Saturday, 1 October 2011
65 The Age of Plastic - The Buggles
Purchased : September 1987
Tracks : The Plastic Age / Video Killed The Radio Star / Kid Dynamo / I Love You ( Miss Robot ) / Clean Clean / Elstree / Astroboy / Johnny On The Monorail
This was a long-desired item from the heyday of the Travelling Society and was conveniently available at mid-price as part of Island's 25th Birthday celebrations. It was bought in Manchester on a Saturday morning. I also visited the North West Museum of Science and Industry for the first time in its new location at Castlefield which made for an interesting connection as this album's most well-known track was riding high in the singles charts when I last visited the museum's humbler previous home on Grosvenor St in 1979.
This LP was released in February 1980 but it is essentially a product of the 1970s, the decade that looked both forward and back, that loved Dad's Army and American Graffiti but also thrilled to Star Wars and the potential of the silicon chip. These two musicians from the backing band of portly disco singer Tina Charles refract that dichotomy with an album that uses state of the art studio technology on songs which, even when set in the future , ache with nostalgia and loss.
"The Plastic Age " ( their second and final Top 20 hit ) sets out the stall perfectly. It proclaims the shiny and new but the observer is ageing and needs surgery both medical and plastic. This is not the Ballardian nightmare of Numan's Replicas but our own world where human vulnerability will endure whatever delights technology has in store for us. Despite that it begins with the external sounds of an actual nightmare, disturbed sleep cries amid bleeping phones before the srt of bass synth pulse that would shortly characterise the work of Midge Ure's Ultravox leads into the song proper. Geoff Downes's keyboard work is phenomenal, finding a new sound to match every twist of the lyric , the quizzical phrase before the pay-off line in the chorus absolutely nailing the ambivalence at the heart of the song.
Then we have the big hit. "Video Killed The Radio Star" gave Island their first number one and led directly to ZTT and Mr Carlin's beloved New Pop but those are the least of its triumphs. It predicted the future for music for the next three decades and was my suggestion for greatest number one when The Guardian invited nominations in the nineties ( as their man picked I Just Called To Say I Love You we needn't discuss that any further) . And yet it's a song that looks back not forwards ; the narrator is lamenting the eclipse of a musician from his 1950s childhood listening to the radio. I'm reminded of Charlie mourning the death of Mantovani ( who died a few weeks after this album's release ) in Tim Lott's Rumours Of A Hurricane . The music again is fabulous from the mock classical intro with Trevor Horn's sighing bass to the completely unexpected rock guitar break that heralds the final chorus. The bubblegum female vocals would be irritating on a lesser song but this is an undeniable classic.
"Kid Dynamo" is a similar tale, the singer ( with Horn treating his vocal to sound deeper ) recalling the exploits of his youthful role model now working in the mainstream. This is much more of a driving rock song with Horn's guitar racing against Downes's keyboards and again prefigures Ultravox. Talking of which there is some disagreement on who played drums on this album a man called Paul Robinson or Warren Cann. It certainly sounds like the latter on this track at least. The quiet bits are again suffused with an exquisite melancholy especially the spoken bit about the media building stars.
"I Love You ( Miss Robot) " is rather risque, its lyrics recalling Numan or even the lovably daft Automatic Lover ( a hit for Dee Dee Jackson some 18 months earlier ) . It's the most overtly futuristic track with its mostly vocodered vocals although the most prominent instrument is Horn's steely bass, its metallic tone perfectly in sync with the subject matter. Again the tone is mourful ; when the inevitable question- "Do you love me ? " - is posed we don't need to hear the answer.
"Clean Clean" just made it into the Top 40 as the album's third single. Apart from "Video" it's the only track co-written with erstwhile collaborator Bruce Woolley. An ironic look at warfare it would make the perfect soundtrack for NATO's modern "heroes" , wreaking destruction from their unreachable cockpits without breaking sweat. There are clues to later hits here, the synth rock pulse of the verses suggests the thematically similar Dancing With Tears In My Eyes and the melodic hook in the chorus calls to mind Depeche Mode's A Question Of Time . It's effective but lacks the melodic warmth and emotional potency of the better tracks.
"Elstree" is perhaps my favourite. An elegy to the original British film studios from a former employee now working for the BBC ( ironically the BBC purchased the studios just four years later ) it's a poignant melody-fest from start to finish. The lovely instrumental coda has the best sound effect in my collection as a horse gallops from one speaker to the other. As a late fourth single released when they were already part of Yes, it isn't that surprising that it stalled in the 50s but a shame nonetheless.
Time and again this album astonishes with its prescience. The mellow and wistful "Astroboy" could be written today about teenage screen slaves and policing by CCTV. Horn again shows what an under-rated bassist he is from the foreboding intro onwards. He also slips in another lament for the golden age of radio -"Radio stations they fade as in dust, all their transmitters are crumbling with rust".
"Johnny On The Monorail" picks up on the period's fascination for Japanese technological progress with a hint of Ballardian fetishism. This lengthy track interweaves dark and urgent verses with a breezy chorus restating the fear/hope dichotomy when faced with the future theme that has run through the whole LP. The acoustic guitar passage before the final chorus captures all that apprehension that something valuable will be lost in the rush to leisured nirvana ( a promise yet to be delivered of course).
The final irony of course is that The Buggles as a band didn't reap much reward from the new musical age they were heralding. At the time this LP was only a moderate commercial success and received mixed reviews ; it seemed that many people were reluctant to see them as anything more than one hit wonders. Like other electronic pioneers of the time ( New Musik, M, John Foxx ) they were unable to take advantage when the New Romantic scene broke big just a year later and the more photogenic likes of Spandau Ballet ( whom Horn had to rescue when their singles chart positions began to nosedive in 1982 ) came to the fore. It probably didn't help when they became subsumed in Yes; the contradictions of a shiny new post-punk outfit helping out the least well-regarded of prog-rock dinosaurs are obvious. Downes bailed out early on their second LP ( which will feature here but you'll have to be patient ! ) and it was completely ignored despite Horn's burgeoning success as a producer. Nevertheless this LP's critical stock has risen over the years and deservedly so. We all share the same mixture of hope and dread at what lies ahead and these guys articulated better than most.