Thursday, 17 March 2016

The Buggles - The Age of Plastic (1980)

The concept of presents on Valentine's Day is new to me, so I'm not entirely sure who fills the Santa role for this occasion - possibly Barbara Cartland or someone of that kind. Anyway, whoever landed the job, it seems she'd overheard some conversation I'd had during the previous week and had accordingly deposited a copy of the first Buggles album inside my traditional Valentine's Day underpants when the day came.

The conversation began with the revelation of Video Killed the Radio Star having also been a hit over here in Americaland, which surprised me for some reason. Wringing what little memory of 1980 I still have at my disposal for what few drips are to be had, I vaguely recall looking at The Age of Plastic in the local record shop - almost certainly WHSmiths - and wondering what it would be like to own the album. The problem was that my pocket money was a limited resource and I already had a massive internalised list of albums I really, really needed by the Stranglers, David Bowie and others; and then Graham told me that Devo had done a second one; and by the time I could afford to risk copping this thing, the moment had gone.

The Buggles - named as some sort of pun on Beatles - were Trevor Horn of the lavish production and terrible red spectacles, and his mate Geoff, both of whom ended up in Yes. I remember thinking it seemed an odd move, but having listened to this album and realised it actually really doesn't have much in common with the Angelic Upstarts after all, it makes sense. Horn, who is probably more or less single-handedly responsible for most of the eighties, was quite clearly always a bit proggy, and it shows here once you listen past the squeaky clean surfaces and efforts to distil the essence of bubblegum.

Culturally speaking The Age of Plastic sounds very much like the final flourish of belief in a future as something different to the present, the last Gernsback-inspired rock opera about jet packs, food pills and the monorail. Of course there are dystopian details for the sake of texture, not least the heart police putting you under cardiac arrest - whatever the fuck that is - but the presence of grit is mainly just an excuse for Trev to sing about shiny serving clones and metal friends. We're a long way from Gary Numan being bummed by a machine in the park, figuratively speaking.

Older, or at least more obsessive, boys and girls may recall Horn and Downes having a less famous writing partner called Bruce Woolley. He co-wrote Video Killed the Radio Star and Clean Clean, and recorded versions of both for English Garden, the debut album by his own band, the Camera Club. English Garden is a rockier affair than The Age of Plastic and frankly a much better record, perhaps sounding more akin to Sparks than the generically skinny-tied new wave effort suggested by the cover; and it's a shame Woolley didn't have a bit more involvement in this one, although it might have changed the entire course of the eighties and denied Duran Duran a few of their fifteen minute extended b-sides. Maybe that wouldn't have been a huge loss.

I suppose the Buggles were a victim of Trevor Horn's success in so much as more or less everything we recall of the eighties with either a sneer or at best an indulgent frown - orchestral stabs, pasteurised funky bass, shiny jackets and obvious sampling, it all started here, more or less, smuggled in under what may as well be Andrew Lloyd Webber trying to make a musical out of an A.E. van Vogt novel. I'm not saying that's a bad thing so much as that listeners may have to attune their ears to the sound before full appreciation is possible. It's cheese, but not necessarily bad cheese, even given the Alan Partridge-esque presence of Island - a reggae instrumental - as a bonus track on the compact disc, and it being impossible to hear Kid Dynamo without getting a mental image of Noel Fielding pulling surprised futuristic faces.

I'm not sure it was worth the thirty-five year wait, but I've heard worse; so thanks, Barbara, I guess.

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