Various Artists
Produced By Trevor Horn


ighties nostalgia having peaked about two years ago, what with the creative cul-de-sac of electroclash and the commemorative 1,000th broadcast of The Wedding Singer on TBS, a fresh evaluation of the decade’s musical output is perhaps overdue. An era reviled for its materialism by elites who nonetheless indulged in its attendant hedonism, the decade is today viewed with equal parts embarrassment and sentimentality—a time during which we all should’ve known better yet somehow can’t let go. The decade’s erosion of the middle class is dismissed today with the same roll of the eyes as its gaudy fashion sense. In other words, “Oh, yes, but that was the Eighties.”

As confirmed by the two-disc Produced By… no figure in pop exploited that decade’s symbiosis between ostentation and the abdication of moral responsibility like producer Trevor Horn. Though recording since the mid-Seventies and scoring a UK Number 1 as recently as 2003, Horn was indisputably to his era what Phil Spector was to the early Sixties, driving such acts as Frankie Goes To Hollywood, ABC and Dollar to commercial and creative glories they could not have otherwise imagined absent the producer’s bold synth stabs, crisp rhythms and often startlingly cavernous reverbs. On one hand, Horn comported himself as the Michelangelo of the mixing desk, a radical modernist committing to tape the sound of man marveling at his own magnificence. On the other, he was Pop’s Wizard of Oz, his product as synthetic as it was grandiose, suggesting that behind every dubious triumph lurked a bespectacled misfit wrenching flair and drama from his supercomputer.

For all his delusions of opulent grandeur, Horn would foster an almost dystopian fixation on technology that often unleashed the autocrat from within; on more than a few occasions, musicians incapable of playing in strict time would be sacked in lieu of machines that could. His obsession crested with the purchase of said-supercomputer, the Fairlight sampling synthesizer, which in 1983 was so exclusive, few in pop beyond Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush were known to own one. But where others used the sampler to exoticize their sound, Horn’s use of the Fairlight was positively transformative, instantly setting the standard for flashy, ultra-modern production. Little surprise then that the machine would first appear on Yes’s comeback single, “Owner of a Lonely Heart”, where the producer’s jagged, incongruous application of James Brown horn blasts, orchestra hits and cacophonous drum fills rendered an otherwise mundane tune literally impossible for the listener to ignore. With the song a runaway chart-topper stateside, the singer of The Buggles’ geek-pop classic “Video Killed the Radio Star” had become the industry’s hottest property overnight, his services soon enlisted by Irish messiah Bob Geldof for charity smash, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”

But it was Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Roman orgy of a pop single, the throbbing, towering “Relax”, that would propel Horn into the stratosphere, its hi-tech leather bar production shooting his stock higher than a Michael Milken junk bond scheme. For Frankie’s astonishing commercial success, the producer could thank pop art provocateur and partner-in-crime, Paul Morley; as Horn churned out a dozen-odd remixes for “Relax”, each more salacious than the last, the former NME scribe concocted equally outrageous promotional gimmicks, fashioning ersatz pop culture “events” around their every release. Infusing the music with a sense of importance (and value) almost comically at odds with the actual content, Morley’s genius for propaganda perfectly complemented Horn’s own, helping parlay Frankie’s overblown gay sex symphonietta into one of the decade’s signature moments and the first in a stream of Number Ones for the pair’s fledgling record label—Zang Tuum Tumb.

From a business-standpoint, ZTT would rate among the decade’s most spectacular failures, but as a pop label, few could match its audacity, as the imprint’s roster was filled out with minimalist classical composers and French chanteuses. Horn’s Midas touch seemed boundless; as Frankie continued their meteoric ascent with Cold War epic, “Two Tribes”, and a hilariously flaccid power ballad, “Power of Love” (“I’ll protect you from the hooded claw / Keep the vampires from your door”), Morley’s signing of German industrial outfit Propaganda promised greater, weightier things to come. And indeed, lead single “Dr. Mabuse” delivered: a Faustian wallop of jackhammer drums, cut-up and pop expressionism, with vocals suggesting Nico during Abba’s overcast final days. But the moment was already passing; the group’s brilliant full-length arrived a year behind schedule and cost a half-million pounds, with Horn’s involvement limited by competing commitments. ZTT house band Art of Noise split from the label as further cost overruns, disappointing sales and lawsuits forced dream projects with the likes of Associates’ Billy Mackenzie to fall by the wayside.

As such, 1985’s “Slave To the Rhythm” would prove ZTT’s last gasp—albeit a typically mammoth one. Originally slated for Frankie, the whip-snapping Grace Jones single was a triumph of maximalist pop production, replete with orchestras, choirs and the aptly-named Zang Tuum Tumb Big Beat Colossus. Morley’s subsequent split from ZTT begat a more industry-friendly Horn, who found his extravagant, hyper-smooth style in demand by Eurodisco champions Pet Shop Boys and Seal, among others. A subsequent slide into the dodgy realm of adult contemporary, working with Rod Stewart, Tina Turner and Barry Manilow, confirmed his hired-gun status, though a recent resurgence with Scottish fey-poppers Belle & Sebastian, teen “lesbian” Russian duo tATu and a wickedly subversive reunion with Art of Noise have indicated an artistic renaissance of sorts.

At 30 tracks spanning four decades and enough labels to send a compiler into fits, Produced By… has all the essentials: in addition to the requisite Frankie, Art of Noise and Propaganda, there’s Dollar in all their Abba-fied glory, Godley and Creme’s shimmering “Cry” and Malcolm McClaren’s proto-hip hop “Buffalo Gals”. Latter-day pleasures include a few recent triumphs, such as tATu and the surprisingly effective Britney-pop of LeAnn Rimes’ “Can’t Fight the Moonlight” (which surely caught The Neptunes’ ear while preparing “I’m A Slave 4 U”). And while Marc Almond’s “The Day’s Of Pearly Spencer” and Tom Jones’ sweaty “If I Only Knew” are passed over in lieu a bland new Lisa Stansfield single and an uncomfortable Shane MacGowan duet, with liner notes by the great man himself, Produced By Trevor Horn reminds again why pop’s greatest craftsmen are equal parts artist and businessman, visionary and charlatan. Few since have scaled such Dionysian heights.

Reviewed by: Matthew Weiner

Reviewed on: 2004-12-17

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