Artist: The Buggles
Album: The Age of Plastic (1980)
Place: Goodwill Thrift Store (2041 N. Broadway)
For a while, it seemed like VH1 survived on television programs about one-hit wonders. (It’s been steeply downhill ever since.) We were invited to laugh and wince at the post-fame travails of these lightning-in-a-bottle-catching flame-outs, and few of their stories ended well. Some of these ostensible sad sacks ended up dead (one half of Milli Vanilli, Falco, Minnie Riperton), some landed in jail (the odious Gary Glitter committed sex crimes on two continents), and many descended into quotidian jobs that seem pretty lame compared to “rock star” (the leader of the Vapors is now a lawyer, and Gerardo is a youth pastor and a record executive).
All of this notwithstanding, few one-hit wonders are as pathetic as VH1 led us to believe. Many, in fact, lead musically impressive post-hit lives while avoiding death and/or illegal activity and succeeding despite millions of prying eyes seemingly waiting to view an inevitable train wreck. Few people can name the members of the Buggles, the one-hit lodestar that gave us the immortal “Video Killed the Radio Star.” But the driving force within the Buggles was Trevor Horn, a music producer whose work you know whether you know you know it or not. Though he’s most famous for his production of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s 1984 blockbuster “Relax,” he’s also produced records by well-regarded artists including Paul McCartney, Seal, and Belle and Sebastian.
The Buggles’ The Age of Plastic showcases the manifold talents of Trevor Horn. “Video” is pop perfection. It’s a deceptively complex and multilayered composition, both lyrically and musically. The other half of the Buggles, Geoffrey Downes, slips in synthesized instruments of various types throughout, while a thumping bass line, distorted archaic-sounding vocals, and a thundering bass drum do the song’s heavy lifting. Lyrically, the song evokes light-hearted, wistful nostalgia rather than cloying sentimentality, and the music and lyrics cohere to send a simple message about the passage of time and the pull of yesterday. It’s easy to dismiss the song as a one-off novelty, but it’s hard to listen carefully to the song without having some emotional response.
Treats abound. Like all good pop albums, The Age of Plastic contains lots of punchy, memorable, accessible tunes. “Elstree” and “Astroboy (and the Proles on Parade)” are impossibly catchy synthesizer-driven pop gems, each with a futuristic vibe and nostalgic undertones. The harder-charging “Clean, Clean” is disco-infused, synth-led new wave, and “Living in the Plastic Age” is goofy, jaunty, bubblegum. Everything here is all very slick and meticulously produced; this is headphone music (good headphones, not earbuds). As such, it is tempting to hear it as hollow or heartless. But the sheer beauty of so many passages, the loving care heaped upon each millisecond by the bespectacled studio maven Horn, and the consistent playfulness throughout render the album humane despite the superficial sheen.
If all rock records sounded like this—shiny and slick and highly processed—the world would be terrible. But a few Trevor Horns—people who use studio technology the way a curious and playful child uses a room full of fictile toys—are nice to have around.