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20 Music Videos from the 1980s That Have Aged Well

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Thursday, Oct 6, 2011

Sonic Youth and more

Heaven 17 – “Penthouse and Pavement”
(Virgin, 1981)

The town of Sheffield in the industrial North England was home to many electronic bands. And one band, the Human League, produced an impressive body of work when you realize that the members of Heaven 17 split off from the former group early on. Heaven 17 never realized the major commercial success in the US the Human League did, though a number of its tracks did receive major airplay in dance clubs. The group’s music videos are all dramatic pieces in their own right, with the band members playing prominent roles. “Let Me Go” remains Heaven 17’s opus, a song reflecting on lost opportunity within a teeming urban environment. But “Penthouse and Pavement” is the best representative of the political bent of the band, which was unyielding in its criticisms of Maggie Thatcher’s United Kingdom. In this clip, our hero (played by Martyn Ware) schemes and uses a foil to gather corporate espionage. Heaven 17 drew upon ‘80s themes, such as corporate predatory conduct and career mobility, that not only stand the test of time, but have newfound applicability to today’s predatory environment, set perhaps in a broader forum, the globalized economy. If handled more clumsily, or if it made very ‘80s specific references, “Penthouse and Pavement” might be on its way out to obsolesce. But as is, the video is a piece that offers a reminder of the past, and a cautionary tale for the future in the wake of the financial crisis and continued inertia among the powers that be.

Sonic Youth – “Teen Age Riot”
(SST, 1988)

“Teen Age Riot” is a seminal track from Sonic Youth’s classic masterpiece, Daydream Nation, positing a world where Dinosaur Jr.‘s J. Mascis is President of the United States. The video resonates today, as it serves to document a special time, when the No Wave music, film, and art movement, drawing upon a disparate range of genres, launched a period of creative collaboration in the mid to late ‘80s. The video serves as a time capsule, deftly integrating snippets from a series of home movies taken by various band members and their friends. The clip captures the group doing what it does best—thrashing in rehearsals—shows them on the road, and features a who’s who of cameos that includes the likes of Patti Smith, Neil Young, Iggy Pop, Johnny Thunders, and Sun Ra.

Squeeze - “Black Coffee in Bed”
(IRS, 1983)

This video is from one of Squeeze’s last singles prior to its initial breakup. “Black Coffee in Bed” shows the band at its most mature, addressing one of the big timeless theories. At more than six minutes, it is also the group’s longest song. Its leisurely pace, straightforward character-driven story, and backing vocals from Elvis Costello and Paul Young make this a capstone video. The video traces a couple through various phases in their life, including the inevitable heartbreak, betrayal, and splitsville. The clip had an ominous quality to it, as it seemed to reflect internal tensions within the band. Sure enough, Squeeze broke up shortly after that single, though the creative core of Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook kept working, ultimately reuniting the group again in 1985.

Tears for Fears – “Pale Shelter”
(Mercury, 1983)

This video from the band’s debut album, The Hurting, is profound in its terrifying imagery that probes into the subconscious. The band originally drew its name from Primal Therapy, a psycho therapy technique that draws upon repressed memories of childhood. The Hurting was rife with atmospheric, introspective tracks, which the group abandoned on subsequent albums for a more straightforward, pop sound. Songs sung by Curt Smith including “Mad World”, “Change”, and this track, tended to exhibit much more pathos. The clip depicts heartbreak, ennui, and disillusionment from several vantage points, symbolized by the singular frustration of the boy throwing a paper airplane out the school window. The characters find internal peace in the end. But why then is that monster still flapping its gums at the end? Chilling.

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