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The ’80s was the decade of the music video, what with MTV and the rise of the aristocratic pop star that refused to flog their wares in TV studios all over the world. And it’s fair to say that the British pop acts realised this slightly quicker than their American counterparts. The fact that we’d just launched a new music movement – the new romantics – that depended on dressing up and showing off helped enormously too. Or at least it did until Michael Jackson came along and soundly thrashed us at our own game.
Here are five examples of the videomaker’s art:
David Bowie – “Ashes To Ashes”
This video gave me the willies when I was little. The black sky, the pink ground, a pierrot in the middle of an existential crisis, a digger, a padded cell, a kitchen with a spaceman in a dentist’s chair looking scared, someone’s nan telling the pierrot off, and that final, awful shot of an astronaut – Major Tom, presumably – hanging from a wall and looking lost and vacant. It is fair to say you do not get No.1 hit singles like this any more.
Duran Duran – “Wild Boys”
Never mind Lady Gaga, here are your primary exponents of the apocalyptic video. Mad Max was a huge influence on everyone in the ’80s, with pop stars from Gary Numan to Tina Turner lining up to strap on the leather and ruffle up their hair. The thing to avoid is looking for any kind of narrative sense from the clip itself. We don’t know why there’s a windmill inside the weird factory/cavern place. We don’t know how it keeps turning with a fully grown man weighing down one of the sails. And we don’t know why they’re watching the (presumably long dead) pop group Duran Duran on the telly while they…well what is it they’re doing, actually? Attempting to fly? We don’t know that either. Sense wasn’t a very ’80s thing.
Frankie Goes To Hollywood – “Two Tribes”
On the other hand, what could be more relevent to the times than a video depicting two world leaders having a punch up, in a satire on the Cold War that ends with the world exploding? Especially one where one of the leaders, President Chernenko of the Soviet Union, managed less than a year in power. “Two Tribes” was as close as a pop video can get to a news broadcast, or The Daily Show, or both. And naturally it was banned on British TV.
Peter Gabriel – “Sledgehammer”
Using real life human beings in stop-motion animation is incredibly hard, especially when you’re animating a face singing a song. You have to keep every muscle still, apart from the ones you’re moving by a tiny increment, frame-by-frame, and stay that way for hours and hours and hours. Small wonder that Peter sometimes looks as if he’s sitting on a lightning bolt. But the results, animated by Aardman Animations, who went on to make Wallace and Gromit, are a constant source of delight.
Robert Palmer – “Addicted To Love”
A thought-provoking video in lots of ways. Not least because it’s a bit ripe to replace all the members of your band with superhot models, and get them to pretend to play their instruments. It’s shallow and sexist. There again, they do look astonishing: haughty and proud, and just as bored as any session musician. Clearly all of the budget for the video went on the makeup, and it’s money well spent. So much so that it’s a shame, in many ways, that we have to put up with the fella in front. Surely an equally beautiful man could’ve been brought in too? Ah well, too late now.
What’s your favorite British video from the ’80s? Tell us here:
See more posts by Fraser McAlpine
Fraser has been writing and broadcasting about music and popular culture for over 15 years, first at the Top of the Pops website, and most recently for the NME, Guardian and MSN. He also wrote BBC Radio 1's Chart Blog and reviews albums for BBC Radio 2.
He is Anglophenia's current resident Brit, blogging about British slang and running around the Mall taking snaps of the crowd at the Royal Wedding, as well as reigniting a childhood passion for classic Doctor Who and cramming as much music in as he can manage.
Fraser invites you to join him on Twitter: @csi_popmusic