Artifact: A beautiful Buggles song and many trivia questions

Beau Dure
Beau Dure
Oct 23 · 6 min read
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What was the first video played on MTV? And how wonderful was that song?

You surely got that trivia question. The first video played on MTV was Video Killed the Radio Star by the Buggles.

The related trivia questions are a little more difficult, depending on where your fandom lies:

  1. What band did primary Buggles Trevor Horn (vocals, bass) and Geoff Downes (keyboards) join next?
  2. What band did Geoff Downes join after that?
  3. Who’s the third guy in the band playing keyboards at the end?
  4. How many versions of this song were released in 1979?
  5. What musical artist did Trevor Horn produce later on?
  6. What band is Geoff Downes in now? (Oct. 23, 2020)

Answers below. But in the meantime, watch and listen …

Forget the trivia for a minute. This is a superbly constructed pop song with a delightful video highlighting the creativity the early video directors used with low budgets.

It’s easy to categorize this as synth-pop. But it’s not. Listen with headphones, and you’ll hear Horn’s melodic bass adding to the cornucopia of hooks in this song. You’ll also hear real drums, unless drum machine technology was much farther advanced in 1979 than any of us realized. There’s even a brief bit of screaming guitar.

But it’s also a textbook in how studio magic can suit the song. Downes’ piano captures the nostalgia of a song that looks both backwards and forwards. Horn’s voice is compressed so that when you see his ghostly image pop up in the video with an old-school microphone, it’s believable. The women singing backup give the choruses a cool vibe that Horn surely couldn’t have provided himself. (I think I have a crush on one of them, but I’m not sure which.)

And you’ll rarely find lyrics that paint a picture as well as these. The first verse reminds me of lying in the upstairs bedroom of my childhood home, trying to angle the antenna on my boombox so I could get clear reception on 96 Rock, the beacon blasting guitar gods across northern Georgia from the big city of Atlanta. From then on, it’s as if we’re traveling with Horn and unearthing the places where all the magic happened.

The way we listen to music is totally different now. You can listen to radio stations from around the world. You can have hundreds of options on SiriusXM — just 25 years after some of us were factoring the presence of an “alternative” radio station into our decisions on where to live, we have about as many varieties of “alternative” stations as we have breakfast cereals.

But there was always something romantic about the radio, especially the farther back you go. I was a shortwave-radio listener, so I delighted in finding windows on the world in the BBC (sporting), Swiss Radio International (charming), Radio Nicaragua (amusing), Radio Tirana Albania (boring), and Radio Moscow (frightening). Radio Tirana Albania was once called “radio’s cure for insomnia” by a shortwave magazine, Radio Moscow brought the USSR’s propaganda arm with an outstretched fist, and Radio Nicaragua alternated anti-American tirades with American music. (“America is terrible! America is coming to kill us! Here’s the latest from Madonna …”)

Closer to home, many a late-night road trip was punctuated by the moment of reaching my destination’s broadcast range. In both cases, I could always picture someone in a studio akin to the one Johnny Fever and Venus Flytrap shared in WKRP in Cincinnati, communicating with a city and the surrounding countryside with music.

So Video Killed the Radio Star is both nostalgic and futuristic. Todd in the Shadows captures that sentiment quite well in his One-Hit Wonderland tribute.

He also touches on some of the trivia questions mentioned above. The answers are:

What band did primary Buggles Trevor Horn (vocals, bass) and Geoff Downes (keyboards) join next?

Yes. It’s not a yes-or-no question. “Yes” is the answer.

Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman left during a disastrous attempt to record their follow-up to Tormato, which was itself a mediocre follow-up to Going for the One, which deserves a place alongside the Big Three (The Yes Album, Fragile, Close to the Edge) and 90125 as the best the band ever produced.

Downes was an able replacement for Wakeman, a skilled keyboardist who matched Wakeman’s propensity for surrounding himself with far more equipment than he could possibly need and awkwardly stretching between keyboards that were barely within reach if he stood between them. Horn’s voice fit the lone album Yes/Buggles recorded, Drama, but it’s hard to imagine him pulling off Roundabout and Yours Is No Disgrace.

The great documentary Yesyears has an amusing anecdote in which bassist Chris Squire, the one ever-present member of Yes until his untimely passing in 2015, says Horn had a nightmare: They were in a limo on the way to Madison Square Garden when Squire handed him a Walkman and said, “Trevor, listen to this. You’ve never heard it before, but maybe we could play it tonight.”

And wouldn’t you know it, someone put Yesyears on YouTube. Start at the 1:10 mark for Anderson and Wakeman’s departure and stay tuned for the next few minutes.

Except that it skips over the anecdote. That’s weird.

Keep watching if you like, though the retelling of Tony Kaye’s return and the happy vibe of Union aren’t particularly accurate. A few minutes later, you’ll get a partial answer to №4 below.

What band did Geoff Downes join after that?

Asia, along with Yes guitarist Steve Howe. Downes carried on under the Asia name for decades with an even busier revolving door than Yes has had.

Who’s the third guy in the band playing keyboards at the end?

Hans Zimmer.

Yes, that Hans Zimmer. The perennial Oscar nominee for his film scores. The Masterclass teacher. He even wrote a new anthem for Major League Soccer, released this year. Just in time for COVID-19 to scramble the season.

He doesn’t seem to have played on the song, though. Wikipedia has a personnel list taken from a vinyl single release, and Zimmer isn’t mentioned.

The video does feature the actual backup singers, Debi Doss and Linda Jardim. I have no idea whether the guy briefly pictured hitting a drum is actual drummer Paul Robinson — it doesn’t look like him.

How many versions of this song were released in 1979?

Two. Bruce Woolley co-wrote the song with Horn and Downes and started a band called The Camera Club, which included another peripatetic young musician in Thomas Dolby. They recorded the song

There’s no sign of any hard feelings here. Woolley rejoined Horn and Downes for their first live performance in 2004. Not kidding here — the Buggles were a studio creation.

That live performance was part of a Prince’s Trust concert celebrating the music of Trevor Horn. He had done a bit more since leaving Yes and the Buggles. A bit.

What musical artist did Trevor Horn produce later on?

Yes. Squire and drummer Alan White started working with guitarist/vocalist Trevor Rabin, then brought back Anderson and long-exiled keyboardist Tony Kaye. Horn produced one of the most surprising records in rock history, turning Yes into a pop-rock band for the heyday of MTV, propelled by the instantly recognizable Owner of a Lonely Heart.

And then he produced Spandau Ballet. And ABC. And Frankie Goes to Hollywood. And Grace Jones. And Simple Minds, and Paul McCartney, and Rod Stewart, and Seal, and Pet Shop Boys, and … Barry Manilow?

And the Pretenders, and Cher, and … LeAnn Rimes?

And that’s just in the 20th century. Check his AllMusic page and give it a while to load — it also includes “composer” credits for everyone who covered and sampled Video Killed the Radio Star. Again, allow some time if you want to read that list.

So that Prince’s Trust concert had plenty to choose from. The Buggles kicked things off. Grace Jones did a song. Pet Shop Boys and Seal played. And it all finished with a performance captured in one of my favorite YouTube videos — Frankie Goes to Hollywood.

Look carefully, and you’ll see Steve Howe doing a guitar solo. And you’ll see Trevor Horn.

What band is Geoff Downes in now?

Yes. Again, Yes. And Asia. Those bands toured together in 2019, with members of Yes comprising more than half of the Asia lineup — Yes bassist Billy Sherwood is Asia’s singer/bassist, Downes is on keyboards, and Howe played a bit as well.

So the two guys you see in the one-hit wonder band that was the first video played on MTV are basically the Kevin Bacons of music. Whether it’s a sample, a cover version, something Horn produced or someone with whom Downes played, the Buggles are part of the fabric of music in the last 40 years.

And they did all that after they recording this beautiful song and an unforgettable video.

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