Video Killed the Radio Star
March 18, 2017
Todd plays the intro to "Video Killed the Radio Star" on the piano.
THE BUGGLES - VIDEO KILLED THE RADIO STAR
A one-hit wonder retrospective
Clip of The Buggles - "Video Killed the Radio Star"
Trevor Horn: I heard you on the wireless back in fifty twoTodd: Hello and welcome back to One-Hit Wonderland, where we take a look back into the bands and artists only known for one song. Okay, NOW this is the last request. And after this, I can finally, finally go back to reviewing songs I want to review, such as...(?)...well I'm sure I'll think of something. And yet again, we are looking at a new wave MTV hit. Which, yes, it's certainly over-represented on this show.
Video for The Human League - "Keep Feeling Fascination"
Todd (VO): After this, I'm not gonna touch another new wave song til, like, 2023.
Todd: But this isn't just any MTV new wave hit here.
Video for "Video Killed the Radio Star"
Todd (VO): This is the MTV new wave hit. This is the defining, breakthrough moment of the entire music video era. That's right, we're yet again going back...
Todd: ...to the '70s.
The Buggles: Video killed the radio star
Video killed the radio star
Todd (VO): Yes, believe it or not, the song that's widely perceived as having kicked off the 80's wasn't even from the 80's, and landed at #1 in the UK two months before the decade started!
Trevor: They took the credit for your second...
In America, the song will forever be associated with the fact that it was the first music video ever played on MTV on August 1st, 1981.
Todd: 'Cause on its original release, "Video Killed the Radio Star" did not cross over.
Todd (VO): It only ever barely scraped onto the Top 40. And by that, I mean it reached [shot of Billboard Hot 100 chart with the song peaking at...] #40 on the charts and no higher.
Todd: Which is really just fitting in the most bluntly obvious way possible. Of course it didn't do well on the charts! In 1979, success on Billboard was mostly driven by promotion on the radio.
Todd (VO): It couldn't get big until there was a real platform for music videos. And it's not like MTV's original launch was seen by very many people, [clip of 80s MTV bumper] but when it did become the decade defining phenomenon we know it as now, it was hard to see "Video Killed the Radio Star" as anything but a prophecy come true.
Todd: And yet, if this was a future that they predicted...
Video for "Video Killed the Radio Star"
Todd (VO): ...why weren't they a part of it? If there was anyone who had their fingers on the pulse of popular music, it was these guys. Well, it turns out the Buggles' career arc is..
Todd: ...one of the stranger ones I've covered on One Hit Wonderland.
Todd (VO): It's, uh...yeah, this one's a little all over the place. So, let's get to it.
Todd: Let us autopsy the radio star and find out how it was killed. Oh-wuh-oh!
The Buggles: Video...Before the hit
Todd: OK, let's start out with that name. [image of the Buggles' name] That's a stupid name. Sounds like a [still image from The Wuzzles] cutesy '80s cartoon or something. The idea behind it was that it's-it's-it's like [images of...] The Beatles. And, you know, [...and...] beetles are bugs, so... The Buggles!
Clip of Buggles live performance
Todd (VO): No, no-no-no. Let me-let me really explain. See, they dreamed up this nightmare future scenario...
Todd: ...I'm guessing while high...
Todd (VO): ...where all the bands in the world were fake and being run by this crazy mad scientist with a computer pumping out shitty perversions of good music. Like...
Todd: ...[image of...] a shitty version of the Beatles would be the Buggles. And for some reason, they made this the name of their band.
Todd (VO): Yeah, they have admitted multiple times that the name's terrible, and it was a stupid idea, but their excuse is, you know, they didn't really care at the time. They were just out of school, they didn't know a goddamn thing about anything.
Todd: Anyway, there's only two actual Buggles. [The Age of Plastic album covers with...] The singer is Trevor Horn, and the keyboardist is Geoffrey Downes. And there was also a third guy, Bruce Woolley, and they wrote a bunch of songs together, but Bruce got signed as a solo act.
Video for "Video Killed the Radio Star"
Todd (VO): And then the Buggles also got signed, so...they both recorded the songs they wrote together on both of their separate albums including "Video Killed the Radio Star." So let's...
Todd: Let's check out Bruce's version.
Clip of live performance of Bruce Woolley's "Video Killed the Radio Star"
Bruce Woolley: I met your children
What did you tell them?
Video killed the radio star
Video killed the radio starTodd (VO): Yeah, it's a-it's a little less polished, a little punkier, a little more Elvis Costello. There's a whole alternate universe where this is the version that got big, but...
Todd: ...it didn't 'cause, as far as I can tell, they did not film an actual music video for it. [single cover for Bruce Woolley's "Video Killed the Radio Star"] Which, pfffft, I mean come on! [video is circled and blinks] What song do you think you're singing? It needs a video! Let's look at a proper version with a real video.
The big hit
Video for "Video Killed the Radio Star" starts
Todd (VO): When I hear "Video Killed the Radio Star," I think of...
Todd: ...the future.
Trevor Horn: I heard you on the wireless...
Todd (VO): Which, you know, this song really shouldn't still have the power to do that. I mean it's the future as imagined [poster for The Humanoid] in 1979. I don't even know any of the radio stars that video killed.
Todd: Marveling at how [image of...] TV supplanted radio. I mean, that's...it may as well be saying [stuffy British accent] "Oh, my word! Can you believe those horseless carriages are putting our buggy drivers out of work?"
Buggles: Video killed the radio star
Todd (VO): Hell, there is no video star anymore! Music videos are less relevant than ever. [images of...] MP3s killed the video star. [...followed by...] Spotify killed the MP3 star, [...and...] and music that we swallow in pill form will kill the Spotify star someday not very long from now. So, video killed the radio star with all its up to date hip futuristic outfits, and sci-fi sets from the '70s. This should be a camp artifact. This should feel about as dated as an episode of [image from...] Battlestar Galactica.
Trevor: Put the blame on VCR
Todd: The hell's a [image of Sony VCR with question marks] VCR?!
Trevor: Lying awake intent at tuning in on you
Todd (VO): So the really amazing thing, is that even with all the time that's passed, "Video Killed the Radio Star" is still as powerful as it was three decades ago. And that's at least partly because even as it evokes the future...
Todd: ...it's also a tribute to the past. A world that's gone by.
Trevor: We hear the playback and it seems so long ago
Todd (VO): "Video Killed the Radio Star" is a song about nostalgia.
Todd: You right now are all feeling nostalgia for nostalgia.
Todd (VO): "Video Killed the Radio Star" can't become dated because it was already dated when it was released.
Buggles: Oh-a-aho oh
Even in 1979, I have to believe this stuff looked cheesy, and on purpose. What with its mad scientist getup and the Star Trek alien babes.
Trevor: They took the credit for your second symphony
Todd (VO): It's about radio stars whose careers were ended by television I guess. Which honestly I've never heard of that. Did that happen?
Todd: Were there stars who couldn't make the jump to TV? Were they just that ugly?
Todd (VO): I mean the music of the '50s and the '60s and even the '70s don't really seem all that image centric. Certainly not the way the '80s were. Even in the video, the images of radio stars look fake and phony.
Todd: I really love this video by the way.
Todd (VO): In fact, you can kinda see the same image that was allegedly their origin story. A mad scientist manufacturing music with his evil mega computer.
Todd: Not only did the Buggles predict MTV, they also predicted people complaining about MTV, [pissy] 'cause it used to be about the music, man!
Todd (VO): And it just sounds so good. The hooks, the production, it's perfect. If it's a dated future, it's still absolutely gorgeous. [image of Bruce Woolley cover] Bruce Woolley's version was never gonna be a hit...
Todd: ...even though he's a much better singer than Trevor Horn.
Trevor: And you remember the jingles used to go
Todd: I mean Horn looks and sounds like [image of...] Jerry Lewis as the Nutty Professor. [Jerry Lewis voice] You'll kill the lady!
Todd (VO): But the Buggles' sleeker, shinier version captured something bigger that the other version just doesn't. Also it doesn't have the backup singers going, "Oh-a oh." Which, I mean let's be real, that's super important.
Todd: I mean this song just lays on the hooks.
Buggles: Video killed the radio star
Todd (VO): So, now we know how it has killed the radio star.
Todd: Who killed the Buggles' star?
The failed follow-up
Todd (VO): The Buggles released three more singles off their first album, all of which had rapidly decreasing success on the charts.
Todd: And again, I mean all in the UK. In America, we'd still never heard of them at this point. So let's check them out.
Video for "Living in the Plastic Age" starts
Todd (VO): Okay, their second single was the title track-or almost the title track-"Living in the Plastic Age." Certainly a...
Todd: ...fitting and prophetic theme for all the same reasons as "Video Killed the Radio Star." Let's take a listen.
Trevor: Talking fast I make a deal
Buy the fake and sell what's real
Ah, what's this...Todd (VO): Okay, first off this sounds like a weird mix of Devo and ABBA.
Trevor: They send the heart police
To put you under cardiac arrest
And as they drag you...Todd (VO): I-I don't know. I-I kinda like it. But, I can see why it didn't catch on. First off, it's nowhere as slick as "Radio Star." It's too herky-jerky, and there's way too much going on.
Trevor: Plastic Age
Todd (VO): Seriously, what the hell is happening?
Trevor: Hello, doctor, lift my face
I wish my skin could stand the paceTodd (VO): Okay. Where "Radio Star" evoked a shiny, Star Trek sci-fi future, this sounds more like Doctor Frankenstein toying with the forces of nature.
Todd: I mean, I'm enjoying it, but it's not very pop.
Todd (VO): Also the video is lame and dated in all the ways that "Video Killed the Radio Star" wasn't. Let-let's just enjoy.
Trevor: They send the heart police
To put you under cardiac arrestThis is just great. Wh-what were they even going for? In the age of plastic, there are hooded cave monks, and women are turned into keyboard stands in blackface. Okay, I think I've [clip of Michael Sembello - "Automatic Man"] found my new "Automatic Man." Anyway let's try the next one.
Clip of live performance of "Clean Clean"
Trevor: Johnny drove the halftrack
'Cause we could not find the Jeep
Wake me in the morning gotta get some sleep
Driving all night...Todd (VO): Huh. I like the way this one chugs away. Got a little, uh, Billy Idol type groove to it.
Trevor: God you know it's hard to keep the fighting clean
Trevor & Buggles: Clean clean
Todd stifles a laugh
Clean cleanOkay, never mind. Now it just sounds silly.
Video for "Elstree"
Todd (VO): And finally we have, "Elstree," a romantic ode to an old British movie studio.
Trevor: Elstree, remember me
I had a part in a B movieI think it's trying to evoke the same kind of washed-away nostalgia that "Radio Star" did, but...it's-it's...it's just not the same. I will say this though: I wished they created videos for all the other songs on that album, which had more promising titles like, [track listing with songs underlined] "Johnny On The Monorail", "I Love You (Miss Robot)", and "Astroboy."
Todd: I've listened to them. Believe me, they do live up to their titles.
Did they ever do anything else?
Todd: Yeah, yeah. They, uhh, they-they did do other stuff. They, umm...[pause] They joined Yes.
Clip of live performance of Yes - "Roundabout"
Jon Anderson: I'll be the roundaboutTodd (VO): Yes, Yes. You know, the-the prog rock band, Yes. Huge in the '70s. Did really complicated songs that went for like fifteen minutes.
Todd: Okay, so in 1980, they lost their...
Clip of live performance of Yes - "Close to the Edge"
Todd (VO): ...lead singer, Jon Anderson, and their star virtuoso keyboardist, Rick Wakeman...and the remaining members ran into the Buggles in the studio and were like, "Hey. Would you like to be our new lead singer and keyboard player?" And...and they said yes to Yes.
Todd: Let me repeat...
Clip of live performance of Yes - "Yours is No Disgrace"Todd (VO): One of the top selling acts of the '70s, a serious, hardcore progressive rock band, lost their two most important members and replaced them with [photo of...] the Buggles, a fluky novelty act with one album.
Todd: This is one of the weirdest things I've ever heard of in rock history. I-imagine if [clips of "Uprising" by...] the lead singer of Muse quit, and they replaced him with the guy from [...and "Rude" by...] MAGIC! That's about how much sense this makes to me. But, it happened.
Clip of live performance of Yes - "Into the Lens"
Trevor: Take heart
I could never let you goTodd (VO): They joined Yes, and they recorded an album in 1980, and...obviously this record came out after the band's peak. But hardcore Yes fans widely agreed that it was, indeed... [album cover for Drama] an album.
Todd: [throws hands up] It's okay apparently.
Todd (VO): But a lot of Yes fans at the time were not ready for this change. For one, Jon Anderson has the range like an opera tenor, and Trevor Horn sounds like Microsoft Sam. The album didn't do that badly, but Yes was like, "This was weird. Maybe we should call it quits." And they did.
Todd: And then a couple years later, most of the original band [photo of the whole band] reunited, and...look the story of Yes is really complicated.
Video for "Into the Lens"
Trevor: I am a cameraTodd (VO): But the Buggles' story continued. Which turned out to be good timing as by now, MTV had launched, and the Buggles were seeing spikes in sales in America. Unfortunately, what with all the time spent with Yes, and Geoffrey Downes was in the middle of starting a new band...
Todd: ...the-the music never really came together and, the second album flopped.
Todd (VO): And the Buggles never ever released a third album because eventually, Trevor Horn had to come to the conclusion that Trevor Horn [image of Horn in glasses] is not a rock star.
Todd: Duh. I mean he looks like [image of...] Al Franken. Downes, meanwhile, had that other band I was talking about. [photo of new band] See, he joined up with some members of some other bands like Yes and King Crimson...and they put together a new band. A new little band called [opening chords of...wait for it...] Asia.
Clip of Asia - "Heat of the Moment"
John Wetton: It was the heat of the moment
Telling me what my heart meantTodd (VO): Asia was actually like...a-a serious thing in-in the '80s. They were big for a-for a while, so don't write them out. That's-that's a big deal.
Todd: But that's NOTHING compared to what Trevor Horn accomplished.
Clip of ABC - "The Look of Love"
ABC: That's the look, that's the look
Martin Fry: The look of love...Todd (VO): You see... while he was promoting his second album, he also started doing production work for other bands. And, it really started to take off.
Clip of Yes - "Owner of a Lonely Heart"
Jon: Owner of a lone...Todd (VO): He even got to work with Yes again and, gave them their biggest hit.
Jon: Owner of a lonely heart...
Todd VO): And besides those songs, what else has he produced? Well...
Clip of second video for Frankie Goes to Hollywood - "Relax"
Holly Johnson: Relax, don't do it, when you wanna go to itTodd (VO): I mean, I knew this already, but in case you didn't, Trevor Horn is, [clip of Rod Stewart - "Downtown Train"] a superstar producer who has made, tons of hits, over the course of the next 30 years! [clip of Art of Noise - "Close (To the Edit)"] He also had, a techno-group, producer-collective that was pretty popular at the time, Art of Noise. [clip of Pet Shop Boys - "Always On My Mind"] And he, produced many other synth hits. And, he also...
Clip of Seal - "Kiss from a Rose" plays, namely the "Batman Forever" version
Seal: Baby...What, seriously, "Kiss from a Rose"?! Jesus! And, uh...
Clip of LeAnn Rimes - "Can't Fight the Moonlight"
LeAnn Rimes: But you know, but you know that you...Todd (VO): Man, that too huh? And...
Clip of t.A.T.U. - "All the Things She Said"
t.A.T.U.: All the things she said, all the things she said...Oh, come on! That doesn't even make any sense, how?!
Todd: And, the guy's still out there, still working, so...
Clip of Robbie Williams - "Shame"Todd (VO): ...who knows? The next Lady Gaga hit, could come from him.
Todd: It could happen!
Did they deserve better?
Todd just shrugs
Clip of "Video Killed the Radio Star"
The Buggles: Video killed the radio star...Todd (VO): I mean I'm sure Trevor Horn isn't weeping that The Buggles weren't more successful as he sits on his pile of gold records but... yeah, yeah sure, I-I would've been fine with them having more hits. I can't imagine that ever happening; they were far too weird but... I mean [stutters a bit], yeah. What would've been the harm?
Todd: The Buggles. A strange band... that... wrote the future. Pffft.
Closing Tag Song: "Video Killed the Radio Star" - The Presidents of the United States of America
"Video Killed the Radio Star" is owned by Island Records.
This video is owned by me.
THANK YOU TO THE LOYAL PATRONS!