Video nasties

Channel 4 takes a nostalgic look at how the pop promo changed the face of the music business
The video for Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" transformed the face of pop. Just ask its director, Bruce Gowers. "A year before, I'd done a documentary with Salvador Dali, which won an Emmy," he remembers. "My phone never rang. I did one lousy six-minute video and the phone never stopped."

It has changed the lives of a lot of others, too. Some still begrudge the fact that, since Queen's memorable cod-opera 25 years ago, the pop video has become key to the promotion of any single. Phil Collins, for instance, moans that "it has changed music to the point where people have to look good before they sound good".

But as Channel 4's hugely enjoyable documentary, The History of the Pop Video, demonstrates, we can't turn back the clock. The video is now a key part of the marketing of any artist.

Fenton Bailey, the producer of The History of the Pop Video, reckons that now the pop business just couldn't do without them. "When videos came along, pop music changed forever. For a start, there were no more ugly rock stars," he laughs. "Old crusties like Phil Collins may resent the fact that sound and vision are now a co-equal package. But pop is no longer just about tunes - it's about a look. Nowadays, artists have to create a confection: catchy tunes and an incredible look. The video crystallised that. Before that, pop music was half a format. The video made it whole.

"Now I can't think of anyone who's made it without videos. At first REM refused to appear in videos - how pretentious can you get? They ended up doing them, of course, and now they complain about being massive. I don't get the argument about pop stars not wanting to sell records - well, go and live in a monastery then."

Promos have always been inventive - the "Bohemian Rhapsody" video was lauded for its then-dazzling, multi-screen imagery. Now, Bailey reckons, in terms of sheer imaginative daring, pop videos are outstripping movies. "Feature films are incredibly conservative compared to music videos," he says. "Videos are forging ahead of movies with special effects. The Matrix was the first film since Flashdance to use pop-video techniques properly - and was a huge success because of it.

"Also, in the area of story-telling videos are way ahead of the plodding narrative of filmmaking - 90 minutes never seemed so long. Thanks to promos, audiences have reached such a level of sophistication and visual literacy that they don't need a straight narrative anymore. You can tell a story in a fragmented way, or through montage, and people will get it."

Very much a product of the MTV generation, Bailey does not hold with the traditionalists' theory - that the pop video has caused people to have the attention-span of a gnat. "Short attention-span equals broad attention-range," he says. "The notion that channel-surfing is some sort of evil pastime is ridiculous. Why do we have to watch a programme from beginning to end? People graze. They can watch TV and read a magazine and talk on the telephone all at the same time. That doesn't mean the end of Western civilisation as we know it. It's merely indicative of our capacity to process more information simultaneously."

But perhaps the most powerful effect of the pop video has been its ability to bring on incurable cases of nostalgia. "Promos are snapshots of a particular time," says Bailey. "One of the most famous is Olivia Newton John's "Physical". She's dancing in a gym in a torn sweatshirt and a headband - it never ceases to amaze that fashions we thought looked so cool then now look so naff. But watching it, you're suddenly transported right back in time. It's the closest we've come to time travel. It's a trip.

"I was sitting in an editing suite watching a cut of The History of the Pop Video with my C4 commissioning editor, and Duran Duran's "Save a Prayer" came on. Suddenly she went all quiet and misty-eyed. I said, 'What's wrong?', and she replied, 'I was just remembering ...' Nostalgia is a narcotic. It's as high as you can get without breaking the law."

'The History of the Pop Video' is on C4 tonight at 9.30pm

James Rampton