"We’d been working on it for two weeks… Mike Oldfield had wiped it. There was no undo button. I was in shock. It was the only time it’s ever happened to me in 40 years": Trevor Horn's lows and highs

Trevor Horn
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Trevor Horn, one of the world’s most innovative music producers, has also been a No.1 hit pop star himself. As a recipient of the Outer Limits Award at the 2016 Prog Awards, there’s plenty prog about him too, from his time in Yes to producing the likes of Genesis and Mike Oldfield. He looked back in 2019, as his album Trevor Horn Reimagines The 80s was released.

Outside the music community, there are few who could name a record producer. In fact, it would make a fabulous round on UK TV game show Pointless, for as much as readers of this magazine may marvel at the work of, say, Bob Ezrin or Hugh Padgham, it is highly unlikely that the vast majority of those listening to the records on which they worked would know those who help make the magic happen.

Along with the likes of George Martin or Phil Spector, Trevor Horn would be one of those who would score highly. He’s been a No.1 pop star with Buggles; he had a signature look (his big spectacles); and he also had a hand in some of the most era-defining tracks of the 80s, to the point where he gained the soubriquet ‘The man who invented the 80s’. ABC, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Art Of Noise, Grace Jones and Pet Shop Boys were just some of the artists to benefit from Horn’s vision.

But as any reader of this magazine knows, there is far more to Trevor Horn than just pop. The recipient of the 2016 Progressive Music Outer Limits Award, he was, of course, a member of Yes, replacing Jon Anderson in 1980; producing 90125, and still keeping close associations with the Steve Howe group.

He has produced Mike Oldfield and Genesis, and, admirably, was able to smuggle prog into the pop charts throughout the 80s with records so grandiose they gave the most extreme concept merchants of the previous decade a good run for their money.

When did you know that music would be your life?

I was born just outside Durham. My family moved to Leicester when I was 15 years old as my dad didn’t think there were enough opportunities in the north east for my sisters and elder brother. I stayed up there for a year without them and failed my O Levels. I was living with my grandparents in a two-up, two-down miner’s cottage. There’s one exactly like it in Beamish museum. While I was there, I had an epiphany: Bob Dylan came on the telly [BBC Tonight, May 12, 1964] and sang two songs, and I was like, “I’m going. Wherever it is, get me out of here – there’s a big world out there.”

Your pre-pop history is amazing in the sense it was the big band and cabaret that ran alongside pop, starting in Leicester before graduating to the London circuit.

I got into it because I could play the bass guitar and I could read music. When I was 18, I was always the kid in the band, as everybody else was old. Maybe a few years before I would have been a double bass player. I didn’t really join a group until I was 21 and that was the Canterbury Tales, down in Margate. I went to Christiana in Denmark rehearsing, and I ended up being fucking broke. My mother sent me the money to come back and told me to get a job. I was only at home for two days; I looked in Melody Maker – Tommy Hawkins, Bristol Top Rank. I got the job. I was there for three months playing six nights a week.

These bands were an absolute training ground for technical proficiency and discipline, were they not?

Oh yes! I was playing music to people every night of the week until I was 30: that’s the education. Somewhere along the way, when I was in the Canterbury Tales, and I went to a Tristram Shandy gig, they did this song called I’ve Seen All Good People. I was told it was by a group called Yes and that I would like them. I bought The Yes Album, and became a lifelong fan of Chris [Squire] – fuck me, it’s a bass player playing like it’s a guitar and a bass at the same time. What a great idea: it’s a lead instrument!

Then, in the mid 70s, you returned to Leicester...

I’d just had enough of being on a coach. I had an idea I was going to build a recording studio – there was a guy who owned a music shop and he had some stables out the back. We built the studio with our bare hands. I was in the house band at Bailey’s nightclub – all sorts of people came, Tommy Cooper, Neil Sedaka, Gene Pitney, Tiny Tim; I watched Showaddywaddy start. Fifty-two weeks, 52 different acts. Seven nights a week with no night off.

It wasn’t a hard gig and it paid pretty well. But, I soon realised there was little recording going on in Leicester, and I came back to London, and that’s when I started to work with [cabaret act] Nick North and the Northern Lights, which had Tina Charles as the singer. Nick North, Martin Jay and Tina. God, they could sing.

Which of course led to you working with Tina Charles in her band, and meeting Geoff Downes, who answered an ad to join. So it took a decade’s worth of training to claim your overnight success with Buggles?

It was a circuitous route. The first production work I got was with two old buddies of mine, Rod Thompson and Bruce Woolley. I was learning how to produce, and they were learning to be songwriters. After a while, it began to work, and get results. I was doing a lot of work for Tina’s publisher, Stuart Reed on Denmark Street. I played with Tony Evans in Hammersmith Palais for a long time, just so I could work during the day producing.

I had all these ideas how to fix people’s songs up but I had no idea of how to write a song. I wrote a lyric called Clean Clean: ‘Pogo Johnny kicked me in the head.’ I was reading lots of war comics. It was hilarious. I showed it to Bruce, and he immediately started singing it. I thought it could work so I started writing more and more lyrics and we started to write together.

So it went from there?

He, Geoff Downes and I had done some poppers at a party one time and we wrote Baby Blue. We wrote it in the kitchen, pretty much the whole song. I remember being disappointed with Dusty Springfield’s version of it somehow, because our demo had been so much fun – we’d done it with real handclaps through echoes. It sounded modern, while the other version sounded a little bit ordinary. Hearing that made me realise you’ve got to do it for yourself.

That modernity was, of course, a key element in Buggles’ success? 

Bruce and I ended up writing Video Killed The Radio Star together... Geoffrey came in and wrote the intro and the middle eight, that’s what led to that and that made me get out of being a muso.

The Buggles burned briefly and brightly with the song you co-authored. But you’d seen the effects of a No.1 smash (I Love To Love) when you lived with Tina Charles.

That was an education – I became her boyfriend for a while, and I got to see what it was like to have a hit at close quarters.

However, few of you could have anticipated the next step... Through mutual manager Brian Lane, you and Geoff filled Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman’s shoes in Yes, making the Drama album.

Drama was such a great title, because that was exactly what was going on! I’d never been in a band like that before. It was like being in a family: a different kind of thing. Making the album was an experience: it was weird at the start as Eddy Offord wasn’t in the right place really to do it, but once we got going, I remember having a lot of fun doing Machine Messiah. I was sitting in the control room, I was the singer and didn’t have to play, but obviously I couldn’t help it, because really I was a producer, even though I’d been the singer with the Buggles.

I remember we were giving marks out of 10. They’d play that riff all day until they’d get it right. They were great to work with... Steve, you sometimes forget these days, was voted Best Guitarist In The World about three years in a row.

After the Yes interlude and winding up Buggles with Adventures In Modern Recording, you retreated into production.

I was very lucky: by the time I went back to being a producer again in 1981 I’d had a lot of experience. I knew how to record on analogue and had two great engineers, Gary Langan and Julian Mendelsohn, so I knew what I was doing.

There can’t be many artists who have working with Yes at Madison Square Garden and then recording with pop confection Dollar on their CV!

I was just doing what I wanted to do. Bruce and I wrote Hand Held In Black And White and Mirror Mirror on a Tuesday afternoon, while having a conversation. It’s all a bit weird: that keyboard sound, that was poppy prog. It worked. I played bass on that as well. I did the four singles with them – a mini opera! They should put it all together!

ABC’s The Lexicon Of Love established you as a state-of- the-art producer, did it not?

ABC really loved Hand Held In Black And White. It’s funny looking back on it. By the time I met ABC, Dollar were getting good reviews in the NME. It was a funny feeling for me. I met ABC thinking I was the only producer meeting them, but in fact, I was about number 14. I liked them straight off because they were so bright and so funny. They told me that if I got the job, I’d be the most fashionable producer in the world. I was up for that: I wanted to be the most fashionable producer in the world.

4 Ever 2 Gether from that album is somewhat proggy, would you agree?

There’s a little of that, with those drums!

You have worked in some of the world’s best studios, but it amazed Prog when we saw Sarm East where The Lexicon Of Love was recorded. It’s a cellar in East London, yet it sounds as if it were recorded on a mountain top!

This idea of [recording by] mountains and lakes – once you are inside [the studio], you don’t want to be looking out much: you want to have your head in the music. It’s a myth: you’re by a lake, and everything’s fabulous. Steve Lipson and I went down to work with Paul McCartney back in 1988. He had the most beautiful studio; it was a summer’s day, the doors were all half open, there were people outside. I went round closing every door, and went, “Right, let’s imagine we are in a basement in Denmark Street and get this record made.”

While all this was happening, you were drawn back into Yes’ orbit.

Trevor [Rabin], Chris [Squire] and Alan [White] started out as Cinema but at a certain point it became Yes again. I suppose I may have been the instigator of that as I thought it was such a strong record, it would be really good to have Jon back and make it Yes. Obviously I couldn’t have foisted it on everybody if they weren’t up for the idea.

You were pushing an open door?

That’s a good way of putting it. If it hadn’t been something that they had wanted... There’s no doubt that Jon’s voice is totally unique and it finished it off. A lot of it had been done before Jon arrived: if it wasn’t the final song, it was something approaching the final song, apart from Owner Of A Lonely Heart. I walked out at the end over the final mixes. These things are complicated. Bands are difficult to work with.

This writer loved the way you were able to smuggle prog into the charts; probably the absolute zenith of this was the title track of Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Welcome To The Pleasuredome.

Oh, it was absolutely prog. I was trying to do a long track for the simple reason that I found tracks like Gates Of Delirium and Close To The Edge were just great when you were driving. They were instrumental pieces of music with songs in that seemed to go somewhere. In the 70s, those songs had given me such pleasure. I wanted to see if I could do it.

I think ...Pleasuredome stands up still; it’s entertaining. What really strikes me when I hear it is what a brilliant engineer Steve Lipson is. I think that is some of the best mixed stuff I have ever heard – it’s extraordinary.

Propaganda – whose singer Claudia Brücken was another recipient of a Prog Outer Limits Award – were an imposing addition to pop, with their portentous, doom- drenched sound.

Steve has to take the major credit for this. I did Dr. Mabuse but then Steve really did the rest. I think it’s his best ever work. Quincy Jones was after that album, he liked it so much. If you think about Michael Jackson’s next album – listen to Duel and then listen to Bad – the whole sound, sampling... It’s just extraordinary. Steve was using the Synclavier and was brilliant – the arrangement of Dream Within A Dream.

Another grandiose statement which had the ambition of prog was the Pet Shop Boys’ Left To My Own Devices...

I love it when it really kicks. Everyone was talking about house music at that time, and my understanding of it was that the DJ had a drum machine and it was music made in the house; it was like house wine. That’s how the backing track came together.

For some reason, I thought I’d have an opera singer singing ‘house’ – I don’t know where I came up with the idea but they didn’t seem to mind. I took part of the orchestra arrangement and put it at the front and then the house bit and then it drops into the tune. More is more!

One of the first records you made in LA was Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells II...

It was the first time I’d heard of a ‘two’ album. I liked Tubular Bells, although it wasn’t my favourite album of Mike’s; that’s Incantations. I loved it and used to play it in the car, especially the Hiawatha section. Mike was cool. He rented a house in Beverly Hills and we made most of it there. It was when the riots were happening. He was playing everything, so he was totally in control.

I came in one day and there was a section, the bit where the “strolling player” [Alan Rickman] talks. It was 48-track and we’d been working on it for two weeks; I thought we were nearly there. When I came in people were looking at me, and told me that Mike had just gone to bed and changed the bit. He’d wiped it. It was changed forever – there was no undo button. I was in shock. It was the only time it’s ever happened to me in 40 years.

What did you say when he woke up?

Mike asked me what I thought and I told him it would take me a little time as I kind of liked the other one! I was always encouraging him to give the guitar lots of love – he’s an amazing, extraordinary player, the way he comes up with the tunes. He has names for all of the sounds. Wendy Melvoin’s sister Susannah was singing the refrain on there; what a beautiful voice. I have nice memories of it.

What was it like to work with Genesis in 1998 on the new version of The Carpet Crawlers?

What fun!

Were they all in the studio for it?

The four of them; not Phil [Collins]. I had to go to Switzerland to record him. Phil’s the loveliest man. The first time I went over, he played the drums, and then he did his backing vocals. After his first take I said to him, “I don’t suppose you’ve ever thought of going solo?”

It was a pleasure. They had great manners. Peter’s the slightly crazy one, while Tony Banks is the core of the group. A Trick Of The Tail is one of my favourite all time albums. I love Los Endos, and crank that up while I’m washing the dishes. And Ripples is my favourite sing-along track, when it hits the big high note.

You have kept in with Yes, reworking Fly From Here and aligning yourself with Steve Howe’s version of the group onstage at the London Palladium last year.

I’m very fond of Steve, and Steve has really worked hard to keep the whole thing going. He’s been doing that for 10, 15 years now, and I have to admire him for it. I saw them and I think they are really good. It will never be the same: it’s different, but it has the same excitement.

Are you able rise above factions?

That’s what I always try to do. I was talking with Trevor Rabin just yesterday on the phone and we’re going to get together when I get back to LA. I don’t have beef with anybody.

...Reimagines The Eighties is, obviously, state of the art. Do you ever wish to record ‘the old way’?

You can’t wish for analogue times back, it’s such a different world – I’ve thought about it to see how much I could remember. But to make a record analogue, there are just so many things we take for granted now.

If you have people who can perform accurately, sing in tune, play in time, then analogue poses no threat.

Daryl Easlea

Daryl Easlea has contributed to Prog since its first edition, and has written cover features on Pink Floyd, Genesis, Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel and Gentle Giant. After 20 years in music retail, when Daryl worked full-time at Record Collector, his broad tastes and knowledge led to him being deemed a ‘generalist.’ DJ, compere, and consultant to record companies, his books explore prog, populist African-American music and pop eccentrics. Currently writing Whatever Happened To Slade?, Daryl broadcasts Easlea Like A Sunday Morning on Ship Full Of Bombs, can be seen on Channel 5 talking about pop and hosts the M Means Music podcast.