Sunday, 12 July 2009

A History of Music Videos Part Five

Open Your Eyes, Look Up to the Skies and See...

With promotional films from such artists as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and many others, the Sixties saw the creation of the first modern rock videos. As the Sixties became the Seventies, however, music promotional films went into a slight decline. It is difficult to say why this was. Part of it may have been the decline in the number of variety shows airing in the United States, the primary venue in the U.S. on which the promotional films were aired. In 1970 Hollywood Palace (where the clips for Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields Forever debuted) went off the air in 1970. In 1971 The Ed Sullivan Show went off the air after twenty three years. Many of the groups which had created the promotional films of the Sixties also broke up--Small Faces in 1969, The Beatles and The Turtles in 1970, and so on.

This is not to say that there were no promotional films being made in the early Seventies, simply that there were fewer being made than in the mid to late Sixties. Indeed, in 1970 Captain Beefheart made both a promotional film for "Lick My Decals Off, Baby" and a television commercial for the album of the same title. The commercial featured a cigarette being flipped in slow motion, Captain Beefheart's band using kitchen utensils as musical instruments, and Beefheart kicking over what appeared to be a bowl of porridge. Between the strange, non sequitur imagery, and the suggestiveness of the song's title, TV stations refused to air it. The advert would find its way into the Museum of Moder Art.

Nineteen seventy one would see the debut of the Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention film 200 Motels. Made on a shoestring budget and ostensibly following a musician's life on the road, the movie was actually a series of vignettes and musical sequences, most of them surreal. That same year The Residents started work on a feature film, Vileness Fats, which would never be finished. That year they did complete clips for "The Third Reich 'n Roll," "One Minute Movies", "Hello Skinny", and a remake of "It's A Man's Man's Man's World" shot for the film. It was also in 1971 that The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour recruited animator James David Wilson to make animated clips of popular songs covered by Sonny and Cher on the show.

Nineteen seventy two could be seen as the year in which promotional films saw a rebirth. That year David Bowie shot promo clips for "John, I'm Only Dancing (in May)," "The Jean Genie (in November)" and the re-release of "Space Oddity (in December)." It also saw the debut of The Midnight Special on NBC in August. The series, which would run until 1981, mostly featured live performances of the popular bands of the day. The show would also air the occasional promotional film. In Concert debuted in September on ABC. As the show's title would indicate, the series featured music artists performing live, although it would also show promotional films from time to time. It was in 1973 that David Bowie would make a promotional film for "Life on Mars."

While The Midnight Special and In Concert only occasionally showed promotional films, it would be in 1974 that the first two shows debuted that would feature music videos on a regular basis. Because of their sheer distance from Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States, Australia and New Zeeland saw tours from the big name artists from Canada, the United Kingdom, and United States less often than the other English speaking countries. As a result Australia and New Zeeland were more dependent on promotional clips than any other English speaking countries. It is perhaps because of this that Australia saw the premiere of two shows that would feature promotional films on a regular basis: Sounds Unlimited (later titled Sounds) in September and Countdown in November.

Of the two shows Sounds Unlimited would be the most significant in music video history. The show was launched by a former DJ, Graham Webb, and aired from ATN-7 in Sydney. Webb soon found himself in need of material, so he approached one of ATN-7's staff, Russell Mulcahy and requested that he shoot footage for popular songs of the day for which no promotional clips existed. Mulcahy shot around 25 different films for the show. Mulcany's promotional films proved a roaring success, so much so that he quit his job to direct music videos full time. In Australia he would shoot promotional films for AC/DC, Hush, and Stylus. In 1976 he moved to the United Kingdom where he would direct such early videos as "Turning Japanese" by The Vapours and the legendary "Video Killed the Radio Star" by The Buggles. He would go onto direct such classic videos as "Planet Earth" for Duran Duran, "Pressure" for Billy Joel, "Gypsy" for Fleetwood Mac, and many others. Mulcahy would eventually become a feature film director, directing such movies as the cult classic Highlander. In a large part, due to Mulcahy's promotional films, Sounds Unlimited became a hit, lasting well into the Eighties.

While Sounds Unlimited may have been more pivotal in music video history than Countdown, Countdown was arguably the more popular show. Airing on the Australian Broadcasting Company, it proved to be the most successful music show in the history of Australian television. A combination of lip synced performances, news, and interviews, like Sounds Unlimited it was one of the first shows to regularly feature music videos. It was through music videos that such British and American acts as The Cars, Elvis Costello, John Mellencamp, The Ramones, XTC, and others received their first exposure in Australia.

While Australia would see the first shows to make extensive use of music videos, in the United States there would be an important film short released in 1974. It was in that year that Devo released "The Truth About De-Evolution," a film short which included clips for their cover of "Secret Agent Man" and "Jocko Homo."

It would be 1975 that proved to be one of the most important years in the history of music videos. On April 25, 1975 of that year, in the United States, ABC aired the special Alice Cooper: The Nightmare, which was meant to promote Alice Cooper's latest album Welcome to My Nightmare. The special featured every song from the album, as well as "The Ballad of Dwight Frye" from the album Love It to Death. Many of the clips on the special were conceptual in nature, such as the one for "The Black Widow," in which Cooper is menaced by giant spiders.

As important as Alice Cooper: The Nightmare was in the history of rock video, it pales in importance when compared to the promotional film shot for Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody." Promo clips had already been made for Queen's songs "Keep Yourself Alive," "Seven Seas Of Rhye," "Killer Queen" and "Liar," but the clip for "Bohemian Rhapsody" would prove to be the most important music video of their career. The necessity of a promo clip for "Bohemian Rhapsody" was simple--Queen realised that it would be nearly impossible to lip sync such a complex song on the music shows of the time. The video was directed by Bruce Gowers, who had earlier filmed the band's performance at the Rainbow Theatre in London. The video opened with a sequence based on the cover of Queen II, originally photographed by Mick Rock. The video then switches to Queen performing the song.

The special effects for the video to "Bohemian Rhapsody" were all performed during its recording. This was made possible due to the fact that it was shot on videotape as opposed to film. Much of this was out of necessity. The "Bohemian Rhapsody" video was due for broadcast on Top of the Pops on the BBC that very same week. Film would have meant additional time in processing, during which time any special effects would be added. Shooting the clip on videotape was revolutionary, as prior to "Bohemian Rhapsody" every music promotional film had been shot on film. After "Bohemian Rhapsody" videotape became the primary medium on which music videos were shot. Quite simply, videotape was less expensive than film, and many special effects could be achieved while recording, saving valuable time and money. Because it was shot on videotape, there are many who proclaim that "Bohemian Rhapsody" as the first true music video. Given that in common usage the term music video is applied to earlier promo clips shot on film (such as The Beatles' promo clips or Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues") as well, this is not the case; however, "Bohemian Rhapsody" is historic as the first rock video to be shot on videotape.

The video for "Bohemian Rhapsody" made its debut on Top of the Pops where it caused a sensation. In the United States the "Bohemian Rhapsody" video would debut on Don Kirshner's Rock Concert, the successor to the ABC series In Concert which aired in syndication from 1973 to 1982. The video proved to be a hit in the United States as well. In fact, the video proved popular in many different countries around the globe. It was widely attributed with increasing the sales of A Night at the Opera, the Queen album from which the song "Bohemian Rhapsody" had originated. Given its success, record companies began shooting videos for nearly every single released. Nearly ten years after The Beatles shot their first promotional films, the production of rock videos on a regular basis commenced.

Video Killed the Radio Star

In the wake of the success of the video to "Bohemian Rhapsody," recording companies began producing music videos on a regular basis. In fact, after 1975 one would be hard pressed to find a single released by a major artist which did not have a video shot for it. Among these early music videos were "Hot Legs" by Rod Stewart (released in 1977), "Just the Way You Are" by Billy Joel (released in 1977), "Follow You, Follow Me" by Genesis (released in 1978), "I Got You" by Split Enz (in 1980), and "This Time" by John Cougar (released in 1980--he was not yet billing himself as John Mellencamp). With each passing year of the late Seventies, more and more music artists were releasing music videos.

Despite the revolution launched by Queen and their video for "Bohemian Rhapsody," it would be a feature film rather than a rock video which leave the biggest mark in video history in 1976. Released in October of that year, The Song Remains the Same featured footage shot from three nights of concerts performed by Led Zeppelin at Madison Square Garden in 1977. Interspersed with the concert footage were fantasy sequences, ranging from one involving Twenties era hitmen to a knight searching for the Holy Grail. The imagery featured in the movie would have a profound impact on the heavy metal videos which would follow it in the Eighties.

It was in 1977, with the production of music videos dramatically increasing, that Warner Cable created a predecessor to MTV. That year Warner Cable launched QUBE in Columbus, Ohio. QUBE was the first two-way interactive cable TV system, and featured many specialised cable channels. Among them was the direct predecessor of Nickelodeon, a children's channel called Pinwheel. Another was Sight and Sound, a music channel which showed music oriented programmes, music news, concert footage, and, of course, music videos.

It was the following year, 1978, that the first television programme dedicated entirely to music videos would emerge in the United States. The Madison Square Garden Network (not to be confused with the local New York sports network of that name), soon to be renamed the USA Network, debuted a show called Video Concert Hall. Video Concert Hall was the creation of radio and cable television executive Lloyd "Jerry" Crowe and former TriStar Pictures employee and journalist Charles Henderson. Video Concert Hall (often known simply as VCH) aired everyday on the USA Network from 1977 to 1981. It also became extremely successful. It was among the most popular shows on any of the channels on QUBE. It would eventually appear on other cable/satellite channels, such as the Satellite Program Network and the American Forces Network. It was through Video Music Hall that The Police and Split Enz received their first widespread exposure to audiences in the United States. It is perhaps because of the success of Video Concert Hall that in the late Seventies HBO would start airing videos under the heading of Video Jukebox (later a show all its own) as filler in between movies.

Video Concert Hall would not remain the only music video show on the air for long. By 1979 the children's channel Pinwheel had been re-branded Nickelodeon. As Pinwheel the channel had primarily served preschoolers, but as Nickelodeon the channel desperately need to attract older children. John A. Lack, a Warner executive in charge of Nickelodeon among other things, realised that the growing popularity of rock video might be the key to doing so. Warner Cable then commissioned Michael Nesmith of The Monkees and his company Pacific Arts to deliver a music video show for the channel. The agreement was that Pacific Arts would deliver fifty or more, half hour segments. The series, entitled Pop Clips, went into production in the summer of 1980. John Lack himself gathered together the videos that would appear on the show. Mike Nesmith developed the format of the show itself. Pop Clips would be the equivalent of a radio station on the air, complete with a "veejay (although that term would not be coined until MTV was conceived)." The first veejay in the world would be comedian Charles Fleischer, who would go onto appear in movies such as Night Shift and would provide the voice for Roger Rabbit. William Dear would be the show's director. In many respects the show had the same frantic humour as The Monkees on which Nesmith had appeared in the Sixties. Pop Clips debuted in March 1980 and aired on Nickelodeon throughout that year. It would prove pivotal in the history of music video in more than simply being one of the earliest music video shows and the first show to feature a veejay.

Nineteen seventy nine would prove to be an important year for music video because of more than the debut of Pop Clips. The late Seventies not only saw music videos grow in popularity, but home video in the form of the VCR as well. Chrysalis Records sought to take advantage of this fact through their popular band Blondie. in 1979 Chrysalis Records shot videos for every single song on the Blondie album Eat to the Beat and then released those videos on video cassette. The result was the first music video album. It was also in 1979 that the mainstream media really took notice of the growing popularity of music videos. In an article titled "Gearing up For a Rock-Video Boom" in the October 21, 1979 in the Los Angeles Times, it was predicted that, " 1980 rock-video (sic) will finally come of age." Not only was the article extremely prescient, but it is also historic in being one of the earliest usages of the term "rock video" in any medium.

As it was, to some degree rock video did come of age in 1980. It was that year that the first music video subscription service, RockAmerica, debuted. RockAmerica was founded by Ed Steinberg. The service distributed rock videos to DJs in much the same way that earlier record pools would distribute records. On a monthly basis, clubs would receive a new batch of tapes of videos, which they would keep for two months. A number of east coast clubs immediately signed with RockAmerica and the company became so influential that in its early days even MTV would base their programming on RockAmerica's charts. It was also in 1980 that another music video programme debuted. America's Top 10 was the equivalent to the radio show American Top 40, hosted by DJ Casey Kasem. America's Top 10 would then air videos of the top charted songs of the week. The show proved to be a success, lasting until 1992.

As pivotal as the year 1980 would be in the history of music video, 1981 would be even more so. With music videos growing in popularity, the year saw the debut of more music video shows. In June 1981, two months before MTV debuted, Black Entertainment Television (BET) debuted Video Soul, the first video show to focus primarily on R&B and soul artists. The series lasted until 1996. That same month the USA Network once more made music video history with the debut of Night Flight. Strictly speaking, Night Flight was not merely a music video show. While it showed an enormous number of videos (many of which were banned by MTV), it also showed short films, comedic segments, old movie serials, and even feature films. It was one of the first television shows to view music video as an art form rather than mere bits of promotion. Night Flight aired for four hours late night on Saturdays and Sundays. It aired on the USA Network until 1988, then continued in syndication until 1996. In December 1981, HBO's Video Jukebox finally graduated from mere filler between movies to a regularly scheduled half hour programme. The reason for this was probably not simply due to the growing popularity of videos, but rather the debut of a new cable network in August 1981.

MTV (short for Music Television) was launched on August 1, 1981, founded as a cable channel belonging to Warner Cable. The particulars of its creation have always been a subject of some controversy. Michael Nesmith has always insisted that in creating Pop Clips he essentially created MTV. Director Bill Dear has always supported Nesmith's claim. In fact, according to Bill Dear, Warner Cable actually asked to buy both the name Pop Clips and the show's format as the basis for a twenty four hour, music video channel. When Michael Nesmith and Bill Dear turned them down, Warner Cable simply developed MTV. Warner Cable and MTV have always insisted that Mike Nesmith and Pop Clips never had anything to do with the creation of MTV. John Lack himself has lent credence to both Nesmith and Warner Cable's positions. According to Lack, Nesmith agreed to a twenty four hour version of Pop Clips, but various problems developed which prevented the creation of a Pop Clips music video channel. Lack disliked the idea of a humorous host for the channel, such as the one on Pop Clips. Nesmith's company Pacific Arts wanted the prospective channel to originate from their own studios, an idea to which Warner Cable objected. Another problem was that Robert W. Pittman, then in charge of Warner Cable's pay TV division and the man who brought MTV to the air, did not like Mike Nesmith personally. Because of the disagreements between Warner Cable and Nesmith, Pop Clips would come to an end with no new segments being ordered from Warner Cable.

Regardless, Robert W. Pittman would be the man who brought MTV (Music Television) to the air. He would serve as its president and later its CEO. Not only would Pittman turn MTV into the first cable channel to make a profit, but he would oversee Nickelodeon's transition from a network for preschoolers to one for older children and oversee the launch of its night time schedule, Nick at Nite.

To a large degree MTV's format was very similar to that of Pop Clips. Videos on MTV were introduced by and any programming was hosted by veejays, short for video jockeys. The earliest veejays were former model and actress Nina Blackwood, DJ Mark Goodman, DJ Alan Hunter, DJ and former music reporter J. J. Jackson, and Martha Quinn (fresh from the Broadcast Journalism school of NYU). In those early days The programming of MTV consisted entirely of videos. The first video ever aired on MTV was The Buggles' "Video Killed the Radio Star." To a degree this was ironic. "Video Killed the Radio Star" is not a song rejoicing in the triumph of video over radio. Instead, "Video Killed the Radio Star" is a song decrying the triumph of style over substance, the triumph of promotion over song. In the early days music videos as a medium were seen by many as devaluing music, as placing the emphasis on the visual over sound. MTV debuted with only 750 music videos in its library, many of them older promotional films.

As a music video channel with a broad appeal to young people, from its earliest days MTV chose to display some restraint in what it showed. From the very beginning MTV banned videos and censored others. In fact, the first video ever banned on MTV was filmed only a mere two weeks before the cable channel was launched. MTV swiftly banned the video for "Girls on Film" by Duran Duran for nudity and fetish style imagery. Only an edited version of the video would ever appear on the channel. Several other early videos would also be banned or censored by MTV: "Psychotherapy" by The Ramones (for horror movie imagery), "Screaming in the Night" by Krokus (for violence), "Body Language" by Queen (for near nudity and sexual content), "Self Control" by Laura Brannigan (for sexual content), the original video to "Relax" by Frankie Goes to Hollywood (for too many reasons to list here), "When the Lady Smiles" by Golden Earring (also, for too many reasons to list here), and yet others. Many of the videos banned or censored by MTV found their way to the USA Network's Night Flight.

MTV proved enormously successful and would have an immediate influence on pop music. That having been said, its influence would sometimes be overestimated. MTV was not responsible for increasing the popularity of New Wave music in the United States. Well before MTV had launched, New Wave artists such as Blondie, The Cars, Devo, Joe Jackson, Split Enz, and Talking Heads had seen success in the United States. While MTV was not responsible for bringing New Wave music to the forefront in the United States, it could bear a good deal of responsibility for sparking the Second British Invasion, the wave of British artists who swept America in the Eighties. Beginning with Duran Duran in 1981, MTV promoted a number of British acts by showing their videos in the United States, including Adam and the Ants, Billy Idol, The Cure, Depeche Mode, Flock of Seagulls, Madness, New Order, and others. And while heavy metal was already returning to popularity in the United States on the strength of such acts as AC/DC and Judas Priest prior to MTV's launch, MTV would do a good deal to promote such heavy metal or near heavy metal acts as Def Leppard, Mötley Crüe, Ratt, Twisted Sister, and others.

MTV would prove to be a phenomenon in the early Eighties. Largely on the strength of its "I Want My MTV" campaign (inspired by the "I want my Maypo" ad campaign of the Fifties), it became the fastest growing cable channel in the United States at the time. MTV went onto become the first cable channel to ever break a profit. More importantly, the launch of MTV would not only increase the already growing interest in music videos in the United States, but it would create an outright craze for music videos. In the wake of MTV, more music video channels and more music video TV shows would debut than at any time before or since.

1 comment:

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