Multi-instrumentalist Trevor Horn has been involved in some of the most important records in pop music history; from The Buggles, whose ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’ was famously the first track ever broadcast on MTV America, to sitting in the producer’s chair for Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s ‘Welcome To The Pleasure Dome’ and Yes’ ‘90125’. Fresh from receiving ‘The Outer Limits’ award at the Progressive Music Awards in London, we caught up with the CBE holder to talk about his remarkable career. Owner Of A Lonely Heart: Eamon O’Neill.
Hi Trevor, tell us about what you’re working on at the minute?
I’ve just done a Japanese anime series with Stan Lee, the music for it, called ‘The Reflection’. We wrote three songs for it, and one of the songs is kind of Yes-ey, so it will be fun to see if anyone spots the connection.
You’ve worked on some defining albums over the years, including Yes’s ‘90125’; what was it like turning a progressive rock band like that into pop superstars?
Well you know, there’s still some prog stuff on ‘90125’, but it wasn’t without its problems, put it that way, especially as there was a new kind of Yes, and it took a little bit of time for everybody to understand what it was. But you see, a song like ‘Changes’ still had all of that [old] ‘Yes’; I mean the intro of ‘Changes’, the way it goes from that motif with the xylophone; from like, 7/8 into 4/4 is brilliant - it’s a brilliant piece of playing. And the fact that it’s like it’s almost like; it’s almost American [sounding]; the combination of American and English for the first time, because of [guitarist] Trevor Rabin; that was the big difference.
‘90125’ had a sheen on it that made it more accessible to a new audience, didn’t it?
Yeah, but you know, you take a bunch of guys that had been playing stadiums for ten years, and you show them a sampler, and that’s where you get stuff like the middle of ‘Owner Of A Lonely Heart’. I was just playing around with some samples I had, and they said to leave it; I mean, that’s brilliant, and when I look back on it, it was one of the better experiences of my life. It’s only just that the characters in it were sometimes hard to deal with. But I had a lot of power because I’d been in the band [fronting them for 1980’s ‘Drama’ album], so I could shout, and I could scream, and I could get desperate. I could cry, I could get my own way.
Was there any resentment to your being in charge, given that you had sang on ‘Drama’?
No, Jon [Anderson, returning Yes vocalist] was fine. I‘ve always been a fan of Jon, and I think he’s got the best voice by far. I never, ever thought I was anywhere near as good as him, you know? So, it was an experience of a lifetime.
But even in terms of being in the driving seat, as the album’s producer?
You’re in the driving seat!? With a bunch of guys like that!? You’re hanging on to the driving seat to the grim death!
You must be proud of the finished product though; of the ‘90125’ album.
Oh, I loved the finished product in the end, yeah, absolutely. I still think ‘Only [Of A Lonely Heart]’s one of the best tracks I ever did. But I think the album as a whole is a really good record, and I could point to loads of things and go; that’s brilliant, that’s absolutely brilliant. For example; Alan White’s sampled drums on ‘Leave It’, when he first did those. I mean, when he first did the middle part of ‘Owner Of A Lonely Heart’, he just came up with that out of the blue; you know, bam! Bub-a-bub bam bam, bam! Do, do, do, do, do! We fell on the floor laughing, laughing so hard, and I said; “oh we can’t do that”, and Chris squire said; “we’re f*****g doing that!”
So all the components were there for make a magic album?
Yeah, Trevor Rabin was an absolutely brilliant keyboard player as well, and a brilliant guitar player. You know, I’m still a big Steve [Howe, original Yes guitarist] fan as well – I love Steve’s guitar playing. It’s like a whole family of people; it churns around, and there was a different Yes in my show. I mean, I wasn’t kidding, I am going to go and see them; Anderson and Rabin and Wakeman.
You did a lot of big albums during that period. What was it like working on Simple Minds’ ‘Street Fighting Years’?
Yeah, they were really nice. When I first met Jim [Kerr, vocalist], I said; “I think you should do a folk song, try and find a folk song that you could do”, and he said; “have you got any ideas?” And I said; “well there’s one I’ve always wanted to do called ‘She Moves Through The Fair’” *sings* ‘So fondly I watched her move here and move there’. He came back the next week and said; “you’ll not believe this, but we’ve just written a song over that, and we think it’s going to be really good, called ‘Belfast Child’”. And he sung it to me, and I was like; it’s a no brainer, you know? And it’s like five minutes long.
The song centred on the Irish troubles, which was a very sensitive subject at the time. Had you any reservations going down that route?
No, no, no. Maybe I’ve been always; ‘just think about the music’, and sometimes maybe I should have thought more about the impact of it. But no, I never had a problem with it; I understood what the troubles were all about, so I’m not surprised. Those kind of things are so complicated and they go so deep.
‘Belfast Child’ transcended all of the politics and reached number one. You must be proud of that.
Yeah, ‘they will return when the Belfast child sings again’, it was a lovely line, it was. But there was a track about [noted black South African anti-apartheid activist] Steve Biko on that, and ‘Mandela Day’ – Jim was right on the soap box, yeah!
Finally, with all the stuff you’ve done over the years, what do you think your finest hour is?
Well, I think you’d be pushed to find anything that I’ve done that’s better than ‘90125’, or Seal’s first two albums. So, when I think back, the Belle And Sebastian album [‘Dear Catastrophe Waitress’] was pretty good too, but it’s their music and I just helped them record it pretty well.