Wednesday, 26 October 2011

The Buggles, 25 Oct 2011

The British Music Experience is a museum of popular music in Britain, housed in the cavernous O2 Dome. They host various special events and, at fairly short notice, this, the latest Buggles show was announced. I say “the latest Buggles show” as if they happen all the time. This is only the second time the band has played a full set. Apart from promo appearances back in the day, usually mimed, the band’s only played live 3 times before this!

The BME’s performance zone is fairly small and wasn’t full. I’d estimate less than 200 in the audience. The band performed to more last year paying very high price tickets raising money for charity. Tickets tonight were cheap, so my guess is that the audience size reflects the minimal advertising and short time between announcement and performance. Not that I believe this show was about making money. Since late 2006, Horn has been doing occasional live shows, initially as The Producers with Lol Crème (guitar and vocals), Steve Lipson (guitar), Chris Braide (vocals and keyboards) and Ash Soan (drums). As he said tonight, he gets bored being in the studio all the time and likes to get on stage occasionally.

The evening began with an initial Q&A sessions with Horn and Downes. The BME curator hosted and asked the initial questions, before throwing it open to the audience. Horn and Downes described how they met: Downes auditioned to be the keyboardist for Tina Charles, for whom Horn was musical director. Horn picked Downes because he liked his shoes apparently! The pair described how they bonded as two Northerners in London.

Discussion moved on to The Buggles. Horn said he has always regretted the name and that they should have called themselves something like Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (cue audience laughter). Horn talked about the vision for the band, not one he seriously thought would ever happen, of a giant computer in a basement creating music and how The Buggles would be one of the bands the machine would produce. He described how he and Bruce Woolley were inspired by Kratfwerk, and how “Video Killed the Radio Star” was specifically inspired by a JG Ballard short story. An audience question made the comparison with Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz, who present themselves as a fictional cartoon band, and Horn said the original intention for The Buggles had been similar (to the point where Island’s Chris Blackwell was surprised to find them prepping for a TV show).

The pair talked about making the first album and wanting everything to sound automated, although a drum machine was the only actual computerisation available. Given the recording equipment of the time, they needed multiple takes of “Video Killed the Radio Star” to get it just right, as if played by machines. Horn described sessions with him, Downes and Paul Robinson (drums) in the recording studio and Hans Zimmer behind the recording desk. [Edit: Zimmer was in the audience.] After the success of “Video…”, they faced the need to rapidly record a whole album, in between ongoing promo work for the first single. While the host was effusive in praise for The Age of Plastic, Horn was more humble, saying he felt the album had three good singles. Asked how difficult it was to follow up such a big debut hit, Horn said that it was basically impossible: no album could live up to “Video…”. Horn also talked about the plan for a new vocabulary of pop lyrics, avoiding all love songs, but that he was, in retrospect, uncertain that those ideas stretched to two albums. He also said that Downes had been the main composer and himself, the main lyricist in the band.

Other stories followed. Horn described their surprise at the success of “Video Killed the Radio Star” and how, at short notice, they found themselves miming to the track in France. Horn had never had to do that before, but he said it was fairly difficult to make mistakes while miming!

Why didn’t they tour, the host asked. Because by then they had joined Yes. Horn, warmly, described joining Yes as “absurd”. He described the fear in having “to be Jon Anderson” live and how nothing in his production career since has been as scary. Asked about the second album and Downes’ early departure, Downes explained that he got the offer to join Asia.

An audience member said he had given up hoping for a third Buggles album, which received a smiling but emphatic “Good” from Horn, but he asked about Fly from Here. Downes told the familiar story of how the initial plan had only been for Horn to do one song, “We Can Fly from Here”, for which Horn then wanted Downes, but then Horn was “railroaded” (Downes’ word) into doing the album. Horn, blushing, seemed almost embarrassed at the turn of events. He talked about how the band in 1980 had had their eccentricities and issues, but that this time they were “just so nice” that he ended up doing all of the album. There wasn’t any explanation as to why Horn was given such creative input though.

Everyone left the stage and there was a short break before the show proper. Horn introduced the show saying they were in an “apt setting” for these songs, “a museum”. Horn and Downes were front centre and front stage right respectively, wearing traditional silver jackets. Downes had a pair of stacked keyboards and a couple of laptops. Behind Horn was Paul Robinson on drums, then the back row continued to stage left with Lol Crème (guitars), Steve Lipson (guitar) and a second keyboardist in Julian Hinton. They opened with “I am a Camera”, although this was only for a few lines before going into an instrumental version of “Two Tribes”. Next was “Video Killed the Radio Star”, from which the band were joined by three young women (Kirsten, Holly and Kate) who provided backing vocals, dancing and an explosion of glamour next to the old men!

The rest of the set was “Living in the Plastic Age”, “Slave to the Rhythm”, “Elstree”, “Rubber Bullets”, “Space Oddity”, “Johnny on the Monorail”, “Check It Out”. As with last year’s Buggles show, Alison Moyet guested for “Slave to the Rhythm”. She looked great and provided the right Grace Jones-esque growl to the vocals, although she did seem to miss a verse, much to her embarrassment, although Horn was relaxed about it. Crème took lead vocals on “Rubber Bullets”, having said he can’t sing high enough to do “Donna” any more! Unfortunately he was mixed a bit too low.

“Check It Out” was the lead single from the debut album by Trinidadian hip hop artist Nicki Minaj. The song, done with will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas, samples extensively from “Video Killed the Radio Star”. So, at the 2010 charity show, the Buggles thought they would return the favour and cover it themselves. This was, of course, a preposterous idea – a bunch of white men in their 50s and 60s covering a sexy young rap song – and they knew it. The performance (available on YouTube) was rough, but the audience got the joke. Yet tonight the performance was much smoother. Kirsten, Holly and Kate took Nicki Minaj’s lead vocal, with Horn doing will.i.am’s part. It’s a preposterous idea, and yet they pulled it off. My partner said that they didn’t get Minaj’s timing quite right, but that’s a quibble. Because “Video…” acts as a core of “Check It Out” and with the three girls covering Minaj, the performance actually works as a piece of music, not simply as a joke, although when Horn takes will.i.am’s rap, it is an act replete with post-modern irony.

Overall, with Chris Braide’s departure, there seems to have been an elision of The Producers and The Buggles. The set was mostly a cut-down version of last year’s show, but also fairly close to the early Producers sets. However, the band seemed more confident and slicker than those previous shows. That isn’t a criticism of the prior Producers line-up: the line-up and set tonight were clearly built on the foundation of those Producers shows.

Horn still has a somewhat nervous stage presence, avoiding eye contact with the audience, often even closing his eyes while singing, but he appears to have become more comfortable taking the lead role. While Braide was the main vocalist in The Producers, Horn was singing at the front here for everything except “Slave to the Rhythm” and “Rubber Bullets”. And he was singing great. The brief “I am a Camera” opening and “Space Oddity” were particularly strong. His bass playing was distinctive too, particularly on “Two Tribes”.

The band as a whole played great, bar minor fluffs from Crème and Moyet. The new boys to the line-up, Downes and Robinson, fit right in. Downes owns the Buggles pieces in a way that Braide didn’t and contributed fine on the non-Buggles material. Robinson was a precise and powerful drummer, and I preferred his work to Ash Soan’s. Lipson clearly enjoys “Two Tribes”.

The addition of the three glamorous backing singers worked really well. They were suitably rehearsed, provided useful backing vocals on The Buggles material and key parts on “Check It Out” and “Rubber Bullets”. They also gave the band a visual focus that gave this show a sheen absent from the low key, few-blokes-having-some-fun of The Producers early on. In fact, I felt rather sorry for Downes, so often the melodic core of the music, but the largely male audience were largely fixated on the gyrating hips stage left than Downes’ playing stage right!

The compere after the show said the band “will be back on the road next year”, although Horn in the Q&A had commented on his live work these days being about “twice a year”, so I expect any further Buggles/Producers dates will continue at that rate.

I’ve been spoilt. I’ve now seen The Buggles live three times, plus several Producers shows. I would love to see some more variation in the set and I missed having the new material we got in later Producers shows. But that’s a minor thing: the band played their 9-song set fantastically. Over the last 5 years, they’ve evolved into a tight live unit playing a set of classic songs.

Edit: Downes' tweeted this picture of the band. That's, left to right, Hinton, Lipson and Robinson on the back row, and then the men on the front row are Downes, Crème and Horn, with the girls and their perfect teeth in between.

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