20 Unsung Music Videos from the 1980s

Dennis Shin

PopMatters begins a new series examining at the widespread emergence of music video in the 1980s. From major artists like the Clash, David Bowie, and U2 to less famous brethren such as Haysi Fantayzee and Grandmaster Caz, these are the unsung videos from that decade that might have missed your attention the first time around.

From the moment MTV first went on the air on 1 August 1981 with the Buggles' “Video Killed the Radio Star”, the 1980s have come to be defined by iconic music videos. Mention music television, and one conjures up a motley cast of characters indelibly stamped in one’s noggin: slackster buskers-in-overalls (“Come on Eileen”), renaissance faire revelers (“Safety Dance”), creepy android stowaway chicks (“I Ran”), or an even creepier boy singing for his supper to a jury in blackface, making jazz hands gestures (“Do You Really Want to Hurt Me”) . The new video medium was an inflection point for modern pop music, launching the careers of the camera-savvy (Duran Duran, Madonna, Billy Idol), providing veteran musicians with an opportunity to shine (Robert Palmer, Dire Straits), and allowing even the most accomplished artists to ascend to new heights (Michael Jackson, Tina Turner).

Thanks to the ubiquity of social media, the music video has vaulted from curiosity to shiny new toy to killer app, an artist-controlled platform for launching talent into mass consciousness, judging by the overnight success of growing numbers of YouTube sensations. In future weeks, we will take a look at the seminal decade when music videos first emerged, the '80s, including a look at iconic videos, the most over-the-top and lo-fi productions, and those creations that, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, have either stood the test of time, or have aged not so well.

This list will take a look at unsung videos from that decade. The videos spotlighted here find their way on the list either because they might have missed your attention the first time around or they merit further attention. They include lost hits, videos that made a critical contribution but never received their proper due, as well as overlooked deeper cuts from popular artists.

The Jam
"Going Underground"
(1980, Polydor)

Released in March 1980, this video (like much of the Jam’s catalog of promos) never rightly saw the light of day in the US. The Jam was part of that first wave of bands from the holy trinity of punk-mod-ska that a kid growing up in the states was fortunate to hear about through an older brother or sister or cool aunt, since most of these bands made brief Stateside visits in the early '80s before imploding. Frontman Paul Weller’s antipathy for the lukewarm response of the US market ultimately foreclosed opportunities for further colonization until it was too late. By the time videos for “Town Called Malice” and “Beat Surrender” received heavy airplay, showcasing the Jam’s evolution away from its Mod origins towards the Northern soul hybrid sound that later came into focus with Weller's next group the Style Council, it was too late. The Jam was already into their victory lap of gigs, mostly in England. "Going Underground" is a favorite because it captures the Jam at its essence, short powerful burst in a simple performance video that weaved in British-centric themes to the delight of Anglophiles. The flip side of seeing a punk band go mod, was seeing a modster go punk.


The Cure
(1981, Fiction)

Like his frequent collaborator and erstwhile bandmate Siouxsie Sioux, Robert Smith was a ubiquitous video star, releasing a full library of music videos. Smith emerged as a music television star during the '80s with "The Love Cats" and a wide range of other conceptual videos, culminating in Smith and his bandmates achieving their lifetime goal: selling out stadium shows by the '90s and becoming leaders of a whole fashionista look, particularly during the autumn holidays. We kid, Robert. But the video for "Primary", the first single of the Cure’s third album, Faith, offers a chance for an early look at the band before they adopted the full Goth pancake regalia.


Joy Division
"Love Will Tear Us Apart"
(1980, Factory)

Another favorite of despondents, Joy Division’s stark, atmospheric sound, is captured in this pulsating track. This posthumous video from the band's final single captured the promise and torment of enigmatic Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis, who took his own life on the eve of the band’s first tour to the U.S. The remaining members would reform as New Order, ushering in a wave of acts from Manchester that would transform underground music, inspiring a whole movement of post-punk and electronic artists in their wake. The minimalist outlook of Joy Division reflected in the video for "Love Will Tear Us Apart", offers a window into the demons that hounded Curtis, and can be seen in clips for "She’s Lost Control" and "Transmission". New Order continued this minimalist approach in the straight-ahead studio performance clip for “The Perfect Kiss”, before embracing high concept videos for “Blue Monday” (dominated by William Wegman canine model Faye) “Bizarre Love Triangle”, “True Faith”, and “Round and Round”.


Fine Young Cannibals
"Johnny Come Home"
(1984, IRS)

Of all of the ska bands, the English Beat represented the tightest collective, the instruments working in strict tandem, seemingly set to a stopwatch (the video to “Mirror in the Bathroom”, the band’s debut and iconic single, captures the band’s essence, as a straight ahead, cleanly shot performance clip that showcases the band’s young, brash and all business in an iconic mirror). The mid-'80s saw the English Beat breakup into two successful bands, the New Wave/ska/mod General Public and the retro soul/ska of the Fine Young Cannibals. "Johnny Come Home" was the first single by the latter group, a band formed by Beat guitarists Andy Cox and David Steele with the gifted one, actor-vocalist Roland Gift. This video features a spare, classic look that is more stunning when one considers that it was instrumental in getting the band signed. When the three lads get down on their knees, they are literally on their knees, singing for their supper. The track would lead to a series of black and white videos that showcased the Fine Young Cannibals’ classic Northern Soul sound, from videos to "Suspicious Minds" and "Good Thing", to the band’s feature as the house band in director Barry Levinson's '60s period piece, Tin Men.

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