Half Empty, Since 1998

This lost era of neon colors and big hair produces a nostalgia for the music videos of 1980-89.

In The '80s, When Everything Was Fun

Chad J. Sutton. July 12th, 1998

With the resurgence of 80’s pop culture over the last few years, it’s no wonder I get all nostalgic for the days before MTV became a corporate media superpower. Picture, if you will, a fledgling cable channel dedicated to “all music, all the time.” No Real World. No Road Rules. No Puff Daddy. No Grind. No Beach House. Just music videos.

In my first installment I touched briefly on the impact of 80’s culture as we careen toward the new millennium. Journalists love to refer to the 80’s as the “Me Decade.” That may be accurate, however I take exception with the snide implications. Maybe the world didn’t wake up and smell the cappuccino until the following decade, but it was a hell of a time to grow up. It was also a hell of a time for music video, as we will see. Slip on your parachute pants and enjoy the ride.

First up: “Jessie’s Girl” by Rick Springfield. Ah, Dr. Noah Drake. Teen heartthrob supreme. A lovely angst-ridden ditty about wanting something you can’t have. One of the classic videos of the period – Rick was one of the first rock stars to wear a suit in a video. The mirror-smashing scene was just sooooo dramatic, shot from three different angles. Truly groundbreaking. Yeah.

Making videos in the 80’s was a random art, at best. Everything looked like it was just so much fun. Like who wouldn’t have loved to spend the day driving around Los Angeles in a convertible with the Go-Go’s? The video for “Our Lips Are Sealed” has nothing to do with the song, but therein lies the beauty: it just doesn’t matter, because we get to see Belinda Carlisle frolicking in a fountain. Lyrics? What lyrics? Here we see videos beginning to transcend the music and make TV stars out of musicians.

“FRANKIE SAY RELAX,” proclaimed millions of white t-shirts worldwide. My sister even had one. Not bad marketing for a song about masturbation. That’s all I have to say about that.

Next up: Billy Squier’s “Rock Me Tonight.” This video was a staple on a long-forgotten show called “Friday Night Videos.” FNV was probably the first network television show dedicated to videos. It allowed people with no cable to join the revolution. Back to Billy, he has a penchant for torn t-shirts and rolling around on the floor. Not exactly original, but in the eyes of many adolescent girls, sexxx-y! Woo hoo!

Speaking of sexy, two of my personal favorite 80’s songs/videos have an interesting history. Adam Ant’s “Goody Two Shoes” is next on the tape, and not far after it is “I Want Candy” by Bow Wow Wow. The legend goes something like this: Adam and the Ants’ sound is very different, kind of the Burundi beat with rockabilly guitar and lots of makeup. Malcolm McLaren (of Sex Pistols fame) sees dollar signs but knows there needs to be a hook, and that sex and weirdness sells in the decadent 80’s. Enter Annabella Lwin, 14 years old. McLaren steals Adam’s Ants, puts Annabella in front of them, and cuts a single called “C30, C60, C90, Go!” It wasn’t till they recorded a cover of the Strangeloves’ 1965 hit “I Want Candy” that they made the charts and went down in the annals of one-hit-wonderdom. Interesting side-note (another six-degrees-of separation-type thing: ) One of the Strangeloves, Jerry Gottehrer, went on to produce two albums for Blondie and two for the Go-Go’s. Neat.

Cover songs were a huge phenomenon in the 80’s. It was almost a contest to see who could come up with the most obscure 60’s song and turn it into a dayglo dance hit. Case in point: Bananarama’s “Venus.” Take three women who can’t sing, teach them a few dance steps, add a few bad synthesizer lines and a drum machine, and what do you get? Bananarama. Even their name reeks of cheese. Er, bananas.

Pop quiz: Can you remember the last wedding you went to where they DIDN’T play Miami Sound Machine’s “Conga?” How about Buster Poindexter’s “Hot Hot Hot?” I didn’t think so. The whole Latin/Caribbean sound invaded the world in the 80’s, all wrapped up in a big marketable box. Tone down the sound, make it pop-chart-friendly, sell a million records. Life’s a big party, after all.

What is the deal with Dale Bozzio’s outfit in the video for “Words” by Missing Persons? Looks like Darth Vader meets the Bride of Frankenstein. This one exemplifies low-budget. All you needed to make a video in those days was a few hundred dollars and a camera. We were so innocent then.

Don’t be afraid of the guy in shades. Oh no.

The 80’s saw the formation of a whole slew of “supergroups” comprised of 60’s and 70’s rock stars. Take Asia, for example. One oddity in this genre was the Power Station. I do mean oddity: John and Andy Taylor from Duran Duran paired with 70’s lounge lizard Robert Palmer and ex-Chic drummer Tony Thompson. But man, what a mix. The Taylor boys sure could rock without Simon LeBon, and Thompson proved to be an incredibly powerful rock drummer, a far cry from his disco days (Awww, freak out!) Add Palmer’s suave croon to the stew and it kicked serious butt. Another trivial note: when Power Station played at Live Aid, Palmer was replaced by Michael DesBarres, whose only claim to fame was his marriage to supergroupie Pamela DesBarres, who spanned two decades of sleeping with rock stars. To top it all off, Michael couldn’t sing his way out of a wet paper bag.

Getting back to Duran Duran for a minute, those guys were just the undisputed champions of music video. They were probably the first to shoot on real film and to use exotic locations. The particular video on this tape is “Girls on Film,” which was all but banned here in the U.S. for nudity. A heavily edited version was played on MTV. Ah, the sacrifices we make for art. On that note, there are two more videos that bear heavy similarity to each other: “New Year’s Day” by U2 and “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da” by the Police. Both of these classics were shot out in the snow, with all the band members obviously freezing their butts off but still managing to keep the vibe of the video. Sting looks like he’s just having fun throwing snowballs at Andy Summers, and Bono and the Edge both remain stoic despite the icicles in their hair.

And so ends another six hours of video history. Until next time, keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars. (Thank you Casey Kasem.)