Re-Living the Plastic Age: The Buggles 35 Years Later
By Damon Smith
August 1, 1981 at 12:01 AM arguably marked the beginning of a new age of music distribution. At that time the music video for The Buggles’ one and only hit song, “Video Killed the Radio Star”, made its debut as the very first broadcast by the newly born MTV.
It was The Buggles’ shining moment one that would never be repeated again in the band’s history. Following their debut album The Age of Plastic, they only released one other album, Adventures in Modern Recording, before fading into history with all of the other Flocks of Seagulls and Men at Work that the 80’s spawned. To the eye of popular culture, the alpha and omega of The Buggles is “Video Killed the Radio Star”.
But “Video Killed the Radio Star” actually predates the birth of MTV by three years, making the song oddly prophetic, a prophecy that was no doubt noticed by MTV when they decided to begin their channel with the song. It also did not exist in a vacuum on The Age of Plastic, but the passage of time has made it appear so to the popular culture.
On the surface, The Age of Plastic is sci-fi inspired through and through, focusing often on Orwelian and Huxley-esque themes mixed in with a bitter sweet nostalgia that one would not expect from the album that birthed “Video Killed the Radio” star. And even on deeper analysis, Video Killed…, also contains some deeper meaning from the actual instrumentation and composition of the song. Through these individual parts, The Age of Plastic comes together into a whole that is both more intelligent than the surface appears and is also prophetic in regards to how both popular music, culture and technology has changed in the past 35 years since the album first hit the air.
So piece-by-piece we are going to pick this album apart and see what exactly makes it tick. From the music to the lyrics, and to see why The Age of Plastic as a whole is one of the hidden gems of the 80’s.
Upon listening to the music, in a way it strikes me as being similar to Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA. At least in the sense of dissonance in lyrics and actual music. Because much like The Boss’ iconic song, while the actual instrumentation and tempo of the piece makes the affair seem much happier than it actual is. A closer inspection of the lyrics will reveal a much sadder face hiding behind the song’s catchy melody.
The de-facto example of this on The Age of Plastic is the first track of the album, “Living in the Plastic Age”. Beyond the quiet opening filled with ringing and screaming, the song slowly settles into a synth-heavy 80’s beat that in some ways is a sign of the era. And for a casual listener, the beat and the cheesy chorus sound fun at best, nonsensical at worst. But as the stressed noises that preclude the song hint, things are not as cheesy under the skin.
Because while the beat of “Living in the Plastic Age” is indeed something that could be heard in many different songs of the decade that would follow, that actual lyrics paint a much darker image. The song’s lyrics evoke images of a cold and distant future where the real is discouraged for the sake of keeping things shiny, new and hip.
The verse: “Talking fast I make a deal/Buy the fake and sell what’s real/What’s this pain here in my chest Maybe I should take a rest” in particular really does stand out in the modern age of yearly phone upgrades and more and more intense work schedules eating away at leisure time combined with the increasing rates of heart disease in the US. In a similar manner to Ray Bradubry’s Fahrenheit 451, the dystopian text of the song is coming true to life in many ways.
Next up, “Kid Dynamo”, is much less 80’s pop and more akin to something more out of the work of Kenny Loggins. In many ways, this song sounds like a lament. Sort of “things have changed so fast, haven’t they?” deal. Using verses like “swimming in the sound waves/of the playback from the eight-track”, it a powerful ballad in ode to long ago days that will probably never come again, a theme echoed by many of the songs on the album. It also continues the theme of the falseness of the new “shiny” age with the song’s spoken bridge:
“All that we said
How media builds stars
And our minds won’t change
Only our cars”
It’s a testament of every generation in a way. The modern day is so much less real than the generation they grew up in. The bridge speaks of how the modern world is so obsessed with creating the next big thing that it forgets to help society grow along with it, and because of that Kid Dynamo is as much an epitaph to the past as it is a lament of what the future has become.
The theme of nostalgia and obsolescence carried on later in the album with the song Elstree. Taking its name from a now defunct British film studio, the song reflects on the changing dynamics of film and the death of the b-movie as a whole.
The Age of Plastic was released at the very tail end of what was called the “New Hollywood” era, a time marked by films controlled by the creators instead of studios and executives. The critical failure of the film Heaven’s Gate combined with the success of movies like Star Wars brought and end to this time and resulted in pulling tighter and tighter reigns onto movie creators by their studios.
A narrative song, it tells the tale of a hopeful actor who fades into obscurity over time. In a way it reflects on the end of the New Age, but it also recalls a nostalgia for the old age of movies with lyrics like:
“There’s no technology to fake up a song/They stop the orchestra if you get it wrong”
“There’s no reality and no one dead in…”
Lyrics like this ring ironic now that we have reached an age of movie where so much is done in post and so much is made through CGI. There is less and less reality in movies as practical effects fall more and more to the wayside in favor of computer graphics. And the prominence of music making machines now do show that you can indeed “fake up a song” in the 21st century.
Lyrics like this further support the themes of the passing of old more “real” ways for what’s new and shiny.
“Clean Clean” is another song off of the album that has it’s meaning changed through the advancement of technology. Ostensibly a song about war. The line that ends the chorus:
“God you know it’s hard to keep the fighting clean”
Takes a very different meaning in the age of drone warfare. We now live in an age where combat is “clean” in the sense that it’s becoming detached. Since by the default, bombardment through drone is seen as a much more hands off way of fighting than manned attacks. As all the controversy surrounding drone warfare has shown, it is obviously not the case. But from the stance of the powerful, such combat is “clean” since there is no face to it beyond the shiny robot.
The song also ends on an outro that is chilling in a post 9/11 world:
“Lost a million in the very first attack/Don’t you worry cause we know we’ll get them back.”
Which of course with the escalating rise of terrorist attacks worldwide combined with retaliation against areas tied to those groups, creates a grim foreshadowing of events that would pass decades after The Age of Plastic hit shelves.
The next song, “Astroboy (And the Proles on Parade)” is the strongest in terms of ties to dystopian literature, as “Prole” is a term used for the working class in George Orwell’s 1984. The most prominent lyric in the song is the words “let them be lonely and say you don’t care” which is reprised as “let them be broken and say you don’t care.”
It’s the second line that has the most interest as the full verse it features prominently in is: “Radio stations that fade as in dust/All their transmitters are crumbling with rust/Let them be broken and say you don’t care.” Which once again echoes the album’s theme of the passing of old technology and the ignoring of the past as simply “the obsolete”. A theme which is mirrored earlier in the album with the Buggles’ best know song, “Video Killed the Radio Star”.
The most well known part of the song is quite obviously the repetitive loop of the female singers voice that undercurrents most of song. (The oh-wah-ooh) Which from a meta perspective could be seen as a sign of what would later, and arguably always colored radio friendly music. Simple, catchy lyrics with no real thought behind them beyond being catchy.
But what about the lyrics themselves?
The opening chorus speaks of the accessibility of radio:
“I heard you on the wireless back in fifty two
Lying awake intent at tuning in on you.
If I was young it didn’t stop you coming through.”
And it quickly transition to technology overtaking radio with the second half of the first verse:
“They took the credit for your second symphony.
Rewritten by machine on new technology,
And now I understand the problems you can see.”
The song as a whole speaks of the change of innocence to adulthood. To realizing the problems technology makes and how what was probably won’t be again:
“And now we meet in an abandoned studio.
We hear the playback and it seems so long ago.
And you remember the jingles used to go.”
This ties in with the themes of the second half of “Astroboy” of how everything fades and, try as we might, we probably can’t reclaim it. A theme that is also echoed by “Kid Dynamo” and “Elstree”.
And as we know, “Video Killed…” was very prophetic as with the rise of MTV, and later sites like Spotify and iTunes, with radio as a whole was pushed aside for the eras of television and the Internet in the eye of the popular culture.
I saved these last two songs for the very end since they thematically don’t tie as well with the others. “I Love You Miss Robot”, my personal pick for the weakest point on the album, is officially about the coldness of a long distance relationship. But in the age of SIRI, lyrics like:
“Talk of love on the telephone
When your voice fades there’s a paying tone
Force a coin and you’re there again
Till the loneliness is paid away
I love you, Miss Robot
Programmed just to please
I love you, Miss Robot
Takes on a different light now that machines can connect with humans in ways that are slowly becoming more like us.
While “Johnny on the Monorail” speaks of the modernization of cities on top of echoing themes similar to the anti-war vibe of “Clean Clean”:
“Don’t, don’t make wars and walkaway
Even in the streets your feet don’t move”
It’s a sore spot on the album however, as there is no real predictions to be seen the vein of the other albums.
But as a whole, The Age of Plastic is a much deeper album than “Video Killed the Radio Star” would make one thing. It’s filled with lyrics revolving around the dehumanizing side of technology and the fear of becoming obsolete.
And that in the end, may be the greatest irony of the album. As because of the runaway success of “Video Killed…” and the failure to replicate that success. Despite their best effort The Buggles too became obsolete and faded into the background noise of the music industry. Pushed aside for the newest, shiniest, one hit wonder pop culture could provide.