Michael Jackson went zombie, Queen went split screen, Ultravox went to Vienna. The music video has a relatively short history but, as a new TV documentary shows. it holds happy memories for us all. Words: Hannah McGill
IT'S AN INTERNATIONAL BYWORD FOR AMERICAN CAPITALISM and its unruly offspring. youth culture. lt’s namcdropped in song lyrics. parodied in films and used as shorthand to describe a blank generation of passive image junkies. lt broadcasts to 300 million homes in 83 countries. The big M- shaped shadow of MTV dominates the global music industry. spawns countless imitators and launches countless careers. MTV’s prominence is such that it’s hard to imagine a time when it wasn’t there.
Someone had to dream it up. though. And — truth being stranger than fiction — that dreamer was none other than Mike Nesmith ofthe Monkees (the one with the woolly hat). Evidently striving to top the achievement of his mother. who invented Tippex. Nesmith spotted a gap in the televisual market for a music-only channel. His brainchild took a while to develop, due in no small part to the fact that. when MTV launched in 1981, there simply weren’t enough videos being made to fill the airtime. However. in only a few years. like Coca-Cola and McDonalds before it. it had transcended its all-American roots to become a global phenomenon.
MTV didn’t invent promo videos. but it did confirm their position as vital cogs in the machinery of the music industry. The musicals of the l940s and 50s engendered rock ’n’ roll movies like Jail/muse Rock and Blackboard Jung/c. which in turn inspired rock ’n’ roll bands to utilise films as promotional gimmicks. The short films produced by 60s bands like the Beatles, Procul Harum and the Rolling Stones were playful visual experiments that also provided a back- up when the bands were unavailable or unwilling to appear live on TV shows.
As the so-called MTV generation was learning to crawl. the more ambitious rock musicians of the late 70s took the new medium to their hearts. Experimentation with form was ideally suited to the esoteric (or pretentious) aesthetics of Queen and David Bowie, whose videos for ‘Bohemian
Rhapsody’ and ‘Ashes To Ashes’ broke new ground. Normally credited as the first example of the modern
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music video and certainly inseparable in most imaginations from the song it accompanied. ’Bohemian Rhapsody" was directed by Bruce Gowers and intended to replace TV performances of a song too complex to be staged live. Though shot in three hours with a budget of only £35()() and the minimum of technical trickery — the split-screen effect was achieved using a prism on the camera — it nonetheless set the precedent for all the lavish mini-movies that followed.
As the 80s embraced style. image and new technology. videos came into their own. The pop stars of the 80s are immortalised. not by still photographs. not by live performances and not even. in many cases. by songs. They are remembered for their good. bad and ueg forays into video art. No child of that decade escaped the psychotic cabaret that accompanied Adam And The Ants’ ‘Stand And Deliver’. the risque’ imagery of Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s ‘Relax’. Michael Jackson’s mini monster movie ‘Thriller’. or the whole parade of gorgeously groomed Madonna incarnations. At the same time. video was establishing links between pop music and the art world. providing a forum for the eccentric likes of Peter Gabriel. Laurie Anderson and Devo to express themselves.
Short, sharp bursts of imagery, formally flexible and unburdened — intitially at least — by rules and regulations. pop videos could combine rock ’n’ roll imagery and Hollywood-inspired glamour with avant-garde experimentation. Thus the video auteurs of the 80s paved the way for the current crop of star directors. Jonathan Glazer. Chris Cunningham. Spike Jonze and Hype Williams are known not as rock band hangers-on or film directors manqués, but as artists in their own right. Far from killing off radio stars. their videos have added to the credibility of pop artists themselves.
The History Of The Pop Video is on Channel 4, Sat 11 Dec, 9.30pm.