The Real Story Behind The One-Hit Wonder “Video Killed The Radio Star”
The Buggles (what a name) found fame with their hit song “Video Killed The Radio Star.” With its prophetic lyrics that would come to describe the MTV-disrupted music industry for years to come, the single was released at the end of 1979, when change was in the air – and on the airwaves.
Punk and New Wave had pushed aside the feel-good genres of soft rock and disco. Three-minute pop songs were having a moment, but this wasn’t the standard form of pop music that was soothing and safe. No, this music was strange and noisy, calling to mind garage rock and science-fiction and a desire to drown out the old while delving into the news.
Video Is Alive And Well
“Video Killed The Radio Star” by the Buggles became a #1 hit in the UK in 1979. The duo, Trevor Horn on guitar and lead vocals and Geoffrey Downes on keyboards, never expected the type of success that came about once the song was released.
According to Horn, “Before I started Buggles I was a sort of loser record producer, I spent four years producing records for various people without ever making any money out of it or having any success at all.” Shortly thereafter, “Video Killed The Radio Star” became the first song ever played on MTV and brought into focus some of the lyrics’ meaning.
The words to the song were penned by Horn, but the inspiration came from literature. As Horn explained, “I’d read JG Ballard and had this vision of the future where record companies would have computers in the basement and manufacture artists. I’d heard Kraftwerk’s The Man-Machine and video was coming. You could feel things changing.”
Geoff Downes recalled he was “writing advertising jingles up to that point. I don’t know if that’s why Trevor hired me. He says he liked my shoes…the bulk of “Video Killed the Radio Star” [had already been written] when I joined, I worked on the final version.”
While “Video Killed The Radio Star” became #1 hit in the UK, it only reached #40 in the U.S. in December of ‘79. But then came MTV, which started playing the prophetic hit as its debut song. Although American radio stations were still not playing the song, record stores in areas where MTV was available started selling Buggles’ records like never before. Billboard ran a story about a record store in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where 15 copies of the Buggles had collected dust for months, then were snatched up within mere weeks of MTV playing the song.
And A Miss
“Video Killed The Radio Star” failed to climb the U.S. chart, but became a #1 hit in 16 different countries. In Australia, the song held the title of best-selling record for a staggering 27 years.
And the name Buggles? As it became increasingly familiar in music circles, it seemed that the unusual moniker called for an explanation. Horn recalled how he “got fed up of producing people who were generally idiots but called themselves all sorts of clever names like The Unwanted, The Unwashed, The Unheard…when it came to choosing our name I thought I’d pick the most disgusting name possible. In retrospect I have frequently regretted calling myself Buggles, but in those days I never really thought much about packaging or selling myself, all that really concerned me was the record.”
As time went on, Horn and Downes moved out of the spotlight and turned their attention more to producing. But to this day, the prophetic, inspired message of their song lives on, and over the years has spurred many a listener to wonder, “Do I really want my MTV?”