13 Influential Early MTV Videos

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MTV CollageI started covering video at the leading music trade magazine Billboard in July 1981, the month before MTV’s launch, and had to get up to speed quickly on what was being touted (by MTV) as a new art form. In its early years, MTV couldn’t get onto Manhattan Cable, and I didn’t have cable anyway, so record companies and the channel would messenger over 3/4-inch U-Matic video cassettes with the latest “video music” offerings. (For MTV, the video always came before the music.)

I’d sit in the windowless room with the magazine’s only U-Matic machine and watch each video or, in the case of Frankie Goes to Hollywood, way too many versions of a video. I became increasingly drained by their lip-synced lifelessness, lowbrow sameness and cliché-ridden, self-indulgent concepts. While the tape was rewinding I’d jot a few notes, try to find something positive to say. Billboard was a trade magazine, after all.

I grew to despise that world and its crapulent output. I almost lost my job when I wrote a Billboard Commentary blasting MTV for its misogynistic content and racist policies. I realized my desire to bite the hand that was feeding me meant it was time to move on. I left the music video trenches and the writing life to make some real dough. I never watched music videos after that, at least on purpose.

Portrait of the writer as a young video editor/Photo by Chuck Pulin

Portrait of the writer as a young trade mag video editor/Photo by Chuck Pulin

Only when asked by Best Classic Bands to come up with this list did I head to YouTube for a refresher course – and it all came rushing back: The pretentious storyboard-fueled visuals designed more to feed egos than to “enhance” the music, as they were allegedly doing. I always chafed at this concept: If a song needed enhancing, even the cleverest video couldn’t save it. As a former editor used to say (not about my work, of course), “You can’t sculpt with shit.”

But man, how they tried! As a rule, music videos attempted to raise a mediocre song to operatic heights, using overwrought metaphors and not-so-special effects like slow motion and a tilted camera. In the cutthroat competitions at the labels for the right to oversee the five-figure budgets, it helped to stroke the artist’s ego and maybe propose including one of his favorite motorcycles or classic car models.

The best videos featured either a particularly videogenic artist and/or a director with a grasp of that artist, plus – and this one’s crucial – an appropriate concept. Think Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” or the ZZ Top trio “Legs,” “Gimme All Your Lovin’” and “Sharp Dressed Man,” directed by ad mavens Bob Giraldi and Tim Newman, respectively.

In this list, I spotlight mainstream videos that made an impact, in chronological order.

1) “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen (1975) – Sure, I could have started with “Jailhouse Rock” or the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” sequence from Fantasia, or some esoteric early 20th century combination of music and imagery. But we’re talking the MTV generation, and Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” foreshadowed that era. Its (poorly) lip-synched faux-live performance set the stage for thousands to follow. Yet it’s witty and not overblown in the context of later attempts – notwithstanding a few cheesy special effects, such as showing Freddie Mercury in silhouette to the line “I see a little silhouetto of a man.”

2) “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” by Meat Loaf (1977) – Thank god this video was shot before the rise of MTV or it would surely have a painful, overacted intro showing two blandly attractive teens headed out on a date, followed by an on-the-nose acting out of the front-seat saga. But this 1977 performance video – with Karla DeVito famously standing and lip-synching in for Ellen Foley – is the perfect example of putting the song first. Meat Loaf, just a few years after his appearance in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, is so charismatic he convinced Rocky Horror producer Lou Adler to play the video before the movie as a short subject (and to promote his album Bat Out of Hell). Even the vintage baseball footage works. It’s better than almost every tarted-up concept video that followed.

3) “Whip It” by Devo (1980) – Go ahead, try to watch it without laughing, dancing or craving a whip. Director, lyricist and band member Gerald Casale got a lot of grief – and attention – for this clip, which not only features violence against women but a cross-eyed Asian girl and plenty of other politically incorrect imagery. Some people have no sense of humor, and we thank those people for bringing Devo to the masses.

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4) “New Frontier” by Donald Fagen (1982) – Brilliant all around, from the post-Steely Dan musical magic to the animation straight out of a 1950s Formica countertop and a Cold War scare video. Director and Max Headroom co-creator Annabel Jankel of Cucumber Studios wasn’t encumbered by the need to show an awkwardly preening band, and her concept and execution do a great song justice. Heck, if she was good enough for David Byrne, she was good enough for anyone.

5) “Rockit” by Herbie Hancock (1983) – Back in 1983, the only way for a black artist to get on MTV was by not appearing in his own video. You see the occasional flash of Herbie on a monitor, but it’s mostly weirdness from video geniuses (and former 10cc members) Kevin Godley and Lol Creme. Having a top director was also the only way to sneak what was essentially a jazz instrumental track onto the channel.

6) “I Love L.A.” by Randy Newman (1983) – Its opening on New York’s World Trade Center brings a nostalgic gasp now when we watch “I Love L.A.,” as do the ‘80s-era sights in an LA that seems bent on using Blade Runner for city planning. Randy’s cousin Tim (yes, he of ZZ Top video fame) goes all out making what plays superficially as a Chamber of Commerce wet dream while slyly acknowledging urban blight.

7) “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” by Eurythmics (1983) – She’s a very freaky girl, the kind you don’t bring home to mother. He’s her mysterious soulmate. This won “Best use of Symbolism” at the Billboard Video Music Awards I helmed in 1983 – one of the few awards not to go to “Beat It.” I still want to know what that cow symbolized. Directed by Chris Ashbrook.

Related: Looking back at MTV’s debut

8) “Adventures in Success” by Will Powers, aka Lynn Goldsmith (1983) – Photographer/artist Lynn Goldsmith had just released her album Dancing for Mental Health as alter ego Will Powers when I asked her to host the 1983 Billboard Video Music Conference. She didn’t just show up, she went all in as multiple characters, in one case freaking out attendees as she pushed a shopping cart down the aisle, muttering and lashing out at the industry crowd gathered at the Pasadena Huntington-Sheraton. This video, one of the first to use 3D animation, works on every level and features several cameos… hey, there’s Meat Loaf again! Repeat after Will: “You are an important person, a rare individual.”

9) “Material Girl” by Madonna (1984) – Madonna was made for the music video revolution and this song is the perfect melding of artist and concept. In fact, in this case the artist was the concept. Inspired by Marilyn Monroe’s performance of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” the video was directed by Mary Lambert.

10) “Rock Me Tonight” by Billy Squier (1984) –By 1984 MTV was such a cultural behemoth that self-parody was inevitable. Choreographer Kenny Ortega’s video for Billy Squier’s “Rock Me Tonight” is the gruesome proof that in “art,” one size does NOT fit all. I actually prefer watching this version without sound, since the song is dead to me and everyone else. Kenny killed it and Squier’s career. On a positive note, the song was such weak corporate pap that its lack of radio airplay today is a blessing; if not for the cult following this unintentionally hilarious video inspired, Squier surely wouldn’t receive any royalties from it at all.

11) “Land of Hunger” by the Earons (1984) – Foreshadowing both Daft Punk and Hunger Games, this Dystopian video and the band it showcased never got enough attention. More influential than they could have known at the time, it was directed by Peter J. Allen and Bill Parker, with Director of Photography Dominic Sena.

12. Just a Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody” by David Lee Roth (1985) – All you need to know about early ‘80s music video you can learn from this stupendous clip. After breaking out of Van Halen in a high-concept, bikini-laden video for “California Girls,” DLR reworked two long-forgotten Bing Crosby/Louis Prima tunes and launched DaveTV. This video truly does enhance the song. Directed by Pete Angelus, who also helmed Van Halen’s “Jump” video and shaped the band’s visual style.

13) “Money for Nothing” by Dire Straits (1985) – Mark Knopfler hated music video almost as much as I did, and had to be convinced to make a promotional clip. MTV would have been the poorer without this self-referential, self-conscious look at the music industry. The cool animation techniques still work, as does the song, with its “I Want My MTV” theme. Credit director Steve Barron, who also made the seminal “Billie Jean” for Michael Jackson and “Take On Me” for a-ha and, a video so good it has to be at least partially responsible for landing the band a James Bond theme song.

Laura Huntt Foti

Laura Huntt Foti

Laura often says, “Music is my madeleine,” a Proustian reference meaning that when she hears certain classic songs she can completely transport mentally to another time and place. She has used her deep connection to music in her career, including three memorable years at Billboard as queen of music video and three years at RCA Records she prefers not to discuss.

More recently, after a move from New York to Los Angeles and a long stint in interactive multimedia, Laura moved into internet/social media marketing for music and other clients. In 2012 she wrote The Cusp of Everything, a novel incorporating a full soundtrack. In 2014 she wrote and performed a one-woman show about online dating, All the Wrong Men. Currently she is working on a new show, My Life as a Shiksa, and workshopping her play, Worldly Possessions.
Laura Huntt Foti

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  1. Bradley Olson
    #1 Bradley Olson 19 November, 2016, 12:37

    Great list and I’d also include Kate Bush’s music videos, ABBA’s music videos, etc.

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  2. Bradley Olson
    #2 Bradley Olson 19 November, 2016, 12:39

    Video Killed The Radio Star has to be mentioned.

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  3. Guy Smiley
    #3 Guy Smiley 21 November, 2016, 23:39

    He doesn’t get enough credit, but many of Billy Joel’s videos from the early days of MTV were standouts. “Pressure,” “Allentown,” “Tell Her About It,” “Keeping the Faith” and a bunch more were very creative, entertaining, and complemented the songs extremely well.

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  4. 7801 LLC
    #4 7801 LLC 16 August, 2017, 23:56

    This list is absurd. To not include the “Billy Jean” or “When Doves Cry” videos demonstrates the fact that you never watched the actual channel.

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  5. Walt
    #5 Walt 17 August, 2017, 14:02

    you gotta include Been Caught Stealin-Janes Addiction

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  6. Marsh
    #6 Marsh 12 September, 2017, 02:53

    Fun list Laura! SHameless plug, but I just wrote a web article with trivia about some of the videos/artists played on MTV’s cablecast debut in 1981: https://spinditty.com/industry/List-of-first-25-videos-played-on-MTV#

    Marshall

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