Radio is the past and video is the future in the Buggles’ ’80s hit “Video Killed the Radio Star”

By on February 4, 2019

In the second half of this vintage Night Flight episode from November 14, 1987 — what we often like to call the “B-side” or “flipside” — Night Flight offered up classic videos from some of the ’80s top acts, including Devo, Falco, the Pretenders, and Talking Heads, to name just a few.

We’d like to focus here today, however, on the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star,” and you can read more below as well as watch the episode over on Night Flight Plus.

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As you probably already know, “Video Killed the Radio Star” — Island Records released the Buggles’ debut single on September 7, 1979 — was the first video played on the MTV cable network, which launched on August 1, 1981, at 12:01am EST (a few months after “Night Flight” had debuted on the USA network!).

Their historic cable TV debut meant that the Buggles — Trevor Horn (lead vocals) and Geoff Downes (keyboards) — were not likely to be forgotten, even though we’re sure very few ’80s new wave fans can name some of their other songs.

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“Video Killed the Radio Star” appeared on the Buggles’ first album, The Age of Plastic, in 1980 (the album’s title was an early pejorative comment on the “fake” quality of the Eighties).

The lyrics tell a fictionalized story of a 1950s-era “radio star” before he/she — there’s no clarity about gender — fell on hard times once “video” killed off “radio” with the advent of television.

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A modern-era singer, speaking to the radio star, remembers hearing the vintage vocalist on the radio (“I heard you on the wireless back in ’52”).

He/she then laments how the “pictures came and broke your heart,” acknowledging and empathizing the sense of loss that the once-former star must have felt.

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We’re meant to understand that the idea behind the lyrics is that new-fangled technological changes don’t always benefit everyone equally, often destroying the livelihood of the creative artist left behind because they could not adapt.

The song ends with the modern-era singer realizing that the radio star’s time is over:

“In my mind, and in my car, we can’t rewind, we’ve gone too far…. put the blame on the VTR” (short for video tape recorder).

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Read more about the Buggles below.

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“Video Killed the Radio Star” was written during one hour of one afternoon in 1978 by British songwriters/musicians Trevor Horn, Geoff Downes and Bruce Woolley, all members of the UK-based pop group Bruce Woolley and the Camera Club.

The track — influenced by Kraftwerk, according to Horn — was recorded six months later in Downes’ apartment in Wimbledon Park, London (it also features Thomas Dolby on keyboards).

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Horn and Downes would soon split to form the Buggles.

At first their name was originally “the Bugs,” Horne has explained previously:

“Studio insects — imaginary creatures who lived in recording studios creating havoc. Then somebody said as a joke that the Bugs would never be as big as the Beatles. So we changed it to the Buggles.”

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Horn talks about the song’s origins in Rob Tannenbaum’s and Craig Marks’ I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution:

“It came from this idea that technology was on the verge of changing everything. Video recorders had just come along, which changed people’s lives. We’d seen people starting to make videos as well, and we were excited by that. It felt like radio was the past and video was the future. There was a shift coming.”

The video — directed by Russell Mulcahy — was said to have been based loosely on J.G. Ballard’s 1960 short story “The Sound Sweep,” about a mute boy vacuuming up stray music who comes upon an opera singer hiding in a sewer.

It was lensed in South London during a complex single day shoot involving an actress in a silvery costume being lowered into a giant test tube.

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“Video Killed the Radio Star” topped the charts in the UK and elsewhere — reacheing #1 in Australia, Austria, France, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland — but barely cracked the Top Forty in America, MTV’s home country.

In 1981 — after recording their sophomore album Adventures In Modern Recording — Horn and Downes dissolved the Buggles and joined the celebrated British progressive rock band Yes, with whom they shared a manager.

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Horn became Yes’s new lead vocalist, while Downes replaced Rick Wakeman on keyboards.

This new band lineup would record tracks for a new album, Drama, touring over much of 1981 before Yes decided to call it a day.

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Horn would then focus on producing hits (and a few misses) for ABC, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Paul McCartney, Rod Stewart and Tina Turner, among others.

He even produced Yes’s “Owner of a Lonely Heart” when they reformed a few years later with original vocalist Jon Anderson and new guitarist Trevor Rabin.

Geoff Downes, by the way, has played keyboards for the latest lineup of Yes since 2011.

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By now, surely everyone is likely aware of the irony of the Buggles’ one-hit wonder focusing on what’s destroyed by technological advances, considering how the Buggles themselves — like so many popular yet ephemeral ’80s acts — weren’t able to capitalize on their landmark place in music video history.

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During the first half of this episode, be sure to check out Night Flight’s Night Flight’s Short Film Showcase — featuring David Wechter and Michael Nankin’s short film Gravity, and Merrill Aldighieri and Joe Tripician’s Skin Deep from Outer Space, a psychedelic fever dream about alien abduction.

You’ll find it all streaming for you, our lovely subscribers, over on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.