Music Videos were certainly a huge thing 40 years ago. I can recall seeing proto-MTV music video programming in the ’79-’80 window. Syndicated music programs were bubbling up at the end of the 70s as bands were embracing a visual way of dispersing their music since access to the airwaves was harder to come by. Music videos represented at first, a way of bypassing the radio gatekeepers. New technology put the tools of television into greater numbers of hands. Videotape recording became commonplace over the 70s to the point where even consumers had access to affordable VCRs by 1975.
Music Video: The Early Years
Putting music on TV was always a low-budget way to sell advertising. US programs of the 70s like “The Midnight Special” got the talent for free/next to nothing as these bands/labels needed to promote their wares. There were programs all over the world of similar stripe. As well as variety shows that might have a slot or two for a musical act. But shipping bands to other countries to lipsync on their local programming could get expensive. And it often looked ludicrous to be lip syncing on a variety program, but TV producers preferred that. It made their job a lot easier not to have expensive, and time consuming audio setup for some band they would never see again. Time is money in television and if there is a way to cut out an hour [or two] of soundchecking, then lipsync is there to make the producer breathe easier.
It was this environment that conspired to make a perfect storm of making music videos for bands to promote themselves in what would be an increasingly important new way. They were not new. Music performances on film were as old as the talkies. Music shorts [“Soundies”] were always an undercurrent in film production. They might be short subjects in theaters before features. In the 60s the Scopitone Jukebox was an innovative video jukebox that people could drop coin in to see 16mm music videos, specially made for these machines. Fans could hear and see their favorites as these devices could be in pubs and public centers across the world from roughly 1959 to 1978! Lots of vintage performers were preserved for history with this format.
But by the late 70s there were New Wave bands exploding in the US and UK that were more telegenic than the confrontational Punk bands that came immediately before them. These acts tended to be more visually sophisticated and media savvy than the rock bands of a generation earlier. Many of them had art school backgrounds; making their interest in multimedia as Music Videos represented a logical occurrence.
Bands like DEVO were actually as interested in making the films as much as records. Gerald Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh were art students making provocative art as a reaction to the Kent State Massacre. They saw the band as an Art Project, not just a rock band. They formed the band and got signed to Warner Brothers in the hope that they could one day make a newfangled laserdisc of their films! And they did!
Early music videos were cheaply produced on videotape for the most part. There is a certain classic, early music video that was shot on a white seamless backdrop in high contrast to further isolate the band on screen. I can’t tell you how many music videos I saw in the ’79-’80 period that all looked like this classic example of the form as shown below. With the crucial difference that none of those other bands happened to include Elvis Costello.
In the pre-MTV eras there were a few syndicated shows like Rockworld, which featutred an hour of whatever clips the producers could scrounge up broadcast with simulcast FM stereo sound on a local radio station from 1979-1980. I remember watching this on occasion with chasinvictoria at my parent’s home. That was a Saturday prime time show on a local UHF channel. Other shows were late night in our market, with music video being relegated to that more typical programming ghetto. Hollywood Heartbeat was another, which was syndicated form 1980-1981, but it had an actual rock star host, Bob Welch.
Hollywood Heartbeat was a game changer for me in that with the inclusion of Ultravox’s “Passing Strangers video in a September of 1980 episode, I had my little mind blown and discovered my new favorite band…as a result of music videos. This was no longer just a way to see my favorite bands, but there was a larger world out there than the radio offered, and the explosion of available TV channels in the cable-TV era was starving for content. For the next five years, I probably discovered most of the new bands I loved through the medium of music videos.
Ultravox were savvy enough to know that if they stood a ghost of a chance of making an impression then they needed to up their game. They shot on 16 mm film [like the Scopitones] for a richer, more cinematic look. and they also matted the top and bottom of the screen to letterbox the end result; giving it an even more explicit relationship to cinema. They eventually released their third single since reforming with Midge Ure as singer and they pulled out all the stops for their second clip, as directed [again] by Oz director Russell Mulcahy, who had been involved with music video productions dating back a few years and was one of the names in this nascent industry coalescing out of a blend of film students, commercial directors, and even film directors eager to avoid downtime.
Their song “Vienna” was already climbing the charts when the band were adamant that Chrysalis give them a budget to make a clip for the song. With the song hitbound, Chrysalis didn’t see the point, so the band paid the £6-7000 themselves, knowing that this could reverberate around the world quite effectively. I can remember seeing the clip and watching it, agog, as the fully cinematic production values were so far ahead of the typical music video that I knew a line in the sand had been drawn. The escalation of music video budgets began with this shot heard ’round the world.
These clips made Mulcahy the go-to man for quite a few years and led to him being practically the sixth member of Duran Duran. The first two or three years of £2000 clips in the ’78-’80 time period, made by film student friends of the bands was no longer viable. Meanwhile, it was 1981, and MTV was coming. A channel developed by Viacom for cable TV [from an idea by Mike Nesmith called “Popclips”] that showed music videos…24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Next: …The 800 lb Gorilla Of Music Video