In the first part of our series spotlighting music videos in the 1980s, we took a look at some of the more unsung clips from the era. The dawning of this artistic platform was an exciting time for all involved: musicians, video directors, artists—diving head first into a new medium with little in the way of definitive standards. Working against a tabula rasa, and with low barriers to entry, the possibilities were endless. As we peer over into a mineshaft of archived content, we find a lot of quality work that held up well, and others that… um, well, you be the judge. There are a number of items that factor into a video’s obsolescence.
Technology: Many of the earliest music videos from the ‘70s and early ‘80s were promotional stock, shot largely on film, giving them a grainy but consistent look that pretty much ages at the same rate across the board. They were often straight-ahead clips of the bands performing, or assuming characters. We’ll give these a pass. However, as cable TV and video dance clubs proliferated, a torrent of opportunities for enterprising directors and film students opened up, and many of these were recorded on video camera, giving many early videos a bright, washed out look. Couple that with some cheap, DIY effects, and you have a recipe for chaos. We’ll table a discussion of some of the most primitive efforts, featuring giant bunny rabbits and disembodied heads (here’s looking at you, Thompson Twins) till next time, but will highlight the ones that through technical precision achieved a finished look or took a particularly creative approach.
Theme: While the themes of pop songs and the videos we love are universal (love, war, pestilence, agriculture) there are some themes that tended to crop up more (power + corruption + lies, materialism, conspicuous consumption, girls on top of cars, love in a battlefield). In much the way we gauge the timeliness of movies, the more topical, trendy, or specific a video is to the era, the more dated it looks once insider trading, breakdancing, and the Cold War fall out of favor as inspiration to busboys and poets.
Style: Related to theme is style. The more contemporary, hip, and of the moment the clip, the more doomed the video is to age. Except, as we know, for goth, or anything in black. Certain hairstyles become so specific to an era, they become Samuel Jackson catch phrases. As parachute pants, Members Only jackets, and South Beach active wear hit the dustbins of history, so too must we cart our beta recordings of these gems into their final resting place, VH-1.
Artistic Statement: Rudimentary music videos and performance clips go all the way back to the origins of rock music, in many instances low budget films that substituted extended live performances for plot or dialogue, or home videos dubbed to a soundtrack. As demand for videos heated up, and before record labels and management moved in the direction of conceptual videos helmed by big name directors (John Landis and his extended clip for “Thriller”), the earliest videos were straight-ahead performance clips, or some variation, with bands wanly lip-synching or engaging in good clean band fun, pillow fights and such. Artists were also given free reign to conceive their own work. Some of the most dated attempts can be found where musicians themselves engage in ham fisted attempts at acting or directing, as well as in the earliest attempts at conceptual art, where without adult supervision, they took flight and never really ever returned to Earth.
The qualifier, is when certain styles or themes recur. Like electro/disco. Adam Sandler/wedding singers. War, and pestilence. Videos which have the hindsight to cast the artists in situations that they might envision their grandchildren themselves in, or anything that say, Kathleen Hanna touches, will live on.
So we focus our second collection of ‘80s music videos on clips that have, remarkably, stood the test of time. These videos endure in part by breaking new boundaries (in technology, style, subject matter), hashing a theme that (perhaps fortuitously) has been recycled time and again in pop culture without exceeding our patience, or boldly taking on a theme or style in currency that may still be rooted in the back seat of Doc’s DeLorean, but whether due to execution—or plumb determination—has managed to win a continued place in our hearts.
At first glance, this clip might appear to be the second music video ever shot, following immediately on the heels of the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star”. Overexposure. Expressionless, minimalist models, presenting a nightmarish specter of mimes that appear to come to life. And yet timeless. The video to this synthpop classic was shot crisply, with slow measured movements that seemingly take weeks to develop. Add in that the music anticipated the electroclash fad that rocked turn-of-the-century Brooklyn, and this video has a fairly indefinite shelf life, longer than, say, the revivalists who brought renewed attention to synthpop (Oh where, oh where are you Fischerspooner?). The song’s lyrics were written by Midge Ure of Ultravox and in a bit of serendipity, Adam Clayton developed his part for U2’s “New Year’s Day”, while trying to learn this song’s bass line.
Ok, here’s a shocker. At the time, this cheesy over-the-top production number had shark jumping all over it—even before the Go-Gos water-skiing stunt for “Vacation” had the unfortunate timing of being released right around the time that Jaws 3 (?), featured a similar shot of water skiers meeting their demise in a one-sided collision with killer sharks. Roller skates? Olivia Newton John, paired with screen icon Gene Kelly? Maybe someone should pair the Bee Gees and Peter Frampton with vaudevillian George Burns (crap, that really happened!). So in a major upset, I took a look at this for a certain top five spot of old and decrepit, and lo and behold, this video looks timeless. As with the Visage clip, when executed as well as this, it achieves iconic stature, as the model for unhinged overstimulated show numbers, with all eyes mugging for the camera. Which sounds a lot like… a certain darling TV musical show on the air featuring kids who like to mug for the camera. Watching this now, you’re not entirely sure if this was shot back in the day, or was staged as a throwback ad. Other aspects of this, roller disco, crowd-sourcing—they’re all in in a big way. You could imagine this breaking out in Grand Central Terminal. A young hipster ad executive might conceive of a piece like this, digitally inserting the screen legends. The director back in the day had the foresight to actually film these legends. Note: the full video version of this goes on for right minutes!
For being such an iconic song about kids living in America, Kim was a Brit. One of the most recognizable of the initial wave of ‘80s pop hits, this clip essentially serves as a template for first-wave video. You’ve got a lead singer delivering fairly flat, expressionless delivery choked with emotion; you can hear the anxiety in her voice once the song takes off. There’s simple staging: the band is on a soundstage which looks like a schoolyard, shifting to some inner room for the final verse, where Wilde’s watching some green dinosaurs while rebuffing the creepy advances of her bandmate. It was close between this and the Knack’s “My Sharona”, another brilliant period piece, but Wilde’s trance-like dance moves win this hands down. Wilde nearly outdid herself in 1987 with a stellar clip to her remake of “You Keep Me Hanging On”.
Thomas Dolby was also on the leading edge, actually using his own interest in technology to burnish an image as the mad scientist in “She Blinded Me with Science” and using an array of the slickest tricks for “Hyperactive”. One of his lesser-known and unsung videos was the clip for “Europa and the Pirate Twins”. Weaving in at least four different scenes—including a black and white external shot wrapped around Europa, a shot of him playing with his wireless and telecomputer, a shot of burning stuff, and some black and white stock footage of Ziegfried Follies—this video zips along. Showing off his belief in the brave new world of technology through his characters, Dolby himself would remain ahead of the game, starting Headspace, creating a new downloadable file format, and then later, writing ringtones for phones. One of his earliest singles, and overshadowed by some other hit singles, this video is a keeper.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times. Thanks everyone.