Forgotten Records: Bruce Woolley & The Camera Club – English Garden

Cover of "English Garden"

Cover of English Garden

Is it really a trivia question when everyone and their grandmother knows the answer? If the question is “What was the first video played on MTV?” I would have to say the answer is no.[1]  Babies fresh from the womb could tell you that it was “Video Killed the Radio Star” by The Buggles. The real trivia question is this: “Who recorded ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ first?” That’s right; it’s a cover tune, originally recorded by Bruce Woolley & The Camera Club for their album English Garden. The would-be Buggles, Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes, wrote the song for Bruce’s band, and while they had some success, Horn and Downes decided to make it their first single. The rest is history and music trivia. There wasn’t bad blood, though. Bruce Woolley was close with The Buggles, though never an official member. He even appears in The Buggles video for “Video Killed the Radio Star”, a friendly shout-out to the guy who tried to make a hit of it first, and joined them for a couple of The Buggles occasional one-off performances. The success of the cover version left The Camera Club’s lone album, English Garden to the dustbin of musical history. Thankfully, history has preserved video of the band performing on the Old Grey Whistle Test[2], and on BBC Midlands.

Well, almost. The album has more going for it than the MTV connection. Keyboards on the record were played by a young lad credited as “Tom Dolby”, who would later go by a more formal first name and have a couple huge synthpop hits. The album even features some of Dolby’s first songwriting with the instrumental “W.W.9”. Other band members went on to bigger and better things. Bassist Matthew Seligman played with a number of people, including The Soft Boys, Robyn Hitchcock, and even with former bandmate Thomas Dolby. Woolley, aside from occasional involvement with The Buggles in the early 80s, had a solo career as well, and is a music producer of renown, much like Mr. Horn.

English Garden is a strange record, straddling a line between glam rock, and new wave, with a slight dose of progressive rock sensibilities in their arrangements. At times, Bruce’s voice tries to emulate the range of Sparks’s Russel Mael, especially on the title track. It lacks the Sparks sense of humor, though, and it lacks the inventiveness of Trevor Horn’s production and arrangements that makes The Age of Plastic hold up. Consider the two versions of “Video Killed the Radio Star”. Camera Club’s version is a straight ahead rock song with a constant tempo. It lacks the emotion of Horn’s rendition. However, I’ll freely admit that Woolley is a far better vocalist. The other Buggles song on English Garden, “Clean/Clean” fares similarly in comparison with its counterpart. There’s just a lot more to sink your teeth on in the Buggles version. Perhaps it’s me. I came to this album after developing a familiarity with the Buggles Age of Plastic, and it might be clouding my judgment upon hearing these earlier interpretations of the songs.

Also, the Buggles tunes are only two songs out of a set of thirteen, so how to the rest of them fare? It’s hit-or-miss. Camera Club is pretty solid B-grade glam rock/new wave music. Most of the songs are forgettable, though the keyboard playing is pretty darn good from a technical standpoint–the actual selections of sounds often verges a bit into the cheesy territory, but it might be a product of the times. The high points are the title track, “No Surrender”, “You’ve Got Class”, the too-short Dolby piece “W.W.9”, and the two-part “Goodbye to Yesterday”. Sadly, there’s not much else that really grabs the listener. If the album could maintain the energy of its title track, there might have been a spark to really grab people. As it is, the album is just chock full of dull snoozers like “Dancing with the Sporting Boys”, “Flying Man” and “Get Away William”.

So should you track this down? That depends. It’s certainly not a bad album, but really it’s more of a curiosity. If you’re one of those obsessive Thomas Dolby fans, or an obsessive Buggles fan, or just have to complete your collection of slightly obscure new wave records from England, then you could do far worse. It is in print on CD, retitled as an eponymous album with new cover art, and with some remixing and alternate takes.[3] Among the changes, the CD version of “Video Killed the Radio Star” omits the vocoded intro. It does, however, add on five bonus tracks. Certainly give the videos a look and decide for yourself if it’s the sort of thing you want in your collection. At least you’ll have the ability to be an insufferable nerd the next time MTV’s first video comes up: “Oh, you didn’t know that ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ was actually a cover song, originally by Bruce Wooley & The Camera Club…”


  1. Insert joke about MTV actually playing music videos here. ←
  2. This video’s worth watching for Dolby’s solo synthesizer intro to “Clean Clean” alone.
  3. For the sake of period accuracy, this review is based on the original LP.

 

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  • Richard

    I was an early purchaser of this record way back in the ’70s when the Camera Club played the El Mocambo in Toronto as a warm-up band for Lene Lovich. Strangely, the song that sticks in my head from it, apart from VKTRS, is one that you’ve called a “snoozer,” i.e., Dancing With The Sporting Boys; a nice slow song with an underlying rapid keyboard riff.

  • Richard

    Make that “early 80s.” Sheesh. Time compression sucks.

  • Jeremy

    In case anyone else stumbles upon this post in an effort to do some background reading about this Bruce Woolley & The Camera Club record, please don’t take the author’s opinions here as anything to be etched in stone. It’s a shame when a writer opts for stating things as facts when merely expressing his or her opinion– for instance, the statement above about how, besides the writer’s favorite songs here, “there’s not much else that really grabs the listener.” There may not be much else that grabbed the writer, but to my ears, just about every song on this record is high-quality pop. Also, for the record, the song “Dancing With the Sporting Boys” strikes me as the complete opposite of a “dull snoozer”; I would cite it as one of the great unknown classics of the new wave era. Your mileage may vary, of course, as it obviously did for the writer of this post. And of course there’s nothing wrong with that; we’re all entitled to our own opinions. I’m only piping in here because of the relative dearth of material online about BW&TCC. To me it seems a bit of a shame that this is one of the few opinions one can find on the web about this album.

  • Karl Decker

    I worked in a U.S. record store when this album was released. It differed from the English version in the cover artwork and version of “Goodbye to Yesterday” only and the amount of promo material we received to promote the album was extraordinary for the time. I think the record company had high hopes for sales based on rave critical reviews including a Rolling Stone critic who wrote that it was the best thing he had heard since Ziggy Stardust. It has since, for me, become one of my favorite albums of all time and Bruce Woolley one of my favorite artists. I don’t know why it never shot to the top of the charts; Everything about the album, every song, is extraordinary. I hung on to my vinyl version for years. Unfortunately, the article above is littered with errors, the most egregious being the list of songwriting credits. Bruce Woolley actually co-wrote both “Video Killed the Radio Star” and “Clean, Clean” and also the beautiful instrumental intro to “Clean, Clean” “W.W.9″. I remember the album actually getting some airplay on K.B.C.O. and K.T.C.L here in Denver. I heard the gorgeously produced “Get Away William”, a Dolby/Woolley tune and one of my all time favorite tracks, several times a day for a month or two on the radio. Bruce Woolley and The Camera Club is one of those rare albums that delivers on every single track and still leaves the listener wanting more. It makes you wonder what might have followed. I have always considered Woolley’s version of “Video Killed the Radio Star” as the real version, much more listenable than the insipidly produced Buggles version. Same for goes for “Clean, Clean”. And the albums closer “You’re the Circus (I’m the Clown)” is a great song with a ’50’s lyrical style and a blistering guitar solo. I am just glad that those are the only two tunes the Buggles decided to cover; “Your the Circus (I’m the Clown)”, “Flying Man”, “You Got Class”, “Goodbye to Yesterday” and all the rest remain untainted and free from the “novelty” production techniques of Horn/Downes. The person who wrote the article above would benefit greatly from following the old adage that states “Write about what you know…” because not doing so produces very poor results.