'Produced By Trevor Horn' - Various Artists
Summer 1984 - I am 16 and on my first big lifetime adventure - a solo trip to Miami to stay with an old school friend.
A major headrush for someone who has rarely been beyond the perimeters of Yorkshire with a journey involving flashers on the London Underground, muscle bound GI Joes en route to Cuba, and a mentally disturbed man who was adamant that the police would kill him if he got into their car .. and that was all within the first 24 hours. Naturally after a few days subjected to the freakiness of America (they have guns you know!) my hosts realised I needed to go to a record shop to acclimatise myself.
For reasons I can no longer recall I left the record shop with Who's Afraid Of The Art of Noise album by the unknown to me 'Art Of Noise', 'Are We Not Men - We Are Devo' (in proper full colour popart cover, not that rubbish UK cover) by Devo, and a Thomas Dolby minilp unavailable in UK. Little did I know what I had done.
Upon dropping the needle onto the Art of Noise grooves back at mine hosts house I was instantly drawn into their strange world of weirdness, the more my friends recoiled the more I reveled in the outsider-ness of the sounds. To make matters even more interesting the sleeve notes were as obtuse and unfathomable as the noises with slight references to it being a certain number within an "Action Series". I knew I had to find out more.
The holiday came to close and I retreated back to my bedroom full of fascination for the small logo on the back of the Art of Noise cover, the collector scum inside me was thus awoken. Within weeks I had found my self indoctrinated to all things ZTT. I was slap bang in the middle of the golden early days of the label but I had some catching up to do, 'Into Battle' cassingle (the format of choice in 1984!), various Art Of Noise Beatbox/Moments in Love 12" but nothing could have prepared me for the next chapter.
Propagandas’ 'The Nine Lives of Dr Mabuse' 12” version. I don’t recall any exposure to the track prior to my purchase, the presence of the logo and the weird artwork made me stump up my hard earned – the track turned out to be 6 minutes of the darkest pop music with the exotic vocal interplay of Claudia Brucken, Susan Freytag, and musical backing provided by Micheal Mertens and Ralf Dorper, all supplemented by a driving Fairlight CMI enhanced groove. Suitably they became dubbed as "Abba from Hell". Nothing else had ever sound as grandiose, massive, and as frighteningly compelling in my world. 20 years later I still rate that one record in my all time top 10, it's that good. Unfortunately the band, couldn't sustain the flow after releasing a couple of fine singles (Duel, p-Machinary) and one excellent debut ‘A Secret Wish’, they seemed to fall apart at the seams, but give me a classic one off over a lifetime of mediocrity any day.
Following the Teutonic pounding of Dr Mabuse, ZTT let rip with the masterpiece of 80's pop. Frankie Goes To Hollywood - the labels ace up their sleeve. The sheer excess of packaging, the overtly shocking videos, the laddish gang mentality of the band, the provocative quotations, Paul Morley's masterful wordplay on the sleeves, and of course the extreme dynamic pop sounds generated from within Sarm Studios (ZTT HQ) meant that the band were destined for every front cover and chart.
The world was theirs and we all had fun.
Relax got banned, world leaders fought in their video's, and a overtly gay pop star ruled the media. Everything was so LARGE, loud, dramatic and downright exciting. How could they not become the greatest band in the world EVER.
As a collector I tried to keep up, the cassingles, picture discs, the multitude of 12" remixes, a new format which ZTT really exploited in every way possible. Despite my best efforts it was impossible, my pocket money could only go so far.
Luckily though, the music was great, really fucking great, and a lot of it still is. The sheer attention to sonic detail that Trevor is famous for still stands out in these pro-tools days. Naturally this Golden Era couldn't last, there was no way the momentum could continue, and as ever things started to disintegrate.
Paul Morley left the fold, Propaganda changed their sound, lineup, and then called it quits. Frankie fell apart amongst a crippling court action, and the Art of Noise decided to become a pop band with TV appearances and Welsh crooners. The mystery and passion behind that famous logo became somewhat tarnished, and I naturally moved onto pastures new - primarily hip hop, which strangely enough was all due to the Trevor Horn produced Buffalo Girls by Malcom McClaren and the associated Duck Rock album.
However, these set backs didn't stop Trevor Horn from staying behind his mixing desk and continue to create some genuinely fantastic Pop Music, much of which is contained within this career spanning compilation all the way up to his recent involvement with the Russian duo Tatu to notch up another number 1 record.
20 years later from my wake up call, Trevor Horn has compiled a double cd set of some of the pop classics and lesser known parts of his catalogue that he added his layers of studio sheen to, not all of these were ZTT sanctioned upon their original release, but seeing the logo back in prominence and the fact that a lot of the classic acts are now talking to each other again makes this revival particularly interesting.
So go on, expose your stereo to the 80's equivalent of Phil Spector. Submit to the sheer spine tingling moments of ABC, (three tracks alone from their debut album makes you think that Trevor is still somewhat proud of this crowning glory). Thrill to the excess of Frankies’ Relax, 2 Tribes, Power of Love. Basque in the glamour and mystery of Grace Jones's masterful 'Slave to the Rhythm', reel in the weirdness and groundbreaking sampling experimentation of the Art of Noise’s (Beatbox/Moments in Love), and of course there is the awesome ‘Das Testament Des Mr Mabuse’ by Propaganda.
In fact the second disc of this compilation is a fully fledged soundtrack to my mid-teens that set me off on my musical path of discovery that has continued to this day (so long as we scrub out the dreadful Simple Minds track of course!). Admittedly though there are some stinkers embedded within the first disc of this set – but hey a few duds (Dollar, Seal, LeAnn etc) can’t diminish the scale of importance that ZTT had over my pre-college days, so use your remote control wisely and turn up the volume for that full Wall of Perfect Sound effect.
As a side note, I didn't go to the recent Princes Trust gig where many of the artists performed live, including the original propaganda line up, I didn't want to. ZTT's music was all about the manipulation of the sounds in a studio environment, the masterful orchestral overdubs by Ann Dudley, the subtle instrumentation, the search for sonic perfection. In my world the music was never meant to be a live experience. I didn't want to see how these sounds were created, I didn't want to destroy the mystery.
All in all, a gloriously excessive sonic feast.
Track listing :
1. Video Killed The Radio Star - Buggles 2. Poison Arrow - ABC 3. Relax - Frankie Goes To Hollywood 4. Can't Fight The Moonlight - LeAnn Rimes 5. Left To My Own Devices - Pet Shop Boys 6. Give Me Back My Heart - Dollar 7. Crazy - Seal 8. Say It To Me Now - Lisa Stansfield 9. You're The One - Shane Macgowan 10. Cry - Godley & Creme 11. IL Pleure ( At The Turn Of The Century ) - Art Of Noise 12. Living In The Plastic Age - Buggles 13. Mirror Mirror - Dollar 14. Instinction - Spandau Ballet 15. Angel At My Table - The Frames 16. Mandela Day - Simple Minds 17. All the Things She Said - tATu
1.Owner Of A Lonely Heart - Yes 2. Beat Box ( Diversion ) - Art Of Noise 3. Two Tribes ( Hibakusha Mix ) - Frankie Goes To Hollywood 4. Look Of Love - ABC 5. It's Alright - Pet Shop Boys 6. Slave To The Rhythm - Grace Jones 7. Moments In Love ( Beaten ) - Art Of Noise 8. The Power Of Love - Frankie Goes To Hollywood 9. Belfast Child - Simple Minds 10. Lonliest Star - Seal 11. Das Testament Des Dr Mabuse ( 13th Life Mix ) - Propaganda 12. Buffalo Gals ( Scratch Mix ) 13. All Of My Heart – ABC