by Ben Arzate
The Buggles are the quintessential “one hit wonder” band, to the point that they’re less recognized by their name and more by “the guys that did ‘Video Killed the Radio Star.’” Their biggest claim to fame is that their music video was the first one to air on MTV.
However, they couldn’t parlay this into further success for the other singles from their debut album, The Age of Plastic, despite being a masterpiece work of new wave. The likely reason for this is that the album occupied an odd middle ground. It was too weird for mainstream success but not weird enough to gain a cult following like their contemporaries, Devo.
Further contributing to their lack of success, not long after their first album the two members, singer Trevor Horn and keyboardist Geoffrey Downes, took a break from recording their second album to join the progressive rock band Yes.
Both were long time fans of the band, but it was a strange transition. Fans of Yes thought so, too. The reception was very mixed to the point that Yes broke up after the album Drama and the subsequent tour with Horn and Downes.
Further difficulties for the second Buggles album arose when Downes left before recording began to form the band Asia, though he still did some work on the album. Because of this, Adventures in Modern Recording is closer to a Trevor Horn solo album than a proper Buggles record. Despite all of this, it remains an album excellent enough that it’s a crime that it’s been so forgotten.
As the title suggests, the first album The Age of Plastic had a loose concept about the anxieties of modern life and technology. Adventures in Modern Recording focuses on experimenting with then-new recording techniques and technologies, and includes pastiches of older genres with these recent technologies. While most of the tracks sound solidly 80’s, the top notch songwriting keeps them from sounding dated or like producer noodling.
The album opens with the title track. The lyrics are a satire of the music industry and the increasing image-centric direction it was heading. “So carefully directed / For modern mass appeal / Look just like a poster / Got yourself a deal.” It sounds like a pastiche of a teen idol song filtered through thick layers of new wave production and sets the tone for the rest of the album.
“Beatnik” is another pastiche with humorous lyrics, sounding like a synthed-up rockabilly song and telling the story of a trendy wannabe rebel. “A shark tooth fin and a Chevrolet / A wild boy takes it all the way / No more charlie it’s my throat / Send the bell-boy for my coat.” This was the last single from the album and from the band itself, giving us lines like “All will be revealed before the next move” and “No more espresso” meanings that Horn likely didn’t originally intend.
“Vermillion Sands” is a slower track with surreal lyrics like “My heart is an alligator / Better watch your step / This heat is an incubator / Make a diamond sweat – want to bet.” The title and chorus are a reference to the JG Ballard book by the same name, Vermillion Sands being a fictional resort.
Ballard was an inspiration for several Buggles song, including “Video Killed the Radio Star,” but this song is the most direct reference to his work. The track digresses into synthesized jazz sounds, helping to invoke the feelings of a futuristic luxury resort. I wouldn’t be surprised if several vaporwave artists have plundered this song.
“I Am a Camera” was the first single off the song, and it’s easy to see why. It’s the best song on the album and one of my favorites of all time. It’s a simple love song that was originally recorded as a Yes track under the title “Into the Lens.”
While the Yes track was ten minutes long with several digressions and solos, typical of progressive rock, “I Am a Camera” is much tighter at only about five minutes on the album and the music fits the lyrics better.
Downes played keyboards here and the production by Horn is beautiful. While it’s easy to see why it failed to become a hit, it doesn’t really have any hooks, I believe it’s the best song The Buggles released.
“On TV” is like a leftover song from Living in the Plastic Age, which isn’t a bad thing. It’s a catchy song mocking TV culture. It’s composed to sound like a commercial jingle with simple lines like “Ecstasy for you and me / Here at home on your TV.” It’s a fun song, though probably the least creative production wise, even if that was obviously intentional.
“Inner City” is the second-best song on the album. It’s a song about middle-class angst, going to work to chase a fortune that will likely never come. “But tear the fabric off your nest / You’ll find the eggs have gone / And no one mentions / How you run.” I’m surprised this one wasn’t issued as a single as it probably has some of the best hooks on the album.
“Lenny” is an upbeat synth pop song which seems to be about Galileo. “When you say that the sun does not move / Did it show you the answer.” Strangely, this was probably the most successful song on the album, becoming a top ten hit in the Netherlands. It’s a very catchy piece of nerd pop.
“Rainbow Warrior” is where Horn’s influence from Yes really shows. It’s a progressive rock song with mystical lyrics. “Son of logic / Boy born of light / Is the picture drawn/ Is the harvest one.” It’s a fantastic way to wrap up the album, minus a short reprise of “Adventures in Modern Recording.”
With the commercial failure of the album and Downes leaving the band, it’s no wonder that Horn decided to end the Buggles project to focus on doing production work. It’s also no wonder why he was so successful at it. Adventures in Modern Recording really shows Horn’s ability to write and produce in a wide variety of genres. The songs are excellently crafted, they’re fun and catchy even when the subject matter is esoteric, and the production sounds great even today.
As of writing this, the album is out of print and not available on streaming services, at least in the United States. It really is a shame that this is the case. Adventures in Modern Recording really is an underrated gem from a criminally underrated band.