BUGGLES: THE AGE OF PLASTIC (1980)
1) Living In The Plastic Age; 2) Video Killed The Radio Star; 3) Kid Dynamo; 4) I Love You (Miss Robot); 5) Clean, Clean; 6) Elstree; 7) Astroboy (And The Proles On Parade); 8) Johnny On The Monorail.
The very name «Buggles» should probably indicate that you are getting into something quirky at best, and stupidly irritating at worst. «The Bugs», as Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes originally wanted to call themselves, is bad enough, but Buggles? Wouldn't that kinda sorta suggest a general trajectory where pop music begins with the Beatles and ends, that is, reaches its triumphant culmination with ʽVideo Killed The Radio Starʼ?
Well, in a way, it does. The Buggles were arguably the first successful pop band that achieved its success by refusing to be a band, and preferring to be a techno-mechanical unit instead. Trevor Horn, who took on the responsibilities of producing the album, took his major inspiration from Kraftwerk: total de-personalisation of the proceedings, a «robotic» attitude in all respects, beginning with instrumentation and ending with the lyrics and the personal image, but at the same time, with a far more poppy sound than Kraftwerk — the melodies here are inspired by ska, disco, Foreigner, and ABBA rather than stern Teutonic minimalism.
To say that The Age Of Plastic is «kitschy» or «gimmicky» does not even begin to do justice to these songs, which anyone with a mouth trashier than mine would most likely describe with the infamous appellation «faggy». They are so absurdly over the top, so reckless with their hooks and so arrogant with their production that Lady Gaga these days has nothing on these guys (well, at least if you adjust the comparison basis for the standards of 1980). Reviews of the album, both contemporary and retrospective, were about as split as the press used to be on Black Sabbath — some loved them openly, some hated them in public but stashed copies away in the basement anyway, until the time came when not loving Sabbath became poor taste. Yes, The Age Of Plastic leads you indeed into double temptation — on an intellectual level, it is tempting to trash it as an exercise in flashy stupidity, but on that damn gut level, it is just as tempting to put it on again... and again... and again...
Okay, the facts are simple: the eight songs that constitute this album represent some of the decade's catchiest pop music — all of them, not a single exception. Upon first listen, you're hooked even if you are disgusted. Upon second listen, you are entranced by the choruses. Third listen, and you pretty much got all these songs by heart. This does not mean that Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes are natural-born geniuses: the tunes were slowly and meticulously crafted over a period of several years, and never again would these guys approach this level of pop craft — neither in Yes, nor on their second album, nor in their subsequent projects (like Art of Noise or Asia). But then again, the ideology of the Buggles supposes that there are no «Trevor Horn» or «Geoff Downes»: there's only the music, and whoever is standing behind it is totally insignificant.
Not that this «whoever» is totally dehumanized — yet. Like Kraftwerk, Horn and Downes are fascinated with the conflict between technology and human spirit, and much, if not most, of the album relates to this idea one way or another. This is one of these self-ironic recordings where the musicians use the latest and trendiest technologies to complain about the relentless onslaught of technology: "Could this be the plastic age?", Horn asks us in desperation on the title track while at the same time ensuring, with his production, that this verily and truly be the plastic age. But where Ralf and Florian spooked people away by almost literally turning into robots, the Buggles still retain their human side — and thus give the layman a better chance to identify with their issues, seducing him with their hooks and ensuring a good source of revenue in the process.
And the hooks are unbeatable. Let's face it, we don't care that much about the saga of merciless human progress — we just love those happy-sad female vocals chanting "video killed the radio star, video killed the radio star" to that tight-as-heck bass-drum pattern that could just as well have been lifted off a Ramones song and adapted to the new realities of the synth-pop era. And does anyone realize that in between ʽEchoesʼ and Phantom Of The Opera there was ʽKid Dynamoʼ, which uses the same descending-ascending pattern to create an atmosphere of tension and paranoia? Or that ʽI Love You (Miss Robot)ʼ already writes the book on a large part of what would later constitute the bulk of the Art of Noise legend — the techno-funk sound, the treated vocals, the multi-tracked vocal harmonies, the «cloudy» synthesizers?
However, in my opinion, the album does not properly begin to hit its stride until the second side, when the satirical and even snappy side of the Buggles starts to show up. ʽClean Cleanʼ, rocking out like a technofied version of Elton John's ʽSaturday Night's Alrightʼ, is actually a serious anti-violence statement, and the synthesizers on it sound as alive, angry, and punkish as any aggressive guitar part on any contemporary punk (even hardcore punk) record. ʽElstreeʼ, using the idea of starring in B movies as an allegory for an originally meaningless life made even more meaningless, is the album's saddest track — Ray Davies in the robot age. ʽAstroboy (And The Proles On Parade)ʼ is hard to decode, but seems fairly misanthropic to me — I would imagine that some people might want to slap Horn in the face for his sneering intonation on the "let them be lonely and say you don't care" line, and who exactly are "the proles on the parade", I wonder? Even so, the intonation change from "romantic" to "sneery" on that bridge is priceless.
The best is saved for last: if you thought you knew everything about the Buggles after watching the ʽVideo Killed The Radio Starʼ video, think again after hearing ʽJohnny On The Monorailʼ, a song that combines nervous tension with a fast pulse, a slight touch of country-western, some melancholic romanticism, and a general feel of being pulled somewhere from where there is no return, as Tina Charles plays the part of «the siren of doom» with her haunting background vocals and the song stubbornly defies a straightforward explanation, all for the better. Amazingly, you begin to understand that by the end of the album, the Buggles have broken out of the «kitsch» mode and put a more serious face on their collective robot — then again, maybe Side A was the robot in his childhood, but even plastic matures with age, and sometimes becomes aware of the dark side on its own, without outside help.
Ultimately, repeated listens to The Age Of Plastic do not make its material seem any more catchy than first time around — but they might help one understand that the integration of Horn and Downes into Yes, which took place right after they released this, was not such a thoroughly absurd move as one could think of it just by being exposed to ʽVideo Killed The Radio Starʼ. Of course, the idea was that Horn and Downes could help the failing band regain commercial success, but they weren't hired just because they were catchy pop hitmakers — behind the flashy imagery and the production gimmicks there is a complete and largely original artistic vision, and plenty of intelligence and feeling. As of today, some of the gimmicks have become dated — in particular, Horn's passion for silly-sounding vocal overdubs (like the who-oh-oh's on ʽElstreeʼ or the chipmunkish uh-ohs on ʽVideoʼ that you usually get these days on messenger software) — but who knows, maybe I'm the only one to worry about that in the first place. In any case, a big thumbs up and a request: do not miss the perfectly human soul in this album. When I say «catchy hooks», I mean real catchy hooks here, big emotional ones. It's easy to misinterpret them or fail to grasp their meaning, but it's there alright.