444. ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’, by The Buggles

First up today, I’m going to christen 1979 as not only the best year of the decade for chart-topping singles, but also ‘The Year of the Piano Intro’. We’ve had Gloria Gaynor’s iconic flourish, The Boomtown Rats’ mini rock opera, and now this. A synth piano announcing that: this, this is going to be interesting…

Video Killed the Radio Star, by The Buggles (their 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 14th – 21st October 1979

I heard you on the wireless back in ’52… The singer reminisces about a simpler time, when music had a human touch. ‘Music was better in my day…’ Except, the twist is, this is a pretty avant-garde, electro-pop song. Exactly the type of music the lyrics complain about. Or are they complaining at all? Are they instead mocking people with nostalgic views on music…? Pictures came and broke my heart, Put the blame on VCR…

The lyrics, though, are not the first thing that slaps you around the chops when you hear this record. Like Tubeway Army, it is almost aggressive in its desire to sound like the future, though with a very different, perkier sound. I saw it described it as an ‘extended jingle’, which is pretty perfect. Even the two voices, a bubblegum girl and a morose lead, are filtered through various effects.

I like this, it’s fun, it’s a classic… But I can’t shake the feeling that it’s a little showy. That some bits – the noodley synth flourishes and the aww-ah-oh fills – are a bit much. It took, apparently, three months to record and, again in another link to Tubeway Army, was inspired by a sci-fi story, this time by JG Ballard. Still, they reign it in for the iconic, driving chorus: Video killed the radio star… In my mind and in my car, We can’t rewind, We’ve gone too far… It’s a bit Queen, a bit Sparks, and more than a bit unique.

The Buggles were a duo, Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes. Horn in particular had been around the music biz for a while, producing jingles among other things. ‘Video Killed the Video Star’ was their first and by far their biggest hit, though they’re not quite one-hit wonders. Horn certainly isn’t, he was lead-singer of Yes for a year or so before becoming a full-time producer. His fingerprints will be on several future number ones, well into to the 2000s.

What many won’t know is that this wasn’t the first recording of ‘Video…’ Horn and Downes had originally written it with Bruce Wolley, who released a still-interesting but slightly more one-dimensional version in 1978. What many will know is that this was the very first record to be played on MTV, on 1st August 1981. Which is cute, I guess, but led me to believe for many years that this was the first ever music video (which is nonsense, they’ve been around since the ‘60s). It also led me to believe that this song had been released in the ‘80s. It seems a bit strange to me that a brand-new, impossibly modern channel like MTV would launch by playing a near two-year old song, regardless of the apt lyrics. But then again, the 6th video played on MTV was ‘We Don’t Talk Anymore’, by Cliff Richard. Perhaps they weren’t going for ‘cutting edge’.

Finally, it’s worth noting that after decades of having to publish every one of my posts with those boring, stock-standard record-label sleeves… The age of the picture sleeve is upon us! Most of 1979’s chart-toppers seem to have had glossy (!), colourful (!) sleeves with pictures of the actual recording artists (!) Just like LPs! What on earth took them so long? While punk has to take the credit for the wild variety of sounds in this new-wave era; I’m giving disco, and the genre’s love for the 12” remix, the credit for sending pop music into technicolour. Just in time for a new decade…

16 thoughts on “444. ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’, by The Buggles

  1. Not even the ’60s you can trace the early starting point of music videos back to the old MGM musicals with how its all music set to highly choreographed routines. Obviously, I’ve already talked about the song at length in my own review a few weeks back so don’t have anything new to add from what I say except that the picture sleeve has always been around but I’ve noticed by the turn of the ’80s they stop displaying the B-side song on the cover.

    1. For some reason, Britain never went in for picture sleeves… For every post I search Discogs, and all around the world there were picture sleeves even in the 50s/60s, but not in the UK. All the remixes and 12” versions that came with disco seem to have finally pushed British labels into colour and, as popchartfreak said elsewhere in this thread, it was an effective marketing tool too

  2. Great record and heralded the 80’s MTV video explosion that led to the Second British Invasion. Trevor Horn is one of the great record producers of all-time, and this quirky little fit beautifully into the charts as the 70’s drew to a close and we needed gloss, futurism and happy optimism to get through the mass unemployment, riots, poverty and wars of the next few years. Link to the 60’s? Michael Nesmith was one of the guiding lights behind MTV, chart-topper in The Monkees in 1967, and video promotor in the 70’s – his hit Rio being a good example of a video helping a record on Top Of The Pops where the artist couldn’t perform (see Abba, Queen, Wings etc)

    It wasn’t just Picture Sleeves that took off in additional popularity by 1979, there was also coloured vinyl, picture-vinyl, special edition sleeves, poster-sleeves,12″ mixes or 7″ and 12″ EP’s of hits, box sets collections – anything that helped get extra sales, really! Marketing became more important as singles broke-through the psychological £1 barrier as inflation and unemployment dampened sales figures a bit through into the early 80’s. I know I bought all of the above at one time or another…. 🙂

    1. It’s interesting how it all came together at the one time… music videos, extended mixes, collectible sleeves, MTV… all at the turn of a new decade. I suppose it led to pop music as I knew it growing up – the aggressive first week promotion, and silly turnover of hits, of the late 90s and 00s – and that would last until downloads took over and things slowed down a bit

  3. badfinger20 (Max)

    This helped kick off the worse decade of music in the 20th century… to me anyway….But I love this song. Completely love it…MTV made music stars out of some that probably wouldn’t have been played on the radio.
    Now today pop artists are trying to copy the 80s…ugh….

      1. badfinger20 (Max)

        That is the catch! Wait till the mid eighties! You will have a challenge then. At least I’m honest lol. Wait till we get to Safety Dance and Duran Duran…and hair bands.

      2. badfinger20 (Max)

        Yep…because the 70s hung over the early eighties for a while. I first started to see a change when Bette Davis Eyes came out…the fake drum in the back ground…but again I liked that one. Then as the decade grew…my distaste grew with it.

      3. Now that I’m getting to the middle of it, I think 79-81 might one of the best periods for pop music, at least the best since the mid-sixties. From 82-83, things get a bit more processed and personally I don’t mind it, but I get why purists don’t rate the rest of the decade. It’s interesting though, how long the 80s has held an influence over modern pop music… Folks need to move on now

      4. badfinger20 (Max)

        Yes they do…borrow from the sixties or the seventies please…at least in sound. Have you ever heard one of those cheap Casio keyboards? That is what I don’t like about the eighties…many songs had fake everything….Oh one more think…as the countdown goes…pay attention to the deep monotoned voices that we hear…it was a popular thing.

  4. Pingback: Recap: #421 – #450 – The UK Number Ones Blog

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