This is the 31st post in a weekly, yearlong series. Read about it here and see the list of previous songs here. A new post about a different song will be posted each Monday throughout 2016. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.
MTV premiered 35 years ago today, and if you’re of a certain age, you can instantly name the first video shown on the network.
The answer, of course, is The Buggles’ “Video Killed The Radio Star.” What is not as widely known is that The Buggles’ version, though not a cover, is not technically the original, either.
I can explain.
Trevor Horn, Geoff Downes and Bruce Woolley met while backing disco singer Tina Charles. The three men formed a band in 1977, naming it The Buggles as a play on The Beatles. According to them, “Video Killed The Radio Star” was the result of an hourlong session one afternoon in Downes’s apartment.
The band shopped around looking for a company to sign it, finally finding an interested party in the fledgling Sarm Productions. The day the band was supposed to sign with Sarm, though, Chris Blackwell of Island Records made a better offer. The Buggles went with the Island deal, but kept in touch with Sarm, as Horn began dating (and eventually married) Sarm’s head executive, Jill Sinclair.
The Buggles spent a good chunk of 1979 in the studio recording what would be its debut album, “The Age of Plastic.” During that time, Woolley split off to form his own band, Bruce Woolley And The Camera Club. The band featured keyboardist Thomas Dolby, who would later have a hit with “She Blinded Me with Science.”
Bruce Woolley And The Camera Club’s album “English Garden” came out the same year as “The Age of Plastic” and also featured a version of “Video Killed The Radio Star.” Whereas The Buggles’ version was new wave and a little nostalgic, The Camera Club’s had more of rock feel, with Knack-like guitars and vocals reminiscent of The Cars’ Ric Ocasek.
The Buggles’ album was released first, but they were recorded concurrently, which makes it hard to decide which version of “Video Killed The Radio Star” is the original. We saw the same situation when reviewing “What A Fool Believes,” which was co-written by Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald, with each one releasing a version in the latter half of 1978. My ruling was that because the order of release could have belied the order of recording, and because both men co-wrote the song, not only is neither version a cover, but neither version is the “original,” either. That same concept applies here.
All that being said, it was The Buggles’ version that became the standard-bearer, as it enjoyed topped almost a dozen charts across the world. It also didn’t hurt, of course, that The Buggles’ version is forever tied to the launch of one of the most famous networks in cable television history. It seemed appropriate, if not a little morose, to mark the beginning of a music video network with a song about how music videos and other technologies have rendered so many of our previous pop culture treasures obsolete.
In 1987, a synth-heavy version by Bon Ton updated the song to reflect the advances in keyboards. Spanning almost seven minutes, the track incorporated Italo-disco riffs, as well as lots of drum machines reminiscent of Tiffany’s cover of “I Think We’re Alone Now.”
Electronic dance act Art Nouveau recorded a Europop version with Rhonda Moore that picked up where Bon Ton’s version had left off. Just as Bon Ton had styled the song to sound like the synth tracks of the late ’80s, Art Nouveau and Moore brought “Video Killed The Radio Star” into the early ’90s with pianos over pulsing dance drum beats.
“Video Killed The Radio Star” co-writer Geoff Downes appeared on another version of the song in 1992. Released on the album “Vox Humana” and recorded with The New Dance Orchestra, this version recast the song as a piano ballad, not unlike what you might hear on the “Delilah” radio show.
In 1993, dance group Rewind teamed with Europop singer Madame Denise to release a dance track version of “Video Killed The Radio Star.” Art Nouveau’s version had updated the song with a ’90s sound, but Rewind and Madame Denise gave it a specifically Europop sound, such that it resembled the “Jock Jams” series more than anything released by The Buggles.
Punk band Weston’s 1994 version of “Video Killed the Radio Star” appeared on a split single with a cover of “Kids In America” by The Bouncing Souls. Whereas The Buggles’ version was nostalgic and somewhat sweet, Weston’s was bratty and mocking, as if there was nothing to mourn about the transition from radio to television.
The Presidents of the United States of America’s cover appeared on the soundtrack for “The Wedding Singer.” It demonstrated the same silliness that defined the band’s hits “Peaches” and “Lump,” but also struck an earnest chord. It was obvious from Chris Ballew’s vocals that these guys weren’t just covering the song, but paying homage to it.
Erasure’s version appeared on the duo’s 2003 covers album, “Other People’s Songs.” The track functioned as an aural tour of recent technologies, with robotic vocals laid over drum beats, dial tones, and fax machine beeps. The Buggles’ “The Age of Plastic” was meant to both warn about and celebrate the powers of technologies, so it seemed fitting to include such instantly recognizable sounds. You’ll swear you’re hearing R2-D2. I’m still not convinced he didn’t lay down some beeps for this.
Amber Pacific’s version on the 2005 compilation “Punk Goes 80’s” sounds exactly what you’d expect a cover by an emo pop punk band in the mid-’00s to sound like. Which is not a slam, and it’s certainly a formula we have seen before (see: the golconda of pop punk covers of “Kids In America”). It would be more of a surprise — and more interesting — to hear modern punk bands attempt to cover ’80s pop bands in the style of those bands’ punk peers.
The 2005 remaster of Ben Folds Five’s “Whatever and Ever Amen” included a version of “Video Killed The Radio Star” that fit perfectly with the angsty exuberance of the album’s other tracks. It had all the hallmarks that defined the band’s great songs from those early years: crashing pianos, messy guitars, vulnerable vocals, smartassery, and reverence.
Canadian brother-sister group Len is best known for “Steal My Sunshine,” which was the outlier in the band’s catalog. The only things you’ll recognize in the band’s “Video Killed The Radio Star,” from 2005’s “Diary of the Madmen,” are the gravelly whisper and twee pop vocals. But the guitar-driven tracks on which those vocals were laid sounded nothing like band’s poppy signature song.
The 2007 video game “Alvin and The Chipmunks” followed the band — comprising Alvin, Simon, and Theodore — as it played bigger shows to bigger crowds. Among the dozens of pop songs the band got to perform was “Video Killed The Radio Star.” The song sounds exactly like you’d expect it to, following the well-known Chipmunks gimmick of speeding up vocals to recreate the effect of swallowing helium. But what is surprising is how well this concept works with this particular song. For people of a certain age, the Chipmunks stir a sense of childhood nostalgia that pairs with well with a song that already is about pining for the way things used to be. And when included on a video game that’s played on a platform other than your smartphone, the song seems that much more quaint.
Former Boston Globe music critic James Reed described singer V V Brown’s 2009 debut album, “Travelling Like the Light,” as a “freewheeling hodgepodge of bubblegum pop and retro soul.” That also sums up her “Video Killed The Radio Star,” which appeared on the album as an iTunes bonus track. It takes multiple listens to truly appreciate all the happenings in this sunny, noisy cover: her buttery tones, the airy synths, and what sounded a lot like bicycle bells.
Joyce Manor’s punky take on the song sounded nostalgic, just not for The Buggles. It was truly a reinvention, because even the phrasing of the vocals was different. The recognizable melody wes jettisoned and what took its place sounded like The Dead Milkmen playing Modern English’s “I Melt With You.”
French powerpop band Superbus recorded a dreamy synth version for its 2010 album, “Sunset.” It toggled back and forth between being a dance track and a contender for World Cup anthem, as it was stuffed with Europop keyboards, New Order-esque drum beats, and crunchy guitars.
The duo Pomplamoose has made a name for itself by dissecting modern pop songs and putting them back together with quirky new keyboard arrangements. The best examples of the band’s talents are its slowed-down, understated “Single Ladies” and its “Call Me Maybe”/”Somebody That I Used To Know” mashup cover. Pomplamoose’s “Video Killed The Radio Star” had a faint trace of The Buggles’ arrangement, though it was hard to hear in the layers of textured synthesizers.
The Pomplamoose and Joyce Manor versions might be the most enjoyable because they stripped the song of its iconic arrangement. There was nothing wrong with the original arrangement, per se, but one of the fun things about covers is that you can surprise listeners by changing the familiar. That’s part of why the Frente! version of “Bizarre Love Triangle” and the Pet Shop Boys’ take on “Always On My Mind” were so successful.
Because “Video Killed The Radio Star” will forever be tied to ’80s nostalgia and the launch of MTV, most of the cover versions have the uphill battle of competing against a listener’s lifetime of memories and associations. Unless the cover radically deconstructs the song, as Pomplamoose’s and Joyce Manor’s versions did, a cover of an instantly recognizable international hit runs the risk of sounding like a karaoke tribute rather than a legitimate version to be taken seriously.
Which is not to say that no one should attempt to cover “Video Killed The Radio Star” or other ubiquitous pop culture staples. I think there should be covers of it, because I want to find a version I adore as much as other people adore The Buggles’ version. It’s a fine enough song, and on paper, I should love it: It’s a poppy new wave songs with all the ingredients of a song I should like. But to me, that version has felt too saturated with its association with MTV that there was no space left in it for me to hang my own memories or connotations. But the covers give me that flexibility. Particularly the covers that rework it into something unrecognizable.
If anything, the premise of “Video Killed The Radio Star” begs for it to be remade. In the poppy Buggles version, we hear both a mourning for the passing of older technologies and a celebration of newer ones. In other words, “Video Killed The Radio Star,” from a broader point of view, tells us that things we love will fade away as new things replace it. And that’s OK.