May 30 – The Beatles Booked Another Smash Hit

The Beatles were about as hot as you could be in 1965, particularly at home in Britain. But they had one critic at least. “Why do you always write songs about love all the time? Can’t you ever write about a horse, or a summit conference or something interesting?”

So asked Paul McCartney’s aunt Lil of the mop-top superstar. And he accepted the challenge, the result being “Paperback Writer” which came out as a standalone single on this day in 1966. Not a horse nor a summit but at least for Lil’s sake it wasn’t about love…unless you count the love of books. It’s suggested that Paul got the idea from his friends opening the Indica Bookshop of which he was the first customer. Whether or not that was the case, it was clearly a McCartney creation although credited to “Lennon/McCartney” as was their norm then. Lennon said it was “the son of ‘Day Tripper’, meaning a rock’n’roll song with a guitar lick or a fuzzy, loud guitar song. But it’s Paul’s song.”

Not only were the lyrics, about an aspiring novelist trying to hit the Best-sellers list a bit different than their ordinary fare upto that point, so was the sound which involved a bit more overdubbing than previous singles and more Paul… they amped up the bass parts a bit. Oddly it was John, not Paul, who requested that; he felt the band’s records lacked enough bass oomph til that point. So engineer Geoff Emerick boosted that instrument in the mix and had Paul try out a new Rickenbacker bass instead of his usual Hofner. Emerick noted it was “the first time the bass has been heard in all of its excitement.”

EMI in Britain put out the 7” on this day, with it being about six months since the Rubber Soul album was released and a couple of months before Revolver would be ready for the stores. While the band became known for the somewhat unusual practise of releasing singles that weren’t on the albums they were currently promoting, which might have been a way of getting radio play (from the single) without cutting into the LP sales, this one was simply because the record company felt they’d been too long without a hit single (weeks!) and needed one out quickly. They put a lot of effort into promoting it, some quite innovative and successful, some not so much. They initially promoted it using the infamous “butcher cover” photo with the band bloodied, standing around decapitated dolls… it also was used on a limited number of Yesterday and Today album sleeves before being pulled. This got noticed, but not in a positive way, so they quickly replaced that with other photos of the band, including on some editions a photo of them playing live, but with the photo reversed so George and John seem to be playing left-handed.

More successful was their decision to promote the song heavily on TV. They got them onto several British programs including Top of the Pops (which, Peter Asher noted, per usual, the BBC taped over on their master tapes to save money, leaving only one known copy of the appearance – a home taping without sound) and recorded a “promotional clip” – what would later be called a “video” – of it with the band at Chiswick House and its gardens in London. That would be shown on Ed Sullivan in North America and lives on in Youtube glory and elsewhere.

How did people react to the new, not-talkin’-’bout-love Fab Four. Critics mostly liked it. Cashbox for example said it would “continue their run of blockbuster singles”, calling it “a rhythmic, pulsating ode with an infectious, repeating riff all about the creative urge.” A few British publications sniped at it a little, thinking it a bit too experimental or “a trifle too clever for its own good.”

The public didn’t seem to think it too clever to enjoy. It debuted at #1 in the UK and spent two weeks on top in the U.S., making it their 12th #1 there. It also hit #1 in Canada, Australia, Ireland, Germany and quite a few other lands. It helped that American listeners wouldn’t be able to buy it on an album until the Hey Jude compilation in 1970. However, it might have signaled to discerning watchers that perhaps the Midas Touch was dimming a little for them; despite being a #1 it sold fewer copies in the UK than any single of theirs since “Love Me Do.”

The band must’ve liked the change though; Revolver delivered the most experimental sounds from them upto then and a wider range of song topics (“Taxman”, “Eleanor Rigby” etc) than fans had come to expect. Thanks Aunt Lil!


March 13 – The Cars Were Looking Sharp

The Cars were sitting on top of the world this day in 1984 with the release of their fifth album, Heartbeat City. The album built upon their prior success in North America with singles like “My Best Friend’s Girl” and “Just What I Needed” and gave them a European breakthrough with their only gold album in Britain.

It came over two and a half years after the mildly disappointing predecessor, Shake It Up, and with that album’s flat sales, the band did indeed decide to shake up their formula. They ended their longtime association with producer Roy Thomas Baker and instead brought in super-producer Mutt Lange, hot off hits with the likes of Foreigner and AC/DC. They traveled to London to record it, and being conscious of how big video was becoming at the time, put a lot into the videos for the singles. The MTV-friendly videos for songs like “You Might Think” and “Hello Again” helped get them attention, but as Robert Palmer pointed out the sound was good too: “they have taken some important but disparate contemporary trends,” like punk, melodic power pop and electronics, “mixed them together in a personal and appealing blend.” At home, the Bostonians album hit #3 on the charts, tying for their best showing, and put out no less than six singles (including two top 10s). When “Why Can’t I have You?” from it squeaked into the top 40, it became the 10th such hit in their career. The Benjamin Orr-sung “Drive” hit #3 in the States and UK, their best-ever in both countries. When all was said and done, Heartbeat City was the third biggest-seller of the year in the States, and oddly enough was the #1 of the year in New Zealand. Rolling Stone graded it 3-stars, calling it “a perfect example of forward-thinking contemporary pop – an exquisite balance of crowd-pleasing rock and the latest experimentations in studio sound.” Years later, Pitchfork would give it 7.5 out of 10, suggesting it was “a mini-Thriller” with all the hits it spawned, and “often forgotten as one of the year’s pop music touchstones.” While the video for “You Might Think” garnered a ton of attention, and the first MTV Video of the Year Award given out, quite possibly Ocasek was fonder of the Timothy Hutton-directed one for “Drive.” That video had him and supermodel Paulina Porizkova in it; five years later he’d marry her. The Cars played three songs off the album at Live Aid the following year, but soon after split because of musical differences of opinion.

December 28 – Brit New Wavers Toured America’s Old Highway

Britain’s Depeche Mode taught us how to travel west : get “Behind the Wheel” and take “Route 66”. The double-sided single was released on this day in at least eight different forms (including 7 and 12″ vinyl, cd-singles, different versions for Europe and the U.S…)!

It helped the Music for the Masses album (from which “Behind the Wheel” was drawn) become their biggest hit to that point in North America and helped them sell out venues from East Germany (of all places) to California on the tour, the final show of which, at the Rose Bowl, was recorded for their live 101 album and VHS. The striking video for “wheel” (shot in B&W by renowned photographer Anton Corbijn) evoked all sorts of imagery of the American west, so “Route 66” seemed a perfect b-side. Possibly as a nod to American music, the band broke out more guitars for the song than had been their norm til then.

The song is about one of the first U.S. highways, opened in 1925, which ran between Chicago and L.A., and the song had been a hit  for Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby and the Rolling Stones. Oddly it was originally written by Bobby Troup, probably best known as the elder doctor on the TV show, Emergency. The DM version ended up being the #1 song of the year in ’88 on LA’s KROQ station. Maybe they were taking that highway west to the Rose Bowl.

December 1 – Relax, It’s Just A Nice Christmas Song

Can’t win for losing? Or can’t lose for winning? Probably the second was the correct definition for Frankie Goes to Hollywood in 1984. The Brit band assembled by, and produced by Trevor Horn was sitting at #1 on the UK singles chart this day that year, with “The Power of Love.”

It was in many ways the Year of Frankie, in Britain at least. It was their third single, and the third one to hit #1 there. That’s a trick not even the Beatles could pull off – having your first three singles each top the charts. It followed “Relax” and “Two Tribes”, from the double-album Welcome to the Pleasuredome which went 3X platinum there and also hit #1. The album would in time produce one more single, the title track, which broke their streak of #1s…but just barely. It rose to #2. Meanwhile, “The Power of Love” was a top 5 hit in Australia, New Zealand and the majority of Europe, and a top 20 in Canada. Oddly, it flopped entirely in the U.S., not even coming close to the top 40.

So, they couldn’t lose for winning, right? Well, in many ways that was true. But in one small way, the reverse was true. It was their third single and the third to draw widespread criticism… although much of that came from their videos rather than the music itself. While the first single, “Relax” was banned briefly by the BBC due to its sexual innuendo, this one and “Two Tribes” were both skewered more for the videos rather than the song itself. While “Two Tribes” was criticized for the violent Godley & Creme made video with Reagan and Gorbachev lookalikes fighting, this song had a seemingly innocent Christmas-sy video produced by the same pair. However, the prominent use of a Nativity scene and depiction of the Biblical Christmas story in it drew the wrath of both many Christians, who felt Frankie was mocking them, and atheists who didn’t like getting a video sermon with their hit music. Despite that, the song quickly came to be identified with the season and in many cases considered a Christmas song. Lead singer and co-writer Holly Johnson says of it, “I always felt like (it) was the record that would save me in this life. There is a biblical aspect to its spirituality and passion…the fact that love is the only thing that matters in the end.”

If you were wondering, the reference to “the hooded claw” in the song is a reference to a relatively obscure early-’70s cartoon, The Perils of Penelope Pitstop, in which the villain was the Hooded Claw.

The Power of Love” is a fine love song, no matter how you interpret it… and evidently a fine title too. It was one of three different hit songs within a year that used the same title. Huey Lewis and the News and Jennifer Rush each had different songs of that name.

November 19 – George Got Back Upto Speed In ’76

They say when life gives you a bunch of lemons, make lemonade. Well, life had indeed dealt George Harrison a few sour fruits in the mid-’70s, but he spun them into something tasty with Thirty Three & 1/3 , his fifth post- Beatles album. It came out this day in 1976.

Harrison had been working on the record for most of the year and was still smarting some from the failure of his marriage to Patti Boyd a couple of years earlier. As well he suffered hepatitis, and last but certainly not least, was diverted quite a bit of the time by an ongoing lawsuit against him for plagiarism. He eventually lost that one, with publishers Bright Music succeeding in saying he’d copied the music of “He’s So Fine” for his “My Sweet Lord.” As a result of those things one would imagine, one might be a bit bitter, and for a time Harrison did indeed get rather negative and start over-indulging in drinks and drugs. But there were patches of blue in his sky at the same time. He’d got a new girlfriend, whom he’d later marry, Olivia Arias. He had fun hanging out with the Monty Python comedy troupe, was becoming a serious fan of car racing and was being nudged back towards spirituality and meditation by Olivia. Thankfully, it was the new, upbeat version of George which came through on Thirty Three & 1/3. “”I think generally the album’s nice because it’s happy” he told interviewers at the time.

The result was a ten song effort which indeed sounded reasonably upbeat. He got help from a good group of his musical friends including Billy Preston, Gary Wright and even future star producer David Foster on keyboards. There were nine originals plus a cover of the old Cole Porter song “True Love”.
He wrote “Beautiful Girl” for Olivia, while the four singles off it generally were agreed by critics to be the stars of the record – “This Song”, “Crackerbox Palace”, “It’s What You Value” and the Porter song. “This Song” especially stood out, for two big reasons. First, the jaunty little tune poked fun at his lawsuit and the whole process of being in court for such things (“this song ain’t black or white and as far as I know, don’t infringe on anyone’s copyright” he sings) Secondly, long before the MTV age, he made a comic video for it, directed by Eric Idle of Monty Python. It parodied the court case, being shot in an actual California court, and had Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones among the people making cameos in it. He debuted the video on Saturday Night Live a day after the album dropped, and did “Here Comes the Sun” and “Homeward Bound” with Paul Simon on the same show.

Reviews at the time were quite decent. Billboard called it “a sunny, upbeat album of love songs and cheery jokes that is his happiest and most commercial package” to that point. The Village Voice felt it was his “best album since All Things Must Pass, and on a par with say (Bob Dylan’s current album at the time) Blood on the Tracks.” Rolling Stone though disagreed. Although they liked “Crackerbox Palace” and “This Song” well-enough they felt the rest of the record had “the feeling and sincerity of cellophane.”

The public’s reaction depended on where they were. In Britain, as one commentator put it “punk rock rendered Harrison obsolete.” And indeed, the album didn’t do much there, missing the top 30 and having none of the four singles make the chart. North America was either a bit behind the times or a bit more open-minded, and both “Crackerbox Palace” and “This Song” hit the top 30 singles charts and the album went to #11 in the states, where it sold to gold levels, and #10 in Canada.

Most retrospective reviews give it decent scores, like Mojo which graded it 3-stars calling it “confident if not classic.” Uncut gave it half a star more but summed it up nicely: “a pivotal album…the document of a man in the art of discovering exactly where he belonged.” And that’s some pretty good lemonade.

October 17 – Two Great Bands Squeeze Into Top 40

It was a big day for two big alternative rock bands 35 years ago, as well as for mainstream pop radio fans who caught up to the college rock crowd a little. Both R.E.M. and Squeeze landed their first American top 40 hit single this day in 1987. Both had already been big on the alternative and college radio scenes for most of the decade.

In R.E.M.’s case, it was “The One I Love”, the fiery lead single off their fifth album, Document. That happened to be not only the last new album they put out on the small IRS Records label and the first they did with producer Scott Litt, who’d go on to produce their biggest hits like Out of Time and Automatic for the People.

The Georgia band were already darlings of the critics and had scored reasonably big-selling albums, as well as one major rock radio hit with “Fall on Me”. Mainstream airplay had been elusive however, until “Fall on Me‘, which pushed their career up to the next level. Ironically it was probably in large part due to people being downright oblvious to the song’s meaning.

The crunchy rocker features Michael Stipe sneering “this one goes out to the one I love” a few times and that seemed to be the thing many fixated on…not the lines which followed like “a simple prop to occupy my time” nor the yelled “Fire!” . Stipe later said “it’s incredibly violent” and suggesting “it’s probably better they just think it’s a love song.” Guitarist Peter Buck was more blunt: “”People told me it was ‘their’ song. That was their song? Why not ‘Paint it Black’ or ‘Stupid Girl’ or ‘Under My Thumb’?”

Love song or angry screed, “The One I Love” got to #9 at home and helped the album become their first platinum one.

Squeeze had been around longer, a full decade in fact. The British band led by guitarists and songwriters Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford had been very popular early on on their side of the ocean, but had only marginal success in the U.S. The closest they’d come before to a hit was “Tempted”, a song which now is considered an ’80s staple but had only hit #49 on the charts. Their fortunes changed in ’87 with “Hourglass”, the first single off their seventh studio album, Babylon and On.

For that one the changeable lineup was what many considered the “classic” lineup, including Jools Holland on keyboards. While Difford and Tilbrook traditionally shared credit on songs, they seldom actually wrote together. Some songs were Diffords, some were Tilbrooks and quite often, Difford wrote lyrics to music Tilbrook composed. For this one they decided to change it up and actually write collaboratively. Apparently, that worked.

While many of their earlier songs were witty little stories (“Up the Junction” , “Cool for Cats” etc.) this one was less direct. Tibrook said the chorus particularly “was nonsense words…I loved the idea of rapid delivery which is what the chorus required.” Nonsensical or not, the song had the sort of “sing-along” quality that dared you to keep up. But that may not have been the reason it became their biggest hit here. Difford says “I would think the video has a lot to do with it. It’s been played a lot,” adding “you meet fans after gigs and they say ‘your video’s great!’. They don’t say ‘your album’s great’.” Indeed the surrealistic video was fun and full of visual surprises. (R.E.M.”s video was a big part of their first hit’s success too; the most surprising thing about that one was that it was directed by Alton Brown – the future Food Network TV chef!)

Hourglass” got to #15 in the States, #23 in Canada and #16 back in the UK, where it was far from their biggest, but did represent a bit of a comeback after four years or so of relative obscurity.

Although they hit the top 40 simultaneously, the two bands careers took different paths after 1987. R.E.M. of course signed to Warner Brothers and became arguably the biggest American band of the first half of the ’90s. Squeeze on the other hand have carried on, with a couple of breaks, ever since but had difficulty finding a big audience after it.

June 3 – The Turntable Talk, Round 3 – So Did We Need Our MTV…Or Just Want It?

Today we wrap up our third instalment of Turntable Talk, where we’re happy to have some fellow music fans and writers weigh in on music subjects. Hopefully you were able to take a look at our first couple of topics, Why we’re still talking about the Beatles, and then the Pros and Cons of Live Albums. Today, we start asking “Did Video Kill the Radio Star?” The Beatles began making music videos as early as about 1966, and Britain had a few TV shows featuring videos weekly in the ’70s but in the ’80s, the form took flight with the appearance of MTV and all-day videos in the U.S. Love ’em or hate ’em, they undeniably altered the music world as we knew it. So what are the thoughts on the music video? 

Thanks to the five guests who gave us different takes on the “Video Revolution” of the ’80s…it was great to get different points of view. I have a few closing comments.

First, no one can doubt how much music videos shaped our listening, and viewing habits in the ’80s and ’90s, and with the biggest market, MTV was the main driver of that. Of course, as people like Christian and Deke pointed out, not everyone had MTV. In fact, I don’t think it was available anywhere outside of the U.S., at least in its heyday. But its success and the power of the music companies ensured similar stations would spring up in Canada, Australia and any number of other lands.

Lisa pointed out that the idea behind “videos” wasn’t new to MTV or the ’80s. The Big Bopper made one in the ’50s and there were video jukeboxes to play them in the mid-’60s. But they really hit the mainstream when MTV signed on. Oddly, Nielsen didn’t measure cable TV viewership in the early years of the station, so we don’t know how many people were actually tuning in at any given time because they found themselves saying “I Want My MTV…”, but it was well into the millions … mostly people in their teens or twenties, aka the main music-buying market. So it’s little wonder that what was popular on MTV was usually quickly popular in record stores and, because of that and Billboard‘s sales reports, on radio coast to coast as well. This likely contributed to the homogenization of radio in North America that Max pointed out (and which most of us, I think dislike) – the end of the free-wheelin’ local station playing new acts unknown in other cities and actually paying attention to listener requests. Instead we now have syndicated DJs in L.A. playing the same Lynyrd Skynyrd or Eagles track in 200 cities simultaneously and no room for innovation or offbeat music by and large. Hard to see that as an improvement, but also I think, part of an inevitable trend created by fewer and fewer large corporations buying up independent radio stations by the score and looking to maximize profit by reducing costs (such as program managers or round-the-clock disc jockeys.) How much MTV accelerated the trend is anybody’s guess.

As to how it shaped the sound of the ’80s, again it’s a debatable point since we have no control group of society without any videos, obviously! There’s no real dispute that music videos greatly helped some existing artists take their career to the next level (Peter Gabriel, Dire Straits, Michael Jackson…) and perhaps was the springboard needed to launch some big careers (Madonna, Duran Duran, A-ha…) but again, we have no way of knowing if they would have taken off on their own or not without the MTV bump. What is clear to me is that ironically, short-term gain resulted in long-term pain for some of those “video stars”. Duran Duran, Cyndi Lauper, Culture Club, even yes, A Flock of Seagulls, put out some very good records back then. And they were multi-million sellers, helped along by the oh-so-popular videos… “Hungry Like A Wolf”, “Girls on Film,” “Karma Chameleon,” “I Ran”, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” and so on. It made them household names quickly. But, it seems to me because they got noticed for their visual gimmick – the hair, the outfits, the makeup – people failed to take them seriously and in the long run, this may well have hurt their careers. I will boldly say songs like “Save A Prayer,” “Time (Clock of the Heart)”, “”She Bop,” “Wishing” , and others by those bands were songs which hold up very well and added a breath of fresh air to the old, slightly-fusty acts that had for so long dominated the airwaves. It even helped some of those like Queen and Styx go out on limbs and try something a little bit new. But many people still look down their noses and write off those acts automatically because they think “stupid-looking hair” or “just pretty boys in scenic locales” when they hear their names. That’s a bit of a shame. At their worst, they were unimaginative, offensively sexist or ridiculously over-the-top and drawn out. But, at their best they were creative, ground-breaking works of art on their own – think of how extraordinary “Sledgehammer” or “Take On Me” seemed when we first saw them. It’s not a huge stretch to understand why Godley & Creme went from making impeccable, boundary-pushing music with 10CC in the ’70s to primarily creating music videos for others in the ’80s – a lot of artists think visually as well as aurally.

In short, I think it was a fun part of the decade, and one that fit it well. Maybe it’s my age – in the ’80s I went from finishing high school to being a young, single guy out on his own. A fun time of change in life. And the ’80s really were a time of fun, experimental music, of breaking new ground. Not all of it was great, by any means, but at its best it meant some of the best music around. And videos were fun as well. I’m not disputing what some others have said – for instance, it robbed us of our own imagination when it came to what a song should “look” like (probably more of a problem when dealing with a Springsteen or Dylan song than Madonna’s “Borderline” or ZZ Top’s “Legs”) , it boosted some careers into the stratosphere that didn’t deserve it and it added to the problem of the unification of music being played continent wide. But now that we don’t have round the clock music videos on TV, we still have artists putting out flat out bad records who are stars, and we hear the same songs on every Oldies station from St. John’s, Newfoundland to San Jose, California. Honestly, I think the biggest surprise I have is how little music videos have really changed the world of music in the past 40 years.

I enjoyed watching Canada’s equivalent Much Music a lot in that decade, though I still spent more time listening to still-great radio stations and playing CDs and records. I saw some great , creative videos, saw some interesting interviews with musicians I loved and found out about some superb acts that seemed to even get passed over by radio. I heard “Pretty Persuasion” by REM once or twice on radio, but didn’t really become aware of them until Much Music decided the video for “Fall on Me” should be seen every hour on the hour for awhile. Others had the same experience later when “Losing My Religion” became MTV’s go-to in the early-’90s. How long would it have taken me to notice them if I had to rely on hearing their stuff that often on local radio stations?

Rubik’s Cubes, collarless neon-colored shirts, impossible hairdos, narrow leather ties, something new to hear every week…and music videos. The ’80s weren’t bad at all.

June 3 – Perry & Sherrie Journeyed Towards Top Of Charts

Journey needed Steve Perry for his input and his voice in the ’80s, but perhaps Steve Perry didn’t need Journey so much. Or at least that might have been his reaction on this day in 1984, when his first “solo” single, “Oh Sherrie” hit #3 on Billboard.

At that point, Perry was 35 and had been the voice of Journey for seven. He’d had a taste of success without them two years prior with his duet with Kenny Loggins, “Don’t Fight It” (which came out on a Loggins album and scratched into the American top 20.) So, in the downtime after Journey put out their Frontiers album, he went into the studio in L.A. with some ideas of his own and producer Bruce Botnick (who’d famously worked with the Doors) to help out. In place of the mates in Journey, he enlisted a number of talented southern California session musicians, like Bill Cuomo on synthesizers, Michael Landau on guitars and Larrie Londin on drums. Londin was a popular player who’d worked on a number of massive country albums in the ’70s but was working with Glenn Frey approximately simultaneously and in time would work with Journey itself. He even brought in Waddy Wachtel to do the guitar solo on “Oh Sherrie.”

Perry, as well as Cuomo, Randy Goodrum (who played electric piano on it) and Craig Krampf wrote the song together. The inspiration was Steve’s then girlfriend, Sherrie Swafford. She was said to be in the room as they began tooling around with it but fell asleep before they finished! If you’re curious about what Ms. Swafford looked like, it’s easy enough to see – she was the female star with Perry in the video for the song. (Given our Turntable Table discussion this week about the importance of music videos in the ’80s, “Oh Sherrie” is an interesting case study. With its false start involving Perry dressing like a king on some sort of movie set it was either a prime example of the excesses of the art form or a spot-on satirization of that.)

Oh Sherrie” got to #3 in the U.S. and spent two weeks at #1 in Canada, as well as hitting the top 10 in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. It helped push the album, Street Talk,  to double-platinum status at home for him, by far the biggest success he had outside of Journey. Speaking of which, it’s quite possible the other members weren’t totally chuffed at Perry’s success. It apparently added to a lengthy break between albums for them and made them question his commitment to the band; he ended up quitting them in 1987 after completing their Raised on Radio.

June 1 – The Turntable Talk, Round 3 – Growing Up MTV-less

Today we continue our third instalment of Turntable Talk, where we’re happy to have some fellow music fans and writers weigh in on music subjects. Hopefully you were able to take a look at our first couple of topics, Why we’re still talking about the Beatles, and then the Pros and Cons of Live Albums. Today, we are asking “Did Video Kill the Radio Star?” The Beatles began making music videos as early as about 1966, and Britain had a few TV shows featuring videos weekly in the ’70s but in the ’80s, the form took flight with the appearance of MTV and all-day videos in the U.S. Love ’em or hate ’em, they undeniably altered the music world as we knew it. So what are the thoughts on the music video? Today we welcome Christian, from Christian’s Music Musings, who grew up apart from MTV. He tells us:

Did Video Kill the Radio Star?

Thanks for inviting me back to “Turntable Talk”, Dave. I enjoy your series, and I’m happy to share more of my thoughts!

At first, I wasn’t quite sure how to approach the topic of ‘80s music videos and MTV. While the name MTV had been hammered into my brain since 1985 when Dire Straits’ Money For Nothing was all over German radio, my first exposure to music videos didn’t happen until early 1993 when I came to the U.S. At my parents’ house back in Germany, we didn’t have cable until the early ‘90s, so essentially missed the ‘80s MTV era.

When I finally had the opportunity to watch music videos on TV in the U.S., I ended up embracing VH1, not MTV. And for the most part, it wasn’t for music videos but for their Behind the Music documentary series, which I loved.

When to comes to music, to me, it’s always been first and foremost about melody, sound and musicianship. Lyrics tend to be secondary. Videos rank a distant third. I’m speaking in broad strokes now.

There’s no doubt in my mind that MTV and music videos have had a huge impact on the music industry. And as you’d expect, it’s a mixed bag. Initial criticism of the channel for largely ignoring artists of color was justified, though fortunately by the mid-’80s things started to change.

MTV kickstarted the breakthroughs of artists like Cindy Lauper and Whitney Houston; and of course, The Buggles whose Video Killed the Radio Star was the very first video played on the channel. MTV also boosted the careers of already-established artists like Madonna, Michael Jackson and Prince.

Moreover, the channel had a role in popularizing genres beyond pop. For example, their heavy rotation of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit brought grunge to a broader audience. It also isn’t surprising that the compelling combination of audio and video helped music become part of Hollywood. It boosted the popularity of big ‘80s soundtracks like Flashdance (1983), Footloose (1984) and Top Gun (1986). I leave it up to you to decide whether that’s a net positive or negative.

During my reading that inspired some of the content of this post, I came across a series of interviews the PBS program Frontline conducted for a May 2004 documentary titled The Way the Music Died. I haven’t watched it (though it sounds interesting) but read some of the interviews. The following excerpts offer some additional perspectives I thought were worthwhile sharing:

Music journalist Touré Neblett: “I mean, Duran Duran — were they a great group? I don’t think so. I mean they had some great songs. I love “Rio,” I love “Girls On Film,” but this is not a great group. But they were one of the first big video groups that really thrived in the MTV era because they looked good.”

HITS Magazine co-founder and editor-in-chief Leonard J. Beer: “MTV is the most powerful force that’s probably ever happened in the music business. You can make a star overnight if they make the right video, and if the right magic happens. It also burns them out quicker. You know, you saw somebody like Pearl Jam who had the biggest videos on MTV for years and then all of a sudden they decided they didn’t want to be on MTV anymore because they felt it was hurting their long-term career.”

Entertainment Attorney Michael Guido: “I think MTV was the beginning of the end for the recorded music business, in that it solidified a mindset that exalted marketing over substance… It became only about a three-minute single and a visual image, and if you didn’t have the three minutes you were over…Once that corner was turned, we started on the path that has led us to this moment here, where kids are treating music as disposable.”

Music industry executive Danny Goldberg: “I think that the emergence of the music video has just expanded the palette of tools available to artists to connect with an audience. I know when I worked with Nirvana, Kurt Cobain cared as much about the videos as he did about the records. He wrote the scripts for them, he was in the editing room, and they were part of his art. And I think they stand up as part of his art, and I think that’s true of the great artists today. Not every artist is a great artist and not every video is a good video, but in general having it available as a tool, to me, adds to the business.”

Finally, I’d like to provide some thoughts about my favorite ‘80s music video. As I was thinking about it, the first videos that came to mind were Michael Jackson’s Thriller for its over-the-top mini horror movie production, Genesis’ Land of Confusion because of the amazing puppets of band members and various politicians; and a-ha’s Take On Me with its artistically compelling integration of cartoons and animations.

But, as I said before, when it comes to music, to me, it’s first and foremost about melody, sound and musicianship. With that priority keeping in mind as well, my favorite ‘80s music video is Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer, a song I dig to this day. Yes, it’s definitely a pretty busy clip that at times can even make you dizzy. Still, I love the way how it’s done.

According to this article from April 2016, the filming required Gabriel to lay under a glass sheet for over 16 hours! But he’s convinced it was all worth it, and that without the video the song wouldn’t have become a hit. Numbers don’t lie. “Sledgehammer” reached no. 1 in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100, knocking “Invisible Touch” by his former bandmates from Genesis off the top spot. The single also topped the Canadian charts. Elsewhere, among others, it climbed to no. 3 in Australia, Ireland and New Zealand, and no. 4 in the UK. Oh, and it also became MTV’s most played video of all time!

May 31 – The Turntable Talk, Found 3 – Video’s History Longer Than Rock’s

Today we continue our third instalment of Turntable Talk, where we’re happy to have some fellow music fans and writers weigh in on music subjects. Hopefully you were able to take a look at our first couple of topics, Why we’re still talking about the Beatles, and then the Pros and Cons of Live Albums. Today, we start askingDid Video Kill the Radio Star?” The Beatles began making music videos as early as about 1966, and Britain had a few TV shows featuring videos weekly in the ’70s but in the ’80s, the form took flight with the appearance of MTV and all-day videos in the U.S. Love ’em or hate ’em, they undeniably altered the music world as we knew it. So what are the thoughts on the music video? Today, we turn the table over to Lisa from Tao Talk, who gives a surprising overview of the long history of the format. She writes:

Turntable Talk 3 – Did Video Kill the Radio Star?

While growing up, listening to music was all about sound in our home and in my grandparent’s home. We had an AM radio and a small record player. My mom was the radio captain; we shared the helm for the platter choices, even if mom was the one who decided which platters were brought in to choose from. My grandparents had one of those long rectangular cabinet types of systems with a turntable inside. The cabinet served as a resonant speaker from what I remember. I remember lots of choices, including some 78s.

The visual aspects of music in the 1960’s were minimal for me. Yes, there were album covers to pore over, but these frozen images were only snapshots that did not do much to enhance the musical experience. Then came watching television music programs like The Lawrence Welk Show and Ed Sullivan, where the musicians performing and camera shots of the audiences appreciating them brought the music into two dimensions of sound and moving images. Television turned music into a shared experience for me. It wasn’t just me or just my family members who loved the music; the whole world was as excited about it as I was!

The television special musical appearances continued for a long while. I remember how staged the lip synching felt and how often the performers seemed uncomfortable yet excited to be given a chance to be seen by millions. Being heard, seen, and known meant there was a better chance their records would sell. Knowing that the powerful television producers decided who got a chance and what the musicians were allowed to perform made them feel like trick ponies that were making someone else very wealthy.

Music videos of taped musical performances began elevating them to the next level through creatively incorporating the concepts presented in the lyrics. Sometimes the band showed up almost as an afterthought, where the lyrics were the stars via imagery that might be costumes, props, animation, or forms of theater. Our ears, eyes, and minds became fully engaged in the experience.

Dave’s assignment for us this time is to write about music videos. I am not very knowledgeable on their chronology once MTV started – or what came before MTV. I went out to cyberia and discovered some interesting little tidbits about music videos from the distant past. What follows is a very brief history, where the source material is at

In 1894, “illustrated songs consisted of photographic images painted in color and projected from glass slides, sometimes interspersed with silent moving picture clips” during Nickelodeon movie intermissions. In 1895, the first “music video” was filmed in Thomas Edison’s studio and was known as the “Dickson Experimental Sound Film.” In 1923, the first motion pictures with sound on film were presented. Many of them were “musical shorts,” “clips played before feature films.” In 1925, the Fleischer Brothers released a cartoon with “a bouncing ball that hopped over lyrics to encourage in-theater sing-alongs.” From 1940-46, “soundies,” “3-minute films featuring dance performances, designed to be played on machines in bars, restaurants,” etc. were popular. In the late 1950’s the French Scopitone was another “visual jukebox” that emerged. In 1959, The Big Bopper coined the term “music video” and made one for the song, “Chantilly Lace.” In the 1960’s The Beatles combined cinema with music in their two films, Help! and  A Hard Day’s Night. In 1974, Australian shows, Countdown and Sounds, prominently featured music videos; in 1978, the U.S. Video Concert Hall, played hours of unhosted music videos. In 1981, MTV premiered.

Looking at the above history, it seems strange to think that music videos have been around for over a hundred years already. I’ve always thought of them as a more recent phenomena that I was there at the beginning for. Not quite.

I know that MTV has fallen by the wayside as far as the source to watch music videos. I know when I want to see them, I go to YouTube or Vimeo or directly to a band’s website to see them. What would we do without the internet!

To conclude, I will list some of my favorite music videos, with links on some of the newer ones. You can find the rest out on your favorite music video platform.

All Peter Gabriel

Dire Straits MTV

Chris Isaac “Wicked Game” 

Dwight Yoakam ” Fast as You” 

Pearl Jam “Love Boat Captain” 

Fran Company 

Mitski “Washing Machine Heart” 

George Harrison and Friends from Concert for Bangladesh Beware of Darkness

Roy Orbison and Friends Black and White Nights