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

Book Review: Sheila E’s The Beat Of My Own Drum

sheila eConsidering he was such a huge star and cultural icon, it’s surprising that Prince’s eventful life and sad death has yet spawned so few ‘kiss and tell’ memoirs.

Let’s hope it stays that way. But while his long-time musical partner and one-time fiancée Sheila E certainly doesn’t shy away from sharing her memories of him in her fine autobiography ‘The Beat Of My Own Drum’ (co-written with Wendy Holden), those recollections form only a small part of a very rich, diverse collection of portraits.

After all, Sheila has played percussion and/or drums with some of the all-time greats: Carlos Santana, Herbie Hancock, Marvin Gaye, George Duke, Lionel Richie, Tito Puente, Diana Ross and Billy Cobham, not forgetting her father Pete Escovedo.

But while there are plenty of tasty music biz anecdotes, the book also provides a fascinating portrait of growing up in a mixed-race family (her mother is African-American and father Mexican) in a less-than-salubrious section of Oakland, California.

Sheila paints a rich picture of a seemingly happy childhood based around music, dancing, sports (she is apparently a pretty useful football player), charity and community, with shared cultural references such as The Carpenters (Sheila was hugely inspired by seeing Karen on the TV), Sly and the Family Stone and The Jackson 5, though there also some racial tensions around too.

But then the book goes in a completely different, unexpectedly harrowing direction when she chronicles the sexual abuse suffered as a young girl at the hands of several cousins. The section rivals James Rhodes’ recent book ‘Instrumental’ in its shocking candour.

Thankfully, if anything, the abuse drives her ambition rather than beats her down, though she admits to seeing it as a dark secret that clouds the rest of her life.

There are fascinating anecdotes about travelling to Colombia at the age of just 15 to play percussion with the Latin/fusion supergroup Azteca. Cobham, Duke and Gaye are mainly described in glowing terms, almost as father figures, and she is unexpectedly candid about her romantic and musical infatuations with Santana. There’s also a hilariously mismanaged backstage ‘meeting’ with Diana Ross.

But it’s easy to forget just how unique Sheila’s talent was in the 1980s when she made it as a ‘pop star’. We had never seen a percussionist/singer/dancer triple-threat before, as she herself points out, and Latin celebrities were very rare.

This pop period is grippingly covered in the book, with tales of disastrous video shoots, crazy tour schedules and much celebrity hobnobbing. Escovedo also very nicely juggles the spicy anecdotes with some genuine, intelligent advice for the modern musician, and just enough technical stuff about playing drums and percussion too.

Sheila also discusses her project Elevate Hope Foundation which focuses on music therapy for victims of child abuse, a noble and important program which continues to go from strength to strength.

So if the last quarter of ‘The Beat Of My Drum’ reads more like a self-help book than a famous musician’s autobiography, we can surely cut her some slack. Highly recommended.

Joni Mitchell: Wild Things Run Fast

joni_mitchell-wild_things_run_fast(4)Geffen Records, released October 1982

8/10

As Joni reported to Q magazine in 1988, she entered the ’80s in a despondent state: ‘Everyone realised at the brink of the decade that it was going to be a hideous era…’

Apparently she attended a New Year’s Eve party at the house of singer/songwriter Stephen Bishop which had the ghastly theme ‘Be nice to the ’80s and the ’80s will be nice to you’.

On the way to the shindig, her beloved ’69 Bluebird was stolen from outside Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard. It was not a great start to the decade.

David Geffen and Joni, early '80s

David Geffen and Joni, early ’80s

There were other reasons to be worried. She was sued by her cleaning lady and found herself headhunted by old friend and media mogul David Geffen for his new label, though their relationship were never easy.

And then there was Reagan, Thatcher and a simmering Cold War. But Joni’s new songs avoided politics completely, though she’d make up for that big-time with 1985’s potent Dog Eat Dog.

Instead, buoyed by her marriage to new bassist Larry Klein and beguiled by The Police and Talking Heads she was hearing on the radio, she produced possibly her most romantic, upbeat album to date.

The simplistic critical reaction to Wild Things Run Fast was that she had turned her back on the ‘jazz’ period which culminated in the 1979 masterpiece Mingus (and live album Shadows And Light). But while there are some concessions to hard rock, new wave and reggae, Wild Thing‘s best tracks are the ones that most closely resemble the shimmering, jazzy, almost psychedelic tracks of the mid-to-late-’70s.

Larry Klein and Joni, 21st November 1982

Larry Klein and Joni, 21st November 1982

Another clue was that many of her ’70s ‘repertory company’ were still in place at the dawn of the ’80s – singer James Taylor, percussionist Victor Feldman, drummer John Guerin, saxist Wayne Shorter and guitarist Larry Carlton.

Her new recruits were some of LA’s finest ‘younger’ players: guitarists Mike Landau and Steve Lukather, keyboardists Larry Williams and Yellowjacket Russell Ferrante, plus ex-Zappa drummer Vinnie Colaiuta.

My point of entry for this album was the superb lead-off track ‘Chinese Cafe/Unchained Melody’, recently voted in Uncut magazine’s top 30 Joni songs (nominated by Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason), the first music I’d ever heard by Joni. I was immediately a fan.

It’s a very moving meditation on love and loss with a haunting piano/bass motif and a beautifully intricate drum part by Guerin, a great companion piece to ‘Both Sides Now’.

‘Be Cool’ and ‘Moon At The Window’ are classic Jazz Joni. On the former, Klein stakes his claim as a great (and extremely underrated) bassist of the ’80s and worthy successor to Jaco while Shorter offers a witty, beautifully judged commentary on the latter.

The great Larry Carlton does something similar on the elegant ‘Ladies’ Man’, playing a sublime accompaniment on the left channel while Joni bitterly surveys her lover’s ‘cocaine head games’. Lionel Richie even shows up on ‘You Dream Flat Tires’ to deliver one line and add some vocal harmonies – who saw that coming?

Some tracks are a curious but engaging mixture of hard rock and fusion – the title track, ‘You’re So Square’ and ‘Solid Love’ feature some dynamic, chops-infused interplay between Colaiuta and Klein, though the latter is the weakest song on the album – Joni should probably have left reggae well alone.

The closing ‘Love’ encapsulates all that’s good about Wild Things Run Fast – a beautiful vocal, superb and sensitive guitar playing from Steve Lukather and empathetic textures from Shorter and Colaiuta. And its appropriation of Corinthians 13 11-13 sums up Joni’s romantic worldview beautifully; hopeful about the future but constantly wary, ever aware of love’s tribulations.

TourProgram83RefugeGroup

Vinnie Colaiuta, Mike Landau, Joni, Larry Klein, Russell Ferrante

Joni toured this album extensively with a superb band of Colaiuta, Landau, Klein and Ferrante, dropping in to London for a date at the Wembley Arena in 1983. Wish I had been there. But thankfully we have YouTube (see below).

The album was a minor hit, reaching 32 in the UK album charts and #25 in the States, and the single ‘(You’re So Square) Baby, I Don’t Care’ reached 47 in the US singles chart.

One’s appreciation of Wild Things probably depends on when you were born. There are people who adore Blue and For The Roses who must loathe this. But as my first exposure to Joni’s music, I hold it very dear.