[30 November 2011]
The late 1970s saw the advent of cable television and dance clubs, introducing outlets for an emerging hybrid of music and film at a time when the DIY culture that enveloped punk and New Wave encouraged experimentation. Visually inventive artists such as Devo, Laurie Anderson, and Talking Heads were among the first to recognize video as a medium to make a statement, creating pieces that could stand on their own as serious works of performance art. Visually inventive and photogenic artists such as Duran Duran, the Human League, ABC, and Adam Ant would also create arresting pieces that have stood the test of time.
But as we noted in our previous entry in this ‘80s-theme List This series, with innovation and experimentation comes the risk of rapid obsolescence. This week’s list looks at a collection of video clips from the decade that have not aged well, bearing a distinctive look that instantly tags the work as a product of their time.
So here’s a look at 20 clips which, with the benefit of hindsight, remain deeply rooted in the ‘80s…
What better way to start the countdown than with “The Final Countdown”? Originally envisioned as opening music for Europe’s concerts, it opens our very own list rundown. A song, a career, and a music era are built around an opening synth riff, which keyboardist and lead vocalist Joey Tempest had tucked away since his days in school, and had to fight for to get used. The fighting spirit that went into getting the song made serves as the foundation for martial music, perhaps presaging the penultimate scene in any tale that might have to deal with coming of age, war, or sports battles—or say in the case of Top Gun, all three (the song has indeed been a fixture in hockey video games and sports arenas). The video starts by following the path of a speeding rocket or missile honing in on its target, a nod to the Cold War or space race. Within the first minute, lighters spring up. Then comes by a shock of head-banger hair, a glorious guitar solo, and headbanging fans, shot before an appreciative hometown audience for the Swedish lads.
Swinging from one extreme to the other, we take you from light camp to highest camp. “Milk from the Coconut” is one of the original oddities, replete with overexposed lighting and bizarre what-were-they-thinking goodness, built on a primitive, carnal tribal drum beat that screams one-hit wonder. Or at least stature as a top 10 hit in the UK, and recurring appearances on video dance shows such as the syndicated MV3, the irreverent homegrown hipster answer to American Bandstand. What’s painful about one-hit ‘80s stars is the inevitability of doomed attempts to replicate the success of their signature hit. In this case, Toto Coelo (known in the US as Total to avoid confusion with the band Toto), came up short with “Milk from the Coconut”. Actually, seeing the video for “Coconut” is grounds for positive outrage. While fusing many of the ‘80s iconic elements, “Coconut” has a certain pass-the-dutchie rap from one female member to another, which anticipates a certain Girl Power anthem. (Doesn’t that girl look scary? The one with the headband looks athletic, the other one is baby-faced, while the stylish one looks…) Enjoy “I Eat Cannibals”, and savor its “Toto” package for what it is: primitive choreography, bright day-glo New Wave outfits seemingly stitched from bits of colored plastic wrap, bright washed-out lighting, and plenty of neon.
Think “Thing of Beauty” and repeat it to yourself in an Irish brogue. And alas, you have this magically delicious bit of goodness that is these lads back when, before they realized they would go on to their storied globe-trotting ways. Imagine an alternate timeline where the biggest name in show business had gone the way of the Alarm, where this was simply it for U2, the only way to measure a one-and-done band. Here we have the band’s lead singer in leather pants, doing the mashed potato, and performing the running man. And look at how that mullet is coiffed just so. The high school-age drummer seems to be channeling Ethan Hawke, and why is Martin Gore from Depeche Mode playing bass?
This listing of dated ‘80s videos couldn’t really proceed without a Brat Pack reference. Of all the flicks to select from, we choose the film that perhaps may have been the jump-the-shark moment for the entire franchise, featuring the assembled actors reveling a bit too much in their glory. St. Elmo’s Fire (receiving a 45% Rotten Tomatoes rating) seems to be caught in a self-referential loop, referring to the bar as the touchstone for the character’s relationships, and then going to said bar, where the characters could hear the theme song resonating within. Imagine if the cast of Cheers began singing the theme from Cheers while sitting in Cheers. The music video, like all good movie trailers, is a montage of scenes that neatly sums up the film—and inserts the singer into the movie, and the movie stars into the video. In contrast, the video for Simple Minds’ “Don’t You Forget About Me” deftly contains scenes of The Breakfast Club playing in the background on the bank of monitors, with the montage of highlights backlogged for the last few minutes of the song. The single for “St. Elmo’s Fire” was a #1 hit, and the sight of the Brat Packers at the peak of their powers, in period garb and hair, careening through Georgetown is fairly classic, albeit dated.
We move in our list from one form of video scandal to Scandal on video. Lead singer Patty Smyth and her band sport some pretty severe Miami Vice-era fashion in a straightforward, slickly produced performance clip on a soundstage. Smyth appears to absent-mindedly saunter in stage left about 15 seconds in, as if she was off dusting the dining room, but couldn’t resist the good tidings emanating from the living room. The very peppy ‘80s pop riff and the effortless back-and-forth slide-stepping is so contagious and easy to replicate, you might expect it on the dance floor at a bachelorette party. The video features plenty of knowing shit-eating grins on the part of her bandmates, and in a nice touch, catching them in little Polaroid stills. As the song builds, so does her level of determination: looking plaintive one moment, doing a Mick Jagger duck walk the next, and then ending on a stressed-out note that has her on the brink of tears.
“Time, time, time / See what’s become of me…” This gem of a remake of a 1966 Simon & Garfunkel song has not aged a bit, either on disc or live in concert. And the appearance of this song on the list is not a reflection on the Bangles—who remain vibrant, as reflected in their thrilling performance as headliners of a Girls Rock showcase at South by Southwest last spring, which featured a bill of girl bands inspired by the Bangles’ example. This video makes it on the strength of its subject matter, as the lead track to Less Than Zero, the film based on the debut novel by Bret Easton Ellis. Ellis, who along with a literary brat pack of ‘80s novelists, including Brett McInerney and Tama Janowitz, documented the narcissistic lifestyles of the young, fast, and fashionable in roman à clef novels such as Bright Lives Big City which made for great summer pulp reading.
The video clip makes use of the big joyous adrenalin rush embedded in the Bangles’ cover version, making use of an ‘80s video cliché, the gratuitous utilization of video screens to help the viewer make a seamless literal transition from music to film and back, as we’re transported into a nightclub with video screens (another ‘80s device). The promo serves as an extended trailer to the film, but just as the video looks to be destined for dustbin of history, its inspiration—the lifestyles of the young and foolish—seems to keep coming back. One night, America is preoccupied with the exploits of kids on the Jersey shore; the next, it’s obsessed with a family known only for being in the media.
Laser beams, helicopters and leopard skin body suits, oh my! This film within a film begins with a helicopter landing, and lead singer Aldo emerging in a leopard print suit. This primitive, darkly lit video is typical of the straight-ahead performance clips of the period. You want action? Aldo and his security team appear locked out of the club shortly after the helicopter drop. Never fear—Aldo shoots laser beams to force his way in. Aldo rocks his mullet as the smoke machine churns, showcasing the fashions of artists and their fans, with a brief cutaway to the rock star’s posse lounging atop a Pontiac. As fans storm the stage, the singer shows the ability to intermittently disappear.
Depeche Mode was prodigious in its video output early on, demonstrating a camera readiness and thematic consistency which gave even its earliest videos such as “Just Can’t Get Enough” and “Everything Counts” an earnest simplicity but a professional look. The band would be a pioneer, through its work with Anton Corbijn, in not only creating a visually arresting atmospheric style making use of black and white photography and iconic imagery, but incorporating the videos as integral parts of their stage performance, such that the band would release video projection stills from its live shows as DVD extras. With this experience in mind, the video for “Get the Balance Right” is an outlier, a dated piece which has the lads lip-synching their way through a confusing narrative outfitted in lab coats (are they scientists or accountants?), battling with ticket inspectors for a turn at the Galaga game. In the meantime, it’s hard to tell when the lads are at work or play, or what is up with Martin Gore’s Dixieland jazz get up, is he on break from Shakey’s? A close second would be the video for “Leave in Silence”, a rudimentary clip that has the lads variously smashing on a parade of objects traveling down a conveyer belt, while appearing as members of the Blue, Red, Green, and Yellow Man groups.
Typical of other period clips, this dated promo showcases a video cliché, the inexplicable pairing of a geeky musician and a beautiful model. In real life these pairings occur; to wit, the longstanding Paulina Porizkova/Ric Ocasek relationship. Here, the coupling just seems awkward. Our hero is Donnie Iris, pride of Youngstown, Ohio, is adorned in his yellow suit, channeling David Byrne, Buddy Holly, or Elvis Costello into his geek pose. The video is a straightforward performance piece, with Donnie lip-synching his ode to Leah, using very simple techniques in a video shot in a bright video environment, with the only effect casting each of the two lead characters, once they have separated in a series of mirrors. The video has a very sad longing—the lack of chemistry is palpable, whether by design or the product of ham-fisted acting. The phrase “When we touch, we never have to fake it” seems quite the contrary as she pushes herself away, and our hero is left, still longing.
For a band that will go down in history as one of the most critically-praised and adored power-pop groups, as well as inspiration to a number of alternative rock artists such as the Smashing Pumpkins, this video represents Cheap Trick at one of its most bittersweet moments. The quartet’s career had seemingly stalled after a series of acclaimed but commercially wanting albums. The band was forced against their will to work with outside songwriters, and the result was this unexpected #1 hit, which propelled the album, Lap of Luxury to Platinum status in the United States. In a case of being careful what you wish for, this stab at popularity, while broadening Cheap Trick’s popularity, cut against the very spirit that made the band’s underground success so appealing to core fans: the way it had capitalized on Beatlemania level exuberance in Japan to achieve long-awaited success back home. Recording a tune at the insistence of the label is one thing, nut the video seems to capture the process by which Cheap Trick is remade into a hair band attempting to pull off a signature ballad.
In channeling the spirit of Poison’s “Every Rose Has Its Thorn”, the video looks incredibly dated. Other power pop band videos, such as Night Ranger’s “You Can Still Rock in America” and “Your Love” by the Outfield, in contrast, seem to exude a timeless quality despite the prevalence of ‘80s hair and fashion. “The Flame”, with the gratuitous use of video screens and scenes of the band members being primped for their shoot, seems to be sapped of energy. Not only do the musicians not seem to be enjoying themselves, but the individuality that once defined Cheap Trick has been submerged in lighting styles and camera angles reminiscent of every other hair band ballad being shot. Happily, Cheap Trick endured past this moment, and after splitting from two major labels is now bigger than ever in pop culture through prominent placement in shows, ads, video games, achieving recognition from peers and a new legion of fans.
The single by the Montreal-based duo was a worldwide hit, but only reached as high as #61 in the US, though the song was remixed over a dozen times. Featuring many of the core characteristics of an early ‘80s promo, this straight-ahead clip shows the core performers at work on synths with little movement. Activity is initially largely constrained to the characters who appear on the banks of video monitors, creating the sense that they are more alive on video than in person. Here, technology, style, and theme time stamp this video clearly back to the early 1980s. Trans-X lead singer and driving force Pascal Languirand gives a spirited effort, gesturing to the camera and going to town on his handheld keyboard, while Pascal’s partner Laurie Ann Gill demonstrates only the most minimum range of motion (perhaps the idea of expending more than the most fleeting effort is an offense to the song’s spirit). Meanwhile, the other band members move about haphazardly and robotically.
Photogenic appeal, a visionary appreciation of the importance of style and fashion, and pairing with a prolific video director Russell Mulcahy, who used high end 35mm film at a time when video cameras were the norm, separated Duran Duran from the pack of New Wave artists, despite middling reviews. Duran Duran parlayed its appeal around a suite of ground-breaking videos centered around its second album, Rio, and controversy around the edgy video “Girls on Film”, to emerge as international superstars. The video for “The Reflex” captures the band at its commercial peak, in the midst of the arena tour. Filmed at Maple Leaf Gardens during the group’s Sing Blue Silver tour, it also seemed to represent a jump-the-shark moment for the band, revealing the Duran Duran to be a phenomenon, but a hyped one, with legions of Duranies swooning while bandmates such as Nick Rhodes on keyboard displays a Teutonic indifference. Charisma can only take you so far, and the video for “The Reflex” serves as a time capsule of hair styles, fashion, and dance moves that shows the band just before it hit a wall.
The video captures the excess of the time, such at the then-innovative use of giant split screen videos in-concert. But what’s with the fake waterfall and the fans being petrified by bondage shots before mass hysteria sets in? The quickest way to obsolescence, as with movies like Hackers, is to refer to technology that was cutting edge for its time. While a harder edged, funkier sound achieved through work with celebrated producer Nile Rodgers won the band some respect, Duran Duran’s popularity fell as its teen fans aged and moved on to other interests. The frustration for a group on the way down is for people to wonder “Where are they now?” when in fact they never fully disbanded or went away. Duran Duran has recently capitalized on the wave of nostalgia to newfound popularity, but the video for “The Reflex” captured the beginning of the end of the ensemble’s reign as video stars.
Another early video clip representative of the first wave of music videos, this example is dated not only because of its visual style, but for what it represents to the creative force behind Ministry. “Revenge” was a track from Ministry’s first album With Sympathy. Largely due to pressure from its record label, Arista, the band created a synthpop album. The track sounds dated from the opening lines. This video is fascinating as a moment frozen in time that capture leader Al Jourgensen in an uncomfortable moment, perhaps reflecting a moment where he felt that he had lost all artistic control of the group to producers. In this video, we see Al channeling the first hint of the rage which he would later be able to tap into to great effect. There’s little action of note; actors are guided through the set and do little more than stare ahead vacantly, seemingly intent on doing little more than being led to safety off the set, so as to steer clear of the wrath of Al, as he spins his tale down the “core-re-door”. After “Revenge”, Jourgensen would ultimately initiate the first in a series of purges, and take the path towards redirecting Ministry towards the harsher industrial metal sound that would be the band’s hallmark.
The Cars shifted gears markedly on their third album Panorama towards a denser, more experimental sound. This change in direction would be brief, as the Cars’ next two albums would take the band into decidedly commercial terrain. The video for “Panorama”—shot in low light and featuring a ‘70s cop drama aesthetic that’s largely due to the use of film stock and exterior locations—made use of an emerging device. Unsure of whether to go high concept or stick to straight-ahead performance, many videos took a hybrid approach, having the musicians masquerade as actors. While this uncertainty gives the clip a dated look, “Panorama” (directed by Gerald Casale of Devo) looks like it was a hoot to make, allowing the band members to stretch their legs a bit in some frenetic activity reminiscent of the Beatles film A Hard Day’s Night.
Ric Ocasek and his bandmates engage in some cloak and dagger skulking down corridors, up staircases, and through a stark futuristic set that seems to match the dark textures of the song. The video culminates with the characters seemingly safe at home base, checking in from a bar, making an unspecified rooftop exchange, and gesturing and flailing away during a ubiquitous helicopter shot (an image that is a sign that a group has arrived and has cash to blow on a video). The promo ends ingloriously with Ocasek being tossed out said helicopter, where he proceeds to float in the sky, superimposed over an aerial shot of Boston.
At its inception, Asia represented a supergroup that sought to blend progressive rock with New Wave. Asia incorporated in its original lineup members of Yes, Emerson Lake and Palmer, and King Crimson, including Geoffrey Downes, founder of the Buggles, who inspired the video revolution with “Video Killed the Radio Star”, the first clip aired by MTV. Asia was ambitious in its mash of synths and orchestral rock, working with video pioneers Godley and Creme to marry its music with groundbreaking promos to “Only Time Will Tell” and “Heat of the Moment”, offerings which as spiritual descendants to “Video Killed” make use of bright overexposed lighting and banks of video monitors that—while cutting edge then—look easily dated now. But those clips at least looked fresh upon release.—which makes “Sole Survivor” all the more puzzling. This video looks old as dirt, and couple of the talking mullets on stage look like Joe Dirt.
This promo, a depiction of Asia on stage, may reflect why the band never moved beyond the massive success of its debut album, which won the group the dreaded Grammy nomination for Best New Artist and had them touring stadiums. However, this video exposes the band as the sum of its parts, more dinosaur rocker than pioneer. In the brave new world of the ‘80s, Asia appeared to be, from the looks of “Sole Survivor”, a second cousin to Spinal Tap. This blast from the past—filmed on old stock, featuring bad lighting and ‘80s hair and fashion—is as good as it gets when to comes to time capsules.
“Lies” seemed doomed to obsolescence when it was released, though one would have to think this was largely by design. Using the most rudimentary image compositing tools—which lend a cable access feel to it—with its disembodied giant heads of Alannah Currie and Joe Leeway (but not Tom Bailey, the lead singer), its Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu characters, and the giant rabbit, this video is an almost immediate guilty pleasure. The surreal quality and creation of illusion creates a nightmarish hallucinatory feel that borrows from Magritte. Props to the band for going low-end; if you’re going to slum, go to extremes. Interestingly, the group never reprised this video style. While the Thompson Twins were an underground sensation, with dance club hits like “In the Name of Love” and “Love on Your Side”, the videos on their next album, Into the Gap, all had a much more highly accomplished look.
Animotion’s “Obsession” video is dated on a number of fronts, the most notable being the campy spirit that Michael Des Barres and Holly Knight channel in depicting a doomed Roman power couple, who seem less Anthony and Cleopatra and more Tony and Tina at their wedding reception. To their credit, Des Barres and Knight seem to be reveling in the campiness of the moment at every turn, recognizing that they are in the midst of creating a body of work that in four minutes and two seconds of glorious goodness would channel the materialism that came to personify the ‘80s. The frequent costume changes, incessant Eurobeat, and boundless energy that seems to have rolled over from Studio B’s “Safety Dance” video shoot give this promo an unmistakable time stamp.
Start with the cheesy opening riffs, which evoke a Club Med song. Scratch that. this may easily be one of the cheesiest videos in music video history. But the song was an immediate hit in the US, charting in the top 10 and was the first offering from juggernaut that was the band’s Sports album. Like a slow-moving storm front that hovers over a community, Sports churned out one hit after another, aided by the News’ good natured everyman appeal, constant touring, and ubiquitous presence on MTV. For all the cheesy fun of “Heart and Soul”, it has aged pretty badly, owing to the fact that it’s one extended crowd shot, serving as a catalog of ‘80s style. Nevertheless, the group shots with extras on the dance are priceless, particularly the climactic scene where they circle each other like prey while the crowd claps along.
Perhaps the one video that could top Huey Lewis in cheese (and which also features a prominent crowd scene that showcases the styles of the day) is this tale of existentialist angst by the deep-thinking Styx. When people think of the ‘80s and Styx, the immediate cultural touchstone is “Mr. Roboto”, a certifiable jump-the-shark moment for the band, and potentially for ‘80s concept videos as well. Yet, while the earnest creation that was the Kilroy Was Here album may not have succeeded as grand rock opera, Dennis DeYoung gets props for his vision (a statement on technology) and the futurist look, sort of Blade Runner meets The Rocketeer. Escaping the ‘80s through a concept video set in a different time, setting, or galaxy was the best way to avoid being inexorably linked to the decade. “Too Much Time”, on the other hand, will linger on as an ‘80s time capsule piece due to its riffing on contemporary 80s culture. Start with the band’s period attire, and then move on to Tommy Shaw’s ennui on not having any real friends (“I’ve got dozens of friends and the fun never ends that is, as long as I’m buying”). We’ve got mullets galore, perms, girls with feathered hair, and Joe Dirt in the baby blue jumpsuit on vocals. Kudos to the band for keeping it light.
Why yes, the final selection on our list is the video that launched a revolution. The network that first aired this clip after midnight on August 1, 1981 to announce its entry into the world—ostensibly to revolutionize the music industry—has long stopped showing videos in heavy rotation… or regular rotation, for that matter. As has MTV2, the network purportedly set up to sate the demands of users seeking music promos. Music videos have disappeared entirely, in fact, from regular commercial mainstream TV, but are instead ubiquitous on the Internet. And music is actually more ingrained in our lives today, through placements in ads, film, and TV soundtracks, meaning video representations are simultaneously nowhere and everywhere at once.
Aside from taking stock of the residual impact of this revolutionary clip, directed by Russell Mulcahy, it’s time to take a fresh look at the video itself. At the time, the Buggles’ futuristic clip was regarded as cutting edge then, and for some time afterward. Look at the video now: old video stock, the ubiquitous video terminals, futuristic space people, who look like the time travelers from an old episode of Flash Gordon... To see a fresh take on this revolution, consider the Limousines’ underground hit and accompanying promo, “Internet Killed the Video Star”, and query whether one day whether the dawning of social media will appear as quaint as the first dial-up modems. In the meantime, enjoy this double feature of the Buggles and Pat Benatar, from the first ten minutes of MTV on the air.