Video Killed the Radio Star – Why History is Narrative (& Messy) [...]

On August 1, 1981, The Buggles’ Video Killed the Radio Star became a staple of popular culture history when it was the first music video to be played on the MTV cable network.  The song had been a hit when released in 1979, but its status as the maiden voyage has elevated the song beyond the ebb and flow of popular music, allowing a narrative to be built around the song, the band and their importance on the history of popular music.

The public domain image from NASA’s Apollo 11 mission, modified (and copyrighted) by MTV for their August 1, 1981 launch.

In this narrative, two young musicians (Trevor Horn & Geoff Downes) form to create The Buggles, put out a synth-driven album, see the time-stamped success of a Top 40 album from 1979, and by the time the song adorns MTV the musicians have disbanded The Buggles, forever to be one-hit wonders.  MTV’s emergence allow The Buggles to live forever, their premonition of video killing the radio star ringing true for the cable media giant.

This concise history is not untrue, but it is told from the perspective of technological progression in media and popular culture.   It ignores several events and reorders timelines, which when put together cast a very different light on The Buggles and their supposed one claim to fame.

Video Killed the Radio Star was written by Horn and Downes, as well as a musician named Bruce Woolley.  The song was first recorded by these three, as well as famed music and technology pioneer Thomas Dolby.  Woolley was on lead vocals for this version, recoded under the band Bruce Woolley & the Camera Club.  This version is much more up-tempo and driven by the punk and social influences of British music at the time, rather than the more languid and synthetic pacing of the Buggles version.

Dolby and Woolley continued on with The Camera Club, and Horn & Downes, who had a 50% stake in the song, recorded their own version under The Buggles, which folded into the technological concept album looking at the virtues and obstacles of technology in society.  Both versions charted; Woolley’s won more critical acclaim while The Buggles had more commercial success both in Great Britain and internationally.  Then 1979 morphed into 1980, The Buggles had moved on to work with Yes (and would later split, with Horn joining Art of Noise while Downes joined Asia, a progressive rock supergroup). Thomas Dolby went on to have a significant impact on synthesizer music under his name (his album The Age of Wireless considered a touchstone in 1980s popular music), as well as a entrepreneurial career in computers and mobile technology.  Bruce Woolley has become a well-respected conductor and composer, and a world-renowned theremin player.

The cultural history of Video Killed the Radio Star might fit the narrative of musical progress as seen by MTV, but it misses the rich histories of those who created the song, which was for them but one of many successes.

Narrative is not only messy history, but also Narrative Is Our Memory Storage

The dominant paradigm about Video Killed the Radio Star [ html]

Three versions of the Bruce Woolley-led Video Killed the Radio Star [ html]

The original article noted that the Age of Plastic was the top selling record in Australia for 27 years, but further investigation calls this into question. See  Australian Buggles Chart Position

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