Basement Songs: The Buggles, “Video Killed the Radio Star”

Written by Basement Songs, Music

In 1982, the rock supergroup Asia kept my interest long enough to make me seek out previous work by the band members. This led me to the band Yes, and their final ’70s album, Drama. On it, Asia keyboardist Geoff Downes was given the unenviable task of replacing the enigmatic Rick Wakemen. At the same time, one of Downes’ former bandmates, Trevor Horn, was brought in to be the new singer (another unenviable task, as replacing Jon Anderson in Yes is like replacing Robert Plant in Led Zeppelin; there’s only one voice for the band). Soon thereafter, I learned that Horn and Downes had been in the Buggles, authors of the prophetic song, “Video Killed the Radio Star.” A minor hit on the rock and roll stations where I grew up, it had enough of a lasting impression on me that I sought it out when I went on my ’80s music binge in the early ’90s (this was before VH1 cornered the ’80s nostalgia market). I must have collected eight or nine of Priority Records’ Rock of the 80’s cassettes in a three-month period. Soon after ending this obsession with the music from my adolescence, I stopped listening to cassettes altogether and moved exclusively on to CDs. All of those tapes were moved into a box and placed in a closet to be forgotten for a couple of years.

Those boxes of tapes were pulled out of the closet a couple of years later when it came time to make my first mix CD. You never forget your first. Mine was gold and white with 74 minutes of free space on it. The compilation was done on the job at the animation company that employed me in the early 21st century. The computer I worked on was equipped with software that could convert my old cassettes into digital files and then, ta-da, instant CDs. Digging through the Rock of the ’80s tapes, I picked 15 of my favorite songs. I had always liked the Buggles song even though it was sort of a fluff number. The melody has a bit of sadness, possibly about the passing of a generation that Downes and Horn (and their co-writer Bruce Woolley) were writing about. In particular, the ending piano outro has always moved me. Some may think this bit of classical piano playing is out of place with a song about the modern age, but I have always found it beautiful. Needless to say, “Video Killed the Radio Star” made the cut. Unfortunately, the CD burner I was using was not compatible with just about any other CD player or computer. The only place I could listen to my triumphant accomplishment was in my car. This is how Sophie discovered her first rock song.

During Sophie’s toddler years, as I was trying to wean her off of Barney (like any good parent should), I would slap in that ’80s mix CD to listen to while we drove around town. She never wanted to hear Pete Townshend or the Fixx; it was primarily the Buggles and the “Ohwa-Oh’s” from the song. Wherever we went, I knew I could comfort her with the Buggles, whether it was after a rough morning on the way to daycare, off to her cousin’s house, or just to the grocery store. As with most children, she misheard the lyrics to the chorus and came up with “video wed the radio star.” I’ve always found her lyrical change to be much more optimistic than the original song. And although she didn’t know it, Sophie was right. Video and radio stars actually did wed as style became more important than substance when every act in the early 80’s was trying to get their videos on MTV. The lyrical misinterpretation also made the song more personal. No longer was this just some one hit wonder song from my childhood that I was listening to for nostalgia sake; this song was hers.

Finding a song like that was particularly resourceful during the long October of 2001, just before Jacob was born. Julie was hospitalized twice, the second time for two weeks on hospital bed rest. The hospital was 30 minutes from home, day care was 25 minutes from home, my work was an hour from home. There was a lot of time spent driving. Sophie, just 2 ½, didn’t understand why her mommy was in the hospital or why her daddy would walk around with heavy footfalls, constantly running his hand through his hair. These unknowns stressed her out and this caused a lot of tears, hugs and heavy hearts. Most of those nights I would snuggle her to sleep in the big bed of our empty house and pray that the next day would be easier.

Thankfully we had music to ease our pain. We had the Wiggles, Dragon Tales and Sesame Street; we had the Buggles.

During that difficult period it often felt like I was leaning on Sophie’s tiny shoulders to keep me standing. I have never told her how important it was having her with me during that time. I’m not sure she would understand. Sometimes I look at Sophie and I am mystified that she’s my child. I see a girl that is loving, caring, smart, quizzical, funny, and one who has an abundance of empathy. Simply put, she is amazing.

I often wonder, “Does she remember that time? Does she even remember what we listened to?” A few months ago I loaded Julie’s iPod with music and chose to include “Video Killed the Radio Star” and Marshall Crenshaw’s “Someday Someway,” the other most requested song from those trips in the car. One night, the Crenshaw number came on and I looked at Sophie with a smile.

“What?” she asked.

I furrowed my brow, “Don’t you remember?”

“No. What?”

When I explained to her the significance of the song, she bopped her head a little, uninterested, then said, “Oh, okay.”

Last week, “Video Killed the Radio Star” began playing. Once again, I glanced at her. This time, she was smiling.

“You know this song?” I asked, uncertain.

“Yeah. I used to listen to it when I was younger.”