The video generation

Remember where you were when you first saw 'Bohemian Rhapsody'? JOHN HARRIS celebrates that great modern art form - the pop promo

In the early Eighties, when Britain's all-time comedic apex was represented by Mel Smith, Griff Rhys Jones, Rowan Atkinson and Pamela Stephenson, the makers of Not The Nine O'Clock News decided to do a sketch poking fun at the pop video. The faux-cinematic grandiosity of the average music "promo" was commendably satirised; the whole thing looked like it had been shot in 1930s Slovakia, and the NTNON team carried on like the self-important thesps that pop stars were threatening to turn into.

The item's key impact, however, resided in the title of the song to which they were miming - "Nice Video, Shame About The Song". Back then, as budgets sky-rocketed and musicians talked about videos being crucial to their art, it was widely believed that the three-minute promo would kill the traditional single, and the quality of music would come second to the splendidness of the visuals. The invention of MTV in the early Eighties only heightened the panic.

Thankfully, the aesthetic meltdown failed to occur. The potency of the video peaked, and the promo took its place alongside every other part of the music industry's marketing armoury. In retrospect, it seems rather a shame. Born at the tail-end of the Sixties, I was a member of a generation whose passage to adulthood was marked out by pop videos: we trembled at the gothic creepiness of "Bohemian Rhapsody", marvelled at "Thriller" and "The Wild Boys", and let out righteous sneers at Robert Palmer's "Addicted To Love". Channel 4's sadly defunct Chart Show was our Ready Steady Go!, and our lofts are full of home-made videotapes, bulging with all manner of three-minute curios.

That said, the odd masterpiece still appears and, as proved by last week's MTV video awards and next Saturday's Channel 4 theme night, The History of the Pop Video, the promo's history has led to an archive that is, by turns, dazzling and rib-ticklingly hilarious. Its highlights go something like this:

THE VIDEO THAT STARTED IT ALL

The Beatles - 'Paperback Writer'/'Rain', 1966

There was a time when people believed that the musicians they saw on their TV sets were duty-bound to play live - but in 1966, the Beatles blew the gaff. Accompanied by director Michael Lindsay-Hogg, they travelled to London's Chiswick Park and mimed to both sides of their latest single, and even the most naive viewer had problems believing they were actually performing anything. There were no amplifiers! Or wires! And poor old Ringo was just, like, standing there! "There's something funny going on here," said the UK's mum and dads, while the kids sincerely believed that The Beatles' god-like magic had enabled them to stand in a park and make the same sound they'd carefully put on tape.

The films hardly look trail-blazing - but their concerted export abroad laid the path for MTV culture. The music video's spiritual beginnings lie here.

THE DAWN OF THE VIDEO AGE

Queen - 'Bohemian Rhapsody', 1975

More controversy - this time because the video for "Bohemian Rhapsody" wrought absolute terror on the UK's pre-teens. It began simply enough - with Freddie Mercury perched at a piano miming the song's intro - but upon the intonation of "I see a little silhouett-o of a man", things got very strange indeed. The band's four members stood in half shadow, looking - and sounding - like androgynous middle European warlocks, while primitive effects allowed the "Galileo" bits to hurtle towards something approaching sci-fi. "Thunderbolts and lightning very very frightening" indeed.

"We shot it in a record-breaking three hours," says director Bruce Gowers. "At 7.30pm I got a call saying, 'Why aren't you here? You get your ass over here!' I got there, started to shoot, and we were in the pub having a beer at 10.45pm. The total budget was pounds 3,500."

THE VIDEO AS QUASI-MOVIE

Michael Jackson - 'Thriller', 1983

Jacko has long revelled in the possibilities for self-glorification that the video allows. 1996's "Earth Song" remains his most grandiose statement - five minutes during which the earth falls into apocalypse, only to be redeemed by the valiant efforts of Jacko himself. That said, "Thriller" was his first and best stab at quasi-cinematic art: directed by John Landis, it was 20 minutes long, and masterfully in thrall to every horror cliche in the book. It begins with Michael enjoying a late-night romantic moment with his impossibly innocent date, only to mutate into a disco werewolf - whereupon he is joined by a troupe of beautifully choreographed zombies.

Landis was succeeded by Martin Scorcese, who fed Michael's fantasies of street-level authenticity with the video for 1986's "Bad" - in which Jacko foils a subway mugging. Such was the Eighties' high watermark of video-induced mirth.

THE THREE-MINUTE BLOCKBUSTER

Duran Duran - 'The Wild Boys', 1984

Simon Le Bon was a pseudo-arty middle-class boy from Birmingham, who repeatedly claimed that pop videos were a new art form and he was something

close to a latter-day Picasso. "It's like stereo was in the Seventies," he helpfully explained to Smash Hits. "Pink Floyd's 'Dark Side Of The Moon' was the first truly stereo record and I want to make a visual equivalent."

"Simon actually had some experience," says Duran Duran bassist John Taylor. "He was at drama school when he joined us, so he was really up for the camera. He was up for a bit of acting, a bit of Apocalypse Now and romantic comedy."

Quite where "The Wild Boys" fits into all this is something of a mystery. Made by Highlander director Russell Mulcahy, it was a gloriously inexplicable attempt to deal with the vexed nature of modern masculinity - the climax featured Simon Le Bon tied to the sail of a windmill, being plunged into a huge tank of water every 10 seconds. "It jammed with him under water," Mulcahy remembers. "It took maybe 45 seconds to get him out, which is a long time when you're not meant to be there."

THE OVER-EGGED ANIMATED SHORT

Peter Gabriel - 'Sledgehammer', 1986

That Peter Gabriel saw pop music as a visual business was never in doubt - when he was the singer with Genesis, he was prone to deliver readings of the song "Supper's Ready" dressed up as a giant plant. His solo career found him jumping headlong into the all-new medium of promo videos - and "Sledgehammer" was as good as he got: a surreally animated odyssey through life, love and the pursuit of happiness in which all the action is pivoted around Gabriel's stationary head. Sensory overload is something of an understatement: meaning-laden tableaux pop up and disappear again at the rate of one every four or five seconds, until the video grapples with the roots of life itself. The standard sperm/egg image is brought into technicolour life, before two oven-ready chickens mate and duly reproduce. Thirteen years on, it looks dated but undoubtedly still stunning - small wonder that Gabriel's PR blurb still boasts that "Sledgehammer" has won the most awards of any pop video ever.

THE REHABILITATION OF THE PROMO 'CLIP'

Nirvana - 'Smells Like Teen Spirit', 1991

Until the early Nineties, "indie" musicians always had a problem with pop videos. Some bands - like The Smiths - refused to make them at all, while others gloried in knowingly turning out rubbish: the fashionable technique usually involved a Super-8 camera bought from your local Sue Ryder shop and three minutes of gooning around in a motorway service station (vital for that "We're on tour, us" ambience).

"Smells Like Teen Spirit" decisively changed all of that: not only was it made by the world's most famous anti-corporate rock group, but it was also brilliant enough to provide much of the momentum behind their commercial ascent. Superficially, it was a mere "performance video"; the band at the centre of the action, miming their parts. In addition to Nirvana, however, the cast included a troupe of grinning cheerleaders, kitted out in uniforms bearing the "A" anarchy symbol. In tandem with the band's kinetic performance, it spoke volumes about the burgeoning "grunge" upsurge and its aim of subverting apple pie Americana. God-fearing parents from Minnesota to Alabama were thus terrified - although the upshot was nothing more scary than their offspring wearing torn jeans and smelling a bit.

AND GOD CREATED BRITPOP

Blur - 'Country House', 1995

The one recorded instance of a pop video causing such violent disagreement that it threatened to split the band up. In August 1995, Blur released the single that beat Oasis's "Roll With It" to number one, and thereby defined the Britpop era. Its video - directed by Damien Hirst, with assistance from Keith Allen - also exemplified that period of pop culture, replete with Carry On-esque sauciness and the obligatory appearance by Brit-porn star Joanne Guest. A gaudy, rather overbearing romp through all manner of British comedy cliches - nurses, haystacks, altercations with farm animals - it repulsed at least one of Blur to the extent that he began to question his place in the band.

"I hated it," says guitarist Graham Coxon. "I didn't realise what dirty minds Keith Allen and Damien Hirst had. If I'd done what I was supposed to in the script I would have had a lobotomy by now. I was supposed to do all sorts of nasty things - getting bottoms in my face and chasing girls. There's some unintentionally funny bits where I'm not chasing them: 'Come on Graham! Chase them' and I'm running in the opposite direction. It was so stupid."

Incidentally, he was right.

THE CONSUMMATE MILLENNIAL 'PROMO'

Radiohead - 'No Surprises', 1998

Modern pop video is dominated by a small band of esteemed directors: Chris Cunningham (Bjork, Madonna, cult techno star The Aphex Twin), Spike Jonze (Fatboy Slim, The Beastie Boys), Dom & Nick (The Chemical Brothers, Supergrass), and Radiohead accomplice Grant Gee. Thus far, "No Surprises" represents his creative apex.

An unbelievably simple, one-shot affair, it finds Radiohead singer Thom Yorke doing his untoppable party-piece: sticking his head in a plastic water tank, allowing it to fill up until he is at the point of drowning, and then staring at the camera with a mixture of relief and pride as the water is drained back out. There's a serious point at work, however: Radiohead's aesthetic - a combination of techno-fear and the belief that the modern world throws up moments of genuine transcendence - is thus captured. "The inspiration came from two things," says Gee. "Firstly, Blue Peter circa 1974: Singleton, Noakes and Purves biting their nails as they watched some minor escapologist in a Houdini scenario, locked, chained, strait- jacketed and hung upside down in a tank of water. Secondly, 2001: a huge close-up of Bowman's face when HAL won't let him back on the ship and he starts to panic. It's the perfect image of helplessness in the face of technology."

''The History of the Pop Video', Channel 4, 11 December, 9.30pm-12.pm

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