It started with a Zang

‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ by The Buggles was released in September 1979, a couple of months before The Clash asserted that “phoney Beatlemania has bitten the dust”. Both songs mark a watershed, but their tone couldn’t be more different. The Buggles song, fronted by producer Trevor Horn, is more playful and ambiguous than The Clash’s tub-thumping anthem – wistful about the past, but also avid for a future “rewritten by machine and new technology”.

The song could be a statement of intent. It sets the scene for a decade in which Trevor Horn’s ZTT Records was a persistent if mercurial innovator, blazing trails that sputtered out or reignited years later.

From the outset, the label (co-founded by Horn, Jill Sinclair and self-described ‘semiotician’ Paul Morley) was deeply “serious about the frivolous and frivolous about the serious” (to borrow one of Susan Sontag’s aphorisms from Notes on Camp). It was a pop label named after the sound of machine gun fire (‘Zang Tumb Tumb’), as transcribed by Italian Futurist (and Fascist) Filippo Marinetti. And one of its first big hits celebrated nuclear annihilation with a catchy but dumb-as-you-like chorus of “when two tribes go to war, one is all that you can score” over a Hi-NRG beat, with remixes sampling civil defence instructions for the disposal of corpses.

It’s astonishing to recall now how Frankie Goes to Hollywood, ZTT’s first big success, dominated the charts in 1984. They seemed to come out of nowhere, but their first three singles – tackling sex, war and love – soared to number one, aided by Paul Morley’s marketing talents and Radio 1 DJ Mike Read’s refusal to play ‘Relax’, and selling in numbers unknown to modern popcharts.

Frankie’s success can slightly overshadow other ZTT acts of the mid-80s. The Art of Noise (another futurist reference) and Propaganda, produced machine-music too poised and chilly to fit easily into 1980s compilation albums, but rediscovered and revered since. And Horn collaborated with fellow-Buggle Bruce Woolley on Grace Jones’ magisterial ‘Slave to the Rhythm’.

By the end of the decade, as Stock Aitken and Waterman’s version of electro-pop crowded the charts, ZTT were finding a new musical inflection point, trying to assemble a techno supergroup with Derrick May, and releasing records by Adamski, Seal and 808 State (it was the death of 808 State’s Andy Barker that got me thinking about ZTT). These were pioneering cross-over tracks but not populist novelties, as comfortable mimed on Top of the Pops as they were mixed with obscure Dutch white labels in a warehouse or disused airfield. The grandiloquent Morley/Horn touch can be detected in the spoken word into to ‘In Yer Face’, 808 State’s jackhammer second single, harking back to the Frankie’s riffing on Hitler and Castro speeches in ‘Two Tribes’ (amazing how much more accepted playing with Fascist and Nazi references was in the 1980s).

ZTT’s records pepper the critical touchpoints of 1980s and 1990s cultural history, as does their iconography of logos, Katherine Hammett t-shirts and album cover design, but the label’s legacy seems curiously weightless – compared to Manchester’s Factory Records, for example. Nobody could call Frankie Goes to Hollywood a one-hit wonder, but like many ZTT acts they burned brief and bright, then sputtered or stormed out in personal and legal disputes (808 State are a rare exception to this rule). Paul Morley describes this ephemerality as intentional. Interviewed by Barney Hoskins in 2013, he said:

“I’ve always been a bit pissed off with people like Weller and the Clash and Killing Joke, these people who say there can be some kind of polemic within pop. Well, Two Tribes was trying to prove to people that it’s impossible. I mean, we get to No 1 for nine weeks with an explicit, extravagant anti-war thing with the real government warning on there, and the next week it’s George Michael taking over at No 1, and that’s the end. Nine weeks, and nothing’s happened. I like that in a way.”

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