Watch CBS News

ZTT Records marks three decades of “idiosyncratic” pop music

On looking back at Zang Tuum Tumb (ZTT), the U.K.-based record label that he and music journalist Paul Morley founded 30 years ago, famed British record producer Trevor Horn says: "I think it's amazing that we've managed to hang on to our catalog, because when you're a small independent, there's so much pressure on you to give in. It's a very idiosyncratic catalog."

Idiosyncratic is an appropriate word to describe the history of ZTT. In its the early years, the independent record label had a very eclectic roster of artists who mostly specialized in electronic-driven pop and dance music. Among the famous acts who have recorded for ZTT included Frankie Goes to Hollywood, the Art of Noise, Propaganda, Grace Jones, 808 State, Seal and Lisa Stansfield. Now the music of some of those artists and others from the last 30 years on ZTT have been compiled on a new two-disc collection, "The Organization of Pop," which was released this past October in the States.

The ZTT sound -- which can be best described as modern, cinematic, brash, rhythmic and danceable -- can be attributed to the vision and perfection of Trevor Horn. In addition to producing several of the artists on the label, Horn has also worked on records for Yes, Pet Shop Boys, Tina Turner, Paul McCartney, LeAnn Rimes, Genesis and ABC. And as a musician, Horn is best known as one-half of the duo the Buggles, famous for the hit song "Video Killed the Radio Star"; he was also briefly the lead singer of Yes on the band's 1980 album "Drama."

"I wanted to put the record first, to make sure the artist that's signed to us made great records," he tells of ZTT's mission at the time. "I've seen how another band that I worked with, ABC, who had kind of gone off and sort of really not made the right decision in my opinion – and I wanted to have some influence on the artist, to help them have a good career. It's never as easy as you think. It was pretty turbulent at the start."

As evident on the new compilation, the early tracks from ZTT during the '80s seemed more cutting edge and avant garde compared to some of the more mainstream electronic pop acts. Even 30 years later, there's still a fresh and undated quality to those songs. "We were sort of doing mostly what people do now back then," explains Horn. "We were using a combination of loops and real playing. We took a lot of trouble over the sound. And I tried never to be too fashionable. I just never wanted to be fashionable. I just did whatever suited the song rather than what was the happening thing at the moment."

The label's early years were marked by three particular acts on its roster. The first was the Art of Noise – the collective of Anne Dudley, J. J. Jeczalik and Gary Langan – who recorded some eccentric synthpop such as "Beat Box," "Close to the Edit” and "Moments in Love." "The Art of Noise was basically a team that worked on ABC, [former Sex Pistols manager] Malcolm McLaren, and to some degree on Yes because there was a spillover,” says Horn. "[Yes'] Alan White's drums were the drums that we looped on "Beat Box," and we did the first ever digital drum loop. So it was really me, Gary who was the engineer, J.J. worked the Fairlight, and Paul Morley, who came up with the song titles. It was sort of the early days of sampling and we were right there with it...we threw things together and that's what the Art of Noise was."

Trevor smiling.jpg
Trevor Horn Magnum PR

Another of the label's popular acts was the German-based Propaganda, another synthpop group whose two songs, "Abuse" and "Sorry for Laughing" are represented on "The Organization of Pop." "It was an unusual thing to do because they originally didn't have a musician in the band," Horn recalls of Propaganda. "It was two girls, Ralf Dorper and another guy. Then a musician came on board, and it was an unusual thing at the time as well for an English label to sign a German band. But it worked thanks a lot to [producer] Steve Lipson's great work with Propaganda."

But the biggest and most memorable act that ZTT had worked with was the Liverpool quintet Frankie Goes to Hollywood, whose smash hit was the controversial "Relax" -- featured as a seven-minute remix on the new compilation. With its pulsating rhythm and driving beat, not to mention its sexually-suggestive lyrics, the song went up to number one on the British charts (it also hit the Top 10 in the States), and Frankie Goes to Hollywood briefly became a pop phenomenon in the U.K.

"'Relax' was sort of performed live in the control room," Horn says of the working on the track. "We rehearsed it for two was a long time of messing around with the idea, trying figuring out what to do with it. Eventually we figured out how to do the thing. And it was fun because it was all about sex." Horn admits that he wasn't sure if "Relax" was going to be a hit song until he and his team did the version that ended up being the record. "Up to that point, I was in despair with it," he recalls. "When we did that version, I thought we got something. And when the band went on TV, and the band and the record were together, it was dynamite. The band looked great and they made the record sound like twice as good when you saw them."

Although the songs from ZTT's popular artists were generally electronic-oriented with big and bright production, "The Organization of Pop" showcases some of the more mature and reflective material from the label by the likes of Lee Griffiths (who did a cover of James Taylor's "Sweet Baby James"), Pogues lead singer Shane McGowan; and the Irish rock group the Frames, whose member Glen Hansard went on to fame for his work on the movie musical "Once." "I did work on the Frames quite a bit," says Horn. "They wrote good songs."

In addition to running ZTT, which is still around, Horn continues to be busy with his production duties – he is currently working with rocker Billy Idol on the latter's upcoming record. "I've known Billy on and off for years," says Horn. "I haven't seen him for a long time. I knew him back in the day. He wrote a song that I recorded for [the soundtrack of] 'Days of Thunder.' So I met him then. We're still working on [the new album]. I think it sounds great."

In retrospect, Horn's imprint and influence were not only evident on the music from his record label but also the defined sound of a decade – critic Simon Price described Horn as “the man who invented the '80s." "I think I had the same idea as a lot of people," says Horn. "They wanted to make records that had techno rhythm sections. Technology and all of that stuff felt exciting. So I suppose I was right at the start of combining that sort technology with rock or pop or whatever. "Relax" was the first modern record or one of the first of that kind of record with all samples and all keyboards. The Frankies' brief to me was: 'We want to sound like Donna Summer meets Kiss.' At the start of the '80s you could do that, but not many people knew. As the '80s went on, more and more people figured it out."

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.