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.