Sound and vision (aries)
Published 05/03/2011 | 05:00
Everyone has their favourite pop video. Whether it's the flying saxophonist in Madness's Baggy Trousers, Daft Punk's lonely giant dog traipsing around New York, or the world's most famous supermodels singing George Michael's Freedom '90 while the kettle boils, music promos are not just part of the fabric of popular culture but have been taken to a level approaching high art.
You only need to take a look at last weekend's Oscars to see how music vid directors have gone on to become the toast of the film industry. David Fincher, who was nominated for Best Director for The Social Network, has shot videos for Madonna, Michael Jackson, the Rolling Stones. . . and the above mentioned George Michael clip, in which the likes of Naomi Campbell and Eva Herzigova pouted in the half-light.
And Mark Romanek, whose dystopian drama Never Let Me Go, picked up a slew of British Independent Film Awards, previously won a Grammy for his emotionally devastating video for Johnny Cash's Hurt.
But the traffic is not all one-way: established Hollywood auteurs have happily swapped three-hour big-screen epics for three-minute MTV rollercoasters. Martin Scorsese shot Michael Jackson's Bad like it was GoodFellas on Broadway, with all-singing, all-dancing hoodlums jiving in sync to Eddie Van Halen's guitar solo.
But it was Jackson's collaboration with National Lampoon director John Landis that was to prove a game-changer for the format. His 14-minute video for Thriller in 1983 was a pop-culture phenomenon.
Guinness World Records listed it in 2006 as the "most successful music video", selling over nine million units.
I remember its late-night premiere on TV as a huge event. The breadth of its ambition with its huge cast of dancing zombies, ornate sets and Vincent Price's melodramatic monologue -- not to mention the shock of seeing the suave Michael Jackson transformed into a fright-night yellow-eyed ghoul -- made Thriller a visceral and unforgettable experience and the twist at the end was a touch of genius.
With MTV having started up two years previously, in 1981, Thriller chimed perfectly with the new world of 24/7 music videos -- and it was Jackson who was credited with breaking down alleged unspoken racial barriers at the station. After Thriller, MTV became the dominion of the self-styled King Of Pop.
Record companies were now investing huge amounts of money in videos in the hope of earning heavy rotation on playlists -- Thriller cost a then-humungous half-a-million dollars.
Duran Duran jetted off to exotic climes to be filmed sailing on a playboy yacht for Rio and Simple Minds never saw a windswept mountainside they didn't want to gaze wistfully over, as the helicopter bearing the camera swooped down showing their best side.
In the years before MTV, videos had been finding their feet as a medium: Queen's promo for Bohemian Rhapsody stood out for its clever use of multiple-frame technology.
David Bowie's Heroes (1977), meanwhile, stood out for its sheer simplicity: the singer, standing statuesque on a pedestal, as a single camera slowly circles him. For four minutes! Yet Bowie's poise and presence mean that you can't take your eyes off him. And it helps that that the song kicks ass.
It's also a retrospective rebuke to the trend for ever more manic and hyperactive cuts in the music videos of today, which seem designed purely for people with Attention Deficit Disorder.
Promos certainly had a more leisurely pace in the Sixties and Seventies. I once interviewed the man who directed most of the early videos for The Rolling Stones, The Who and Paul McCartney's solo career, as well as The Beatles's Let It Be live concert film on the roof of Abbey Road.
Sir Michael Lindsay-Hogg, now 70, had started off on Ready Steady Go, a precursor to Top of the Pops, in the mid-Sixties and one of the earliest examples of pop-music programming on TV before shooting the Stones's legendarily madcap Rock 'n' Roll Circus film in 1967.
(His mother was the late Irish actress Geraldine Fitzgerald, and he went on to direct a film version of Waiting For Godot in Dublin.)
By the Nineties, with the advent of satellite TV, endless versions of the MTV mothership sprung up, with the proverbial 57 channels all seemingly showing exactly the same Britney video at exactly the same time.
At this point, the viewer started to feel overwhelmed. There was schlock around the clock, with wall-to-wall bump 'n' grind faux-orgies, featuring finger-pointing bling-tastic homies and their harems of bootylicious ho's. But amidst this borderline pornographic assault on our senses and sensibility, some gems stood out.
The Nineties and Noughties also led to the rise of super-directors like the above mentioned Fincher and Romanek as well as video hipsters such as Spike Jonze, Chris Cunningham and Michel Gondry, who had such cachet that the likes of Radiohead, Bjork and The White Stripes were clambering to work with them.
But in the past five years or so, the advent of YouTube has transformed the world of the music video once again. Lo-fi, thousands of DIY videos shot by fans on their webcams to accompany their favourite songs, are uploaded daily. Okay, so bands may not be making much dough from the process, but they are getting free videos made for them and shown across the world wide web.
The ever-canny Radiohead even asked their fans to post their home-made videos of the band playing live to the band's website -- which they then compiled and edited into an official video.
My own favourite fan-generated YouTube video has to be one which sets The Blue Nile's Saturday Night to stills of the paintings of Edward Hopper. It's such an exquisite and thoughtful fit, it's uncanny -- and testament to the power of the alliance between music and images.