Hans Zimmer is probably the world’s most famous film composer, having masterminded the soundtracks for everything from The Lion King and Gladiator to Inception and Dune.
What many people don’t know, though, is that in his early days, a 23-year-old Zimmer worked with legendary producer Trevor Horn on The Buggles’ chart-topping Video Killed The Radio Star, released in 1979.
Zimmer even makes an appearance in the music video for the track; you can spot the nervous-looking composer at 2:50 in the video embedded above. Zimmer first met Horn when he was working as a synth programmer on radio ads; after Horn produced a number of Zimmer’s spots, the pair struck up a friendship and Zimmer joined Horn in the studio to work on The Buggles’ material. “Trevor was always brilliant and I really learned a lot from him; I learned how to listen”, Zimmer said of their collaboration, speaking to Steinberg.
Perhaps the most unexpected detail of Zimmer’s contributions to The Buggles’ world-dominating synth-pop hit was revealed in a recent Vulture interview given by Horn.
When asked if he had any inkling that Zimmer would go on to become one of Hollywood’s most venerated composers, Horn said that Zimmer was “a charmer”, but he couldn’t see him in the pop music world. “He was a lot more comfortable when he went into film, and he’s been amazing at it,” he continued.
Horn then revealed that he tried unsuccessfully to persuade Zimmer to drop a verse on the track. Yes, you read that right - a 23-year-old Hans Zimmer almost rapped on Video Killed The Radio Star.
“I wrote a rap in the middle of Radio Star that I tried to get Hans to do,” Horn recalled. “A couple of lines I wrote were, ‘You were in my band when you were 23 / I never thought you’d end up famous-er than me!’”
We can’t help but wonder if the tune would have enjoyed such widespread success if it had featured Zimmer’s aborted rhymes; you can decide for yourself by watching him deliver a rap in the video below, as part of a special performance of Video Killed The Radio Star during Zimmer’s 2017 Wembley Arena concert. Personally, we think that sticking to synths was a wise decision.
Horn shared some more interesting details about Video Killed The Radio Star in the Vulture interview, namely that he deliberately avoided using a sequencer for the track’s electronic elements. “It’s all played by hand,” Horn said, “but in a way so that people said, ‘It sounds like a fookin’ machine!’ We would always say, ‘That’s what we want!’”.
The song’s synth string parts were recorded with a Solina, Minimoog and Prophet-5, and it turns out Zimmer's real value-add wasn't his flow, it was his cutting-edge gear.
"Back then," recalled Horn in his autobiography Adventures in Modern Recording, Zimmer "was a 23-year-old budding keyboard genius who came with his very own Prophet-5, which was a five-note polyphonic keyboard."
“The Prophet-5 was something of a revelation,” Horn continued. “Prior to that we’d been using our old Polymoog synth, which as well as being a bit temperamental, lacked the ability to ‘remember’ sounds.
"The Prophet-5 allowed you to program a sound and then save it to patch memory, meaning you could recall your programmed sound at the touch of a button.”