Between late 1979 and the end of 1989, there were nearly 500 (real) one-hit wonders of the 80s that reached the BILLBOARD Hot 100 just one time, a list that includes Soft Cell, Gary Numan, Timbuk 3, The Church, Bronski Beat, Nik Kershaw, The Waitresses, Ultravox and two different bands named The Silencers. Once a week, I’ll highlight a (real) one-hit wonder for you.
This is prolly the most-predictable blog post I’ve done so far, but I can’t help it. For those who don’t already know, today (8.1.2016) is the 35th Anniversary of the launch of MTV (short for Music Television, when there was such a beautiful thing).
At midnight on August 1, 1981, MTV was born – a cable network (and there weren’t many of them back then) that specialized in playing short, 3-or-4-minute films set to music, or simply put, music videos. Singers and bands had been making these short-form music videos for years, but hardly anyone ever got to see them…until MTV made its debut on cable TV boxes (almost) everywhere.
The powers that be at MTV thought it might be a fun choice to launch the network with a song called “Video Killed The Radio Star” by a band called The Buggles, a song that was a minor hit in America two years earlier by a London band who would no longer exist by the end of 1981. It was prolly a hard sell at the time (or not), and in retrospect, it was THE only choice to kick off MTV.
The Buggles were a New Wave band (in the early days of New Wave) and formed in London in 1977. The band consisted of just two members – singer and bassist Trevor Horn and keyboardist Geoffrey Downes. You prolly know those names from other acts, and I’ll come on to that in a bit.
Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes would release their first single, “Video Killed The Radio Star,” in early September 1979. The song was co-written by Trevor and Geoff, along with fellow New Waver Bruce Woolley in 1977, who first recorded that year as Bruce Woolley And The Camera Club (featuring the brilliant Thomas Dolby on keyboards).
At the time, “Video Killed The Radio Star” was a stand-alone single (parent album THE AGE OF PLASTIC wouldn’t be released until January 1980), and its cute, synthpop creaminess helped it become a massive international hit.
“Video Killed The Radio Star” reached No. 1 in (at least) the U.K., Austria and Sweden (1 week), Ireland and Switzerland (2 weeks), Spain (4 weeks), Australia (7 weeks), France (12 weeks), and in Italy, where it spent 14 weeks at No. 1 (or, literally the entire spring of 1980). It also reached the Top 10 in Belgium, Canada, Germany, New Zealand and South Africa.
When MTV debuted with “Video Killed The Radio Star” as the first video to air on the network, I was (and remain) glad that it’s remembered for something more here in America than its disappointing chart performance on the BILLBOARD Hot 100. The song spent a lone week in the Top 40 at No. 40 in mid-December 1979, and was gone from the chart after 10 weeks. In a list put out by BILLBOARD in 2015, “Video Killed The Radio Star” tied with Marvin Gaye’s 1970 version of Gladys Knight’s “The End Of Our Road” as the “Biggest Hot 100 Hit” that peaked at No. 40.
In 1980, following the release of The Buggles’ debut album, THE AGE OF PLASTIC (with “Video Killed The Radio Star”), Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes joined another London band,Yes, and recorded the album, DRAMA, after Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman had left the group. Trevor Horn sang lead vocals and it was the only Yes album to feature him as lead vocalist. But, despite a No. 2 chart peak for DRAMA in the U.K., the new Yes lineup was not well-received, and Yes disbanded by the end of 1980.
In early 1981, on the day The Buggles were supposed to start recording their second album, Geoff Downes quit the band to help form the “supergroup” Asia with guitarist Steve Howe (of Yes), John Wetton (bassist and vocalist bands like King Crimson, Roxy Music and Uriah Heep) and Carl Palmer (drummer for Emerson, Lake & Palmer).
Undeterred and still carrying on the Buggles name, Trevor Horn secured funds to record and release the second album, ADVENTURES IN MODERN RECORDING. Despite Trevor’s efforts, the album was a huge disappointment, reaching No. 161 on the BILLBOARD album chart and not even charting in his U.K. homeland.
By the time of the second album’s release, you could find Trevor Horn producing THE LEXICON OF LOVE, the debut album for the Sheffield, England New Wave band, ABC. What followed is an amazing career that continues today. Not only did Trevor Horn rejoin Yes for their huge 1983 comeback album, 90125 (which he produced), he also teamed up with The Art Of Noise, writing memorable hits like “Close (To The Edit)” and “Moments In Love.”
From there, Trevor Horn was everywhere. He produced Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s 2-album debut, WELCOME TO THE PLEASUREDOME, the 12” mix of Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” (the biggest-selling U.K. single of the 80s), plus music for Grace Jones, Pet Shop Boys, Simple Minds, Paul McCartney, Rod Stewart, and most-recently, Billy Idol’s 2014 album, KINGS & QUEENS OF THE UNDERGROUND and Seal’s 2015 album, 7 (Trevor Horn has actually produced six of Seal’s 9 albums, starting with Seal’s 1991 self-titled debut).
Geoff Downes has released 13 albums with Asia since their monster 1982 debut to their 2014 album, GRAVITAS. He also rejoined Yes (along with Trevor Horn) for the 2011 album, FLY FROM HERE.
There have been impromptu Buggles reunions here and there over the years, and in a statement I thought I would never, ever see, according to the BBC, Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes reunited in the studio earlier this year “for more Buggles activity.” I look forward to that.
In 2013, Heather Phares of allmusic.com said “[Video Killed The Radio Star] can be looked on as a perfectly preserved new wave gem [and] still sounds as immediate as it did when it was released, however, and that may be the song’s greatest irony.”
Speaking of irony, today (8.1.2016) also marks the demise of the wonderful VH1 Classic (famous for playing great 80s videos) and the debut of MTV Classic, highlighting (mostly non-music) programming from the 90s and beyond. Sure, the new network was scheduled to rebroadcast the first hour of MTV from August 1, 1981, but don’t count on MTV Classic to bring you many more music videos. While they will have I WANT MY 80s, 120 MINUTES and some old BEHIND THE MUSIC episodes, I’m betting they’ll be concentrating more on re-airing shows like THE REAL WORLD, TOTAL REQUEST LIVE and MTV CRIBS, shows I could really give two shits about.
MTV may be turning 35 today, but it’s hardly cause for celebration, as the once-great network for actual music television has, ironically enough, killed the video star (although to be fair, you can see pretty much every video known to man and woman somewhere on the interwebs).
MTV opinions and peak chart positions aside, I always liked “Video Killed The Radio Star.” It is a quirky, fun song that, for awhile, I kinda thought was some sort of cool extension of ABBA. Over the years, it’s been covered by the likes of The Presidents Of The United States Of America (for the 1998 Adam Sandler film, THE WEDDING SINGER), Pomplamoose, Pentatonix, Erasure, Ben Folds Five and even Alvin & The Chipmunks.
I’m glad the song has endured for nearly 40 years now. In fact, I’m betting it will outlast MTV. Maybe Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes are working on a follow-up titled, “Video Killed The Radio Star, and MTV too.” Guess we’ll have to wait to find out later for sure and just continue loving that original New Wave treasure…