History of the pop video pt.1: 60´s experimentation

If like us you´re geeky pop culture obsessives (and if you´re not then I´m guessing you´ve strayed on to the site by accident) then you will have had, at least once in your life, a conversation centred around one simple question: what was the first music video? It´s a question that we here at MVD feel duty bound to explore, and one that has many different possible answers.

There are various reasons for this. Firstly, people have varying ideas about what actually constitutes a ´pop video´, then there´s the various received wisdoms surrounding the issue. Some will point to films like Jailhouse Rock or The Girl Can´t Help It but these hardly qualify as pop videos despite the fact they contain segments which taken on their own might. Many claim Queen´s “Bohemian Rhapsody” was the first and whilst it wasn´t, it was certainly important in the development of the form (expect an MVD post on this in the future). Others will point to the promotional videos The Beatles made for the double A-side single “Rain/Paperback Writer” and it´s a valid claim as they pre-date by just a matter of months the videos featured in this article. However, whereas the Beatles promo´s are well shot and enjoyable enough they aren´t actually anything more than (badly) mimed performances, albeit ones that are set in the plush gardens of Chiswick House. Of course, this kind of pretend performance promo would become the common format later on for artists and directors who either couldn´t afford or couldn´t be bothered to do anything more imaginative, but I digress…

No, what I wanted to get to the bottom of is the earliest examples of an established band using film to create something that played the dual role of adding to the music whilst creating something quite separate from it, something creative and which attempts to convey some kind of story, narrative or commentary and which is intended for broadcast on television. That´s the definition we´re working with and what we have here are, I think, the first examples of such a thing. They all attempt something slightly different and as such can be seen as nascent experiments pointing the way towards the MTV age.

The Who – Happy Jack (1966)

Often cited as a favourite amongst fans, “Happy Jack” was an odd single even for an ´arty´ band like The Who. Lyrically the tale of a misfit kid and his tormentors, musically a quasi-Germanic ´oom-pah´ lope powered by drums that almost seem to be the lead instrument at times this would, in the hands of a modern director, have all the ingredients for a snappily cut film featuring Jack, a bunch of kids and a donkey. What we actually get is the band as burglars with Pete and Keith comically attempting to rob a safe whilst Roger keeps a look out only to be distracted by John´s discovery of a large cake and ultimately thwarted by the arrival of a policeman who gets cake in his face as the band make an escape. This was apparently made at a time when The Who were being touted for a possible TV show a lá The Monkees which never happened. A wholly entertaining 2-minute skit, it showcases the band´s silly sense of humour nicely. What it has to do with the song is anyone´s guess but of course it hardly seems important either, and videos which have little or no connection to the content of the actual song would almost seem to be the norm some 20 or so years later…

The Kinks – Dead End Street (1966)

Filmed at roughly the same time as the video above (the singles were actually released a few weeks apart) the two share similarities insomuch as the feature the bands in a comic caper. However, whereas The Who´s film was shot entirely in one room, this is a slightly more adventurous affair featuring outside scenes shot in and around Little Green Street near Kentish Town in north London. There is also a slightly darker tone and an obvious connection to the lyrical theme of the song which comments on the seemingly hopeless trap of poverty. Featuring the band as undertakers attempting to collect a body from the house of a widow (played by Ray Davies who rather suits the drag) who is herself attempting to avoid the rent-collector, the video also features a number of stills depicting the abject conditions of working-class life at the time. It was released to the BBC to air on Top Of The Pops which it did once before the corporation abruptly banned it for being distasteful, although Dave Davies would later state that it was directly because of the depictions of slums and poverty, a social comment unacceptable to the BBC at the time. The film is almost certainly the first example of a band using film to elaborate on a lyrical concept in such a way and as such can be seen as the forerunner to videos such as Pink Floyd´s “The Wall (Pt.2)” or “Ghost Town” by The Specials.

The Rolling Stones – We Love You

Released in August 1967, We Love You was prompted by the now infamous “Redlands” drug-busts and arrests of the Stones and the subsequent convictions (later quashed) of Mick and Keith. Indeed the track begins with the sound of chains and the slamming of a cell door, and the band clearly decided to expand on this theme in the video. Between shots of the band recording in Olympic studios (featuring a visibly very stoned Brian Jones) we get Keith as a Judge, Mick as the defendant and Jagger´s then girlfriend Marianne Faithful as a witness in scenes clearly intended to mock the recent trials and the justice system as a whole, something echoed in the songs lyrics (“We don´t care if you hound…. You will never win, your uniforms don´t fit…”). Like the Kinks, there is some kind of commentary going on here, however whereas Ray Davies was looking outwards and talking about an enduring social condition what we get from Jagger and Richard is a more narcissistic commentary on fleeting events concerning themselves. This combination of studio footage and fictional scenes would later be expanded on by the Stones and director Jean-Luc Godard in the film Sympathy For The Devil and predates a whole raft of pop videos featuring just the same combination many years later.

What we have in these 3 promotional films (or “promos” as they were then more commonly referred to as) are no less than early forays in to 3 different artistic approaches to pop video making which as I´ve explained would be come much more commonplace over the next 20-plus years. What´s a shame is that these clips are largely under-recognized as being just that – forerunners of and marker signs towards the video age that would bloom in the 1980´s. Here we have three of the biggest British bands of the age making exploratory forays in to a practice that would soon become the industry norm and yet when people talk about the first pop videos they are almost never mentioned. You can see this article as an attempt to set the record straight.

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6 thoughts on “History of the pop video pt.1: 60´s experimentation

  1. Never heard Dead End Street before or watched the “promos’ for any of the above bands. Love the Who’s Happy Jack “promo’, almost had a “Keystone Cops” with Laurel and Hardy feel about it. Really glad the whole TV show didn’t pan out. , While the Monkee’s were fun and campy, (I had a huge crush on Peter) I don’t think (or feel) this is a direction the Who would have been happy with.
    There have been many arguments and debates about the first music video (ask Tony Bennett and he will tell you he was the first)….I am sure they will be many more arguments…
    Thank you for a great, informative article and setting the record straight! ~ I am looking forward to your future divulging into this subject!!

    1. Hey Chrissy, thanks so much for the comment!! I agree with the point about The Who, a TV show wouldn´t have suited them. And I´d heard the Tony Bennett claim before but I don´t think it fell in to my definition of a video, not that it makes me correct and as you say there will be many more arguments! 🙂

  2. Great Post. Ditto on the WHO TV show. This is an excellent topic as the definition of music videos is by itself an argument before you even get to the first actual “promo”. I would agree with you that breaking out into a song during a movie does not qualify and that eliminates much of the competition for me. The music video must be a singular project used to promote the band, the song, album or tour in my most humble opinion. The theme does not necessarily have to match the words, especially if the final product itself is well done. Sometimes the song outshines the video and vice versa. If BOTH the song and the video are rubbish, then they have just wasted 3 minutes of our time that we can never get back. Your selections are great and they will make me do a bit of sleuthing on my own. I loved all three but I will comment only on one. The Kinks. When will Governments, Religious Extremist Kooks (Separate from those who may not be kooks) and the doom and gloom minority realize that censorship DOES NOT work? During the 60’s the government may have been allowed to stop the masses from seeing the video, but the fact that it was suddenly “taboo” no doubt made it more popular. Instead of dealing with the actual problem: income inequality and poverty, they chose to attack the ones who are publicizing the issue…Today, in most of the world censorship only serves to make the “forbidden fruit” more popular and mediocre even awful attempts at art make more money than they ever would have thanks to “moral outrage” …anyone remember The last Temptation of Christ?? Yuck. finally, the age of the internet has made any attempt to censor music, art,film almost laughable. Can’t wait for QUEEN!! Woo!

    1. Hey thanks as always for your excellent comment!! Agree with everything you said regarding censorship, it never works and usually simply draws more attention to the thing being censored. And yes, Queen will be with you fairly soon so watch this space! 🙂

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