Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Review of The Buggles' "The Age of Plastic"

I posted this review earlier this afternoon on the Sputnik Music website:

Review Summary: Are they new wave? Are they pop? Are they progressive rock? Who cares when the album is this entertaining.

There are albums that require repeated listens before they grow on you. You give them a chance, you don't give up on them, and eventually they start to make sense to you. Then there are albums that hit you right away. For me, The Age of Plastic by The Buggles fits into this latter category. I can honestly say that from the first listen, it was nothing but pure pleasure.

The Buggles are a British band made up of singer/bass player/guitarist Trevor Horn and keyboardist Geoffrey Downes. In spite of the fact that their entire recorded output consisted of two albums, including this one and their 1981 album Adventures in Modern Recording, they own a little piece of rock music history: their video for the single "Video Killed the Radio Star" was the first video ever played on a little fledgling cable television network called MTV. They're also somewhat known for the fact that in the middle of their career as The Buggles (in between their two albums), the two of them also joined progressive rock icons Yes and were a key part of that band for the 1980 Drama album. And 31 years later, Downes rejoined Yes and Horn played on and produced Yes's 2011 album, Fly From Here.

This leads to the question of exactly who were these Buggles. Were they fish or fowl? Were they a happy new wave pop band in the carefree '80s, or were they, at least in part, a pair of progressive rockers? Well, the answer to both questions, is ... wait for it ... Yes! (I know, I used that line before in my Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe review, but I believe in recycling). Downes has been quoted as saying that he sees The Buggles as equal parts prog rock and pop. My ears have always heard them as pure new wave. In the end, though, I guess the labels don't really matter. What does matter is, is the music good, and is it enjoyable? And this time, the answer is "Hell Yes!"

The Age of Plastic is a futuristic concept album that demonstrates both an embrace of and a fear of technology. The music is fittingly mechanical throughout -- there are lots of drum machines, synthesizers and vocal effects, as well as several ethereal guest-female vocals, all of which give The Age of Plastic a decidedly science fiction feel. In fact, the album seems to have been strongly influenced by the music of Kraftwerk.

The song that most people know is the aforementioned "Video Killed the Radio Star", a somewhat regretful look at the things we lose as technology drives us relentlessly forward. "We can't rewind, we've gone too far," Horn laments, as he remembers a past of radio dramas that was wiped away by the advent of television. His vocals, which sound far away and dry, as if sung through a megaphone, contrast with the warm female vocals on the chorus, as they hammer home the central observation of the song: "Video killed the radio star/Video killed the radio star." Meanwhile, the song is catchy as hell, which is why it reached #1 not only on the British charts, but also in Australia, Austria, Switzerland and Sweden (although it only got as high as #40 in the U.S.).

As good as the single is, though, the sonic treats don't end there. In fact, from the horrifying opening of the album, which features a man screaming in agony as he gets a facelift from what sounds like some kind of power drill at the beginning of "Living in the Plastic Age" to his final dull moans at the end of the unearthly closing track "Johnny on the Monorail", we find way more wheat than chaff throughout the album's short 36-minute-and-24-second duration.

Once you get past those terrifying opening wails, "Living in the Plastic Age" is actually a somewhat humorous number, featuring some of Downes' jauntiest piano, as Horn laments "Living in the plastic age/Looking only half my age/Hello, doctor, lift my face/I wish my skin could stand the pace." This song sets up the central theme for the rest of the album, the idea that the individual's life gets increasingly out of control as science changes the world around us. It's explored in different ways throughout the album, until in the last track "Johnny on the Monorail", we're given the metaphor of life as a monorail that carries us passively along, the starts and stops completely out of our control: "All we cannot see we call invisible/Tracks that move on pylons through the sky." 

The sci-fi sounds continue throughout, never more so than on one of my favorite numbers, "I Love You (Miss Robot)". Even the vocals are mechanized on this one, as our automated protagonist declares "I love you, Miss Robot/Programmed just to please/I love you, Miss Robot/Electronic tease". Downes has proclaimed that this song is actually about impersonal sex, but I always just took it for what it sounds like -- a mechanical love song sung by one robot to another. Another song, "Astroboy (And the Proles on Parade)", is a slower, more laid back track that always made me think of the half-robot, half-human Astro Boy character from the old animated television show. In this one, the song's protagonist sits back and watches the parade of tourists marching through the city in front of him, but finds them to be somewhat machinelike: "Walking down boulevards, electric eyes/Would gaze at the waveforms and gasp at their size".

In spite of the success of "Video Killed the Radio Star", The Age of Plastic is a mostly overlooked album, never reaching higher than #27 on the British charts, and failing to chart in the U.S. at all. Small wonder, then, that given the chance, Horn and Downes jumped at the chance to join Yes, even if that band was undergoing their own struggles at the time (their most recent album, 1978's Tormato, was less successful both commercially and critically than most of their previous albums). This is unfortunate, though, as to my mind, The Age of Plastic is a mostly forgotten gem -- an album that blends catchy pop and experimental (for the time) music with serious themes, and does it in a fun way. Doubtlessly one day in the future, when Skynet becomes self aware and the machines fulfill their destiny by taking over the planet, the genius of this album will finally be recognized, and cyborgs everywhere will fuel a major resurgence in Buggles music. I only wish I could be there to enjoy it.

Ratings: 4/5 stars