Video Killed the Radio Star – The Buggles – Trevor Horn – 1979

Video_Killed_the_Radio_Star_single_cover

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The intro is rich with sweet strings, a bass guitar with a thick chorus effect on it, and a reverbed piano.

The verse begins with just a piano and lead vocal but both are treated to sound unnatural. The lead vocal is processed with EQ to sound like a telephone. The piano has reverb pushing it back into the rear of the mix. When the female backing vocal comes in it is rich and clear, and doubled and spread wide in stereo. Sporadic hi hats sputter throughout.

After the first half of the verse the loudest kick drum in a pop song ever enters. Also at this point a flute-like synth line plays counterpoint in the right while strings stabs are on the left. The bridge ‘Oh-a oh, I met your children, Oh-a oh, What did you tell them?’ is joined by a funk bass guitar that fuses with the kick, and a hi hat pattern that plays the off beat.

When the chorus arrives the bass and drums switch to a straight four on the floor rhythm, as strings fill out the mix and the female vocals sing the title line.

The second verse features another female backing vocal ‘oh, ah-oh’ but this is so loaded with reverb it sits under the lead vocal.

The instrumental break features a keys/xylophone/synth line as the main focus, with synthetic hand claps as responses. This synth solo is followed by a return to the intro but this time played by synth strings instead of piano. This section is completed by the only appearance of electric guitar for the whole song, with a classic 80s searing lead break.

There is a break after the next chorus, with the vocal reverb trailing off. As the track returns, with piano, the female backing vocal ‘oh, ah-oh’ emerges from a fog of reverb to be a focal point for a moment. As the kick returns and then all in for the final chorus repeats.

The fade out is criminally short!

Such a unique production, not only for its time but even now it still sounds unlike anything else. No one would dare do a whole pop track with that effect on a lead vocal. Because the lead vocal is processed with EQ to sound like a telephone it makes the female ‘backing vocals’ sound so much more present and up front than the actual lead vocal.

Telstar – The Tornados – Joe Meek – 1962

telstar

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blah blah telstar

Stupid Girl – Garbage – Butch Vig – 1996

garbage

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The track begins with an 8 bar intro section that sets the drum pattern. Without a bass line or chordal elements it feels like marching on the spot. But a slow glissandi of noise creates a sense of movement as it descends into the melodic beginning of the track. There’s a stereo effect on the hi hat so that when it opens (once every bar) it appears wide. A tambourine (or second hi hat?) joins at the ninth bar.

The ninth bar is the second intro with the addition of bass and a clean electric guitar riff (panned right), and a slow string-like pad underneath it all.

The vocals enter for the first verse which features just the bass and drums, and occasional stabs of dirty electric guitar but not too prominent in the mix, panned left. Another swell/glissando of noise and strings lead into the pre-chorus.

The pre-chorus features a bass drop out. This drop out of bass, coupled with a high minor chord synth pad, higher vocal and strange digital effects (like something stretching, panned right), creates a sense of expectation and tension that is resolved by the chorus.

The chorus begins with a big distorted guitar strum that is sustained. There are rich synth pad chords underpinning the chorus. The chorus ends with a return of the clean guitar riff but over the top of the full synth, bass, dirty guitars of the chorus.

The second verse returns to the sparse mix of the first. There is a call and response effect with the vocal line repeated with an EQ effect pushing it down in the mix. The second chorus is much the same as the first but with a piano line doing a call and response with the clean guitar riff as a lead in to the instrumental break.

The instrumental break features several electric guitar parts at different levels in the mix, placed around the stereo field.

Another pre-chorus and then several choruses finish the track. The final choruses feature the first occurrence of backing vocals. Up until this point the vocal has been truly solo – no doubling or harmonies.

The outro features the guitar riffs trading blows before the track ends neatly on the beat with a spoken ‘Stupid girl’.

Overall a very rich production with many layers of guitar effects and parts. Many parts enter strategically, maintaining interest throughout the repeated verse/choruses – such as the radio effected vocal repeats and the piano line. The most interesting thing though is the pre-chorus – with the bass drop out, and the digital effects. The pre-chorus is effectively the song’s hook.

Stuck in the Middle With You – Stealers Wheel – Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller – 1972

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The track begins with a loose acoustic guitar panned left. I call it ‘loose’ because the main acoustic guitar that drives the track is sharp and rhythmic in comparison. This first acoustic is boomy and full sounding while the latter guitar is thinner and steelier.

A deep bass guitar run introduces the song and the main instruments enter (and the first acoustic drops out) – bass in the centre, sharp steel string on the right, handclaps on the left. The drums seem to consist of simply a kick drum playing a straight four to the floor beat. The lead vocal enters, fairly dry and intimate. It is reinforced at the end of each verse with a harmony singing ‘Stuck in the middle with you’. After the first verse an electric guitar joins with short sharp stabs.

When the first chorus arrives a snare kicks in along with a tambourine/hi hat. The vocals are harmonised in the chorus.

The chorus ends with the ‘Please… please…’ section sung in falsetto that features a cow bell panned left and clean guitar strums panned right.

The second verse is much the same as the first but with a soloing electric guitar on the right. This verse is followed by an instrumental break that sees the soloing guitar continue and joined by another electric guitar on the left.

A second chorus follows but with more prominent tambourine/hi hat. After another ‘Please… please…’ section, the final verse is the same as the second with the soloing guitar on the right.

Overall an interesting production that uses an acoustic guitar to drive the song and electric guitars to add accents, and counterpoint to the vocal. The cowbell, acoustic strum, ‘Please… please…’ section is pretty much the hook of the song, although the ‘Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right’ chorus is also pretty hooky.

(Just Like) Starting Over – John Lennon – Jack Douglas – 1980

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The track begins with a simple triangle struck four times (reminiscent of the buddhist practice of ringing a bell at the beginning of a ceremony).

Then the lead vocal begins with the first two lines accompanied by strums of steel string acoustic guitar (doubled and spread wide in stereo), on the chord changes. The next two lines are joined by backing vocals. The backing vocals are a group harmonising, and are back in the mix.

When the rest of the instrumentation joins (bass, drums, piano and electric guitar) it all sits a fair bit under the lead vocal. (The acoustic guitar seems to disappear). The honky tonk piano is only just noticeable. The focus is on the backbeat (the snare on the 2 and 4) with an electric guitar reinforcing the snare. The reverb on the snare and guitar push it under the lead vocal. A second dirtier electric guitar, panned left, comes in during the chorus, and the lead vocal is doubled and harmonised during the chorus.

The backing vocals are throughout the verses and choruses and sound almost processed (vocoder?) but perhaps not – maybe just reverbed and pushed back in the mix.

The middle section features a key change. The lead vocal has more noticeable reverb here and is perhaps doubled. The second electric plays a prominent fuzz counterpoint.

The third verse features a call and response pattern with the backing vox going ‘doo doop’. The lead vocal is harmonised with a double.

There is a phasing/flanging effect on the vocals at the end of the third verse, as all stop for a pause … leading into the outro.

In the outro there are some spoken vocals that are EQ processed, to sound like a megaphone, that play an almost solo role in the final stages of the track, before the ad libbed lead vocal returns to be the main focal point. The long fade out starts slowly but then dips suddenly at the end.

An interesting production overall, in that the song is an obvious homage to the Roy Orbison, Buddy Holly sound of the 50s but the production tries to sound more modern. Mostly it is the backing vocals, with the almost vocoder/processed sound, that gives it a modern edge.

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