[…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!
Hey, I might know a guy who’d want one of those high-end Beta decks…..just sayin’. ;-) Very good story and very familiar to my own journey collecting music videos. I still have boxes of tapes here that I have accumulated over the past few years and I too am anxious to clean them out and make some more room. Actually, these days I’m sifting through old Beta tapes looking for ads showing famous actors before they became “famous”. One of my fun finds was a Preparation H commercial featuring Bryan “Breaking Bad” Cranston. I still stumble upon a music clip from time to time. I even ran an ad on Craigslist asking for anybody with old tapes to get in touch with me. This has been a great thread and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it. Now….where is my “Liquid Television” tape?
This was a fascinating conclusion to a journey I’ve more or less shared with you over the years. It should come as no surprise that after digitizing a handful of my VHS tapes to DVDs, I chucked all my tapes a long time ago. And yes, if I really want to see INXS on Arsenio Hall or the Smithereens on SNL, there’s always Vimeo or YouTube. And while I have dutifully purchased plenty of music DVDs over the years, when am I really ever going to sit down and watch a whole assemblage of Crowded House or Eurythmics videos? My life and my priorities are very different now.
The Sunday night line-up from around 1987-1989 was fantastic: an hour of British humor (an episode of Monty Python then the Young Ones, or a Comic Strip Presents mini-film), followed by 120 Minutes. That was my three hours of MTV watching for the week!
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Jon Chaisson – While “The Young Ones” was the A-list, those Comic Sfrip Presents films were the poison pill. Deployed below the surface. I still have fever dreams of “Five Go Mad On Mescaline.” Did it really happen or did I just imagine it?
While I try to always use a VPN when I have to deal with Google’s services, it can fairly be said that most music videos post-88 that anyone might be interested in are there in at least NTSC (often better) standard, and while music videos are still technically being made, they have long ago lost the art of filmmaking (and the record-company budget), so they are mostly straight performance clips, occasionally filmed on an interesting set or house. Weird Al might be the last artist willing to put in the effort and money to make great music videos!
“Comic Strip Presents,” being a UK show, really relied heavily on its audience’s cultural reference understanding to work, but when it did work for me it was delightful (like “Five Go Mad,” what with me being friends with one of the original Famous Five), and of course “The Young Ones” was groundbreaking TV of its time (and still fun to watch).
I was sadly very late to the LaserDisc experience (despite stumbling across a store in Mableton (City of Tomorrow) GA that carried it and the nascent pre-LD equipment *AND* having access to at least two great places to buy LaserDiscs during my frequent trips to LA in the 90s and 00’s.
Thanks largely to the mix of YouTube and home computers, it is now pretty easy to capture and create a “video mix tape” of rare/eclectic videos if one desires. As for radio, I remain a fan of college radio everywhere I go, since you can always find a show on their schedules that plays recent indie music that is enjoyable for people of our tastes … though truly “interesting” new bands are much fewer and farther between than they were back in our day! Ya punk kids of today, you know NOTHING! If we wanted to watch music videos we had to walk 20 miles uphill in the snow (waves cane around menacingly) :)
PS. Forgot to mention that nearly all of that Night Flight-as-streaming-service is CLASSIC Night Flight, augmented with equally well-curated newer and vintage content that fits in with the format, and now a second “channel” of modern indie music videos. It’s $5/month or $40 for a year (as mentioned), and well worth it IMO.
It’s funny you mention the demise of music videos by the 90’s, but while that may be true it is also when collecting really started for me. By that time, I did have the occasional music video recorded to VHS, but when I wanted the golden years of MTV 81-84 videos, I was often left to collecting. This is when I was introduced to Telegenics and Rockamerica promotional tapes, and what a goldmine they were.
Speaking of Goldmine, that magazine is how I collected videos in the 90’s. I would put out ads to find those promo tapes and collectors with original MTV recordings. That was a thrill at the time, finding those who had hours of uninterrupted MTV recordings from 82-83. Although, it did confirm that it wasn’t entirely a golden age, there was a lot of bad classic rock in between the cool New Wave videos, but even those old Crunch ‘n Munch commercials were found to have a retro charm. I always assumed those extended MTV breaks of space footage, etc, set to music, were due to technical difficulties.
Even as I lived MTV in those early days, I didn’t really realize how downhill it was going until around 85. I mean, as far as late 1984 I was discovering bands like Pseudo Echo and Torch Song, and even the ‘new’ Planet P Project 8 ½ minute epic ‘Pink World’ was given the world premier and ‘exclusive’ treatment, so it wasn’t all bad just yet. I still have all of my video tapes, regardless of how grainy or multi-generation some may be, piled into bookcases in my dedicated Retro Room upstairs. Not that I often touch them since most (but certainly not all) of it is on YouTube, but video collecting in the 90’s was exciting when I would find videos I hadn’t seen in over a decade at that point.
Scott – If you were playing catch up in the 90s then you picked a great time for it. I also used the Goldmine video want ads… to set people up with what they were looking for! I used to make lots of dubs for people since I had a ton of clips. We must have passed in the night but I stopped that by the mid-90s. I sometimes bought Telegenics videos that used to show up in Atlanta used record stores like Fantasyland. I still have a Telegenics copy of Cabaret Voltaire’s clip for “Kino” in actual stereo. For some reason “Gasoline In Your Eye” was all mono (except for “Sensoria”).
Yep, 1985 was the year almost anything to do with music went south for me. Live Aid marked the final nail in New Wave’s coffin. Everything started to get bigger, and dumber. Hair Metal became viable as a result. I remember seeing “Don’t Look Now” on “IRS’s The Cutting Edge” in 1984 and spending the better part of a year seeking out a copy of “Wish Thing.” Which IRS must have pressed 200 copies of.