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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 headfirst 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) until 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), some themes 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, and they become Samuel Jackson catchphrases. As parachute pants, Members Only jackets, and South Beach activewear 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 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 rein 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 and 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 that 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.
Visage – “Fade to Grey” (Polydor, 1980)
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 reasonably indefinite shelf life, longer than, say, the revivalists who brought renewed attention to synthpop (Oh where, oh where are you Fischerspooner?). Ultravox’s Midge Ure wrote the song’s lyrics, 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.
ELO and Olivia Newton John – “Xanadu” (Universal, 1980)
Ok, here’s a shocker. At the time, this cheesy, over-the-top production number had shark jumping all over it. That’s 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. That 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 film these legends.
Kim Wilde – “Kids in America” (EMI, 1982)
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 a first-wave video. You’ve got a lead singer delivering a 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 – “Europa and the Pirate Twins” (EMI, 1984)
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.
INXS – “The One Thing” (Atlantic, 1982)
Here’s another clip, shot on film, with warbly sound, that jumps right out at you in the current day. This video demonstrates the tendency of kids when they’re just out of school to do things in large groups before they’ve had a chance to couple up. It also shows off the tendency of musicians to surround themselves with glamorous models, even though one could not imagine the artist and model pairing up — oh, wait forgot Ric Ocasek. But this bacchanal feast has a lot going for it — Roman-style overconsumption seems to be making a statement about our carnal instincts — that may be revisited as the global commons deals with the issue of living beyond one’s means.
This two-in-one clip offers some insight into the video editing process, how content gets repurposed, and the degree of artistic control one could exert in emphasizing different aspects in the video. Sadly, this video is bittersweet, as years later singer Michael Hutchence met his demise. While the band got itself a nice little return and payout when it went the reality show route, this video captures the band just as it was hitting its stride in the US and Europe after a steady career in Australia.
Public Enemy – “Fight the Power” (Def Jam, 1989)
Old school hip-hoppers had their “The Message”, enjoyed “The Breaks”, and had their fun like the Sugarhill Gang. But unlike the message-oriented artists that would come out later, the initial revolution was one that would not be televised. One of the lingering controversies of the day was the seeming inability of African-American artists to enjoy access to video outlets like white artists. MTV was accused of being insensitive or worse in not providing black artists with opportunities; this is in marked contrast to today where R&B and hip-hop artists dominate the airwaves.
While Black artists could get videos shown on other networks such as NBC or TBS, MTV was resolute in sticking to a rock-dominated format. When finally given the opportunity, hip-hop made its move for the hearts and minds of young male music fans, in part through the huge success of Yo! MTV Raps, the daily program which made stars of the likes of Will Smith, LL Cool J, and even helped focus attention on Ice-T, the gangsta-turned-musician-turned-holiday celebrity.
Public Enemy not only unleashed a whole new movement of politicized, message rap, it also raised the bar on discussion. “Fight the Power” brings the group’s cause to the people, a sprawling outdoor shoot featuring delegates from various representative burghs. The video and exposure from the movie Do the Right Thing were critical to bringing Public Enemy to a legion of new fans
The Minutemen – “This Ain’t No Picnic” (SST, 1984)
The Minutemen’s debut video in 1984 is a tightly made, well-executed clip that handles what might potentially be a tricky subject — “the President is sticking it to the little guy” — in a creative, winning manner. Shot for $600, the video shows our heroes singing their tale of woe until the black and white image of Ronald Reagan flying a WWII airplane shows up and strafes the band as this sings. President Reagan was a polarizing figure; he has been canonized by the American right-wing, while his detractors dredge up unfavorable memories of declaring ketchup as a vegetable, undertaking a controversial arms deal, and engaging in class warfare by generating the image of a welfare queen.
A video that was too specific in criticizing his policies, or which showed images of the Teflon man would likely have aged, as opinions of Ronnie softened after his death. This video works though in that it engages in clever satire that tweaks the President by bringing up associations with a B-movie actor who served as caretaker for Bonzo. In contrast, many of the songs submitted for the Rock Against Bush! album were a little too strident and personal. The use of black and white also gives the video an old school sheen.
Black Flag – “TV Party” (SST, 1982)
Another video from one of the veterans of the hardcore underground, “TV Party” (along with its singer, Henry Rollins) has aged really well, on so many different levels. Who can’t identify with sitting around and have a couple of brews? The TV show references might seem dated, but thanks to networks like TV Land and Nickelodeon, these shows have been frozen into our collective consciousness. When one looks at the current network lineups and sees reboots like Charlie’s Angels, it seems only time before we’ll see a new Love Boat, Fantasy Island, or Family. And to those prone to sit around, “TV Party” provides a rallying cry.
Madonna – “Like a Prayer” (Sire, 1989)
One of the most accomplished artists of the video generation, Madonna made her image as the mysterious Desperately Seeking Susan thrift store fashion icon. Madonna is an example of the danger faced by a prodigious artist who seems to be everywhere at once and constantly reinvents herself: the earliest or most dissonant images are doomed to irrelevance. As Madonna has aged and continued to be proficient, many of the earliest videos that made her — “Lucky Star”, “Borderline”, etc. — have aged. At least she avoided the “Cher atop a battleship in her stockings” as she desperately tries to “turn back time”.
Yet, it was her clip for “Like a Prayer”, a big risk that initially backfired, that endures today. Controversy erupted around the depiction of her dancing near the altar in her underwear and kissing a saint. Pepsi pulled her as a sponsor, cutting an ad that had “Like a Prayer” running in the background. Oddly the commercial got canned, while the video stuck. This video is a prime example of genre storytelling at its best.
The Police – “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” (A&M, 1981)
Few videos capture the exuberance of young musicians, carefree and playful, than this classic from the Police‘s Ghost in the Machine album. Much like “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” — that song about that book by Nabokov — this video shows the playful camaraderie of the band before it imploded behind the scenes. While the Police’s oldest videos look worn out, both “Every Little Thing” and “Spirits in the Material World” were shot while the group was recording in Montserrat, where the steel drums, the welcoming crowd, and the frenzy of a homecoming style parade created a warm environment. It also adds up to a fun, slightly irreverent video, as when the band members scuffle in the mixing room over control of a song, and then playfully romps with a hat changing routine that serves as a great reference to Waiting for Godot.
The English Beat – “Mirror in the Bathroom” (Go Feet/Sire, 1980)
Of all of the ska bands from England, the English Beat were the tightest outfit, with its instruments all working in strict tandem. In contrast to the Specials, which seemed to feature a looser, more improvisational feel to their sound, the English Beat utilized a very crisp interplay of instruments that is reflected in this track. A straight-ahead, cleanly shot performance clip, the video captures the band’s essence, that showcases the band as a hipster collective, reflected in the song’s namesake mirror.
As the camera washes over the band, the individuals stare back, demonstrating young, brash confidence that shows them to be all business. This is in marked contrast to the underground left bank hipster cavern in which the band is depicted in the lighter “Save It for Later”. As for bathrooms and their windows, they serve as windows to a character’s development, if one considers the central role that the bathroom plays in Quentin Tarantino’s films.
Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five – “The Message” (Sugar Hill Records, 1982)
One of the most visionary songs of the era was “The Message”, Grandmaster Flash‘s plaintive plea documenting urban woe. “The Message” has held up, in part, due to the timeless nature of the appeal, and the stark minimalist portrayal of street scenes in the clip doesn’t trivialize the underlying problem by providing easy answers or sensationalizing it through fictitious depictions of some type of cop and robber conflict.
The video has new relevance now during the depths of the current economic crisis, as millions of Americans get shoved under the poverty line. The song was also one by many Black artists that were widely ignored by MTV, given the network’s reluctance to play videos that did not fit the network’s purported rock-oriented programming. Sadly, the themes in this song are directly applicable now, particularly as the economy struggles with a jobless recovery and urban blight.
The timeless message of “The Message” is in marked contrast with the countless rap songs that glorify materialism and conspicuous consumption, including excessive gold-chains-and-bling songs by the likes of P. Diddy and Biggie Smalls demanding that one “Pass the Courvoisier” or that “It’s All About the Benjamins”. And in a sign that things come back—the problems of urban decay, homelessness, and ennui that we thought we outgrew in the 1990s. Guess what, it’s back.
Siouxsie and the Banshees – “Christine” (Polydor, 1980)
While goth music has fared relatively well over the years, there is always a danger with goth videos for embarrassment as performers grow older, and the layers of pancake makeup are used to cover up other deficiencies. Too much makeup and you’re defending yourself while transforming yourself into the Crow. Against this backdrop is Siouxsie Sioux of Siouxsie and the Banshees, one of the veterans of the punk movement, an inspiration to many, and an artist who has aged well.
Siouxsie Sioux was one of the pioneers of the post-punk movement, being one of the original members of the early punk scene that came together during the initial Sex Pistol shows. The Banshees had a natural affinity for the camera, represented in a series of groundbreaking conceptual video clips to singles such as “Dear Prudence”, “Wheels on Fire”, “Cities in Dust”, “The Passenger”, and “Peek-a-Boo”. “Christine” here looks really sharp, capturing the more minimalist look and feel of the earliest new wave videos.
Pete Townshend – “Rough Boys” (ATCO, 1980)
This video is taken from the Pete Townshend solo album Empty Glass is the track where Pete absolutely rocks out on an LP dealing with loss and introspection and was seemingly recorded during a time when the musician was hitting the bottle. While “Rough Boys” was not the hit that “Let My Love Open the Door” became, the song has become a staple of both live Who and solo shows. The promo readily addresses the challenge posed to classic rockers on whether they would be able to adapt to the video medium. The fury released by Townshend in reaction to pent-up pressure, captured in black and white, gives this video an iconic status.
Howard Jones – “Life in One Day” (WEA, 1985)
This mash-up video was directed by award-winning directors Godley and Crème (notorious for their work with the Police, Duran Duran, Herbie Hancock, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood, among others). At the time, it was one of the most creative concept videos around, depicting the commercialization of products by placing the promo within a series of commercial TV ads. It starts out as a broadcast on a Top of the Pops-like show, but then fades in and out of a hodgepodge of commercials, documentary, and random clips, owing to the spotty TV reception.
The snips are all done in synchronization with the song. The poor reception serves as a pretext to allow the viewer to constantly switch channels, perhaps reflecting on the short attention span of the average TV viewer. The net result was a pirate radio or bootleg feel to it (perhaps anticipating what U2 would do, patching together different worldwide broadcasts for its Zoo TV tour in the early 1990s). Howard Jones, like his other peers from the ’80s, would ultimately fade from the top of the charts, but “Life in One Day” is one of the few videos that stands up well to repeated viewings.
The Human League – “Don’t You Want Me” (Virgin, 1981)
This was one of the earliest video hits, and it has endured, largely because it covers a timeless subject: the doomed love affair of a mentor-protégé relationship in the “Star Is Born” scenario. The clip is shot on film, giving it a professional look, and it has a dramatic heft at the outset as the two lead protagonists offer alternating perspectives. Hearing the woman’s side of the story certainly reverses the flow of the narrative; what looked like faithless abandonment by the young lady now comes across as an overprotective mentor who can’t let go.
A surprising revelation comes along when the two characters step out of their roles, whereupon a wider view, the audience realizes it is watching two actors performing. But even as they step out, you wonder what other issues the characters are hiding. Do the actors have feelings for each other, outside of their characters? Then it dawns on you that, wait, the actors are played by two of the lead singers in the band, and then you realize this little four-minute drama works on so many levels.
Heaven 17 – “Penthouse and Pavement” (Virgin, 1981)
The town of Sheffield in 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 their 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 the 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 Tears for Fears‘ 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 psychotherapy 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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This article was originally published on 6 October 2011.