[…continued from last post]
With MTV getting fat and middle aged by its third year, we made the effort to look elsewhere for our music video kicks. One alternative actually pre-dated MTV. Night Flight was a four hour bloc of “cult video” programming every Friday and Saturday night on the US Network that was well curated, and managed to serve up counter cultural programming as one might have seen in a university’s midnight movie program a generation earlier. While the programming was wildly eclectic, much of it was music-related. I am amazed to see that Night Flight is back as a streaming platform as of 2016! $40/years gets you that sort of programming on demand now.
In 1981 nothing was more bleeding edge than the eruption of West Coast Hardcore and Night Flight was there to get it to our eyeballs with the entrancing New Wave Theater. The program was hosted by musician Peter Ivers and brought subterranean L.A. musical acts to a national audience. The show was shot on a wing + a prayer as befitting the public access TV program it was, but we all got to see the results, which were often maddeningly pretentious and conspicuously downmarket; often at the same time!
The “Take Off” show was a half hour “magazine” format with lots of in depth looks at interesting acts via interviews and music videos. And when Night Flight would show all of the Grace Jones videos that weren’t on MTV [in other words, a lot of them] it was a big public service. “Take off” would even direct their cameras at the directors making these music videos for some very early in the game promo of their careers. I discovered the band Icehouse thanks to their coverage on director Russell Mulcahy [remember him?] where they showed a minute of the video for “Icehouse” by the band of the same name, that pointed me in the direction of that album in a flash!
Elsewhere, there were other programs we have discussed before, like MV3, the daily music videoteen dance show that was like American Bandstand for the KROQ-FM set. I could always rely on MV3 to show one video a day you would never see on MTV. There was a time that Ted Turner was trying to compete with an alternative music video network but ultimately, ended up hosting a few hours on weekend late nights with his own music video programming bloc called Night Tracks. The programming there was only slightly different from MTV, so I rarely watched it. But I did once enter a contest they had for a night out on the town with Swing Out Sister in NYC. Amazingly, I ended up with second prize; a new CD player.
By 1986, even MTV saw the writing on the wall and introduced their two hour, Sunday-at-midnight, “120 Minutes” programming bloc. By this time, any interesting “alternative” music video programming was so marginalized on MTV that they actively ghettoized it into two hours per week. But by this time I was not willing to watch two hours of MTV to maybe get one video clip for “the collection.” Ultimately, this was a courtesy to me and my kindred. Anything to save our eyeballs from what MTV had become.
By 1987 I got my first full time job and the uptick in income, coupled with the march of technology meant that I was able to add new video capabilities to my portfolio! While I had avoided VHS due to the lower quality picture, JVC eventually produced S-VHS VCRs that used metal particle tape to capture 400 lines of horizontal resolution. We’d call it 400i now. NTSC was 425 lines, but typically, cable TV maxxed out at 300-400 so the quality of the picture was greater or equal to the signal live.
This meant that I could tape two hours of music videos on this and edit out the ones I wanted to my ßeta VCR. And since I had income and wanted the best quality, I got a Superßeta deck to replace my 2nd unit. So I recorded all of the video I taped on Superßeta masters. And I started buying the top quality blank tapes in hardshell cases. Sony Pro-X L-500s with two hours in standard play. VCRs were not my only toys. I had been eyeing Laserdisc players since about 1982 and by 1988 I felt they were not going anywhere, so I got my first one. The sort of music video programming that made it to domestic Laserdisc was on the MOR side. If had not been aware of Japanese Laserdiscs, then I may not have gotten a player! But salvation was from Japan where many UK music video titles got a release on a LD that was 1000 compatible with America’s NTSC broadcast standard.
The Laserdiscs delivered quality beyond what cable, and even broadcast was capable of. Until DVD happened a decade later, this was as good as video got. The LDs had digital CD quality soundtracks so they were also the ultimate in audio quality as well. LDs were not cheap but they delivered. I got a source in L.A. from Ron that would send me the latest issue of LD quarterly; the Japanese digest that listed every Japanese LD in print that quarter so I could request the dealer special order anything I wanted. Every title was illustrated with a 3/4″ square cover photo, so even if you couldn’t read the copy, one knew what to ask for.
I was still managing to tape one or two tapes a month with music videos. Which were cooling down as a genre, but the late 80s talk show boom was a godsend for giving hot bands a place to play live on TV with several talks shows each night sometimes having great music guests like Was [Not Was], who I could probably made a full DVD of their fantastic performances.
In 1990 I took my last steps on the video frontier when I decided that I needed multi-standard equipment. A co-worker’s dad could get me such equipment through the military PX he used, so I got a Hitachi multi-standard VHS deck and the required 27″ Sony KV-27XR multi-standard monitor to go along with it. Now I could buy tapes from overseas and watch them without worrying about standards transfers, which were costly. The VCR was a few hundred dollars, but multi-standard monitors were not cheap. I bought the biggest one I could afford in a 27″ model. It was heavy and the freight shipping was not inexpensive.
At the time, my friend Mr. Kane was running an import company in Bath England, he would send me his catalogs of books, CDs, and videos, and I would order things from him. Getting VHS music videos [Zodiac Mindwarp, Transvision Vamp, John Foxx] that didn’t even see the light of day on Japanese LDs! Then, in 1990, I bought my second Superßeta VCR.
Sony threw the shrinking ßeta market a bone in 1990, for the 15th anniversary of the ßetamax format. The SLHF-2100 was the 15th Anniversary machine and it was a beast. It brought back the ßeta I speed that saw only an hour of video on a L-500 tape, and it used hi-band processing to deliver the finest recording quality possible. It had four video heads for frame accurate insert editing! The front panel was just backlit touchscreen panel that was button-free. The remote control was a featureless, backlit, touch-sensitive LCD screen with no physical buttons. Imagine a modern smartphone with a 1-bit display. That was the remote control! A drastic leap into the 21st century ca. 1990, a full 17 years before the iPhone “changed everything.” My last few years of music video tapes were mastered on this $1599 monster.
By the time that the 1990s rolled around it felt like the end of an era. I had an editing suite in my home with a bank of four VCRs that could play or edit anything. I had an expanding library of music video titles, mostly on Laserdisc that were the pinnacle of sound and vision. Titles I had bought on Japanese ßeta tapes in the mid-80s I had upgraded to LD by the end of the decade. I had both Ultravox titles and I even got the Japanese Visage laserdisc with all of those videos that beyond the three I barely saw that was definitely the most treasured LD in my collection. I have watched that one countless times and every viewing has been like a gift.
Fade To Black
As the 1990s began the whole music video thing felt tired. The music of the era was not inspiring to me. The music videos were becoming all about money and effects. The era of the $70-$100,000 clip was commonplace but it all felt to rote and moribund. The freshness was over and done with. I had all of this technology but my TV viewing was getting smaller over time. In 1993, I crossed the line and unplugged from cable TV. From that point onward, I had no way to receive a video signal. Any video I watched was something on home video or Laserdisc. And by 1999, I finally bought a [multi-standard] DVD player! Over two years after the introduction of the format! This was a far cry from my days on the bleeding edge of home video! But II quickly embraced the no TV lifestyle. After all, it made for much more time doing the best thing possible: playing music!
I have not seen much in the way of music videos for 29 years now. Some eyeballs reading this may not even be that old. A few things have filtered in via bonus DVDs, or stand alone DVDs. When I think of music videos now, they seem like a queer thing to me. Short films, made to advertise records on television…which had little to do with music. And all of the conventions of the form, especially lipsynching, now seem exceptionally strange to me.
And when I think of all of that money [which was undoubtedly charged back to the artist by the label and formed yet more debt around their necks] blown on videos that had nothing to do with the art of making music, it all seems to be a little peculiar. I can see art school bands and certain genres with a lot of visual appeal [cue: New Romantics] luxuriating in them, but for a band like Journey, who had to make videos by the mid-80s, it all seemed to be a waste of time and money.
I got the impression that music videos were dead in the water by the 90s anyway. MTV was nothing but bad comedy shows and [shudders] “reality” programming by a generation ago. I’ve heard rumors of what it’s like and I don’t want to know. Currently I guess it’s the Internet where if there any music video happening, it’s on a band’s YouTube channel. I don’t like using Google services so that’s fine. They can count me out. But the thought does occur to me. What am I going to do with that box of 600-800 tapes that’s currently in the Record Cell. Taking up valuable real estate underneath the 7″ collection rack? Can I simply purge it? Once I do, I can sell off the high end VCRs, which I kept. They might have surprising value even after all of these years.
Or do I try to digitize the cream of the crop? Is that a good use of my practically non-existent time? Time that I might prefer to use making CDs with from the vinyl only tracks I try to collect? The music video era may have begun in the late 70s but for me it was well and truly over with the 80s. I stumbled along in the 90s for two years before realizing that the video dream was over for me, along with all television watching. I’d say that there was a three to four year period where music video took over the function of radio for me [which I hadn’t listened to since 1980] as a way of discovering new music, but in retrospect it all seems very hard to relate to. And it all cost a lot of money that would have been better put into simply recording more music, I think!