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 5 Creepiest Music Videos Of The 1980s

Peter_gabriel_31081978_02_400In the 1980s, big-name directors generally had no qualms about helming pop videos: Landis, Scorsese, De Palma, Fincher, Peckinpah, Demme, Friedkin and Sayles all brought their visual sense to bear on the medium.

But if you weren’t tying the song in with a movie, you had to interpret the sometimes fairly nonsensical lyrics somehow (begging the question: were ’80s lyricists ever inspired by how their words would be interpreted in a song’s video?).

Given an almost blank slate, it’s fair to say that some directors’ imaginations ran riot; sometimes the storyboards got – how shall we put it kindly – a bit out of hand, riddled with disturbing symbols, disconcerting imagery and creepy concepts.

Here are five of the strangest clips of the decade:

5. David Bowie: ‘Underground’ (1986)

Legendary director Steve Barron (‘Beat It’, ‘Take On Me’) helmed this curio which accompanied David’s appearance in the movie ‘Labyrinth’. The song (which clearly influenced Madonna’s ‘Like A Prayer’ a few years later) seems to be about a young girl’s alienation and initiation into the adult world (‘No one can blame you for walking away… Daddy, daddy, get me out of here!’), echoing the movie’s plot. But the video goes off into very odd tangents: David dissolves into the floor, has a flashback to all his previous personas and then moves into a murky underworld where he becomes an animated character. The disembodied ‘helping hands’ from the movie mime to the gospel backing vocals and David dances with muppets before he rips off his ‘real’ face and becomes a cartoon character forever. Albert Collins’ earthy, raunchy blues licks seem a bit out of place alongside this surreal stew…

4. Laura Branigan: ‘Self Control’ (1984)

‘Exorcist’ director William Friedkin was in charge of this expensive curio. Words are hard to come by. This excellent analysis says it all really. Was the video an influence on Kubrick’s ‘Eyes Wide Shut’?

3. Bonnie Tyler: ‘Total Eclipse Of The Heart’ (1983)

Directed by another future Hollywood helmer Russell Mulcahy, this expensive weirdorama was filmed at the Holloway Sanatorium, a large, unused Victorian mental hospital in Surrey. It was a very apt choice of location: virginal boarding-school teacher Bonnie seems to be either dreaming or fantasizing about her students participating in various activities including swimming, karate, gymnastics, football, fencing, singing and dancing. As you do. Apparently there’s an urban legend that the boy who shakes Bonnie’s hand at the end is Italian footballer Gianfranco Zola. Let’s hope it’s true.

2. Peter Gabriel: ‘I Don’t Remember’ (1983)

This forbidding track, remixed from Peter Gabriel Plays Live, was never going to get a happy-clappy ‘Sound Of Music’-style vid, but it’s still pretty out-there. There are echoes of Bowie’s ‘Blackstar‘ in its conflation of poverty, physical threat, trance-like states and religious reverence. ‘I Don’t Remember’ is certainly one of the most distinctive vids of the mid-’80s but seems way too menacing for wide appeal.

1. The Jacksons: ‘Torture’ (1984)

The track seems to be about the ‘torture’ of relationship breakdown but director Jeff Stein and designer Bryce Walmsley (hi, Bryce!) over-egg the concept something rotten here. It pretty much comes on like a manual for trauma-based mind control. Both Michael and Jermaine refused to appear in the video, which ran over time and over budget, driving its production company into bankruptcy. Almost unbelievably, a wax dummy of Jacko was rented from a Madame Tussaud’s in Nashville and appears in three sequences including the tragic and really quite sad final salute. Stein recalls the shoot as ‘an experience that lived up to the song title’ and says it was so stressful that one of his crew members lost control of her bodily functions. Vigilant Citizen has put together an excellent analysis of the video.

Any more for any more? Let me know below.