Recent books by the U2 singer, Bono, and the influential British producer, Trevor Horn, use the same framework and are built to the same basic specification. And like their authors, they both hark back to an era in the creation of popular music that might well be passing, or that may have already sailed by. ‘Surrender’, Bono’s terrific autobiography and Horn’s ‘Adventures in Modern Recording’ are based on the impact of key songs – their own, the music of others – on their authors, from which they then project no little insight, self-analysis and gossipy asides. To anyone who fell under the spell of pop music during the 1980s and 1990s, these are excellent, first-person additions to the analytical literature covering the period.
Despite a career as a writer, musician and performer that saw him briefly touch the skies with The Buggles and after which he bizarrely fronted the British progressive rock outfit, Yes, Trevor Horn has nothing like Bono’s profile, even if he’s arguably just as significant a figure. In this regard the 73-year-old follows a well-worn tradition: very few producers from the old school, with a handful of exceptions, have anything resembling a public face. And why would they?
Like many of those who loiter around this site, I spent decades fanatically buying music and assembling a formidable collection of wax and tape, much of which has since been scattered to the four winds. Even now, in middle-age, I still can’t pass a record or a book shop without going in for a nose and on the off-chance that something musty and magic awaits inside. I spent just as long again devouring liner notes and inlay cards, lyrics books and accompanying details, idling. So, although I have difficulty remembering key birthdays and anniversaries, I have no such issues telling you who produced Killing Joke’s brooding ‘Love Like Blood’, ‘The Ghost in You’ by The Psychedelic Furs or the initial sessions for the debut album by The Smiths.
Chris Kimsey, Keith Forsey and Troy Tate are names that trip off of my tongue as readily as those many heroic local sportsmen and women whose names and deeds routinely popped the air around our family home. And I’m proud to say I’ve knocked as much satisfaction from hearing the handiwork of the former cohort as I did watching the dancer’s feet and quick wrists of the latter. A love of quality music and a love of hurling are not incompatible, despite what Hot Press magazine may have led you to believe.
‘Adventures In Modern Recording’ brought me back to that place where we sported, played and found our way as mouldy teenagers: to the magnificent, velvet sound of ABC’s ‘The Lexicon of Love’ and the epic, cinematic spread of those first three Frankie Goes to Hollywood singles and the carnage left in their wake. But Horn’s book reminded me too of the importance of good production on all of my own favourite records and that very few of us really know what that entails.
To my mind, the best producers are like the best teachers and coaches: the musician, student or athlete gets all of the credit when it works swimmingly and the producer, teacher and trainer ships the blame when it doesn’t. I subscribe to the view that no hurling match was ever won on a side-line or by a coach or manager but that plenty of them were lost there. And as an opening exhibit to the court in support of my argument, I’m introducing a thirty-year old elpee, ‘Trains, Boats and Planes’ by The Frank and Walters which, despite the outrageous quality of the material on it, just simply fails to ignite and sounds much less bright than it should do. Are we beyond the statute of limitation from where we can call for a public enquiry?
From experience, elite music producers are incessant spoon-feeders, decision makers and consensus builders who, when they aren’t dealing with musicians who often have a scant grip on reality, are dealing with an industry and a business that has even less. The best and most creative producers are damned if they do and are damned if they don’t and ‘Adventures in Modern Recording’ makes this point especially well.
With a decent yarn at every turn for dewy-eyed anoraks – or, if you prefer, men of a certain age – the book’s eye-witness accounts stand up much of the speculation that’s long been touted in industry lore. Frankie Goes to Hollywood, who Trevor Horn famously and brilliantly produced, and who were also signed to his own label, ZTT, are presented as decent Scouse chancers [is there any other kind?] who, initially at least, couldn’t really play their instruments. But who, despite a lack of material, quickly assumed what we might describe as ‘notions’.
Elsewhere, the unfiltered story of the recording of Rod Stewart’s version of the Tom Waits song, ‘Downtown Train’, is just bizarre beyond words. Horn presents the arc from speculative idea to global smash as a cinematic saga in at least eight high-intensity scenes involving all manner of cross-Atlantic spoofing and a series of interventions from the top of the international music industry. If any one recording project captures the vulgarity and insanity of this period – and of the excesses that ultimately brought music to the brink – then this is it. Little wonder, I suppose, that one of the recurring themes in the book is Horn’s own obsession with money.
The Pet Shop Boys are no strangers to excess themselves but, as one of the greatest singles bands in the history of popular music, they get a free pass on that front. And at least they fetch up to studio with their homework completed, and obsessively so too. But as the man whose idea it was to put a stellar orchestral arrangement onto ‘Left to My Own Devices’, Horn is speaking to a time and place that just doesn’t exist anymore. Scored and arranged for fifty live classical musicians, those orchestral sequences catapulted the song into a different orbit and, by so doing, elevated the band similarly. By any metric, I don’t think The Pet Shop Boys were ever anything other than widescreen thereafter. ‘Those were the days’, Horn concludes, and indeed they were.
Our hero was one of those summoned by Bob Geldof in November 1984, to assist with the recording of the Band Aid charity single, ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’. With Midge Ure working the bench and driving the session, which took place at SARM Studios in Notting Hill, Horn’s own facility, he was asked to plate-up what was then one of his speciality dishes: the 12” single. The 12” single is a very 1980s construct, distinctly of its time, that often featured additional songs or alternative, regularly elaborate and long-form versions and mixes of what were initially standard issue single cuts. Through his work with ABC and Frankie Goes to Hollywood in particular, Horn was for years synonymous with this form.
‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ was famously assembled in jig time and then rushed out into shops in order to capitalise on the seasonal spirit of giving and good-will to all. But beyond the commercial success of the project – and the mammoth live shows the following year that it led to – the experience also exposed Trevor Horn to a callow 24-year-old singer from Dublin who’d fetched up to contribute a line of vocal to the record. In ‘Adventures in Modern Recording’, he recalls turning to his late wife, Jill Sinclair, and asking ‘who’s that kid in the hat? He’s got a great voice’. ‘Turned out it was Bono’.
The Band Aid experience also features briefly in ‘Surrender’, Bono’s autobiography that’s finished as lavishly as any high-end Trevor Horn production job. As I wrote in a recent review here, the book documents a remarkable life that’s been sculpted by an unyielding belief in the power of song. Part songbook, confessional and biography, it makes a huge welcome for itself, understandable on the one hand but an absolute weakness on the other. U2 just haven’t been the same creative force over the course of the second half of their career as they were during the first and it’s a stretch, even for Bono at his most romantic, to try and stand up any argument to the contrary.
In another previous piece here, I pointed to what I felt were the issues inside the U2 writing room. The innovation well has basically run dry and no amount of live gimmickry, smart marketing stunts and heartfelt autobiography should obscure the fact that – Bono’s lyrics aside – U2 has been creatively constipated for the last two decades. Given that the band’s most recent output has included writing credits for their long-time producers, Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, and picking up on some of the more loose-lipped reveals in ‘Surrender’, one suspects that the band’s writing process has become far more fractured and piece-meal over time. To these ears, much of their material since 2001 just doesn’t sound as coherent or fluent as it might be, as if songs are just clipped together on an editing bench from multiple original sources.
So, in the wake of ‘Surrender’’s critical and commercial success, it comes as no surprise that the band is now re-cycling the forty songs on which the book is hung and issuing them as a lavish, multi-album package scheduled for release on Saint Patrick’s Day. Judging from the material that has already been released on-line, ‘Songs of Surrender’ sounds like it could be a difficult listen. Conceived and produced during the Covid 19 lockdown, the scattergun re-workings of ‘With or Without You’, ‘Beautiful Day’ and ‘Pride’ are distinctly underwhelming.
U2 have, of course, long earned the right to entertain themselves as they see fit. And who knows? Perhaps the entire project might just be a critical punctuation point before they re-order themselves and head into a next phase, utterly decluttered. But for now, the most important band in the history of Irish popular music history sounds like its enlisted an overly keen commis-chef to slap an enormous sound salad together, and with predictable results.
Writing in ‘Surrender’ about U2’s 1997 album, ‘Pop’, Bono suggests that the record was released before it was satisfactorily finished and that it only saw the light of day in order to enable a big live tour that had been booked around it. With suggestions that the band may be off to Las Vegas for a long residency at the end of the year in support of ‘Songs of Surrender’, U2 are hardly going to make the same mistake again, are they?
Either way, in the absence of new material, the band is going back to what it knows best: its own catalogue. During a long interview with Brendan O’Connor on RTÉ Radio One last November, Bono told his host that ‘we have lots of songs put aside, some of which will emerge at the right time’. Pressed on the matter by O’Connor, he went on to say that ‘we’ve different albums’, before referencing ‘this very reflective album called ‘Songs of Ascent’ which, Bono claimed, ‘is nearly finished’. U2 have been talking about this record for over fifteen years.
Meanwhile, off in the distance, Trevor Horn sounds like he’s still full of the joys and mad for road. Far be it from me to tell U2 how to do their business, but perhaps they should be training their sights – and sounds – in his direction? He’s made more of far less.
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