He was part of the '80s era of popular music noted for the arrival of the super producer, a name like Steve Lillywhite, Mike Thorne, Mutt Lange, or Martin Hannett that almost instantly guaranteed a band's immediate relevance and commercial potential. For many, he remains the mascot for the MTV-ing of commercial culture, his one hit wonder "Video Killed the Radio Star" accurately predicting the end of dinosaur reign of rock. But there is much more to Trevor Horn than amazing albums, smash hit singles, and a legacy that includes such diverse acts as Yes, Lisa Standfield, Seal, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood. His self-effacing manner, matched with his skilled technical prowess, is more or less gone from today's DIY home studio mentality. With the rise in technology, someone as gifted as Horn is inadvertently taken for granted, his invention and originality now able to be mechanically recreated by anyone with a laptop. Yet as this stellar live celebration of his 25 years twirling the knobs confirms, no computer can reconstruct the impact he left on the international pop charts. For almost two decades, Horn made the entire world slaves to his unique and aurally complicated rhythms. And we gladly acquiesced.
As a sonic career overview, Slaves to the Rhythm serves two purposed. The most important is as a charity event, the concert offered up to help his Highness and the Prince's Trust. The second is as a This is Your Life kind of reminiscence, a walk down memory lane with some amazing musicians and live acts. Not everyone here is on point, and a few early names are overwhelmed by later superstar entries, but overall, this is an amazing two hour plus event. For those interested, here is the set list and performers:
"Video Killed the Radio Star", Living in the Plastic Age" - The Buggles
"Give Me Back My Heart" - Dollar
"Slave to the Rhythm - Grace Jones
"Poison Arrow", "All of My Heart", "The Look of Love" - ABC
"Close (to the Edit)" - The Art of Noise
"Dr. Mabuse" - Propaganda
"Cinema", "Owner of a Lonely Heart" - Yes
"I'm A Cuckoo", "Step Into My Office" - Belle and Sebastian
"Left to My Own Devices", "It's Alright" - Pet Shop Boys
"Takes a Woman to Know" - Lisa Stansfield
"All the Things She Said" - tATu
"Killer", "Kiss from a Rose", "Crazy" - Seal
"Welcome to the Pleasure Dome", "Two Tribes", "Relax" - Frankie Goes to Hollywood
Most record producers never achieve cultural relevance. They barely become names in a nerd's audio archive. Few regular fans pay attention to who has guided a favored act through the creative Hell than can be the studio, and yet many would run to hear Timbaland twist the dials. So celebrity status obvious comes from something other than the final mix, be it actual prior performance panache (see Quincy Jones, for example) or media notoriety (isn't that right, Phil Spector?). In Trevor Horn's case, it's a little of both. He was a Buggle. His video did indeed help kill the radio star. His tenure with Yes left many Pro-rock fan scratching their head, and for a while, it seemed like every song coming out of England was mastered and mixed by the eclectic little man with the big ass glasses. While he definitely hit his stride in the '80s, he's still producing today, working with such noted acts as Eastern European faux lesbians tATu and longtime collaborators Lisa Stansfield and Seal. As a showcase for his prodigious output, Slaves to the Rhythm has its moments. It also has its very limited let downs as well.
First off, there definitely needed to be more Grace Jones. The slinky supermodel literally tears it up during her delirious take on the Horn helmed "Slave to the Rhythm". She is so good that you feel bad for follow-up act ABC. Lead singer Martin Fry, looking every bit the puffy lounge lizard he essayed nearly 30 years ago, goes into full nostalgia mode, throwing hambone hand signs and mandating sing-alongs from a crowd who simply wants to see a good show. With their amazing Lexicon of Love to draw from, the three songs featured are fun, if far from definitive (this critic would have preferred "Tears are Not Enough" to the bombast of "All of My Heart", though it does give Fry a chance to embarrass Horn with a hoary old anecdote). Elsewhere, Dollar seem lost among their far more popular peers, while Propaganda gets back together for the first time in years - and instead of pulling out "Duel" from A Secret Wish, they favor us with the darker, more daring "Dr. Mabuse." Most surprisingly, Ms. Stansfield avoids her past Horn crafted catalog to introduce a new song, while Seal sticks to material that made him famous in 1991. The biggest surprise will be the "live" version of Art of Noise's "Close (to the Edit)". Horn admits that it was originally a track performed completely by machine. On stage, it literally sizzles with ambitious playing.
Perhaps the most shocking sequence comes toward the end, when a reconfigured Frankie Goes to Hollywood takes the stage, complete with new face singer Ryan Molloy. The actual winner of a nationwide talent search, the new face of Frankie does a decent job with former frontman Holly Johnson's unusual vocal style, but the whole performance smacks of pseudo-desperation, as if the noted act, fostered almost completely by Horn's terrific production on Welcome to the Pleasuredome, had to do something less they let their mentor down. Indeed, some can view the otherwise incredibly talent on display here as being pressured into appearing as a kind of royal scam. On the one hand, they do owe Horn a huge debt of gratitude, though many of these acts went on to similarly styled fortunes after working with the man. Yet without the Prince of Wales sitting in the audience, the Trust taking most of the beneficial goodwill for the evening, one wonders how many of these top flight talents would actually show. Horn himself definitely deserves this kind of tribute. Slaves to the Rhythm will defy critics as it keeps devotees to pop craftsmanship happy in their musical memories.
Offered in a sparkling, vibrant 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image, the transfer of Slaves to the Rhythm is the kind of highly polished presentation you'd expect from a 2004 UK concert. There is lots of flash and lighting extravagance, and the stage is festooned with enough metal and chrome to create a dozen classic cars. The direction is not overly fancy, the camera left on the performers long enough to establish a definite concert dynamic. In fact, the overall picture is near perfect - not reference quality, but pretty close.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix also does an amazing job of putting the viewer smack dab in the middle of the audience. The songs come across with "are they lip syncing" clarity and the backing musicians never overwhelm the vocalist. The balance is maintained expertly and the resulting din is a joy to experience.
There is some very interesting added content offered here, the first bit being a four minute piece of VH1 England about the attempt to reform Frankie Goes to Hollywood for the 2004 show. As usual, Holly Johnson plays spoiled sport, and the rest of the group does their best to put on a brave and very professional face. It's intriguing to watch the apologies and eventual resolution. Elsewhere, a documentary describes the problems involved in getting some of the other acts to appear. None are as contentious as Frankie, but there are issues revolving around a reformed Propaganda, a lead singer-less Yes, and the various high maintenance needs of the various superstars. There is also something called "the jukebox facility" which allows you to program up to 10 tracks from the concert and play them in any order that you want. It's a very intriguing bit of digital slight of hand.
It's actually hard to say if there's something akin to the "Trevor Horn Sound." ABC traded in delicious dance music, while Yes embellished there complex arrangements with some sturdy electronic bleeps. Lisa Stansfield is new age soul filtered through a white Englishwoman's ways, while Seal can slink between jazz, rock, r&b, and pop with little or no effort. If it's fair to call a producer's work "solid while epic in sonic scope", then Horn has a cop he can easily plea to. Easily earning a Highly Recommended rating, Slaves to the Rhythm argues for this man's place among the many important names in the Greed decades analog to digital transition. He was perhaps the first producer to understand the new dynamic of the raging technology, and he utilized it to the utmost. Today, he might appear like a post-punk perfectionist, his combination of live and sampled sounds feeling quaint and rather twee. But when Trevor Horn was banging on all eight aural cylinders, no one could top him. This compelling concert proves it.