Music: Pictures from an exhibitionist

It began with Queen. So, as you might expect, video has always pandered to pop's worst instincts. By Michael Collins

Michael Collins
Friday 10 December 1999 01:02

For Holly Johnson, the pop video has its origins in the glory days of the Hollywood musical. It began, he says in Channel 4's two-hour history of the form, with Judy Garland in tuxedo, trilby and stockings, singing "Get Happy". In his interview Beck prefers to cite the promo film that the Beatles made for "Strawberry Fields", when the fab four were all but beyond television performances and touring. For me, another possible starting point, overlooked by the documentary, would be Kenneth Anger's 1965 art house short Kustom Kar Kommandos: a three-minute film of an all- American boy polishing his car with a giant powder puff for the duration of a girl band's performance of "Dream Lover."

But in the end the documentary goes with the conventional wisdom that, for better or worse, the pop video was born 25 years ago with Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody". It took only three hours to shoot at the cost of pounds 3,500, and none of its effects created were achieved in post-production. The most memorable device, that of group's faces being multiplied and layered, was simply accomplished by attaching a prism to the camera. "A year before, I'd done a documentary with Salvador Dali, which won an Emmy in the US," recalls director Bruce Gowers. "My phone never rang. I did one lousy six minute music video and the phone never stopped." And so, something that looked like an art form, but smelt like teen spirit, was born.

Although the British can take the credit for creating the music video, it is the Americans that picked it up and turned it into 24-hour television with the creation of MTV. The seeds of the idea were first sown in the mind of former Monkee, Michael Nesmith. He touted the idea of a network devoted to pop video at a time when, unlike these days, the demand for video by far outweighed the supply. This allowed MTV, in its early stages, to be experimental - at one point providing a platform for numerous videos by performance pop artists Devo, none of which were available as singles.

In some quarters the Queen video has become the pivotal pop moment of the last three decades. But would "Bohemian Rhapsody" and the accompanying video really had an impact if 1975 had been a vintage year for pop music? Prior to Queen's mixture of hard rock, heavy metal and balladry, the year's number ones had included Telly Savalas's sprechgesang version of "If", Windsor Davies and Don Estelle with "Whispering Grass", Billy Connolly's send up of "D.I.V.O.R.C.E", and Laurel & Hardy on "The Trail of the Lonesome Pine". It's not surprising that in his 1993 treatise Will Pop Eat Itself?, Jeremy J Beadle argued that Queen's six-minute slice of pomp rock is "arguably the most comic record of all time". The real pop revolution of the Seventies began when the Sex Pistols took over the charts without the benefit of a video, television or radio play.

Re-examining that first Queen video, it is apparent that the song's pretensions to be a mini-opera were tailormade for a visual form for which grandiosity and spectacle have been the goals, and ultimately, its undoing. Where Freddie Mercury went, Meat Loaf followed. Inevitably, as music video's ambitions swelled to an extreme of ludicrous expense and lavishness, it frequently spilled into bad camp. Pop video's nadir came with the promo for Guns N'Roses's song "November Rain", later lampooned in a French and Saunders sketch. Axl Rose is a groom, while sidekick, Slash, stands alone on a mountain top, with flyaway hair and gestures that informed the routine of many an air guitarist. The kind of rock music that inspired the music video, later supplied it with a visual vocabulary which was quite as great a cliche as the music itself. Now the same is true of music videos for the bigger rap stars such as Puff Daddy and his contemporaries. They have the budgets to cross continents in the course of a video promo, and often do, in between the obligatory gang shot and groin-grabbing ritual. These two components have also provided a leitmotif in the music videos of Michael Jackson since the making of "Thriller" in 1983 by John Landis (voted the greatest video of all time).

"Thriller" marked the culmination of a trend rather than the beginning. The idea of video director as film-maker, and pop star as actor had emerged during video's infancy at the start of the Eighties, when the words post- punk, and new romanticism were in the air and every pop star was up for playing a part. Adam Ant was making video pantos as Prince Charming and the dandy highwayman. Ultravox attempted film noir with the "Vienna" video, and David Bowie wound up on a beach dressed as a pierrot, with someone's mother.

Now that the pop video has finally eaten itself - see, for example, Shania Twain's re-working of Robert Palmer's "Addicted to Love" - Bowie's "Ashes to Ashes", in hindsight, although very much of its time, has a lot to say about the evolution of the pop video, but little to say about pop itself.

For that, we look to the promo film for "Life On Mars" in 1973. Crudely shot, against a white backdrop, Bowie is captured in close-up and topshots. His make-up, suit, and hair, a collection of washed out powder blue, silver, candy floss pink, and vermilion. He simply shifts from foot to foot and folds his arms throughout. Three decades later the footage is more compelling than any number of videos currently doing the rounds. In fact, what becomes evident throughout Channel 4's chronicle of the pop video is that the stripped down, lo-fi films are the ones that linger in the mind: like Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit", and the Prodigy's "Firestarter", which managed to unsettle the nation simply by putting singer Keith Flint in a tunnel. A new generation of directors, inspired by these films are taking a DIY approach to the form, with small budgets, limited resources and little chance of an airing on MTV. The "anti-video" may prove to be the most interesting moment in pop video's history so far.

`The History of the Music Video', 9.30pm, tomorrow, Channel 4

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