20 Unsung Music Videos from the 1980s

by Dennis Shin

1 September 2011


David Bowie and more

Grandmaster Caz/Chris Stein
“South Bronx Subway Rap”
(1983, Rhino)


Old school rap clips are notoriously hard to find. This video is even harder, as it is a compilation clip of scenes from the movie Wild Style, which at its center featured an emcee battle between Cold Crush Brothers and the Grand Wizard Theodore and the Fantastic Five, two collectives that in real life engaged in a spirited rivalry. The Fantastic Five consisted of Theodore Livingston, AKA Grand Wizard Theodore, who legend had it invented scratching by accident when he was playing records in his room, and when his mom banged on his door to tell him it was too loud, he accidently moved the record back and forth. The Cold Crush Brothers were pioneers on a number of fronts. Their second single, “Punk Rock Rap”, was one of the first indie/major label collaborations, and the first rap-rock hybrid. They engineered the first successful foreign hip-hop tours in Tokyo, Japan in 1983. Wild Style—directed by Charlie Ahearn and featuring contributions from an all-star lineup of hi-hop artists including Grandmaster Flash and Fab 5 Freddy, the work of graffiti artist Dondi, and the work of Blondie guitarist Chris Stein, a producer—is viewed as the first hip hop movie; it enjoyed legendary status much later, but given limited on-air outlets for hip-hop, was largely a cult movie. The video features scenes of the South Bronx, emceed by Grandmaster Caz of the Cold Crush Brothers (who many believe was responsible for much of the lyrics to Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight”), and also includes an extended mix that features a series of stills from the movie.

“Quite Unusual”
(1986, Wax Trax)

While industrial music, house, and techno were among the movements to emerge from the underground dance clubs, the genres were relatively underrepresented in ‘80s music television. Dance clubs back in the day often featured a bank of TV monitors, which would broadcast the latest New Wave/alternative videos. While KMFDM and Nine Inch Nails were prodigious in their video output, and Ministry issued a memorable clip for “Over the Shoulder” which coupled teens on a hijink with images of caged chickens, Front 242 gets the nod here, for “Quite Unusual”. The clip has all you would really need or expect out of an industrial video. Abandoned warehouse, check. Desolate figure shuffling in the shadows to the tyranny of the beat, check. Sinister Bond villain/mad scientist at work on some sinister plot, check. Bonus points for the toy helicopter cam, with footage depicting said toy helicopter circling (as if to show off how clever the director was in pulling off this simple, lo-fi effect), along with gratuitous use of a tra-ma-poline. Spoiler alert to those freaked out by seeing our heroes chained in captivity: they escape to freedom in… a helicopter.

Pat Benatar
“We Belong”
(1983, Chrysalis)

Music video was a vehicle that offered medium ingénues the opportunity for melodrama that bordered on camp. Pat Benatar, one of the most prodigious video artists of the female rockers, was particularly effective in using the videos to showcase the appeal of her independent spirit, whether through “Heartbreaker”, “You Better Run”, “Shadows of the Night”, or the theatrical opus “Love Is a Battlefield”. But one of her more understated, and underrated videos, was the clip to “We Belong”, off the sixth album, which takes off as an anthem. Not surprising, that it would be plucked as the track that highlighted the film Talladega Nights.

David Bowie
“Absolute Beginners”
(1989, Virgin)

The end of the decade saw the blurring of film and video, as lavish title track videos from popular movies served as extended trailers for the films. At the same time, directors who got their start in music video would make the jump to motion pictures. Yet, one of the most unsung, and sweeping videos was the work of British film director Julien Temple, who directed the ‘50s period piece Absolute Beginners, based on the novel, a coming-of-age story set amidst the backdrop of racial tensions in England. The video for the title track, the type of sweeping music video that spared you the price of admission by summarizing the whole movie in six minutes, has David Bowie navigating the viewer through the twists and turns of the story’s plot. While the film was a commercial failure, it achieved recognition for its sprawling soundtrack, an all-star sampling of British artists including Bowie, the Style Council, Sade, Ray Davies, and Jerry Dammers of the Specials.


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