More than four decades after its release, The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” is usually credited with more pop-cultural importance than musical influence. Perhaps that befits the song whose video was the first-ever aired on MTV. But if you listen closely to the song itself in The Buggles’ recording (as opposed to the concurrently produced version by Bruce Woolley and the Camera Club, which also has its champions), you’ll hear an unexpected degree of both compositional and instrumental complexity. You’ll also have a sense of a fairly wide variety of inspirations, one that Buggles co-founder Trevor Horn has since described as including not just other music but literature as well.
“I’d read J. G. Ballard and had this vision of the future where record companies would have computers in the basement and manufacture artists,” said Horn in a 2018 Guardian interview. “I’d heard Kraftwerk‘s The Man-Machine and video was coming. You could feel things changing.” The Buggles, Horn and collaborator Geoff Downes employed all the technology they could marshal. And by his reckoning, “Video Killed the Radio Star” would take 26 players to re-create live. Paying proper homage to Kraftwerk requires not just using machinery, but getting at least a little Teutonic; hence, perhaps, the brief appearance of Hans Zimmer at 2:50 in the song’s video.
“‘Hey, I like this idea of combining visuals and music,” Zimmer recently recalled having thought at the time. “This is going to be where I want to go.” And so he did: today, of course, we know Zimmer as perhaps the most famous film composer alive, sought after by some of the preeminent filmmakers of our time. He and Horn would actually collaborate again in the early nineteen-nineties on the soundtrack to Barry Levinson’s Toys (whose other contributors included no less an eighties video icon than Thomas Dolby, who’d played keyboards on the Bruce Woolley “Video Killed the Radio Star”). By that time Horn had put performing behind him and turned super-producer for artists like Yes, Seal, and the Pet Shop Boys. The Buggles burnt out quickly, but one doubts that Horn or Zimmer lose much sleep over it today.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.