MTV @ 40: The Videos That Made MTV

By summer 1984, Frank Zappa was already decrying the MTV clichés in his ‘Be In My Video’ single (‘Pretend to be Chinese/I’ll make you wear red shoes’!).

But, away from the familiar tropes, there were trailblazing videos that set MTV on its way during the formative years. Either technically or thematically, these clips laid the groundwork right up until the end of the 1980s.

Of course they are kind of familiar, but watching them all the way through brought some interesting surprises, and even an unexpected lump in the throat area during the denouement of ‘Take On Me’…

9. Musical Youth: ‘Pass The Dutchie’ (Dir. Don Letts, released September 1982)

The first ever video shown on MTV by a Black artist. This was a huge bone of contention in MTV’s early days, not helped by their regular, disingenuous rebuttal: ‘We only play rock’n’roll’. Don Letts’ joyful film put a spanner in the works, placing the lads in front of the Houses Of Parliament, the supposed ‘postcard’ vision of London, a tribute to the influence of Black culture in the UK and a stark message to the powers that be. Letts also created a huge hit in the process, reaching #1 in the UK and #10 in the USA.

8. The Police: ‘Every Breath You Take’ (Dirs. Kevin Godley & Lol Creme, released 20 May 1983)

Strongly influenced by Gjon Mili’s 1944 short ‘Jammin’ The Blues’, this was the video that catapulted Synchronicity‘s album sales into the stratosphere and gave the band a UK and US #1. Apparently directors Godley and Creme were pretty blitzed throughout most of the filming – according to the latter, ‘The first thing we’d do when we arrived on set was roll a reefer.’ Sting was reportedly no shrinking violet either, pointing to himself and telling the directors, ‘Keep the camera on the money’!

7. ZZ Top: ‘Gimme All Your Lovin’ (Dir. Tim Newman, released August 1983)

Randy Newman’s cousin Tim helmed all of ZZ’s key videos (and Randy’s excellent ‘I Love LA’) and he masterminded this much-imitated, endlessly-rewatchable classic, giving the band a new lease of life and a lasting image as kind of ‘mythical rockers’ (apparently influenced by his reading of Joseph Campbell). But it was ZZ manager Bill Ham who laid down the law to Newman, offering two directives: ‘Use the car (Billy Gibbons’ 1933 Ford coupe) and put some girls in it.’

6. Cyndi Lauper: ‘Girls Just Want To Have Fun’ (Dir. Edd Griles, released 6 September 1983)

Cyndi’s thing was inclusivity, and she delighted in showing a woman of every race in the video. It has echoes of John Waters’ aesthetic and the early Devo and B-52s videos, but this had a whole different vibe, apparently inspired by Lauper’s love of Jacques Tati’s 1958 film ‘Mon Oncle’.

5. Michael Jackson: ‘Thriller’ (Dir. John Landis, premiered December 1983)

‘Billie Jean’ opened the door for so many Black artists but this was pure box office and a delicious comedy/horror. Famously Michael headhunted director John Landis after watching ‘An American Werewolf In London’, giving him just one brief: ‘Can I turn into a monster?’ Landis was not interested in music videos but did like the idea of making a theatrical short. The video changed the game completely, and it’s arguable whether the dance routines have ever been bettered. It premiered on MTV on 2 December 1983 and reportedly doubled Thriller’s album sales within a few weeks of its first showing. It’s still absolutely thrilling.

4. Van Halen: ‘Jump’ (Dir. Pete Angelus, released December 1983)

Of course Metal acts were starting to make waves before this, with impactful videos by Twister Sister and Def Leppard, but ‘Jump’ laid down all the future ‘live on stage’ clichés, with balls on. Hair Metal became huge after this, and MTV adored the likes of Warrant, Winger and Bon Jovi, but none could ever match this song or Diamond Dave’s natural showmanship.

3. Madonna: ‘Borderline’ (Dir. Mary Lambert, released February 1984)

Lambert had only directed one video (Tom Tom Club’s ‘As Above So Below’) before getting her dream job on this breakout Madonna single. Madonna and Lambert discussed the video’s plot for two days in the former’s minimalist bolthole on the Upper East Side with Madonna insisting there be a Hispanic influence, necessitating moving the shoot to downtown Los Angeles. This is reportedly the first video to use black-and-white footage combined with colour; Madonna’s manager Freddy DeMann supposedly went ballistic on viewing the final cut but of course it became a video cliché, gave Lambert a successful career and Madonna her breakthrough song.

2. Lionel Richie: ‘Hello’ (Dir. Bob Giraldi, released February 1984)

Apparently director/scenarist Bob Giraldi was driven half mad by Lionel’s terminal lateness onto the set. For his part, Lionel was very sceptical about the bust. Apparently he finally plucked up the courage to approach Giraldi about it: ‘Bob, that bust does not look like me.’ There was a pregnant pause. Finally, Bob said, ‘Lionel…she’s blind.’

1. A-ha: ‘Take On Me’ (Dir. Steve Barron, released September 1985)

The song had completely flopped on its original release, so WEA gave Steve Barron a blank cheque to make a memorable video and get a hit. Working alongside rotoscope animator Michael Patterson, who did 1,800 drawings for the shoot, Barron was heavily influenced by Ken Russell’s 1981 movie ‘Altered States’. Barron knew it would work when the memorable image of an animated hand reaching out of a comic book popped into his head whilst he was bored shooting a Toto video. Apparently singer Morten Harket and lead actress Bunty Bailey fell in love during filming, becoming almost inseparable. ‘By take four, they would carry on holding hands even when we’d cut,’ remembered Barron. Aided by the video, ‘Take On Me’ became the band’s only US #1.

Further reading: ‘I Want My MTV’ by Rob Tannenbaum and Craig Marks

The Sonic Secrets Of Michael Jackson’s Thriller

14th April 1982, Westlake Studios, Los Angeles: the recording sessions for Thriller commence.

Producer Quincy Jones gathers his ‘crew’ – including mixing engineer Bruce Swedien, MJ and chief songwriter/arranger Rod Temperton – for a pep-talk. ‘We’re here to save the music business’…

It might sound a bit dramatic but the global recession of the 1980s was very much impacting a post-disco, pre-Madonna/Prince recording industry too.

The team-talk worked: Thriller – released 35 years old today – is by far the biggest-selling non-greatest-hits album of all time.

For some, it’s bland, over-familiar and inferior to Jackson’s previous album Off The Wall. For this writer it’s the last truly great example of song-led, musician-crafted, post-disco R’n’B, beautifully produced, arranged and mastered. And Jackson was absolutely at the top of his game and still relatively ‘normal’.

Thriller was the soundtrack to 1983 and 1984 in my corner of London, loved by geeks, sporty kids, BMX riders and B-Boys alike. But sometimes it feels so familiar that it defies analysis. Here are a few aspects that jumped out during a recent reappraisal:

13. Michael’s lyrics. These are disturbing, ominous visions. ‘You’re a vegetable!’ he sneers on opener ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Something’. ‘Billie Jean’ is about a deranged stalker, though Jackson claims she is a ‘composite’ of many obsessive fans. Is it any wonder he struggled with fame?

12. The African chant in ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Something’, stolen from Manu Dibango’s superb ‘Soul Mokassa’.

11. Paulinho Da Costa’s African percussion and cuica on ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Something’.

10. Jerry Hey’s string arrangements on ‘The Girl Is Mine’ and ‘Billie Jean’. He supplies superb horn parts throughout Thriller but his strings are often neglected.

9. Tom Scott’s Lyricon interjections during the chorus of ‘Billie Jean’, a contribution that has sadly been left off the credits of many subsequent reissues.

8. The brilliant rhythm guitar playing throughout from David Williams, Paul Jackson Jr. and Steve Lukather.

7. For me, ‘Beat It’ is the weakest song on the album by some stretch (despite the great guitar riff and brilliant solo), but intriguingly it was apparently Jackson’s response to a Quincy remark that Thriller needed a ‘black version of “My Sharona”’!

6. Rod Temperton’s compositions throughout, and also his superb vocal arrangements – check out how he uses Michael’s stacked background vocals.

5. Greg Phillinganes’ superb Rhodes and synth bass work, particularly on the title track.

4. Ndugu Chancler’s drums, enhanced by Bruce Swedien’s sonic mastery. Have there ever been better-recorded drums than on ‘Billie Jean’ and ‘PYT’? According to Swedien: ‘I ended up building a drum platform and designing some special little things, like a bass drum cover and a flat piece of wood that goes between the snare and the hi-hat’.

3. Steve Lukather’s gorgeous guitar counterpoint throughout ‘Human Nature’, particularly in the closing 20 seconds.

2. Michael’s vocals. On ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Something’, he sounds like three or four different singers. His backups throughout are also pretty special, and he takes ‘The Lady In My Life’ out.

1. Quincy knew that every song would have to be a killer, covering all styles. Around 30 compositions were considered. Among the many demo’d but scrapped included ‘She’s Trouble’, ‘Niteline’, ‘Carousel’ (only binned at the eleventh hour), ‘Got The Hots’ and ‘Hot Street AKA Slapstick’. These were all new to me until this week, but I’ve developed a particular liking for the Quincy/Jackson co-write ‘Got The Hots’: