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Trevor Horn, Trevor Rabin and that Obnoxious Video: The Sound-Effects Porn of Yes’ “Owner of a Lonely Heart”

October 30, 2009

Trevor Horn is everywhere. He produces your favorite English acts, he designs your synthesizer, he keeps your career intact despite shifting musical trends, and he kills your radio stars. In the early ‘80s, his name was so ubiquitous in the liner notes of English music that young Grebos likely checked their cereal boxes to make sure he wasn’t an ingredient in there, too.  Before making it big with The Buggles, Horn originated the Fairlight synthesizer, which revolutionized the technique of sampling. He created the sound for ABC and countless “New Pop” acts, and hoisted the notorious joke upon an unaware America by creating Frankie Goes To Hollywood, and their hit “Relax”. Don’t forget T.a.t.U, perhaps the best argument for a re-Sovietization of Russia (watch it – I already have “Dancing with the Czars” copyrighted).

As 1979 came to a close, Horn and co-Buggle Geoff Downes were rehearsing in the same studio as prog-rockers Yes. Late ’70s Britain was not hospitable to that Yes sound anymore, with punk grabbing the imagination of the kids. By coincidence, Rick Wakeman and Jon Anderson had just left the band, taking their stacks of Moog synths and ocean topography with them. (Wakeman would release fourteen solo albums in the 1980s, including The Six Wives of Henry VIII, which is awesome).  After crossing paths between rehearsals, Horn was recruited to serve as the substitute lead singer for Yes, and Downes was brought in to play keyboards. This “trade” completely changed the personality of the band, especially with the more dance-and-punk-oriented Horn at the front. In 1980, this new lineup recorded the perfectly-named Drama. Horn was not a good singer, but his skills with recording allowed his shortcomings to be overcome with gadgetry (you can thank him for the wonders of Auto-Tune and the upcoming [insert actress here] record), and Downes was the best non-robed keyboard player outside of East London. Any true Yes fan must have crapped their pants when they first heard the twisted punk-reggae-disco of “Tempus Fugit”. Lyrics such as “Don’t surround yourself with yourself” gave way to “Die like a dead beaten speed-freak”, and for the first time, Yes was getting play – gulp – on the dance floor. This was NOT your father’s – or more likely, your sister’s boyfriend’s – Yes. While it lacked the The Fall’s rawness or Gang of Four’s “de Stijl” rhythm section, Drama was a serious ass-kicking statement of relevance for a genre that was becoming a caricature of itself. If one was ever so geeky that they chose to compare Yes to Canadian counterparts Rush, it would be quite appropriate to call Drama the Grace Under Pressure of their catalogue. Both records feature an abrasiveness that was quite new to each band, serving as an appropriate soundtrack for the nefarious choices of misfit teens everywhere.

While the music was quite good, rock stardom was not for Horn, and he absconded the stage for the drink-in-one-hand, knob-in-the-other life of a producer. Downes and guitarist Steve Howe were recruited by John Wetton to join Steve Carell’s favorite supergroup, Asia. Only time will tell if their decision was well thought out, or merely made in the heat of the moment. (Sorry.) Did that mean the end of Yes?

After several rehearsals with some unknown studio cat named Jimmy Page, last-men-standing Chris Squire on bass and drummer Alan White decided that following Bonzo and JPJ may not be the best career move. (Quick – name the drummer for Wings). Back when a young Vincent Gallo was obsessing over his every move, Squire recorded a solo track called “Brown Bunny”, which sold only one copy. Actually it was called “Fish Out of Water”, but as Tony Wilson once said, when there is doubt between the truth and the legend, print the legend. By the end of 1981, Squire was introduced to South African guitarist Trevor Rabin, who topped the charts in his native country with the band Rabbitt (I promise this is not another Gallo joke). Rabin hopped out of his apartheid-laden warren for jolly-ol’ England, joining Squire and White to form Cinema. Soon, Jon Anderson was alerted to this trio’s new sound, and like David Putty receiving a call from Elaine, The “bump into” always leads to the backslide. Jon and old pal Tony Kaye were back – all they needed was a producer. Re-enter Trevor Horn.

Horn’s return to the fold as producer gave him a big stage to display all his new recording wizardry. Rabin brought him the perfect song for the time – “Owner of a Lonely Heart”. How would Horn treat this opportunity? If you guessed “He’d make the song sound like a pinball machine”, unfortunately you would be right.

There is a recent trend in journalism to refer to anything excessive as “___-porn”. Producer/schlockmeister Michael Bay is guilty of making “Destruction-porn”. You could cite a majority of The History Channel’s programming as “War-porn”. I’d even go as far and say that most episodes of “Oprah” could be categorized as “Empathy-porn”. (Vivid Entertainment? Totally “Pornography-porn”.) Trevor Horn decided to add his own entry to the list – “Sound-Effects-porn”.

“Owner of a Lonely Heart” begins with a flanged drum sample and Chris Squire’s signature bass slide. Then the guitar kicks in, giving one the idea that, hey, this sounds like a prototypical early-80s rock song – somewhat forward-looking, but prototypical. Twenty seconds in, it all goes to pot. First the crazy high-pitched stabs that sound like a tire-less El Camino screeching to a stop. Then the “where the hell did that come from?” guitar flourish, shorter than the sound-bite allowed to a liberal on Fox News. Then that screech again, like a wasp that won’t leave the car until it lands on your junk. After about two minutes of the main riff being repeated often enough, one might mistake the song for an automated train schedule, it just gets plain weird. A breakdown-style bridge, featuring multiple stabs, is imitated by Jon. No, this isn’t another “cha cha cha” like “Sound Chaser” – he’s more into imitating a saxophone here. Then Rabin gives us THAT solo – each note harmonized in 4ths. “Don’t deceive your freewill at all?” WTF? Exactly.

And then there’s the video, which is topped by the tourfilm, 9012Live – the Solos.  Watch bad-ass drummer Alan White, with his patented “stick lips out, bob head” maneuver, like Mick Jagger doing “The Rooster” while seated on a circular chair. And when did the art directors for Square Pegs gain control over a band’s attire (or maybe they were sending in an early audition tape for Punky Brewster”)? All that’s missing is a “FRANKIE SAY RELAX” shirt from Horn’s ZTT closet.

I get it – you have Steven Soderbergh behind the boards, and the whole Keith Haring vibe is still considered avant-garde, so who is going to protest? In 1983, MTV had a program called “Friday Night Video Fights”, which pit two song clips against one another. All MTV’s viewers  – yes, they were mostly 8-year-olds whose entire social life revolved around Knight Rider, Airwolf and neighborhood games of Hide-N-Seek – were asked to make a 69-cent call to MTV to choose their winner. When Journey released “Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)” – oh, the days of parenthetical song titles – viewers gave that fire-pantomiming, warehouse-abandoning anthem enough love to keep it in the victor’s chair for six straight weeks. Then came Yes, teaching us that fist-pumping indoors beats fist-pumping outdoors, every damn time.

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6 Comments
  1. Jay St. Orts permalink
    October 30, 2009 5:34 pm

    Aha! I think I spotted a trick question in paragraph four! WHICH incarnation of Wings? Post- or pre-Band On The Run?

  2. Tony Mendocino permalink
    November 5, 2009 6:37 pm

    I feel this topic deserves further examination.

    There’s a narrative about Wings that is based around softheaded pop, Linda McCartney, and live shows dominated by Beatles “covers”. But what about the good songs? We need to craft a legitimate retrospective that omits the songs like “My Love” and “Let ‘Em In”, and give songs like “Helen Wheels”, “The Mess”, and “Let Me Roll It” more pub. I LOVE the ending of the first episode of “I’m Alan Partidge”, when he’s stiffly dancing around his hotel room, screaming along with “Jet”.

    You can make this happen, Jay.

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