With his jumbo homes in L.A., the English countryside and a suburb of London, Trevor Horn doesn’t exactly come off as a former one-hit wonder. “When I was working with Faith Hill,” says Horn, who produced “There You’ll Be,” the country diva’s ballad for the movie Pearl Harbor, “I told her and her husband, Tim McGraw, that I was the guy on ‘Video Killed the Radio Star.’ They couldn’t believe it.”
Even Horn, 52, finds it hard to believe that the new-wave ditty he and Geoff Downes, now 49, recorded as the Buggles—and the video they shot to promote it—would make pop-culture history. That video, which cost about $50,000 to produce, was already two years old when, at 12:01 a.m. on Aug. 1, 1981, it became the first clip ever shown on MTV. Made for a 1979 single that had gone to No. 1 in Britain but just No. 40 in the U.S., the video, featuring futuristic images of the silver-suited Downes playing keyboards and Horn singing lyrics such as “We can’t rewind, we’ve gone too far,” became a manifesto for the new TV network. “It made an aspirational statement,” says MTV cofounder Bob Pittman. “We didn’t expect to be competitive with radio, but it was certainly a sea-change kind of video.”
The Buggles, however, didn’t ride the wave for long. Horn, who also plays bass, and Downes, now touring with his band Asia, were struggling musicians in London in the late ’70s when they first met in a band backing disco queen Tina Charles (“I Love to Love”). Horn and his then songwriting partner Bruce Wooley wrote “Video” in about an hour one afternoon in Downes’s apartment. “In our heads, the Buggles were a fantasy group that had been dreamt up by a record label that had this huge computer in the basement,” says Horn.
Signed by Island Records, the Buggles (whose name was a takeoff on the Beatles) decided to promote the single with a video instead of live performances. “We were not a live band,” says Downes. “We were studio boys.”
British shows including Top of the Pops were already regularly playing music videos, although few as elaborate as the one Russell Mulcahy (who later directed two popular Highlander films) created for the Buggles. Some viewers criticized it as “too violent because we blew up a television,” Hans Zimmer, a friend who played backup keyboards on the track and appeared briefly in the video, recalls with a laugh. (Zimmer went on to become an Oscar-winning composer of scores for films such as The Lion King and Gladiator.)
The single sold more than 5 million copies, although the Buggles’ subsequent full album, The Age of Plastic, was less successful. By the time MTV selected the song for its maiden video, the Buggles were no more. “Every cliché applied to us,” says Zimmer. “We had the hit record, we started fighting.” Downes and Horn joined the band Yes in 1980, then left it and went their separate ways before the end of the year. Downes founded Asia with ex-Yes guitarist Steve Howe, while Horn focused on producing.
Asia, whose hits include 1982’s “Heat of the Moment,” just released its eighth studio album, Aura. Divorced from Internet entrepreneur Wenche Steen, 49, in 1991 after an eight-year marriage (they have two children, Christina, 18, and Alexandra, 15), Downes lives near Newport, Wales, where his 10-room home includes a recording studio. Although he has not appeared with Horn since a 1999 Buggles reunion concert at a London pub, he says he has “fond memories” of “Video.” “People often ask me to play it if I’m at a party,” he adds. “I do a straightforward piano version. It always goes down well.”
Horn, who has produced for acts from Tina Turner to the Spice Girls, took more than memories from the “Video” experience. It helped him meet his wife, Jill Sinclair, now 49, who was then working at a record company that was interested in signing the Buggles. “I thought it was the perfect pop song and still do,” she says. “It had more hooks than a fisherman’s net.” After Island outbid her company, she and Horn started dating. They wed in 1980 and have four children: Alexandra, 19; Aaron, 17; Rebecca, 11; and Gabriella, 6. Horn says he still enjoys MTV, “but now I tend to watch the Discovery Channel. When you get older, you tend to justify your TV-watching by pretending you’re getting some knowledge from it.”