Random Tracks: Buggles’ “Video Killed The Radio Star”

In Random Tracks, I’m reviewing a random hit song from any point in the history of the Billboard Hot 100 going from the chart’s beginning in 1958. If you like what I’m doing, comment and let me know what random Hot 100 hit song you want me to review.

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The Buggles- “Video Killed The Radio Star”

PEAK: #40 on December 15, 1979

SONG AT #1 THAT WEEK: Styx’s “Babe

If you wanted to stay up to watch the premiere of Music Television or MTV at the strike of midnight on August 1, 1981, you didn’t have many opportunities. Cable television was still in its infancy and was a luxury to the very few so you were largely out of luck. For the lucky few who were able to watch, you would have first seen a rocket taking off with the announcer saying “Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll.” Then the footage of Neil Armstrong planting the American flag on the moon during the 1969 Apollo 11 mission appears only instead of the Stars and Stripes it was the ever colorful and changing logo for MTV while rock music plays over it.

After that intro, you would have gone right into the first music video which starts out with a shiny image of a moon over an equally shiny song with lyrics about how the advancements of technology and a big chorus proclaiming that the invention of video has killed off the stars who were big on the radio. The song may have been vaguely familiar if you were watching that night since a year and a half before it had been a minor Top 40 hit. But from then on, the song from its title and just the fact of being the first-ever music video played on MTV begins to take on a new meaning as the start of one of the most exciting pop culture inventions to ever grace the Earth.

The night that MTV premiered was by all accounts a disaster by everyone involved as recounted in Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum’s great oral history book I Want My MTV about the network’s first decade. The people at MTV couldn’t even watch their brand new creation from their Manhattan headquarters since New York City didn’t have cable yet having to go across the Hudson River to Fort Lee, New Jersey to have their watch party. When they were watching, they were watching the five video jockeys or VJs constantly flubbing lines and announcing acts that didn’t go along with the videos among many technical difficulties. There were also not many videos to play since music videos were barely a thing and major labels weren’t willing to lend them their videos figuring MTV wouldn’t last.

Not many people were watching MTV on its first day and it took time for the network to catch on as a major cultural force. But looking at it 40 years later, MTV can only be seen as a force of good for the pop charts especially when it came on in the summer of 1981, a time when the Hot 100 was dominated by gloopy balladry. It helped to bring exciting new musical trends and artists to America as well as popularizing the music video. Obviously, not everything about MTV was perfect from its early exclusion of many Black artists and non-rock music to eventually becoming a shell of its former self as it largely abandoned playing music videos in favor of trashy reality shows. But it’s not hard to see why people in the early ‘80s got all excited for an innovation like MTV and how a song like “Video Killed The Radio Star” sounded like the future.

The Buggles formed around 1977 with producer Trevor Horn along with keyboardist Geoff Downes and fellow musician Bruce Woolley. Horn and Downes met in London while auditioning for the backing band of UK pop star Tina Charles while Horn met Downes while playing in the house band at the Hammersmith Odeon concert venue. Together, the three men formed their new group naming it as a pun on the Beatles name with the idea that in the future a record label would be able to generate hit songs and artists all from a computer with the Buggles being a computer-generated copy of the Beatles.

Terrible band name aside, the band members began recording demos to shop around to labels. It didn’t go well at first but a producer at Island Records got wind of one of those demos and offered them a record deal right as they were offered a deal with the smaller Sarm East Studios, co-founded by Trevor Horn’s girlfriend Jill Sinclair. The Buggles went with Island Records but not long after Bruce Woolley would leave to form a new band called The Camera Club.

One of the demos that the Buggles wrote was “Video Killed The Radio Star” which they wrote in an hour. Horn explained that he and the group were inspired for the song by the new technological advancement at the time like the introduction of video recorders and artists making videos, “It felt like radio was the past and video was the future. There was a shift coming.” But before Horn and Downes released their version as the Buggles, Woolley recorded his take with the Camera Club and released it first. In his take, Woolley turns “Radio Star” into a jittery piece of punk driven new wave that sounds fine but listening to it today it feels like an afterthought. There’s just something missing that could help “Radio Star” reach its full potential.

For “Radio Star,” Horn and Downes look to the future while also calling back to the past at the same time. Specifically, the song calls back to the early ‘50s when TV started to become popular supplanting radio as the main form of entertainment. It tells a tale of how this radio star soon got forgotten once people switched to TV. Decades later, Horn and this former radio star meet again in some abandoned studio listening to all the playbacks remembering how the jingles sounded then. But amid that nostalgia, Horn understands that technology has come too far to go back to the days of the radio star now with a new culprit in the then-emergence of VCR tapes. Obviously, MTV didn’t exist yet in 1979 but had the song come out just a few years later it could’ve very well named the network as the new culprit for radio stars as many artists in the early ‘80s proved unable to transition to the new medium.

In the Buggles’ hand, “Radio Star” is turned into a shiny piece of new wave with its glossy piano and gleaming synths. With the rubbery bass and kick drum beat, it’s basically disco which considering it was made in 1979 when disco was at its last moment of pop dominance makes a lot of sense. The song sounds like what a science education program would use as background music. It all sounds glorious and makes it feel like you’re literally hearing the future which is also helped by the echoing vocals that pop up throughout. The song layers hooks on hooks notably from the two female backing singers Debi Doss and Linda Jardim who just sing the title continually in the chorus while providing more fun bits like “Oh-a oh-a.” And there’s Trever Horn who delivers the song in a muffled tone that recalls the radio broadcasting quality heard a lot in the ‘50s and ‘60s. His effect works a lot for the nostalgic yet futuristic tone the song is going for. Even in 2021, this depiction of the future still sounds great.

For the music video that would make history, the Buggles worked with Australian director Russell Mulcahy who made his name as one of the earliest directors to adapt to music videos. He’d go on to make videos for some of the biggest hits of the ‘80s like Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” before directing movies like Highlander. Together, they shot for one day in South London with Mulcahy getting his friend Virginia Hey, later known as the Warrior Woman in Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, to play the girl in the test tube. Debi Doss and Linda Jardim appear. Also in the video is Hans Zimmer who at the time was a little-known German session keyboardist who worked with the Buggles before transforming into one of the busiest composers in Hollywood. (That’s him in the black leather outfit playing the keyboard while seemingly looking not sure of what he’s doing.)

Watching the “Radio Star” video, you can tell that not a lot of time was put into it. The sets and special effects all look cheap and like a lot of early music videos that’s where a lot of the charm and appeal comes from. “Radio Star” isn’t an elaborate production but it still grabs you with the shiny white backdrop, Trevor Horn looking like a convincing mad scientist, Virginia Hey floating around in the test tube, Doss and Jardim’s deadpan presence, and the little girl who tries to turn on a ridiculously big looking radio before it explodes. I especially like the part when the girl looks at Hey in the test tube with a child-like wonder in her eyes like she can’t believe what she’s seeing. If you were watching MTV on its fight night, you might have had the same feeling that girl had.

Before MTV launched, the video for “Video Killed The Radio Star” was mainly shown on the BBC’s chart countdown show Top of the Pops as an alternative to a live performance. When picking what videos to play for the launch, “Video Killed The Radio Star” was initially not the most popular choice for MTV. Programming exec Steve Casey recalls the network wanting to launch with a big current hit instead of a minor Top 40 hit from a year and a half earlier but as he put it for his case, “Nobody’s going to be watching. It’s symbolic.” Founder and CEO Bob Pittman agreed, “It was too obvious not to do it.”

When the Buggles released “Video Killed The Radio Star” in September 1979, it was a major hit worldwide going to #1 in several countries including their home country. America was one of the few places where the Buggles didn’t quite blow people’s minds. The fact that it stalled at #40 probably has to do more with the fact that the Buggles were largely out there from what was dominating the Hot 100 in December 1979, when “Radio Star” peaked. The week “Radio Star” peaked at #40 Styx was at #1 with their lame ballad “Babe” and a lot of the Top 10 was dominated by largely inoffensive schlock from ballads to soft rock and yacht rock right as the disco backlash was taking hold. There was Robin Scott’s music project M whose new wave nonsense track “Pop Muzik” topped the charts a month before but that was a one-off novelty. Americans just simply weren’t ready yet for this type of sleek and synthy-sounding new wave at the end of ’79. Plus, there wasn’t any central music video outlet yet in America to show the Buggles’ song so that might have also played a role.

“Video Killed The Radio Star” didn’t exactly make the Buggles any bigger. By the time MTV was playing their song, the duo saw a nice bump in sales for the song and their first album The Age of Plastic thanks to the exposure just as they were about to release their second album. Adventures in Modern Recording came out in November 1981 and was not exactly a game-changer peaking very low at #161 on the album charts. Perhaps that placement had to do with Americans suddenly discovering the Buggles thanks to their MTV exposure. After that, the Buggles wouldn’t release another album. But don’t feel bad for Horn and Downes since the Buggles have only been one part of hugely successful careers for the both of them.

In 1980, Horn and Downes were brought on to join Yes after their singer Jon Anderson and keyboardist Rick Wakeman had left the band. With Horn and Downes, Yes released Drama in August 1980 which went to #2 in the UK while going to #18 in the US but it was a far cry from Yes’ ‘70s peak. After touring together in support of Drama, Yes split up and Downes along with guitarist Steve Howe teamed up with other prog-rock veterans to form Asia whose 1982 self-titled debut became a major hit becoming that year’s best-selling album. (I just wrote a review on Asia’s self-titled. Check that out. Asia’s highest-charting single, 1982’s “Heat of the Moment,” peaked at #4. It’s a 6.) In the years since Downes has continued to be focused on Yes and Asia along with other side projects.

As for Trevor Horn, he’s spent the last four decades as a major player producer. He used his Yes connection to produce their 1983 comeback album 90125 including the band’s #1 hit “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” He produced for other major British acts in the ‘80s including ABC, Pet Shop Boys, and Frankie Goes To Hollywood. There was also a producer group he was in called Art of Noise. After that, he continued producing for major acts like Rod Stewart, Tina Turner, and most notably Seal including his 1995 #1 “Kiss From A Rose.”

Even into the 21st Century, Horn has still been making hits. He produced LeAnn Rimes’ 2000’s “Can’t Fight The Moonlight” and t.A.T.u’s 2002’s “All The Things She Said” both UK #1s and Top 20 hits in the US. (“Can’t Fight The Moonlight” peaked at #11 and “All The Things She Said” peaked at #20.) The last Top 10 hit he’s had a hand in US-wise so far is Faith Hill’s “There You’ll Be” the soundtrack hit from 2001’s Pearl Harbor. (“There You’ll Be” peaked at #10. It’s a 5. Faith Hill’s highest-charting single, 2000’s “Breathe,” Billboard’s biggest single of 2000, peaked at #2. It’s another 5.) In 2017, he co-produced a British all-star charity cover of the Simon & Garfunkel #1 “Bridge Over Troubled Water” in response to the Grenfell Tower fire and it was another UK #1. If you’re keeping track, that’s almost four decades of hit-making for Horn. Nothing but respect for the man.

Horn and Downes have occasionally reunited over the years as the Buggles with their last performance happening in 2011 but through their one hit, they made an impact. At the end of I Want My MTV, Horn tells a funny story of meeting a big-name politician who condescendingly asked if he was the guy behind “Video Killed The Radio Star” to which Horn thought in response, “Yes. And they’ll remember me long after they’ve forgotten you, mate.”

GRADE: 8/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from 1995’s Empire Records where “Video Killed The Radio Star” soundtracks a bunch of record store workers setting up their store:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the music video for the 2010 Nicki Minaj and will.i.am collab “Check It Out” which is built from a sample of “Video Killed The Radio Star:”

(“Check It Out” peaked at #24. will.i.am has appeared in The Ones of the ‘10s as a member of the Black Eyed Peas and as a guest. Nicki Minaj’s highest-charting single on her own is 2014’s “Anaconda” which peaked at #2. It’s a 2. But as a guest, she’ll eventually appear on this site.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the bit from 2012’s Take This Waltz where “Video Killed The Radio Star” plays over Michelle Williams and Luke Kirby enjoying a spinning carnival ride:

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