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20 Unsung Music Videos of 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.

The Clash – “This Is Radio Clash” (1981, Columbia)

The Clash released one of the most iconic videos of its time, the straight-ahead performance clip for London Calling. Released in 1979, the clip depicts the band playing through a storm on the river, seemingly engrossed in pitch combat in an apocalyptic setting. In contrast, “This Is Radio Clash” captured the Clash’s evolution from its garage-punk roots to a multi-dimensional mélange of funk, dub reggae, and old-school rap, which the band had begun to explore in singles and dove into with relish with its sprawling three-LP album, Sandinista.

The video for “Radio Clash” depicts a time when the group was in the process of conquering the United States, and also demonstrates the deep impact its encounter with the graffiti artist aesthetic of urban America had on the band. The video contains great images of the band members strutting along with their boombox atop a wall with the Twin Towers in the background.

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, a 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 – “Primary” (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 US. 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.

Fun Boy Three feat. Bananarama – “It Ain’t What You Do It’s The Way That You Do It” (1982, London)

In contrast to the Beat, 2-Tone ska rivals the Specials seemed to feature a looser, more improvisational feel to their sound, a somewhat chaotic cacophony that somewhere all held together. Seeing the Specials play one of their first shows in the States in many years in New York cemented the image of the brooding vocalist, Terry Hall, and the 2-Tone collective of musicians in my mind as they shuffled around like wizened jazzmen. Ska groups are rather notorious for their various lineups. The Specials splintered and reemerged variously as Special AKA, Fun Boy Three, Bananarama, the Colour Field, a reformed Specials, and Special Beat. This video captures the collaborative chemistry between the boys and girls in the band, with the Fun Boy Three faction backed by the girls in Bananarama. See “Really Saying Something” (1982, London) to witness Fun Boy Three returning the favor, backing Bananarama.

Haysi Fantayzee – “Shiny Shiny” (1983, Bontemps)

Exuberant, campy, party/celebratory, whimsical, quirky, playful. Those are but some of the moods, under which Haysi Fantaysee are filed, for posterity’s sake, in the AllMusic guide. The duo of fashion photographer Kate Garner, and London DJ Jeremy Healy, were joined by producer and instrumentalist Paul Caplin, a Cambridge trained mathematician formerly with new romantic band Animal Magnet. Collectively, they hatched a signature look and sound that audiences didn’t quite know what to do with. Their homespun threads anticipated Lady Gaga. Garner and Healy with their dreadlocked, “Dickensian Rasta” style, have a score to settle with Boy George over who came up with the look first.

Haysi Fantayzee’s sound, a unique mix of fiddles, dub reggae, and electro, bears a spiritual connection to Edward Sharpe. A brief sensation in England, reflecting the beauty of the UK pop charts — a smaller market with much more volatility, thereby tolerating a lot more weirdness, they had brief exposure on new wave video programs such as LA-based MV3. The group’s first single, “John Wayne Is Big Leggy” (a distant relation to Primus’ “Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver) achieved cult status for its video.

Its subversive juxtaposition of the two gender-bending freakish characters in a wild west graphic novel, creating an unsettling image that advances the song’s message, years before Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way”: society dealing with those who are different by locking them up. “Shiny Shiny” (a bouncy playful tune about the apocalypse), on the other hand, sounds like a nursery rhyme gone seriously awry, as if one dozed off during Saturday morning cartoons, and during a sugar-induced coma, entered the freakish world of homemade thrift store fashions.

The track’s video showcased the his-and-her look of Garner and Healy juxtaposed against random pop culture images, with their manic energy set to a Muppet show theme. Battle Hymns of Children Singing would be their one and only album. However, the principals maintain active lives. Garner is now a rock photographer for the likes of Björk and David Bowie. Healy has been one of London’s leading house DJs, while remaining active in fashion, with ties to Gwen Stefani and a host of designers. Caplin runs his own financial software firm.

Altered Images – “I Could Be Happy” (1982, Epic)

Altered Images, a Scottish post-punk band that were initially inspired by the Siouxsie and the Banshees, achieved fleeting success as a mainstream pop band with their single “Happy Birthday” (known to legions of morning drive commuters as the backing track of celebrity birthday roundups). After sending Siouxsie a demo tape, they were invited to tour with their heroes, offering perhaps one of the starkest counterpoints imaginable. Viewers of early ’80s video programs such as MV3 will fondly recall the passel of the band’s videos: “See Those Eyes”, “Don’t Talk to Me About Love”, “Dead Pop Stars”. But “Happy Birthday” neatly captures the free spirit pop ethos of the era.

The band goes into the studio, mugs for the camera, director layers in some thrifty video effects. This video captures the charisma of lead singer Clare Grogan, who achieved success as an actress in Gregory’s Girl and continued acting after the band’s demise in 1983. In this snippet, we get to see the whole bag of tricks deployed in early ’80s New Wave videos: overexposed lighting, the collective photo booth shoot, and costumed mascots, with the added twist of the band playing cardboard instruments cut out of the artist’s canvas. Kudos to the band for spelling out its name in the first 15 seconds.

Lene Lovich – “It’s You Mein Schmertz” (1982, Stiff)

This epic tele-novella of a video features the enigmatic Lovich, whose live performances had a performance art feel to them, as a sort of Spanish Flamenco dancer engaged in a Mata Hari-like espionage entanglement with the Col. Klink Gestapo officer. Appropriate because as an American ex-pat who spent her formative years in art schools, writing, acting, and performing in cabarets across Europe, she was actually performing Mata Hari on the London stage. Video clips by Lovich for “New Toy” and “Lucky Number” also showcase the diverse range of the multi-talented musician.

Adam and the Ants – “Stand and Deliver” (1981, Columbia)

Before lead singer Adam Ant achieved breakout success in the US as a solo artist with the hit “Goody Two Shoes”, the frontman and his backing band the Ants represented the latest in a wave of artists that specifically cultivated music videos. Once managed by former Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren (who also represented the teenager Annabella Lwin and her group Bow Wow Wow, which had been a previous Ants lineup), the Ants cultivated a strong underground appeal due to their rhythmic, tribal sound that incorporated indigenous rhythms, as well as a series of extravagant music videos that showcased the band’s appeal.

The video for “Antmusic” served as a primer for the unconverted, with its call to “Unplug the jukebox, and do us all a favor / That music’s lost its taste, so try another flavor / Antmusic”. “Prince Charming” was high camp, with Adam Ant depicting leading men throughout history such as Rudolph Valentino and Clint Eastwood. “Stand and Deliver”, offered here, represents Adam as the Dandy highwayman, with the Ants’ leap to freedom near the end of the video representing an iconic moment.

Duran Duran – “Is There Something I Should Know” (1983, EMI Capitol)

The members of Duran Duran were immediate video stars, with the back-to-back-to-back success of the Indiana Jones setting of “Hungry Like the Wolf”, the guys in suits being taunted by a siren in the Caribbean of “Rio”, and the X-rated pillow fight/wrestling scene of “Girls on Film”. The fact that these videos were available to be run simultaneously, and often in heavy rotation, meant that you couldn’t get away from these lads. For all the later acclaim of the band for its body of work, this video is often overlooked. A single from their first album, it was re-released as a new video after they well on their way to conquering the US.

This video represented a marked departure, showing the band members as matching fashion plates decked out in blue shirts, bobbing among a legion of dudes in the Avengers bowler hats. In addition to being understated, the video features the group seeming to take stock of its quick rise to fame, with band members asking the bigger questions about life while their past successes scrolled by in the form of clips of their hit videos. A seeming attempt to redirect Duran Duran down a more substantive path, it would reflect its last moment of innocence, before its successive fame resulted in bigger budgets and greater success that ultimately sidetracked the band before it went on hiatus and ultimately returned decades later, surprisingly, as one of the most commercially successful retro artists from the ’80s.

Depeche Mode – “But Not Tonight” (1986, Mute)

Depeche Mode’s path to stardom is markedly different than other bands of its era. Initially regarded as technically sound but limited in range, the synthpop band offered thematic allegories against capitalist greed in “Everything Counts” and “Get the Balance Right”, while producing a series of low budget, straight-ahead videos. Depeche Mode’s cross-over commercial breakthrough came with the anti-war message of “People Are People”, the right backdrop for their added industrial heft. And then the band made an abrupt turn in 1986 with its darkest album Black Celebration, a release that instantly transformed the band from industrial technicians into the generational voice for the dispossessed.

The follow-up album Music for the Masses was accompanied by a suite of videos with haunting images that would cement the band as the spirit for teen goths worldwide. These high concept videos, directed by Anton Corbijn, would become the band’s trademark and were integrated into the group’s stage show. “But Not Tonight”, an overlooked video, is a rare upbeat song from this period, featured in the little-known movie Modern Girls that charted the exploits of a group of friends in Los Angeles nightclubs. The lighthearted video, like soundtrack videos of its time, serves as an extended trailer for the film, a breezy, fun affair.

A-ha – “Sun Always Shines on TV” (1986, Warner Bros.)

A-ha achieved iconic status for its breakthrough video to “Take on Me”, with its mixture of comic strip and live-action. Seemingly set up to be a one-hit-wonder, A-ha persevered, with acclaim for songs such as “Blood That Moves the Body” and even scoring a James Bond theme song, the title track to
The Living Daylights. Unfortunately, the success of “Take on Me” outshone the other fine tracks on the Norwegian group’s debut album, including this track. “The Sun Always Shines” starts with the characters from “Take on Me”, and then delves into a sequence that culminates with an army of mannequin musicians, preceding Robert Palmer’s iconic use of mannequin backup singers in “Addicted to Love” and a slew of other singles and soda pop commercials. The video’s anthemic swell conjures up Alphaville’s “Forever Young”, another period video, that received a new lease on life as the penultimate song combining a boy, a girl, and a tetherball in Napoleon Dynamite.

U2 – “Desire” (1988, Island)

A companion to the Clash of a band crossing the Atlantic for a bit of Americana would be U2’s “Desire”, drawn from Rattle and Hum, a commercially disappointing but underrated movie documenting the Irish group’s quest for America, a sprawling Kerouacian odyssey featuring stops in Graceland and Harlem, and sit-ins with B.B. King and a gospel choir. The film seems somewhat staged at points, yes — it seems pretty unseemly to see Bono anointing himself as the chosen one to introduce B.B. King to an American audience. But check out how the video for “Desire”, shot on Hollywood Boulevard, captures the soul of urban America. The Hollywood remix intersperses montage video, including a seminal tragedy in US history, Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination on the night of the California primary at the Ambassador hotel in 1968.

Echo and the Bunnymen – “The Cutter” (1983, Sire)

While many of the other tracks featured here are deeper cuts from bands that achieved mass stardom, this clip by Echo and the Bunnymen represents one of the earliest impressions of these critically-acclaimed post-punk artists who, despite an avid fan base, never ascended the heights of U2, the Cure, or the Police. While Echo is better known for “The Killing Moon” (the song Ian McCulloch loves to refer to as the “most beautiful song ever written”), the video that makes a greater impression is “The Cutter”, part of the very stark suite of videos shot for Porcupine on location in Iceland. The video shows band members traipsing around on the ice, in a manner that captures the frigid feel of the music.

Time Zone – “World Destruction” (1984, Virgin)

One of the earliest rap videos — and one that never saw the light of mainstream or cable TV — was “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash, which remains as timeless a classic today as when it wasn’t aired back in the day, documenting the litany of woes associated with survival in the city. Against the backdrop of social protest, and growing angst in the mid-’80s, as the blight across urban America seemed at odds with the “Morning in America” visuals of the Reagan re-election in 1984, was this apocalyptic collaboration between displaced punk rocker Johnny Lydon and electro pioneer Afrika Bambaataa.

In the midst of the conflict over the ability of black artists to gain access to equal time, this collaboration, laid down in half a day, is offering a damning indictment of the fraying of world order (with vocal snippets from US Presidents Nixon and Reagan). Preceding the pop collaboration of Run-DMC and Aerosmith on “Walk This Way”, it would be mirrored in a series of metal-rap mashups that showed the affinity of the two genres, including most famously, Public Enemy and Anthrax on “Bring the Noise”.

Grandmaster Caz/Chris Stein – “South Bronx Subway Rap” (1983, Rhino)

Old school rap clips are notoriously hard to find. This video is even harder, as it is a compilation clip of scenes from the movie Wild Style, which at its center featured an emcee battle between Cold Crush Brothers and the Grand Wizard Theodore and the Fantastic Five, two collectives that in real life engaged in a spirited rivalry. The Fantastic Five consisted of Theodore Livingston, aka Grand Wizard Theodore, who legend had it invented scratching by accident when he was playing records in his room, and when his mom banged on his door to tell him it was too loud, he accidentally moved the record back and forth. The Cold Crush Brothers were pioneers on a number of fronts.

Their second single, “Punk Rock Rap”, was one of the first indie/major label collaborations, and the first rap-rock hybrid. They engineered the first successful foreign hip-hop tours in Tokyo, Japan in 1983. Wild Style — directed by Charlie Ahearn and featuring contributions from an all-star lineup of hip-hop artists including Grandmaster Flash and Fab 5 Freddy, the work of graffiti artist Dondi, and the work of Blondie guitarist Chris Stein, a producer — is viewed as the first hip hop movie; it enjoyed legendary status much later, but given limited on-air outlets for hip-hop, was largely a cult movie.

The video features scenes of the South Bronx, emceed by Grandmaster Caz of the Cold Crush Brothers (who many believe was responsible for much of the lyrics to Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight”), and also includes an extended mix that features a series of stills from the movie.

Front242 – “Quite Unusual” (1986, Wax Trax)

While industrial music, house, and techno were among the movements to emerge from the underground dance clubs, the genres were relatively underrepresented in ’80s music television. Dance clubs back in the day often featured a bank of TV monitors, which would broadcast the latest New Wave/alternative videos. While KMFDM and Nine Inch Nails were prodigious in their video output, and Ministry issued a memorable clip for “Over the Shoulder” which coupled teens on a hijink with images of caged chickens, Front 242 gets the nod here, for “Quite Unusual”.

The clip has all you would really need or expect out of an industrial video. Abandoned warehouse, check. Desolate figure shuffling in the shadows to the tyranny of the beat, check. Sinister Bond villain/mad scientist at work on some sinister plot, check. Bonus points for the toy helicopter cam, with footage depicting said toy helicopter circling (as if to show off how clever the director was in pulling off this simple, lo-fi effect), along with gratuitous use of a trampoline. Spoiler alert to those freaked out by seeing our heroes chained in captivity: they escape to freedom in a helicopter.

Pat Benatar – “We Belong” (1983, Chrysalis)

Music video was a vehicle that offered medium ingénues the opportunity for melodrama that bordered on camp. Pat Benatar, one of the most prodigious video artists of the female rockers, was particularly effective in using the videos to showcase the appeal of her independent spirit, whether through “Heartbreaker”, “You Better Run”, “Shadows of the Night”, or the theatrical opus “Love Is a Battlefield”. But one of her more understated, and underrated videos, was the clip to “We Belong”, off the sixth album, which takes off as an anthem. Not surprising, that it would be plucked as the track that highlighted the film Talladega Nights.

David Bowie – “Absolute Beginners” (1989, Virgin)

The end of the decade saw the blurring of film and video, as lavish title track videos from popular movies served as extended trailers for the films. At the same time, directors who got their start in music video would make the jump to motion pictures. Yet, one of the most unsung, and sweeping videos was the work of British film director Julien Temple, who directed the ’50s period piece Absolute Beginners, based on the novel, a coming-of-age story set amidst the backdrop of racial tensions in England.

The video for the title track, the type of sweeping music video that spared you the price of admission by summarizing the whole movie in six minutes, has David Bowie navigating the viewer through the twists and turns of the story’s plot. While the film was a commercial failure, it achieved recognition for its sprawling soundtrack, an all-star sampling of British artists including Bowie, the Style Council, Sade, Ray Davies, and Jerry Dammers of the Specials.

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 fair 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.

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This article was originally published on 1 September 2011.