Biography. Mostly re-written September 2004. Last update: October 9 2004.
The Early Years
British pop-producer Trevor Horn was born on July 15, 1949 in Durham City, County Durham in the North East of England. He grew up in Stonebridge, together with his parents John and Elizabeth and his two sisters (both of them live in Canada, nowadays).
His father, a milk technology engineer by day, played double bass in a local orchestra, the "Joe Clarke Band", that performed in various ballrooms on a regular basis. It did not take long until the young Trevor started playing bass himsel:
"I used to go with him and I'd sometimes play, take over from him. That was my first taste of the music business, I suppose, but I was also in the youth orchestra at Johnston Grammar." Trevor Horn said in a 2004 interview with Gordon Barr of the Evening Cronicle.
His schooldays were also dominated by music. He either spent hours listening to the Beatles or playing in various school bands - while flunking most of his school exams as a result.
When it came to listening to music he developed his very own ear for the finer detail at an early age. In the early seventies he and his brother became astute Yes fans, e.g. noticing and debating how the lyrics to "Starship Trooper" were sung differently on various recordings. They also went to several Yes concerts.
Oops, I Am A Producer!
After he finished school, Trevor Horn moved to Leicester where he started working as a professional musician. Up into his late twenties he played the various ballrooms in and around the city. He also subsequently assembled equipment to build his own recording studio at home, where he fixed up other people's songs for songwriting competitions, according to his 2004 interview iwth Gordon Barr:
"One day somebody said to me that what I was doing was called record production. I realised that was what I enjoyed the most and was what I wanted to do the most."
Trevor Horn first came in touch with the charts after he came in touch with Tina Charles. He started dating the singer in the mid to late seventies and became her musical director as well as backup bass player. Tina Charles soon topped the charts with hits like "Love to Love", "Doctor Love" and "Dance Little Lady".
In the band Trevor met keyboard player Geoff Downes. They soon began working together, experimenting with electronic music and making jingles for commercials. In 1979 they supposedly teamed up with Bruce Wooley, Thomas Dolby and Hans Zimmer, to form the band Camera Club (There a several contradicting reports about this early era, which is almost completely covered by the veils of history...).
Trevor, 'The Buggles' and: ...Hans Zimmer
After the band broke up Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes founded the "Buggles". Horn once said that he chose "Buggles" as a name, because he wanted to distance himself from the amateurish punk-bands, he used to produce during the seventies.
"It was the most disgusting name I could think of at that time", he once said.
During daytime, however, Horn still worked as a producer for other bands and as an engineer - very often for 30-second commercial spots composed and arranged by: ....tadaa... the then unknown Hans Zimmer, now oscar winning film score composer-superstar.
Zimmer had left his native Germany for London after finishing school. He played in several unsuccessful bands until he got his first real job, doing commercials for Air Edelle, a company that belongs to George Martin. He started out as a synth programmer, but later got to writing and arranging the whole spots - an experience he later called "good training": "It taught me how to work with people who couldn’t express themselves musically and you would still have to come up with something they wanted." Zimmer later said in an interview with recording-software company Steinberg (link on the links-page).
One day Horn told Zimmer about his Buggles project and invited him to help him out: "I would start working with Trevor at 6 PM, finish at 9 AM to get to my 10:00 session which was actually paying my rent, it was pretty harsh. Trevor was always brilliant and I really learned a lot from him, I learned how to listen."
"Video Killed The Radio Star" was the first and only "own" hit Trevor ever had and the first video played on MTV. It is also probably one of the first songs that shows Trevor Horn's unique ability to make a recording sound "timeless". It still does not sound like 1979. It sounds as if it was made by computers. But, as Trevor Horn often points out, it was all played by hand. The playing alone took more than 12 hours!
Some trivia for you: Even though Hans Zimmer was never an official member of the Buggles, it is him in the video to "Video Killed The Radio Star" in front of the Modular!
While still being Buggles, Horn and Downes made the unique metamorphosis from being a screaming fan in the audience to becoming a band member: Having been their fans since the early seventies, Downes and Horn joined progressive rock band Yes in May 1980. In an interview back then he explained: "My initial reaction was one of horror. I had been a Yes fan for so long. It was such a wild idea, but Chris [Squire] was so persuasive." Horn then concentrated on the production of the album "Drama": "I spent my [wedding] night in the recording studio, [laughter] it's true, too" he confessed in a 1980 interview on NBC TV's "The Source", "I got married and two hours later, I was back in the studio. [We decided that] for our honeymoon, we were going to spend 2 weeks in Miami Beach. Gradually it became 10 days in Miami, a week in Miami, six days in Miami [pause]... it ended up as three days in Bouremoth [sic] and Steve [Howe] came along, we had a good time actually."
Although Horn did sing vocals on some Yes songs, he really had problems with his voice and his nerves on the Yes "Drama" tour. He hit several horribly flat notes at every show, leading to harsh criticism from fans and reporters alike. Especially English fans were very upset with him and sometimes ended up throwing bottles at him! His bad live performance probably was the main reason for him to quit Yes after only seven months in January 1981. Horn refuses to talk about the "Drama" era of Yes, but he looked back at his overall Yes experience in 1985: "Joining Yes was one of those stupid things that you do sometimes. It was one of the two or three times in my life that I've done something that I knew was wrong."
Horn and Downes went back into the studio to record the second incarnation of the Buggles. However, they apparently ran into several personal and artistic problems, leading up to a disappointing second album and the eventual split of the Buggles.
However, the former members of both of Trevor's early bands, Camera Club and the Buggles, headed off to magnificent careers on their own:
Hans Zimmer became famous as a composer for highly acclaimed film music, f.e. with the theme for "Rain Man", "The Lion King", and "Gladiator". Thomas Dolby became a successful singer and producer, and Geoff Downes assembled fans as the head of the group 'Asia'.
1983...Suddenly There Was A Bang!
Despite the unhappy departure from Yes, Horn's star rose steadily. In 1981-1982 he produced the British pop group Dollar, which was never exactly 'hip', but helped him to get a reputation as a brilliant and especially original and inventive producer. Trevor Horn's collaboration with Dollar resulted in hits like 'Hand Held In Black and White' (#19 in the UK charts), 'Mirror Mirror' (#4), 'Give Me Back My Heart' (#4) and 'Videotheque' (#17). These songs again seemed to have a certain touch of being ahead of their time - just like his earlier work for Malcolm McLaren's 'Duck Rock'. Some critics say that Trevor pioneered some of his hallmark production techniques on Dollar records.
ABC had just released their first self-produced hit 'Tears Are Not Enough', although they were not too happy with its sound, when they suddenly heard Dollar's 'Hand Held In Black and White'. Instantly they knew that this was exactly the kind of 'big sound' that they wanted for their records, and so they approached Trevor to work with them on their album which then was to become the now legendary 'Lexicon of Love' containing Trevor's first real smash hit 'The Look Of Love' and a remixed version of 'Tears Are Not Enough'. (Btw, you can see Trevor at the end of the music video of 'The Look of Love'... Yes, it IS the pale guy with the big glasses!).
Roughly about the same time Horn teamed up with Yes again to produce the new album "90125" in 1983. Under his hands the ordinary rock tune "Owner of Lonely Heart" became a timeless space age chart topper, lifting the aging rockers to never known heights of success. "It was imperative, coming back after such a load of shit, that Yes have a single. I would have killed to get that. That song was our best shot, so I made sure it was as right as I could get it", he commented later on the song, which was the first pop song ever, in which a sampled drum loop was used. In fact, "Owner of a Lonely Heart" seems to be the first song ever, which was completely assembled inside a sampler's digital brains. His work for Yes got Horn the "Producer of the Year" award from Rolling Stone magazine in 1983.
The same year he was shortly considered to become the new lead singer/bassist for Asia after John Wettons departure. However, since Horn was very wary (Drama + Beerbottles = Trauma) about this, it was taken away from him by former ELP lead Greg Lake.
1983 was indeed a very busy year for Trevor Horn. Not only had he pulled Yes out of the retirement resort with "Owner of a Lonely Heart", he had also discovered Liverpool's wildest bunch of lads who called themselves 'Frankie Goes to Hollywood'. Soon after his samplers had squeezed out "Owner", he assembled Frankie's biggest one, "Relax". And while every European danced to this well tinkered Square Dance au Trevor and the BBC kept stating how much they boycotted "Relax", most Americans joined the Lonely Heart's club, making Trevor Horn the first producer to have a simultaneous number one on both sides of the Atlantic with two different songs!
The early eighties saw the birth of Horn's two probably most important "entities":
1. While working at Sarm East Studios, he met studio boss John Sinclair's sister Jill Sinclair. They married in 1980 and produced (sorry for the pun) four children.
2. After buying Basing Street Studios from Island Record's Chris Blackwell, he renamed them in Sarm (West), and made it the home base for his own record label ZTT, which he formed together with Paul Morley, his wife and Art Of Noise buddy Gary Langan in January 1983.
ZTT headed off to become one of the most successful labels of the eighties and nineties. After constantly expanding and acquiring new studios in the U.K. and the United States, finally the once small label ZTT grew up to be immersed into Trevor's highly professional big, bad-ass production company SARM.
Paired with Trevor Horn's musical genius, a ruthless business style secured ZTT/SARM's success. Many musicians and even main acts like Frankie Goes To Hollywood were chained with contracts that made sure that most of the revenues ended in ZTT's bank account, giving the act only a certain small portion, regardless of the outrageous success of some songs like 'Relax'. Also, Sarm contracts most of the time include special sections, that for example restrict the employee working for certain companies, for a certain time, even after leaving Sarm. When Frankie Goes to Hollywood tried to escape their contract through legal action, they learned what it means to be in Sarm's way. Trevor Horn declared that he had been unhappy with the band's musical abilities and therefore had recorded large parts of their hit album "Welcome to the Pleasuredome" himself, effectively destroying the band's career.
Nevertheless, during the eighties and nineties Trevor proved his genius with many other bands and artists, such as Act, ABC, Marc Almond, The Art Of Noise, Band Aid, Pato Banton, Barry Manilow, Boyzone, Cher, Dollar, Esquire, Bryan Ferry, The Frames D.C., Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Gabrielle, The Glam Metal Detectives, Godley & Creme, Inga Humpe, Grace Jones, Tom Jones, Lomax, Max, Paul McCartney, Malcolm McLaren, Nasty Rox Inc., Mike Oldfield, Pet Shop Boys, Anne Pigalle, Propaganda, Public Demand, Terry Reid, Seal, Simple Minds, Spandau Ballet, Rod Stewart, Tina Turner, Wendy & Lisa, and others. His production work for the first Seal album in 1991 got him once again a "Producer of the Year" award, this time from British "Q" magazine. The most prestigious award came in 1996 when he was awarded a Grammy for Seal's second album.
Even after ZTT was established, Trevor Horn from time to time got involved in special projects like the Art Of Noise, which he co-founded and produced. Their music supposedly made some Italian futurist's dream come true, after almost one hundred years and the invention of samplers...[see under ZTT]
He teamed up again with his old colleagues Zimmer, Dolby and Wooley in 1992 to record the soundtrack for the movie "Toys", where many "children" of "Daddy Trev" (Seal, Grace Jones, Frankie Goes to Hollywood) and other high-class musicians like Wendy & Lisa, Tori Amos, Enya and Peter Gabriel took part.
Produced by Trevor Horn" can be found on some of the most successful pop records, of all time like "Slave to the Rhythm" with Grace Jones (If I was to select something like 'the greatest piece of contemporary music', then that one would be it!), or the above mentioned "Owner of a Lonely Heart" (Yes) and "Relax" (Frankie Goes to Hollywood), or the more recent hits from Seal.
The 1990s - Conservative Intermezzo?
In 1994 Trevor Horn worked on a new Wendy & Lisa album. However, since the record company WEA did not like it, it has not been released. Some bootleg excerpts are being forwarded on the internet and I ...er...was told it sounds really great. From what I heard (no pun intended...), it is a pity it has never seen the official light of day!
In the following years, Trevor Horn seemed to concentrate more and more on mainstream artist instead of experimental or overly progressive stuff. He himself said, that he likes to focus more on singers instead of bands, and that he could imagine to make a record with Sting (Sting sang a small part on Tina Turner's . Maybe this is the reason why he worked with people like Rod Steward, Marc Almond, Tom Jones and Tina Turner, who all have in common that they represent mainstream-vocal-pop.
Nevertheless a dominant voice can still be supported by a thick and sophisticated instrumental arrangement, as the instrumental versions of "Slave to the Rhythm" (Grace Jones) or, more recently "Prayer for the Dying" (Seal) and "Whatever you want" (Tina Turner) show.
Turning 50 - With Debussy And Russian Girls!
With the turn of the century Trevor Horn turned 50 and re-turned to his production roots - effectively going back almost twenty years and another eighty to the turn of the last century - Confused? No problem, just listen To The Art Of Noise's "The Seduction of Claude Debussy". An extremely well, at times almost over-, produced concept album, marking the temporary reunification of Trevor's old studio crew aka The Art Of Noise.
And then, Trevor went to Hollywood. Maybe it was his continued interest in working with singers, that made him to produce a song for young country star Leann Rimes. However, he ended up producing and scoring the whole soundtrack for the movie "Coyote Ugly" in 2001, with the title song sung by Leann Rimes. A few years later, he produced another movie theme for the movie "Pearl Harbor", sung by another American singer, Faith Hill.
And in 2003 he produced another whole soundtrack, this time for "Mona Lisa Smile", a romantic comedy taking place in the 1950s, featuring 15 songs from that period performed by modern singers. Among them big names like Elton John and Barbara Streisand. More interestingly Trevor got a "new" band: The Trevor Horn Orchestra!
Still, while Trevor Horn probably was wondering where to go next, he stumbeled across a video by the Russian girl duo tATu. And suddenly, there was a second Bang! His rework of the girl's "All The Things She Said" and the subsequent album became one of the biggest sellers of 2003, and, with nine million sold copies Trevor Horn's biggest commercial success sind Frankie's high-times in 1984. While one can debate about the musical originality of the tATu project, it shared two key features of Frankie's original success: The band was - at least in the West - totally unknown, and the not too subtle sexual innuendos launched controvery that proved handy creating news and sales.
At the time of this writing, Trevor Horn just finished an accoustic "Best Of" album with Seal, as well as productions with the Pet Shop Boys and Lisa Stansfield.
2004 - Year Of Honours
The icing on the cake of the new-old Trevor Horn was the 2004 award of "Producer of the Year" by Music Week - once again. He was awarded the honour for the Belle and Sebastian album "Dear Catastrophe Waitress" and for tATu's "200 km/h In The Wrong Lane".
And then, there is Wembley of course. The tribute concert for The Prince's Trust in the fall of 2004 marks the climax of Trevor Horn's career up to now. The artist line up features, among others, ABC, Art of Noise, Belle & Sebastian, Pet Shop Boys, Seal and Yes. As a total world-premiere, Trevor Horn himself will perform live with his original linup of the Buggles - their first live concert ever.
To learn more about his music, style and unique production methods, check out my Music and Technology Section.
Copyright © 1995-2005 Christoph Röckerath, Germany.