The Buggles - The Age Of Plastic
Buggles: members included Trevor Horn, Geoffrey Downes
I suppose you could say itís the sign of a good song if you can recall the first time you heard it. That shouldnít be a an exclusionary rule, there are plenty of great songs of whom I cannot remember my first aural impression, and plenty of utterly shitty songs of which the first time I was exposed to their gruesomeness will forever be imprisoned in my psyche (the entire second Green Day album comes to mind.) But if a song does carry such a weight of greatness with it that you stop what you are doing and take notice, thatís a good omen. And for me, Video Killed The Radio Star by the Buggles was one of those songs. I was 14 or 15, and had spent the weekend on the island of Maui (not that impressive a feat considering I lived in Honolulu.) making love to my 10th grade Algebra teacher*. The video for Video Killed the Radio Star began to play on MTV and I had no choice but to perk up my ears. (Itís an oft repeated piece of trivia that the video for that particular Buggles classic was the first ever played on MTV.) The moment is fermented in my mind, no doubt due to the emotional power behind that song. I can remember the shape of the hotel room I was in, the taste of the Kona coffee in my mouth and the fact that the video that immediately following was called My Boyfriend by a now defunct band called the Cucumbers.
Within days of returning to Honolulu I had made it to a record store and purchased the album from which Video Killed the Radio Star was drawn. The Age of Plastic it was called (and still is) and it was essentially an EP transferred to cassette so that - as was notated on the cover - "Each side contains complete album." What was so rewarding about hearing The Age of Plastic for the first time was the realization that the Buggles were not simply one hit wonders, but that the album was a gumbo of great music. (Well, technically they were one hit wonders but Iím talking on a more personal levelÖ) The first song, Living in the Plastic Age, had the same driving melodicism and sharp arranging that powered Video Killed The Radio Star. Other songs like Kid Dynamo, I Love You (Miss Robot), and Clean Clean all had their own particular flavor but were united in a firm practice of combining pop songwriting with almost Broadway sounding arrangements. (In hindsight, a lot of the music on The Age of Plastic may remind listeners of Brian De Palmaís rock opera, The Phantom of the Paradise, composed by that 70ís midget, Paul Williams.) Iím aware that some run from the term "rock opera" as if the dentist from Marathon Man had just appeared, and often with good reason, but hear me when I say that the dynamic orchestration found in Barberís Adagio can be employed in pop music with good effect. Granted, most of the "orchestration" of the Buggles music was carried out with the synth sound on a Casio, but it was done without the pomposity of a Yes dirge, or the self mockery of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. The majority of the songs are piano and bass driven, with the keyboard augmentations providing either lush accompaniments or weaving pop melodies. More parts Van Halenís Jump than Enyaís Watermark.
There was a recurring theme in the music of the Buggles and that was the fear that technology was about to overtake the soul of pop music. (This was the early eighties, about the time Pete Townsend claimed that within ten years the electric guitar would be extinct.) At first glance, one would think this a confusing message looking at how dependent the Buggles were on keyboards and synths. But the way the Buggles utilized their instruments really was more in tune with the radio orchestras of the the fifties (Doris Day and such) than the encroaching synth bands of the era like Kraftwerk, the Cure, Devo and others. While the rule of the day for most New Wave synth bands was to back up their music with metronomic electronic drum beats, the Buggles were not above speeding up and slowing down the tempos of their songs like a frenetic Van Cliburn desperately pounding out the pieces of a Bach concerto. And in lyrics, as in music, the Buggles were very nostalgic. Living in the Plastic Age comments on the coldness of the new culture of plastic technology. Video Killed the Radio Starís theme is self explanatory. One of my favorite songs on the album, Elstree, pines for a forgotten movie actress. These are not all themes I agree with, and some seem rather naÔve with whatís happened in pop music since. (The keyboard never really gained a strong foothold in the pantheon of Rock instruments.) But they carry a sort of engaging nobility that you must give some due.
Despite the Buggles being somewhat of a flash in the pan, most of the members have had continued success in the world of pop music, going on to be involved with other bands such as Yes, Asia (I fail to see how someone opposed to soulless technological music could join Asia), and doing film soundtracks. Nevertheless, none of them ever really acheived the pristine pop songwriting that enumerated The Age of Plastic. Instead they tended to get bogged down with the stringy melodic elongations that are often found in progressive rock. With ...Plastic, every note has a purpose, every chord or sweeping arpeggio is masterfully placed, never overdone. This is the sort of songwriting technique most musicians can barely maintain for a song much less for a whole album. In truth, even the Buggles start to lose it towards the end of The Age of Plastic. But in the ever more dissappointing world of Rock music, I take what I can get.
*Note: This is a lie.