History of the Pop Video Pt. 2: Music Television

In part 1 of this series I talked about how the 60’s pop revolution had thrown up a number of imaginatively filmed promo clips that were forerunners of the modern music video. For this second part I want to look at how the 1970’s saw bands and TV stations embracing this mutually beneficial medium as air-time for popular music increased.

The promo meant that bands themselves no longer had to interrupt busy touring and recording schedules to appear on TV, and the stations had an easy and repeatable means of inserting audience-pulling songs in to their programming. It was a win-win situation, however the medium was still nascent and TV shows like the Old Grey Whistle Test and Top Of The Pops overwhelmingly preferred in the studio live and/or mimed performances.

Dr Hook in an OGWT performance typical of much 70's music TV
Dr Hook in an OGWT performance typical of much 70’s music TV

The problem was twofold: firstly most bands and artists saw little or no value in such things in an age when TV was seen as of secondary benefit to their careers compared to the mediums of live performance and radio. There was little incentive to plough time, energy and money in to a 3 minute clip which might only be shown a handful of times anyway. Secondly, directors themselves were also unwilling to put the effort or imagination in to making much more than location-based or studio-set mimed performance clips when only given a small budget and a single day to film, resulting in videos that didn’t improve much on the studio appearances and weren’t particularly memorable.

Some better examples of these methods include one made for the uber-sickly smash ‘Never Been To Me’ by Charlene which sees her wandering forlornly around an empty country mansion estate, or Abba who created a series of studio-filmed promos for singles such as ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’, working mainly with fellow Swede Lars Hallstrom (who would later direct movies like The Cider House Rules and My Life As A Dog).

Another major artist to experiment with promos was David Bowie who with the legendary photographer Mick Rock created a series of films to accompany ‘John I’m Only Dancing’, ‘Jean Genie’ and ‘Life On Mars’, as well as shooting a second promo for the 1972 US re-release of his 1969 track ‘Space Oddity’. Rock’s film for this song uses shaky camera footage of Bowie alone with a guitar and shots of recording studio equipment in a spurious attempt to convey the sense of being in a spaceship, with the rows of buttons and dials. As a whole it adds little to the song itself and is, considering Bowie’s reputation as an arch-stylist, disappointingly unimaginative.

Much better is the original 1969 video, shown above, which is actually a bit of an artefact being that it uses a unique and very different sounding version of this song (of which there are two different studio versions also), and which sees Bowie playing both a slightly comical Ground Control as well as Major Tom, making good use of a round mirror and a some cheap sci-fi props and clothing to create something which is both entertaining and in keeping with the Bowie ethos of presenting the songs visually, something his live shows would increasingly begin to incorporate.

Meanwhile, television shows such as Hee Haw, a country music and comedy show in the US and Countdown and Sounds, Australia’s premier pop music shows, were starting to create their own promos for guests who couldn’t make it to the studios. Countdown in particular is now seen as being very influential in the development of the video and it’s original director Paul Hane as well as others working on the show created promos for many Australian acts, including rock giants AC/DC and bands such as Skyhooks, one of Australia’s premier home-grown acts in the mid 70’s.

The Countdown clip for their song ‘Private Eye’, above, is a great example, with the band dressed as detectives and generally goofing around. Whilst not the greatest video ever made, clips such as this helped establish in the audiences mind the idea of music videos being the norm rather than the exception, and with the show being sold to TV stations around the world (I can remember episodes of the show on British TV in the early 80’s) Countdown is now seen to have pre-empted the MTV age with it’s regular use of them. Sounds would also throw up its own clips and in the shape of director Russel Mulcahey, who was doing similar work to Hanes, someone who would later play a key role in the dawning of MTV (more of which in pt.3…).

At the same time various bands from Alice Cooper to Yes to Kraftwerk were starting to experiment, however there was one giant of 70’s rock music that would have an incalculable impact with the video for what would prove to be their most famous song. Queen had been making films for a few of their hits such as ‘Seven Seas of Rhye’ and ‘Killer Queen’. However, it was for the epic, opera-infused ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ that they would make video history.

Received wisdom often seems to suggest that this video was the first ‘proper’ music video, which as we’ve seen clearly isn’t the case. In actual fact it’s not even a particularly great film, and its reputation would seem to far outstrip it’s artistic worth. What cemented its reputation was a mixture of factors, not least the fact that this was one of the biggest hits of the decade. It was chiefly created for the British show Top Of The Pops which in the mid-70’s was at it’s peak attracting some 15 million viewers. With Queen at number one for 9 weeks this meant the audience had the opportunity to see the video multiple times and it became indelibly linked with the song.

Suddenly bands, labels and fans alike woke up to how the video could be a statement in itself, giving a visual dimension to a song and creating a multimedia statement that people remembered. Bohemian Rhapsody the song is a grandiose artistic statement, the video taken on it’s own less so. However, the total effect exceeded the sum of its parts, and Queen were the right band in the right place at the right time and contributed massively to a climate where bands would have to start taking the music video more seriously. Television was growing and growing and could no longer be ignored as a means of selling records. As the decade was drawing to a close the aforementioned Russel Mulcahey would move from Australia to Britain and make a series of videos for various acts, including one for a band called The Buggles which would have a memorable part to play as MTV arrived, and in part 3 of this series we shall explore just that…

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