“Video Killed The Radio Star” — The Buggles

The second song in our new beginnings-themed series for Easter is “Video Killed The Radio Star” by The Buggles.

You see, sometimes you carve a new path through life. And sometimes life carves a new path through you. How you react is key.

Going back nearly a century, screen darlings like Mary Pickford, Lilian Gish and John Gilbert disappeared from Hollywood after the talkies came along. But Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo and Ronald Colman became bigger stars in the talkies than they ever were in the silent movies.

All of them faced the same situation. Some seized the opportunity. Some didn’t.

Roll the clock forward 60 years or so and a brand-new TV channel called MTV (originally for “Music TeleVision”…although it’s changed since…) came along. It’s hard to remember the pre-MTV era now…it’s even quite hard to remember when MTV was the purveyor of anything other than trashy reality TV.

But MTV were proved right when they used “Video Killed The Radio Star” to launch their new TV channel in the US just after midnight on 1 August 1981.

MTV would dominate the music industry of the 1980s and 1990s, making big stars out of the acts who performed great songs and paired them with videos which captured the record-buying public’s imagination.

Video was indeed just about to kill the radio star…

Don’t shed too many tears though. In more recent times streaming services have, in their turn, killed the video star. The circle of life has moved on once again.

The Buggles had hit the top of the charts in most places outside the US a couple of years before MTV launched their new channel with “Video Killed The Radio Star”. Perhaps it helped that the single wasn’t a big US hit as it might have been harder to portray something “old” as the most appropriate song to accompany the launch brand new youth-oriented TV channel.

In the UK, and many other territories outside the US, “Video Killed The Radio Star” had been a massive hit for The Buggles in late 1979 and early 1980.

Written by superstar record producer Trevor Horn, the man behind several of the best-selling acts of the 80s and 90s, keyboard player and fellow producer Geoff Downes and guitar player and producer Bruce Wooley,

Wooley was on the songwriting team, but never officially a member of The Buggles. That was just Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes.

He did, however, get his version of the song out before The Buggles. It didn’t enjoy the same chart success as the version released by the rest of the “Video Killed The Radio Star” songwriting team, but it’s very nicely done. You can find Bruce Wooley’s version here… https://youtu.be/1HLwljnmzR8

The Buggles’ version employed a much more elaborate production. I’m not sure it’s a good thing having bands made up of record producers as I can imagine they’d spend days in the studio trying to perfect the sound on a kick-drum or a glockenspiel that nobody who ever heard the song would even notice one way or the other.

As it happens, though, on “Video Killed The Radio Star” the Trevor Horn/ Geoff Downes production team did contribute the magical element that took an already good song and made it perfect.

Bruce Wooley’s version is a perfectly good rock song with a bit of attitude. The Buggles created an other-worldly atmosphere, perfect for encouraging us to spent a moment or two in contemplation as they tell their story about how the progress of technology happens and invite us to consider whether or not that’s a good thing.

They left a space for our thoughts by not being quite as direct as Bruce Wooley had been.

Whichever version you prefer, the lyrics get us thinking about what happens at a time of change…

I heard you on the wireless back in ‘52
Lying awake intent on tuning in on you
If I was young it didn’t stop you coming through
Oh-a-oh

They took the credit for your second symphony
Re-written by machine on new technology
And now I understand the problems you can see
Oh-a-oh

Given the lyrics, it’s ironic that one of the reasons Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes spent so much time in the studio before releasing “Video Killed The Radio Star” is that they were trying to recreate a very old sound, despite using very new technology.

They had to reduce the bandwith of the recording equipment…fair warning, that may not be the correct technical term…so their record would sound like it was coming out an old-style radio set back when transmitters, receivers and loudspeakers had capabilities we’d see today as laughable, even though it was in fact coming out of the finest broadcasting technology of the early 1980s.

That took a lot of work. But it was absolutely key to making “Video Killed The Radio Star” sound completely different from any other record around at the time…and even making it sound completely different for the small number of people who’d already heard Bruce Wooley’s more straightforward rock treatment of the same song.

So the job of pushing the launch button to start the MTV generation was actually given to a couple of guys who’d developed an entirely different sound to everyone else by reducing the capabilities of more modern technology back to the standards of 40 or 50 years earlier.

It’s often said American’s don’t understand irony. Whether or not that’s true most of the time, it was certainly true just after midnight on 1 August 1981 when “Video Killed The Radio Star” got its first play on the world’s first dedicated music video channel, MTV.

The “new sound” their viewers were treated to was, in fact “the old sound”.

But The Buggles were right about this…

In my mind and in my car
We can’t rewind, we’ve gone too far
Pictures came and broke your heart
Put all the blame on VCR

For younger readers, VCR was the then-new video cassette technology which has now been largely dead and buried for 20 years, after CDs, DVDs and more recently streaming took over and the old ways of getting your music out into the world changed for ever.

That’s also why new beginnings aren’t a one-time thing. They come along more often than you think. Opportunities, like the talkies a century ago, open up every day.

Every time the alarm goes off and you swing your legs out of bed, you’ve been given the precious opportunity of a new beginning.

You might choose to stay where you are, and that’s just fine. You might move gently in a new direction, savouring the journey and finding your way to the sunlight uplands of your own making somewhere. You might decide to do something dramatic — quit your job, take up skydiving or leave the country — and do it today.

Every day contains within it the opportunity for a new beginning, if you want one.

You’re not what you were. You are who you can become.

But if you want to change, don’t leave it too long.

Remember, video killed the radio star…

If you’ve got this far, thanks for spending a few minutes in the company of one of my favourite songs. You can find the video below, or if you prefer to listen to your music on Spotify, you can find today’s song here…

https://open.spotify.com/track/7o7E1nrHWncYY7PY94gCiX

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Without words, it’s just a nice tune. Add words — now you’ve got a song. And songs can change your world. I write about some that changed mine.

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