Too much tertiary education... Former performer/wrestler, teacher, scientist; Published author & Father... Want to be a writer if I grow up...
Published September 12th 2021
Music visuals taken to the extreme
When it comes to music, the 1980s are probably only going to be remembered for niche musical tastes (and for keeping me in columns for a few years) and "Rick-Rolling". But there is one thing that the 1980s did give the world – really incredible music videos.
Me? Making a music video at the moment for one of my first properly recorded songs? What gives you that idea?
Sure, music videos have been around for years. The Beatles are regarded as having put together the first distinct non-performance, non-movie music videos in popular music for some of their singles. Then came the 1970s and Queen and David Bowie were amongst the vanguard of taking the music video to new and strange lands in pop and rock spheres.
But the 1980s gave the world something else – MTV. As strange as it might seem to modern audiences, the "M" stands for "Music" – "Music TeleVision" in fact. All they played were music videos. And so, suddenly, every song had to have a video clip to go along with it. Some were made on the cheap, some were big-budget extravaganzas and some were… well, just weird. And thus this column.
So, why this column? I recently said the most-requested column I've received has been a lockdown playlist. But, before that was the topic of conversation, what I received more requests for was my favourite music videos. Well, sorry, apart from Michael Jackson's 'Thriller', then a-ha's 'Take On Me', I couldn't do it. Those are my favourites, but there are way too many others.
But doing some research on Thomas Dolby recently gave me the idea for this list – the weird video clips. And I decided to stay with the 1980s because that is peak video clip era and it is when I really took notice of them properly. And you need to remember that this is pre-CGI – most of these are practical or simple studio effects. No computers, just really inventive directors. Not necessarily weird songs, mind you – it's the visuals that left me going, "Huh?"
So, some rules – no comedy songs, I need to like the song, and one song per artist. Now, this list is based on my memory, so if any songs are missing there is a good chance I just forgot them.
Weird video clips!
'Ashes To Ashes' by David Bowie (1980)
The first video clip that made me stop and just watch the screen. I was 9 and had no idea what was going on – I still don't, let's be honest – in this video with its strange colour palette and construction equipment and Bowie dressed in all manner of costumes and standing in water… wow.
'Freedom Of Choice' by Devo (1980)
Devo started making weird videos in the 70s, but this one, with its bizarre make-up, skateboard collisions, people acting like dogs, etc., really ups the ante. It makes 'Whip It' seem straight forward and sensible. The song is really good, but the video is so strange.
'The Thin Wall' by Ultravox (1981)
Ultravox were one of my favourite bands in the 1980s, and their video clips always seemed to be real "events" before Michael Jackson broke the barriers of what could be done to sell a song. And this song with its Cocteau arms from the word go, strange gravity effects and all manner of other strangenesses was one of the more out there. And it's a good song, to boot!
'Rockit' by Herbie Hancock (1983)
Jazz maestro Hancock hit the 80s by embracing technology and synthesisers… and weird video clips. Like this one made up of a bunch of robots or bits of robots or other strange moving things. It might appear a bit naff today, but these were real creations and, at the time, it was strange to see. This is the video from the 80s my mum remembers most (apart from 'Take On Me').
'Total Eclipse Of the Heart' by Bonnie Tyler (1983)
Very Gothic and possibly artistic… but the kids with glowing eyes, the constant use of doves, the veils everywhere, the weird out of context muscle-man dancers, and just everything happening… this is weird. I love it, don't get me wrong – it's probably my favourite song and clip on this list – but it's odd. Then again, considering the album it came from, and the song's writer, maybe it's to be expected?
'Nothing Bad Ever Happens' by Oingo Boingo (1983)
I keep finding Oingo Boingo songs lately, don't I? Well, this is odd. Tropical islands with half-buried backing singers, thieves stealing babies and wives, Cocteau faces, some truly odd dancing, skeleton silhouettes being tortured… What's going on? Just… what?
'I Want To Break Free' by Queen (1984)
A send-up of Coronation Street (which United Estatians did NOT get) is weird enough, but then add that really odd dance piece in the middle plus the other assorted group gatherings… Queen knew how to make a music video.
'Hyperactive' by Thomas Dolby (1984)
Yes, this column started here. I knew this song and knew the video (my research was for a paper on the use of literary allusions in pop music), but watching it again reminded me how very odd it was. Disembodied body parts, ventriloquist dolls and blue screen (yes, blue, not green) effects that were unlike what we'd seen before just make this really odd.
'Rough Boy' by ZZ Top (1985)
ZZ Top released a string of videos featuring a magnificent car. In this one, the car has turned into a space shuttle, goes to a space station where disembodied bits of the members of the band are attached to things and a woman's body appears for no discernible reason, and sometimes just bits of her, like her legs attached to a plate.
'Don't Come Around Here No More' by Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers (1985)
Okay, so this is a homage to Alice's Adventures In Wonderland, but with the surrealism upped to 11. Flamingo cello bows, size changes, checkerboard patterning, pig-girls – the works. But I'm pretty sure in the Lewis Carroll books they never actually turned Alice into a cake and ate her while she looked on in panic.
'Don't Lose My Number' by Phil Collins (1985)
It was either this one or the one where Phil Collins was beaten up by the Ultimate Warrior. I picked this one because the clip has absolutely nothing to do with the song. It's a bunch of video directors giving weird ideas for visuals for the song. I reckon it's Collins having a go at the videos of the time, but it's still weird. Especially the Collins as a ninja scene… or Collins in Mad Max… or…
'Road To Nowhere' by Talking Heads (1985)
Well, what is there to say about this? It's got David Byrne running in the corner throughout. And it has… everything. An aging couple. A man dragging an accordion and chasing a shopping trolley, a clown driving a ride-on lawnmower… and that's just the first 90 seconds. Yeah… love it and love this song.
'Close To Me' by The Cure (1985)
This is just the band playing and singing the song… while in a closet. Which is then pushed off a cliff into the sea. The clip feels incredibly claustrophobic and, despite a lack of strange visual effects, it is still just plain weird.
'Big Time' by Peter Gabriel (1986)
Gabriel's hit 'Sledgehammer' showed that stop-motion animation can still be cool; this follow-up showed that it can also still be weird. It was like he had a bunch of ideas left over and just threw all of them into a blender and this was the result.
'Land Of Confusion' by Genesis (1986)
This might seem relatively straightforward – it's the video featuring puppets from Spitting Image. But it's a video clip featuring puppets from Spitting Image! I played a game with a friend while writing this – how many people featured could we name? I missed twelve, she missed nine. But it also features Ronald Reagan dressed as Superman, two Phil Collinses, the Pope playing bass, Ronald Reagan dressed as a cowboy riding a Styracosaurus… I could have just written that last one and left it, couldn't I?
I know Phil Collins is in Genesis, but I'm saying it's two different artists.
And there we are, 15 odd music videos from the 1980s. The music is quite good, but the visuals… wow. Just, wow.