantly brings together a juxtaposition of contemporary (e.g. disco drums) and past (e.g. the female backup vocals arrangement) sounds. All of these individual elements reflect the storytelling in the lyrics. Lyrics which reflect upon the world of music making in which radio, and the sonic quality of music, still reigned supreme. The song begins…
I heard you on my wireless back in ’52
Lying awake, intent at tuning in on you
If I was young, it didn’t stop you coming through
It is this brilliant cultural awareness, prior to the age of the music video, but amid the rising importance of visual media in pop culture that made “Video Killed the Radio Star” the perfect opening fanfare for announcing MTV’s arrival onto the cable television scene.
“Video Killed the Radio Star” was released on September 7, 1979 – a few months ahead of their debut album The Age of Plastic on January 10, 1980. By October 20, 1979, the song had reached number one on the UK Singles Chart. It would hold the top space in 16 different countries. Its North American start was a bit slower; it didn’t chart until November 1979, and only peaked in the top 40 in the US. While it eventually peaked at number 6 on the Canadian Singles chart, it didn’t do so until early 1980.
However, on 12:01 AM on August 1, 1981, the song got a second chance at life in the US, when its Music Video became the first video to air on the new cable television channel MTV. The video was written, directed and edited by Russell Mulcahy, and captures the emergence of a new age of music with its juxtaposition of black and white footage, and retro radio-era props, alongside futurist costumes and bright coloring. It also notably includes a young Hans Zimmer on the keyboard and showcases female vocalists Debi Doss and Linda Jardim, in addition to Downes and Horn.
While the video had already been released in 1979, on the BBC’s Top of the Pops, the choice to use it as the inaugural opening for the now iconic channel brought the song to mainstream attention. It announced the opening of a new era of music at the start of the 80s, both sonically and with its futuristic, past-shattering video storytelling. It remains an iconic moment in popular music history and a continual opportunity to reflect on its past. When MTV aired its one millionth video in 2000, what better choice than to play “Video Killed the Radio Star” MTV Cofounder Bob Pittman reflected: “It made an aspirational statement, […] We didn’t expect to be competitive with radio, but it was certainly a sea-change kind of video.”
While The Buggles existence as a performing and recording group was short lived, Downes and Horn continued their musical work together in the 80s as the replacements for Rick Wakeman and Jon Anderson in Yes, and later their group Asia. And yet their legacy as the oracles of popular music and television’s future would inscribe The Buggles name into the very core of popular music history.
Written by Caitlin Vaughn Carlos
Watch the video to learn more about “Video Killed The Radio Star”!