×

Video Killed The Radio Star: Lyrics And Meaning Of The Buggles' Hit

Music | February 10, 2021

The Buggles as seen on the sleeve art for the single "Video Killed The Radio Star." Source: Amazon

The Buggles, famous for "Video Killed The Radio Star," were a one-hit wonder -- but oh, what a hit, with prophetic lyrics and an overall meaning that would describe the MTV-disrupted music industry for years to come. The single was released at the end of 1979, as waves of change were crashing down on the record business. Punk and its offspring genre New Wave had rendered a lot of '70s music irrelevant -- particularly the genres of disco and soft rock. People wanted three-minute pop songs again, but this would be a kind of pop music that was noisy and weird, garage-rock DNA with science-fiction tendencies. Give it a thumping beat and don't spare the synthesizers.

And while you're at it: Get a new look. You're going to shoot a video and '70s lounge-lizard fashion won't do. Skinny ties, day-glo shirts, vinyl jackets, strange chunky glasses -- whatever it takes to make a clean  break with the bell-bottom decade that was ending. Nobody could say exactly what lay in store in the '80s, but it was certainly going to be different.

The Buggles were somewhat right -- video might not have killed the stars of radio, but the new media format was ruthless. Every single had to have a video, and every video needed to be hip and memorable. MTV arrived in 1981, kicking off with (what else) "Video Killed The Radio Star" as its first video, and there was no looking back. Were music videos just eye candy that supported pop songs? Or were they short films that happened to have a soundtrack? Could a really cool video make a weak song popular? These were questions that artists, directors, labels, and listeners (now viewers) would spend the next few years figuring out.

The Buggles in the video for their hit single. Source: YouTube

“Video Killed The Radio Star” by the Buggles became a #1 hit in the UK in 1979. For the two-man outfit -- Trevor Horn on guitar and lead vocals, and Geoffrey Downes on keyboards -- its success was anything but expected. First off, Horn, who'd written the prescient earworm did not start out as a singer or really even aspire to be a frontman. 

As he’d tell you, “Before I started Buggles I was a sort of loser record producer, I spent four years producing records for various people without ever making any money out of it or having any success at all.” Just a short while later “Video Killed The Radio Star” became the first song ever played on MTV and, ironically, proof of Horn’s conceit. 

Better Lucky Than Good

Geoff Downes and Trevor Horn, purveyors of video. (TheGuardian)

After struggling to make it as a producer, Horn finally decided to go it on his own. “Eventually I got so fed up doing things that weren't successful I decided that if I couldn't find a good artist and a good song then I'd write it myself and become the artist, so I wrote this song called 'Video Killed The Radio Star' with Bruce Woolley."

Of course, just because you write a song doesn’t mean anyone will want it. Thankfully, Horn knew a girl… “I was going out with the singer Tina Charles and I put together a touring band for her," he recalled. "Geoff Downes was the 14th keyboard player I auditioned. A friend recommended Bruce Woolley as the guitarist, and we all clicked.”

Inspired By Science Fiction

The first song on MTV and the first proof of its power. (soundandvision)

The words came from Horn but the inspiration came from literature. According to Horn, “I’d read JG Ballard and had this vision of the future where record companies would have computers in the basement and manufacture artists. I’d heard Kraftwerk’s The Man-Machine and video was coming. You could feel things changing.”

Geoff Downes recalled he was “writing advertising jingles up to that point. I don’t know if that’s why Trevor hired me. He says he liked my shoes. Trevor and Bruce had already written the bulk of 'Video Killed the Radio Star' when I joined, I worked on the final version.”

Bruce Goes His Own Way

Horn's wife thought he looked stupid in these glasses and later talked him into becoming a full-time producer. (youtube)

Often when you read about companies that explode, there will have been someone who left right before the going got good. In this case, it was Bruce Woolley. According to Downes, “Bruce tried to stop our version of 'Video' and released his more straightforward version [as Bruce Woolley & the Camera Club] before ours, but it wasn’t a hit. Ours is a more complex, modern-sounding pop song.” Even with some hot demo tapes -- and a potential hit in "Video Killed The Radio Star" -- on their hands, producers weren’t biting. By pure chance, Downes’ girlfriend, who worked for Island Records, got them in with the studio and they were off. 

Video > Radio

This video star made an entire career mostly from one song. (youtube)

While “Video Killed The Radio Star” became #1 hit in the UK, it topped out at #40 in the U.S. in December of ‘79. However, a little channel called MTV was starting and played the prophetic hit as the first song. Soon, despite radio in America still not playing it, record stores in areas with MTV started selling Buggles’ records like hotcakes. Billboard ran a story interviewing a record store owner in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In it, the owner talked about the 15 copies of the Buggles he had, collecting dust for months. Then weeks after it played on MTV, they were all gone.

Though it failed to climb the U.S. chart, “Video Killed The Radio Star” was a smash seemingly everywhere else, becoming a #1 in 16 different countries. In Australia, it held the title for best-selling record for a whopping 27 years. Eventually, Elton John’s “Candle In The Wind ‘97” took it down. The Buggles name, reportedly, came from when Horn, “got fed up of producing people who were generally idiots but called themselves all sorts of clever names like The Unwanted, The Unwashed, The Unheard... when it came to choosing our name I thought I'd pick the most disgusting name possible. In retrospect I have frequently regretted calling myself Buggles, but in those days I never really thought much about packaging or selling myself, all that really concerned me was the record."

Eventually, Horn and Downes got into producing and moved out of the spotlight. Still, the Elvis Costello inspired glasses, funky synths, and oracle-esque message of the song still lives on. 

Source: Sound On Sound

There are two distinct vocal parts to the song: The male voice, Trevor Horn, addresses a "radio star" of some sort, while a pair of female voices sing the very jingle-y "oh-a-oh" as well as the chorus. In the first verse, Horn fondly recalls listening to radio in the '50s, and hearing the music of this unnamed "star." But something changes in the second verse -- "They took the credit for your second symphony / Rewritten by machine on new technology" -- yes, in this vision of the music industry, the machines are taking over. It's a classic sci-fi plot applied to entertainment. By the third verse, we've arrived at a kind of wasteland, an "abandoned studio" that is abandoned because humans are perhaps obsolete in the music-making process. By the fourth verse, our narrator is despondent about the fate that has befallen humanity. But we're stuck with it -- having embraced the technology, "we can't rewind, we've gone too far."

The Lyrics To 'Video Killed The Radio Star'

The song about the future lived long into it. (IMDB)

I heard you on the wireless back in '52
Lying awake intently tuning in on you
If I was young it didn't stop you coming through
Oh-a-oh

They took the credit for your second symphony
Rewritten by machine on new technology
And now I understand the problems you can see
Oh-a-oh

I met your children
Oh-a-oh
What did you tell them?

Video killed the radio star
Video killed the radio star
Pictures came and broke your heart
Oh-a-a-a oh

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:
Oh-a-oh

You were the first one
Oh-a-oh
You were the last one

Video killed the radio star
Video killed the radio star
In my mind and in my car
We can't rewind, we've gone too far

Oh-a-a-a oh
Oh-a-a-a oh

Video killed the radio star
Video killed the radio star
In my mind and in my car
We can't rewind, we've gone too far
Pictures came and broke your heart
Put the blame on VTR...

You are the radio star
You are the radio star
Video killed the radio star
Video killed the radio star
Video killed the radio star
Video killed the radio star
You are the radio star
Video killed the radio star
Video killed the radio star
You are the radio star
Video killed the radio star
Video killed the radio star
You are the radio star
Video killed the radio star
Video killed the radio star
You are the radio star

Oh-a-oh, oh-a-oh...

Tags: MTV | Music Videos | Song Meanings, Lyrics, And Facts | The Buggles | Video Killed The Radio Star

Like it? Share with your friends!

Share On Facebook

Kellar Ellsworth

Writer

Kellar Ellsworth was born and raised in Hawaii. He is an avid traveler, surfer and lover of NBA basketball. He wishes he could have grown up in the free love era!