5 songs producers need to hear by... Trevor Horn

(Image credit: Trevor Horn)

Trevor Horn is perhaps one of the first names that springs to mind when someone mutters the word ‘superproducer’, having worked across huge swathes of the UK’s smash hit output across the eighties, nineties and noughties. 

Therefore, distilling Horny greatness into just five tracks is a task as tortuous as the man’s production methods. 

So, we’ve spent months in the studio and tens of thousands of pounds on research – despite going to court any number of times in order to wiggle out of our draconian deal with MusicRadar – and come up with the definitive list of must-listen Horn-gasms.

1. Yes - Owner of a Lonely Heart

Horn’s intersection with prog-rock dinosaurs Yes seems like an unholy liaison, but after floundering during the production of the second Buggles album (with Horn as artist alongside keyboard player Geoff Downes) Horn found himself looking for a fee-paying gig. Sitting in for departed Yes lead vocalist Jon Anderson for the album Drama and subsequent tour paid the bills while the Buggles flopped out of existence. 

The partnership isn’t regarded as a success by fanatical Yes fans, though group and Horn parted on good terms. So, when Yes’s Chris Squire and Alan White partnered with writer, guitarist and all-round musical wunderkind Trevor Rabin for new band, Cinema, the tried and tested Horn – hot from The Lexicon of Love with ABC – was placed in the frame for production.

And when Yes vocalist Anderson (re)joined the band it made more sense for the project to be rebranded as Yes, despite Rabin’s songs and vocals steering the music in a whole new wavey direction.

The result was an eye (and ear opener) for Yes heads. The combo of Rabin’s tunes and Horn’s desire to put his studio tech and Fairlight sampler to ever greater use created a tune that’s as quirky and mismatched as the patchwork of talent that put it together. 

Part Police-style finger-picking, part brass and horn-fuelled power chord boogie, it snaps, crackles and pops through its movements, throwing out ear-candy artillery wherever there’s a gap in the vocal. The sessions with drummer Alan White subsequently provided the beats for Art of Noise’s Beatbox and Close To The Edit, by the way.

While regarded as genius and written into history as a US Billboard number one - Yes’s first and only - it’s worth noting that it only reached number 28 on the stuffier home turf of the UK singles chart.

2. Pet Shop Boys - Left To My Own Devices

While famous for taking on the majority of the production heavy lifting themselves - often drafting in engineers- and remixers-as-producers to help finish the job - fourth album era PSB found the boys rather rudderless. Their second album, Disco, was essentially remixes of singles from their first, and the early intention was for fourth album Introspective to do a similar job on their third. 

However, mopping up B-sides and non-album oddities such as Christmas number one Always On My Mind left Introspective in need of a personality. Two new tracks produced by Horn - one an original and one a cover of Sterling Void’s It’s Alright - were lined up to top and tail the mish-mash in between.

Given free rein by the Boys to do his thing, Horn spared no expense of time and money constructing huge bombast against another simple, plaintive nonsense ‘rap’ from the makers of the similarly unlikely-but-street West End Girls.

Opera singers and orchestras (arranged by Richard Niles) were duly wheeled in to add pomp and circumstance to a simple house rhythm and bassline, with the line “Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat” prompting Horn to spend weeks experimenting with setting Debussy to - guess what - a disco beat, an interlude that never made the final cut of the song.

In interviews, Tennant and Lowe say they stayed very much out of the way throughout the process, and the 8:17 running time is testament to a producer keener on flexing his muscle than delivering a tune. It’s a full 2:25 before the chorus arrives and imbues the propulsive cacophony with some much-needed melody and structure.

Its quirky British themes pushed it to number 4 at home, though this rambling ode to a childhood in a world of its own at the back of the garden reached only number 84 stateside.

3. Frankie Goes To Hollywood - Welcome To The Pleasure Dome

Picking just one FGTH smash for this list seems positively criminal, the Frankie singles each being months in the making, released to huge fanfare with landmark videos and carefully crafted press campaigns by Paul Morley at Horn’s own fledgling ZTT records. However, we’re plumping for the lead track from their disappointingly patchy debut double album. 

Horn had signed the band to his own new label and - with no bean counters breathing down his neck and studio time being billed to the band and recouped from their royalties - set about indulging himself for the first time, spending all of 1984 on the album. (Meanwhile label-mates Propaganda had to wait over a year between their first single Dr Mabuse and second smash Duel.)

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Like the Beatles' White Album before it, perhaps Pleasuredome would have been better as a pruned single vinyl, but the allure of the aching pre-CD space of a whole side for a single track proved too strong for Horn. Welcome essentially opens and closes the album with sides two, three and four winding down in a rag-tag parade of - by the time of its release - old singles and rushed out-takes masquerading as tracks.

The monstrous 13:41 album track meanders through musical movements, never quite repeating itself and always remaining focused and driven. While clearly the product of the machine, it’s laden with performances from top studio session talent and in essence is a chanty beaty chorus with long artsy musical ‘jams’ in between. 

And while the track features not one but two lengthy guitar solos, it never quite manages to disappear up its own arse in the way that similarly prog-y indulgences often do. Ignore completely the whittled, epic-free 5:09 song-focused single version, by the way. 

Worth noting that the ads prior to the track’s emergence as a single proclaimed it as “Their fourth number one”. In actuality, it stalled at number two.

4. Propaganda - Dr Mabuse

In the long testament of Horn productions, Propaganda Presents The Nine Lives of Dr Mabuse is criminally overlooked, Dr Mabuse himself being a master criminal depicted in three Fritz Lang films in 1922, 1933 and 1960.

Propaganda were an unlikely combination of classically-trained German musicians bound together through a love of sound experiments and artsy musique concreté. As the second band signed to ZTT (after Frankie Goes To Hollywood) they similarly ‘enjoyed’ a contract that artfully gave Horn as much expensive studio time (in his own studio) as he required, allowing him to go more than ‘a little crazy’.

Mabuse has many parallels with Pleasuredome, also on this list, in that it’s a multi-part opus with specific movements and recurring themes derived equally from the band’s original song, Horn and studio associate-driven alternative angles and riffs on this central theme and passages powered purely from the machines and the new mindset of the remix.

In fact, with Horn and ZTT’s passion for reworking and remixing it’s now hard to find the definitive version of the track - the original ‘white sleeve/white-gloved hand’ 12-inch vinyl version - with all the many digital and album releases and re-releases featuring other remixes instead. However, we’ve found it just for you in the above video.

Running at 10:11 in total it’s literally the 7-inch version of the song for the first 3:48, a minute or so of instrumental (during which the 7-inch vinyl fades out) then at 4:54 there’s a full-on drum machine assault on the senses with beats and orchestra swooshes, hits and mischief swathed in lush Lexicon reverb. 

At this point in time Horn and Fairlight operator JJ Jeczalik (later to become a member of Art of Noise and the producer of Stephen ‘Tin Tin’ Duffy’s classic Kiss Me) had finally managed to sync a Linndrum to their Fairlight, and the passage between 4:54 and 7:06 represents both machines pushed to the limits for the time. From 7:06 to the creepy-voiced conclusion, the stern marching theme kicks like the '80s cold war rendered into melody.

Impossibly, the track is used as the opening ‘drumming’ scene for John Hughes romantic drama Some Kind of Wonderful, with a sweaty Mary Stuart Masterson seemingly able to conjure the entire Teutonic pomp from her minimal basement drum kit.

5. Malcolm McLaren - Buffalo Gals

With one track to go, do forgive us for bumping ABC’s The Look of Love to our lengthy reserve list. It’s a classic - alongside the entire Lexicon of Love album that Horn produced - and you should listen to it. But then you knew that already.

Instead we’re cherry-picking Malcolm McLaren’s Buffalo Gals which - if you’ve never heard it - will amaze as much today as it did way back in 1982.

It’s a ‘song’ with bizarre origins. Ever the arch appropriator, Malcolm McLaren found himself in New York seeking a support act for his post-Pistols signing Bow Wow Wow. 

Instead, he found himself at an early ‘hip-hop’ block party and witnessed firsthand the art of ‘scratching’ - using a vinyl record player as an instrument to play sounds to a beat or create a beat by winding a sound back and forth past the needle. (Written down that sounds about as crazy as Malcolm McLaren discovering it.)

Back home, ex-punk mastermind McLaren - fresh on an artist deal with Chrysalis - set about fronting this new genre of music to a naive UK. As ever, requiring cohorts to do the dirty work, McLaren drafted in Horn, who was busy proving his tech-producer chops on the likes of Mirror Mirror by Dollar at the time (another gem squeezed from this list). The bulk of the track was to come from NY DJs The World Famous Supreme Team who, while Supreme, were far from world-famous, and eager for a gig.

Back in London, Horn set about recording the freshly imported Supreme Team alongside his new Oberheim DMX drum machine, programming a simple beat for them to scratch against. McLaren’s sole contribution to the operation was his desire to make a version of the country ho-down classic Square Dance Song. However, his attempts to ‘sing’ this tune in time with Horn’s track were an abject failure. 

Instead, Horn simplified his input to just two lines - “two/three/four buffalo girls go around the outside” and “doe si doe your partners” - and finished the track with minimal interruption.

Upon hearing the track, however, Chrysalis records - looking for some of that punky stuff - refused a release, feeling themselves pranked by the crown prince of pop prankery. Thankfully, enthusiasm from UK DJ Kid Jenson prompted them to relent.

The ‘correct’ ‘best’ version of the track is the DJ Stereo Mix used in the video above. This - amazingly - pans all the beats hard left and all the performances and scratching hard right. While this at first seems a brave, nay suicidal production move, it was done to allow prospective scratchers to get involved by granting them access to drums or music simply by taking their desired speaker feed. 

And after reaching number 9 in the UK charts, all of that scratching made everyone rich.

Here's the extended mix…

Grace Jones – Slave To The Rhythm - The classic. Remarkable not only for this famous 'bag on the head' Wogan appearance but also that it was so extensively remixed that they were able to spin the track into an entire nine track album.

TATU – Not Gonna Get Us - Coming at you like an 18-wheeler smashing it's way through Siberia. Speaking of which... watch the video...

ABC: The Look of Love - Of course.

Dollar: Mirror Mirror - Easily the most tech record ever made at the time – 1981 – Altogether now… “ONLY IN MY MIRROR!”

Spandau Ballet: Instinction - Borrowing Horn’s ABC sound for a one-off single.

Nasty Rox Inc: Escape From New York 2 - Lame hi-tech hip hop-meets-rock mess. This version wonderfully ditching said rock mess.

Robbie Williams: Bodies (Body Double Remix) - Re-working that Frankie-style magic for the noughties.

Seal: Crazy - Obvs...

Art of Noise: Close (to the Edit) - Best bassline ever? With Yes’s Alan White unwittingly on drums

Mint Juleps: Girl To The Power of Six - A lost UK hip hop gem.

Godley and Creme: Cry - With its famous early ‘morphing’ video. Watch out for Horn appearing for the final impossibly pitched ‘Cryyyyy’.

Glam Metal Detectives: Everybody Up - The totally forgotten WTF theme from the one-series-was-too-much UK ‘comedy’ mis-fire. 

Daniel Griffiths

Daniel Griffiths is a veteran journalist who has worked on some of the biggest entertainment, tech and home brands in the world. He's interviewed countless big names, and covered countless new releases in the fields of music, videogames, movies, tech, gadgets, home improvement, self build, interiors and garden design. He’s the ex-Editor of Future Music and ex-Group Editor-in-Chief of Electronic Musician, Guitarist, Guitar World, Computer Music and more. He renovates property and writes for MusicRadar.com.