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

Van Halen: Quantized

Harry’s Records, right next to the bus stop on my way home from sixth-form college, was a real institution for me in the late 1980s (I’ve only recently discovered that it was actually a UK-wide chain of music stores).

Many a trip home was enlivened by looking at the covers of, off the top of my head, Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop, It Bites’ Eat Me In St Louis or Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe.

And Van Halen, the superb 1978 debut album. From the opening backwards car horns and Michael Anthony’s fuzzy bass to the manic closer ‘On Fire’, it was a total stunner.

It’s a brilliant mix of Cream, Led Zep, The Sex Pistols, Kinks and Who, featuring a talented vocals/guitar/bass/drums lineup with a striking audio imprint (producer Ted Templeman’s mastery of the famous Sunset Sound echo chamber, with Eddie’s guitar flying across the stereo spectrum: Rick Beato and Warren Huart have put together superb musical analyses of the album).

The band ‘breathed’ and grooved, and it sounded like they played live in the studio (they did, pretty much). It certainly wasn’t ‘perfect’. Perfection is an interesting concept for rock, one of the legacies of the post-Nirvana 1990s. Everyone recorded with a click track, and everyone seemingly looked for ‘perfection’.

The 1970s were different. So it’s a great jolt to hear VH’s ‘Running With The Devil’ quantized and placed on ‘the grid’ by this wacky music surgeon below. Judge for yourself if you prefer the ‘perfect’ version or original, ‘wrong’ version – it’s a fascinating, sometimes amusing project:

P.S. Check out this amazing soundboard recording of VH’s Hammersmith Odeon support show with Black Sabbath in June 1978.

Catching Up With Eddie Van Halen

225px-Eddie_Van_Halen_(1993)When I think of ’80s Eddie Van Halen, the image in my mind’s eye is probably not a lot different to any other fan – he’s grinning from ear to ear, cavorting around the stage, playing some of the greatest rock guitar of all time with one of the sweetest tones.

So it’s interesting to see him recently – sober, reflective, brutally honest, fiercely independent – talking about his life and craft onstage at the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington DC.

‘Jump’ had always been a favourite of mine and was at the back of my mind when I came across Van Halen’s superb debut album at Harry’s Records in Twickenham (another one that’s bitten the dust), during my first week of sixth-form college in 1989.

I just loved the devil-may-care feel of Eddie’s playing. He was fearless, unconcerned about making mistakes (his dad gave him some advice: if you make a mistake, do it again – with a smile), the same attitude that spurred on Parker, Ornette, Hendrix and Jaco.

I later got heavily into the VH albums Women And Children First, Fair Warning, Diver Down, 1984 and OU812, but the band have been completely off my radar since the early ’90s, when I loved the ‘Poundcake’ single.

Having said that, not living in the States, I’ve completely missed the recent new album and TV appearances featuring David Lee Roth back on vocals. Maybe I need to check in again because I dug this:

Anyway, back to the interview. It’s fascinating hearing Eddie chatting about his life and career, away from all the controversy that has dogged the band over the last few decades.

He talks about building his first guitar, the last album he bought (clue: it was back in 1986 and by an English singer who was once in a very famous progressive rock band…), demonstrates some techniques and talks candidly about his sometimes difficult early life as an immigrant in the USA.

G’wan – give yourself an hour off and enjoy some words from a master.

No Brown M&Ms: Great Backstage Riders Of The ’80s

brown-milk-chocolate-m-m-1-poundYou know you’ve made it in the music biz when your gig rider raises eyebrows.

The rider: a contract drawn up by the promoter stipulating a band’s concert requirements including ‘dressing room extras’ – food, drink and drugs to you and me.

And, if the general tenor of the 1980s was extravagance and exuberance, many artists’ backstage demands were no different. Here are five corkers:

5. Howard Jones

He had barely registered a hit and was only undertaking a modest college tour of the UK, but his backstage demands included ‘eight pounds of brown rice, six large aubergines, three pounds of courgettes, three green peppers, one head of garlic, three pounds of fresh tomatoes, twelve mixed yogurts and twelve bananas.’ He also requested that security not have ‘guns or dogs’, that the dressing room possess a ‘sweet-smelling ambience’ and that he must have ‘physical contact with the audience’. And you thought he was just a slightly vapid though ultimately harmless pop guy…

4. Van Halen

They famously often requested ‘large bowls of M&Ms with the brown ones taken out’ but their legendary 1984 Monsters Of Rock show at Castle Donington also required ‘eight litre bottles of Jack Daniels, eight litre bottles of brandy, eight litre bottles of vodka, 16 cases of domestic beer and a worldwide selection of cheeses’. Those boys knew how to partay. And were also rather fond of continental cheeses.

3. Iggy Pop

Late great musician/writer Ian Carr once described seeing Miles Davis come offstage and collapse into the arms of two specially-placed roadies as soon as he was out of the audience’s sight, but that’s nothing compared to The Iggster’s post-show routine. His rider for a 1983 UK tour stipulated ‘it is absolutely essential at the end of the show that there is a nurse in attendance with two cylinders of oxygen and masks’. I wonder if maybe Iggy wanted the ‘nurse’ for a bit more than ‘oxygen’…

2. David Thomas

The portly Pere Ubu frontman demanded meticulous sandwich preparation for a University of London show in the early ’80s: ‘A sandwich is defined as three pieces each of meat and/or cheese, one-inch thickness of lettuce, a half-inch thickness of onion, mayonnaise, two slices of three-quarters of an inch of tomato, all between two thick slices of wholemeal bread. NO BUTTER. AND I WILL REPEAT: NO BUTTER OR MARGARINE. PERIOD.’ It’s as if punk never happened.

1. Aerosmith

The Bad Boys From Boston didn’t leave anything drug-related to chance when putting together their backstage rider for a particularly blitzed tour in the early ’80s. The stand-out clause read: ‘No snow, no show’! Well, at least they were honest. Allegedly, of course…

A tip of the hat to Simon Garfield’s excellent book ‘Expensive Habits‘.