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Buggles – Elstree


My love for synthesisers arrived early in life, but it nearly didn’t happen at all – and it’s all Jeff Wayne’s fault. For Christmas 1978 my brother asked for and was given his musical version of War of the Worlds, and it absolutely bloody terrified me. I was pretty much paralysed with fear the second Richard Burton opened his mouth and was on the verge of wetting myself when the strings kicked in – but it was the synths that creeped me out the most. They sounded so cold and unreal and they went straight to my heart and chilled it. But they also fascinated me in a way I couldn’t quite understand, and even though I had nightmares for weeks (often waking up screaming “No! Nathaniel!”), I had to go back to it again and again until my mother issued a blanket ban. I even developed a mild horror for our Christmas tin of Quality Street because it featured people in Victorian dress, and as far as I was concerned people in Victorian dress got vapourised by Martians. Even when I wasn’t allowed to listen to it I would take out the lavishly illustrated album-sized booklet and obsess over it. Eventually, the record vanished from the house altogether and some of the McMurrays may still occasionally wonder what happened to it. I can reveal now that I gave it away to someone who came to the door collecting bric-a-brac for a jumble sale. Even though I knew part of me loved it, I had to get it out of the house.

My fear of synths might have lasted longer, but scarcely a year later it was refashioned into adoration, largely thanks to Video Killed the Radio Star by Buggles (or, if you prefer, The Buggles). In this context the synths seemed friendly and comforting, and they also came without a merciless heat ray, which was quite a big deal for me. This was my way forward, and it meant that when ABBA came out with Lay All Your Love on Me in 1980 I was able to appreciate its spookiness without having another night terror. So hooray for Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes. I might have ended up taking refuge in rock had it not been for them.

Considering how much I went on to love just about everything Trevor Horn did, it strikes me as a little odd now that I didn’t make more time for Buggles. But then, not many of us did – Video Killed the Radio Star was one of those rare hits (and an early example of what I call Mary’s Prayer syndrome) that renders its makers obsolete almost immediately by virtue of its total brilliance. The band scored a further two hits – Living in the Plastic Age, no.16 and Clean Clean, no.38 – but having nailed the sound of nostalgic modernity in one single it became swiftly apparent that that was all we really needed from Trevor as a pop star. Thank goodness for that, eh?

Up until early 1998 I’d have sworn there wasn’t a fourth single from The Age of Plastic, but when I heard the opening piano refrain of Sylvie by Saint Etienne, off went the familiarity klaxon and Elstree – a song I’d maybe only heard once or twice – was retrieved from the darkest recesses of my brain. It’s stayed right there at the front ever since.

Elstree – rather like I Don’t Depend on You by The Men (an incognito Human League) is, I think, one of those records that bridges the gap between eras. Setting aside the slightly bonkers subject matter (Elstree and its film-making history were completely unknown to me and, I suspect, most young pop enthusiasts), the structure and pace of the record were very much of the late 70s (think Airport by The Motors) – but the production was something else entirely. Airport still seemed like a song my parents – or at a push my older brother – would like, but records by Buggles felt like they were made for me. I suppose everybody has a sound that pushes their buttons, and mine is the sound of buttons being pushed. Electronics – having started off scaring the bejesus out of me – became the great love affair of my life. They’ve been thrilling me and making me cry – an absurd amount – ever since. Elstree has all of the elements I require in a great pop song, and it had nearly all the elements required for a hit single. What it perhaps lacked was a more universal theme and the right people to sing it – and when Trevor Horn found that combination – amazingly, with cabaret bobby dazzlers Dollar – on Hand Held in Black and White, it was the first of dozens of literally perfect pop songs. You only have to listen to the demo of Videotheque (find it on the reissued CD of Adventures in Modern Recording) and compare it with the subsequent Dollar version to see the difference that the right performer makes.

Oh, what a time to be alive. I was a fairly recent addition to the world myself, but 1980 really did seem brand new. Nothing illustrates this more than Peter Howell’s reworking of the Doctor Who theme tune for that year’s series eighteen. Given a total overhaul for Tom Baker’s final season, it’s completely electronic, thunderously exciting and remains the best version ever made. It still sounds modern if you ask me. I’ve written before about how a change of decade often sweeps away what’s gone before, but to a seven year old raised on ABBA and Paul Simon it was all quite breathtaking –  Joanne and Susan Ann jigging about on Top of the Pops, me jigging about in my living room to Tainted Love (complete with wrist action), eyeshadow, fancy haircuts and above all, synthesisers draping everything in pulsating, slightly spooky (but no longer scary) newness.

Getting on for four decades later, I’m pleased to note that the shine still hasn’t worn off. I still get a bit scared when Eve of the War starts off (and I still can’t listen to it before bedtime), and I still get the thrill of the new when I hear Elstree. Only this time it’s mixed with a very pleasant sense of nostalgia for a bygone age – and that, when you think about it, was what Buggles were all about in the first place. Amazing.

117234123Entered chart: 08/11/80

Chart peak: 55

Weeks on chart: 4

Who could sing this today and have a hit? Christ on a bike, who knows? Actually, maybe Christ on a bike is the only person.

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