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Article from One Two Testing, August 1985

is video nasty?

I thought Sri Lanka was a Buddhist, until I discovered Duran Duran videos. John Morrish switches on the box, and wonders if we're watching the comic book of rock.

Is video nasty! That's the vexed question we address in this month's Overtones.

Nasty or not, video is rapidly becoming compulsory for aspiring musicians with their eyes on recording contracts. The age of the video demo is upon us, no less, which perhaps might tell us what has happened to all those people who used to run audio demo studios in the pre-Portastudio era.

Admittedly a few, like the iconoclastic Smiths, have expressed their distaste for the whole business and kept well clear. They don't seem to have suffered by their stance, the opposite if anything. But they have benefited from being the exception to the rule, and not everyone can do that.

Before moving on to a look at how this state of affairs came about, it would be as well to acknowledge Michael Shore's 'Rolling Stone Book of Rock Video', a thorough-enough tome despite its air of gee-whizzery and failure to take any view whatsoever. It has been my guidebook through the mysteries of how video came to be what it is today, the great white hope of the world record industry. And take note of that 'white': of which more later.

What Mr Shore's book doesn't tell me, and I haven't a clue either, is why Britain came to be the first home of the promo video industry. He quotes a whizz-kid US video company boss: "Because there isn't much in the way of rock radio — instead there's TV, clubs and the press — Britain has a very heightened visual consciousness. For some time now, visual style has been crucial to success in Britain. In the punk era, those bands not only looked and acted outrageously onstage, they acted that way on the streets.

"There was no gap between art and life. That still holds true. The result of it all is that bands naturally have been inculcated with this consciousness of how to visualize what they're all about. And that naturally extends to rock video," so said his source, one Simon Fields of Limelight US.

And there's something in it, even allowing for the massive American naivité. Because we have become more visually conscious. Look at the parallel between video and the rise of Smash Hits and its imitators: virtually wordless pop papers.

Even so, it's difficult to see how a general heightening of visual awareness (coming after the punk era, when style was a matter of rejecting style) translated itself so simply and apparently painlessly into the forward march of video.

Especially when you discover that for many years Top of the Pops was unable to use videos and promo films by indigenous groups because of the need to keep its own technicians and (gulp) studio orchestra in work. Mr Shore claims that Queen's 'Bohemian Rhapsody' was the first important video of a British band to get regular airtime on Top of the Pops, presumably, although he doesn't say so, because Queen were out of the country at the time their quasi-operatic fantasy took off. And then, after they'd done it for one, they had to do it for all.

Things seem more straightforward in America, despite their reluctance to commit themselves to the use of short video clips on television in the early days. They made up for it later, once they'd realised that video would allow them to catch the missing generation that advertisers sought, the 12- to 34-year-olds who they'd always assumed were out having fun while Mom and Pop were at home watching Lucille Ball.

The initial reluctance was based on a belief that nasty, dirty, noisy rock and roll did not mix with the kind of sedate family entertainment represented by television. But when they realised that they needed to sell to nasty, dirty and noisy people, the barriers crumbled. Not only that but they found various ways of making the nasty, dirty, noisy music much less so.

Of course, there's nothing particularly new about the idea of accompanying music with images. Mr Shore suggests opera as an early parallel to music video. But the difference, obviously enough, is that historically, in opera, musicals, film scores and even such rock films as Rock Around the Clock and Summer Holiday, the story and visuals came first.

There were apparently short musical films made in the 40s, designed to run on enormously complicated film jukeboxes. Then came the shorts done in the sixties for people like the Beatles (who never had any trouble with the BBC ban on promo films) and the Stones.

In America, they had something different again, though enormously influential in terms of technique. That was The Monkees. Calculated to feed upon the demand created by Richard Lester's two Beatles films, they incorporated both narrative and 'antics' set to music, which became the standard mould for at least the first generation of rock video.

But what video needed in America was an outlet, and that came with MTV. No doubt you have heard of it. You have certainly seen masses of its output, because it consists almost exclusively of pop promos, and there's not a video made in the world today that's not destined for MTV.

Mr Shore's book has it that MTV was a reaction to FM radio's deadly blandness. But given what MTV was all about, especially at the beginning, that seems unlikely. Thinking musicians like Robert Fripp and Peter Gabriel have had their tussles with record companies, often provoked by the companies' often-justified paranoia about what America's FM stations would find acceptable. Mr Fripp was asked to remove his solos from the Gabriel album he produced because they were 'irritant factors'.

Because of the unrestrained competition in American radio, the stations were in hock to market researchers who started by telling the programmers what people wanted to hear and ended by telling them what people didn't want to hear. The idea was to produce programming that would not irritate anybody so much they they'd turn the dial. And it was that type of 'passive programming' that Michael Shore claims MTV reacted against.

That seems unlikely, given much of the available material. MTV's programming, especially in the early days, was solidly 'rockist'. "There are three ways to guarantee MTV rotation (ie being on the playlist)," said video producer Ed Steinberg to Shore, "No black faces, pretty women, and athletic guitar solos. If a band comes to me with a song, and they want to make a video out of it, I always tell them to add a guitar solo to the middle of it — the more notes and the faster it's played, the better."

If anyone wanted evidence of the ability of video to influence music — and for the worse — there it is.

In fact the whole video ethos is there. 'No black faces': maybe that's not true of the UK, but it was certainly true of MTV, especially in the early days. Shore seems to argue that MTV was not racist, it just preferred to stick to using groups that its target audience of white middle-class youths could relate to. He quotes an MTV man, Bob Pittman, as saying, "our research showed quite simply that the audience for rock music was larger, and that the mostly white rock audience was more excited about its music than the mostly black audience was about its music, rhythm and blues, or disco, or whatever you want to call it.

"I'm tired of all this 'racist' stuff. Why doesn't anyone talk about the barriers we have broken down? Like between punk or new wave and mainstream pop?" he said. Hardly a sensible comparison.

Then there are the 'pretty women'. Now I have no objection to watching pretty women in videos, but there's the question of what happens to them. There's a peculiarly nasty streak in a lot of American video with women playing the perennial sex-object role. Again, that might be because the target audience is male as well as white, rather than through any calculated anti-female feeling.

Maybe these things would matter less if video was really the new art form its proponents claim. As we all know, it's nothing of the sort. Personally, I prefer the innocent productions of the pre-video era, where we had concert shots of groups, or film of them messing about on the beach or in the swimming pool, while the music goes on, quite blithely ignorant of what's happening on the screen.

But now... a quick run round the One Two office the other day produced the following least favourite pieces of visual imagery. 'Dwarves on chessboards' (Jon Lewin), 'Doves' (Jerry Arron), 'Sword and Sorcery' (Yours truly). The trouble with rock video is that everything is second-hand. The inescapably silly three-minute plot lines, the locations, the special effects and, above all, the visual imagery have all been used better before, elsewhere, chiefly in the cinema.

Indeed, many of the perpetrators of these pieces are proud of their explicit borrowings from famous films (usually the same films, too) as if that were enough to give them some intellectual credibility. It doesn't.

Art, for instance the cinema, is an imitation of life. So what price video, as an imitation of an imitation?

Ozzy Osbourne shown in 70mm and new compacta-vision.

The truth is that the rock video is nothing more than an extended commercial for a record. As such, there's a natural alliance with the advertising industry. It's no surprise that the Duran Duran videos (of which the new James Bond film seems to be the longest and most expensive) look like Martini adverts. What is weird is the number of advertisements that look and sound like pop videos, quite closely so in some cases. One day soon, we'll all be watching Max Headroom, and we'll look from video to ad, and ad to video, and not see the difference at all.

Personally, that matters not at all to me, but I am concerned about what video will do to the audio: the music. The guitar solo business quoted above is one example. But it can be more insidious than that. In the first place a band may not get near a record contract unless they look right.

"There are a lot of pretty women, pretty men on MTV," says Randy Newman in Shore's book, "And yeah, I watch it, and it's pleasant to look at. But I mean, if the pretty people are the ones who are granted access to that powerful medium..."

But assuming our heroes are pretty enough, they are inevitably going to spend an inordinate amount of their time working to increase the narrative element of their songs and then dressing up in suits of armour and standing around in Scottish castles. It's all a long way from music. And, I assume, the cost of the whole exercise will come out of their royalties.

Michael Shore takes a look into the future, finds nothing sensible to say about the artistic possibilities of the medium whose virtues he has been extolling for 250 pages, and lapses into a lot of gee-whiz stuff about a possible video version of the Philips/Sony Compact Disc. It sums up the dilemma. Just because you can accompany your song with images, and can put the combination on the television or sell it to the people at home, that's no reason why you should have to.

The visual memory is much better than the auditory one. That's why we can enjoy the same piece of music an infinite number of times, accompanied by our own imagined visuals.

But if your first hearing of a song is accompanied by someone else's choice of visual decoration, and then you buy a video disc and hear and see it again and again, how soon will you get tired of it? And will you be able to rid your mind of those doves and dwarves and men in suits of armour wreathed in dry ice?

Michael Shore's 'Rolling Stone Book of Rock Video' is published by Sidgwick & Jackson and costs £7.95.

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One Two Testing - Aug 1985

Donated by: Colin Potter

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