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Oct 08

BUGGLES – “Video Killed The Radio Star”

FT + Popular110 comments • 5,171 views

#444, 29th October 1979

A self-fulfilling prophecy: Buggles’ MTV-launching promo clip for “Video Killed The Radio Star” is as extraordinary is it had to be. Had to be not because of that particular historical coincidence, but because if they’d got it wrong they’d have turned the track into the novelty it almost sounds like. Instead the film – unlike a lot of music videos – enhances the song, stays true to its contradictions and tensions, threats and regrets. So, for once but I hope aptly, this is a review of a video not so much a record.

It starts before the beginning – a badly cut-out moon illuminating a bin-liner sea and a girl playing a cardboard wireless. The effect is a mockery of memory, undercutting the song’s apparent nostalgia: in Buggleland, everything is artificial, even your past – gummed together out of plastic and cheap glue. And then an antique microphone, a singer, 1952: we’ve been here before. Trevor Horn, this ghost-image in crooner drag and awkward perm, has treated and clipped his vocals to mimic the compressed range available to old-timey singers, giving his thin voice a genteel veneer as he sympathises with one of them.

Then the chorus – unshiftable earworm. The radio explodes, the girl turns into a space angel, and as Horn sighs “abandoned studio” we’re in a thoroughly busy one – reel-to-reels, banks of keyboards, and the angel-muse-superhero-whatever sealed inside a glass tube, as if at the whim of a sci-fi villain. And here one is! The crooner now revealed as a sinister gonk, the clipped voice unchanged but somehow more creepy and android coming from this capering figure. These inhumanoid creators of video pop can capture and plasticise anything in their evil factory: next to the scientist’s smirking accomplice is a TV on which dollybird clones mouth the creed of the pop that’s coming. At one point in the middle-eight the screen is filled with another screen on which an anonymous hand strikes a perspex drum: a half-minute after televisions rise up from the exploded rubble of the radio age and on one of them a mad-eyed Horn points accusingly into the blank distance – “Put the blame on VCR….” The whole thing is like an amazing mix of Orwell, Flash Gordon and Play School. The studio-laboratory is wheeled away – more artifice – to reveal its masters as a band, jamming in silver suits alongside their still-trapped superheroine. And fade to white.

Later commentators would accuse pop video of turning music into a fiesta of looks over talent, but Trevor Horn was no cutie and his performance is what makes this clip (and song) so compelling – who would have expected that this…. well, this geek would turn out to be one of the great winners from the 1979 beauty parade? The song on its own is in fact as much a tribute to radio power as an elegy – its jingle-bright hooks and gorgeously glossy production jump out at you with no visuals needed – but the gleefully inventive video not only shows how much imagery can add to a track, it turns the song into something a little darker: a mocking celebration of a triumph that’s already happened, and a manifesto for a new pop world which it freely admits not everybody’s going to like.

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Comments

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  1. 101
    Billy Smart on 6 Oct 2008 #

    TOTP Watch: Buggles only performance of this song on Top of the Pops was on the 25th of December 1979 edition. See ‘Are ‘Friends’ Electric?’ for the full stellar lineup.

  2. 102
    Chris Brown on 9 Oct 2008 #

    What’s with moving Bottom To The Top anyway? It used to be a really good fit in its old timeslot.

    Er, oh yeah, Buggles. Don’t really like it. Don’t really like Trevor Horn’s productions generally.

  3. 103
    DJ Punctum on 10 Oct 2008 #

    Gold really have shot their bolt. Not only have they moved Bottom To The Top (WITHOUT updating their Web Player settings so if you want to hear it retrospectively you have to click on the Tuesday repeat option – and ffs Gold improve your crappy Web Player with rewind and forward buttons that don’t work) but they’ve got rid of Greg Edwards, whose retro-soul and dance shows were fantastic listening when winding down of a Friday evening, and even Nicky Horne. Definitely looks like they’re moving to 100% automated Robot Dean Martin programming which is a total bullet to their own head. As current events are proving, it’s not all about pleasing the shareholders.

  4. 104
    Malice Cooper on 25 Oct 2008 #

    I can’t find anything unpleasant to say about this. It has everything a classic pop song should have and seems timeless.
    I thought the Buggles were superb as a duo and bought all of their singles. (I don’t buy LPs as 7″ was always enough for me).

  5. 105
    mike on 25 Nov 2008 #

    Hadn’t realised that there was a Bollywood version (of sorts) until just now. Featuring the irrepressible Usha Uthup, it penetrates the absolute outer limits of Camp: http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=wFyIq9gm9KY

  6. 106

    “bang! bang!”

  7. 107
    wichitalineman on 26 May 2009 #

    K-Tel watch: side one of Night Moves, sandwiched between Blondie’s Dreaming and Every Day Hurts by Sad Cafe.

  8. 108
    lonepilgrim on 1 Jan 2011 #

    for services to New Pop:
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-12093494

  9. 109
    hectorthebat on 11 Aug 2014 #

    Critic watch:

    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    NBC-10 (USA) – The 30 Best Songs of the 80s (2006)
    Pause & Play (USA) – Songs Inducted into a Time Capsule, One Track at Each Week
    PopMatters (USA) – The 100 Best Songs Since Johnny Rotten Roared (2003) 73
    Woxy.com (USA) – Modern Rock 500 Songs of All Time (combined rank 1989-2009) 346
    Q (UK) – The 1010 Songs You Must Own (2004)
    Musikexpress (Germany) – The 700 Best Songs of All Time (2014) 497
    Gilles Verlant and Thomas Caussé (France) – 3000 Rock Classics (2009)
    Hervé Bourhis (France) – Le Petit Livre Rock: The Juke Box Singles 1950-2009
    Les Inrockuptibles (France) – 1000 Indispensable Songs (2006)
    Volume (France) – 200 Records that Changed the World, 2008 (38 songs)
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)

  10. 110
    mapman132 on 30 Aug 2014 #

    Probably the most famous song to peak at #40 in the history of the Billboard Hot 100. Of course its reason for fame (in the US at least) was two years after its brief chart appearance. For all the times I’ve seen the video, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard it on the radio. In fact if it weren’t for my brother’s copy of The Age of Plastic, I probably would’ve never heard the original version without the video. Count me as agreeing with Tom’s 9/10. This is a classic.

    For other versions of VKTRS, how about a capella?

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