This should be fun — a little bit of time in the wayback machine.
Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson, Say Say Say — one of those classic ’80s videos in which the director’s concept for a three-minute dramatic comedy has absolutely nothing to do with the song. “Mac and Jack,” as they’re called here, are good-hearted flim-flam men operating in 19th century America, conning people into buying some sort of strength tonic. That seems unnecessary, because they’re apparently quite good at vaudeville as well. The latter seems believable — at least, as long as you haven’t heard those audio clips of Linda McCartney’s musical talents and are willing to remember that Jackson was, at one time, a viable ladies’ man. Seriously. The song is about … I have no idea. It’s the sort of trivial love song (not silly, but trivial) that had Mac’s critics sharpening their knives during this era.
Toni Basil, Mickey — Typical New York performance art, making a video about cheerleaders look pretentious.
Kenny Loggins, Danger Zone — Oh, I may need to bail out like Anthony Edwards should have. I don’t mean bailing out of the plane and surviving the crash so that Tom Cruise can attempt to emote. I mean he should’ve bailed out of this film. I know — you may like Top Gun, but deep down, you know it’s dreck. And like Say Say Say, it seems a little creepier in hindsight knowing what you now know about the people involved. As for this song — you have to love the way we all thought those synth riffs were so bad-ass.
Elton John, I’m Still Standing — File this under “videos you watched nervously if your parents were in the room.” They didn’t know Elton was barely standing while this was being filmed, but the hand tapping on the woman’s bikini-clad bottom and the not-so-subtle choreography (“OK, men? I want you all to lift your butts in the air, then thrust down. And girls? When they’re done, do an ab crunch and smile for the camera. Very pretty now, OK? Take 3 …”) weren’t suitable for mixed-generation viewing.
Stray Cats, Stray Cat Strut — I’ll never get over the way Slim Jim Phantom thought he so cool because he refused to buy a real drum set. But you had to love the “feline Casanova” line. And the reason this band worked was simple — Brian Setzer could play.
Human League, Keep Feeling Fascination — “Hey Phil?”
“We’re going to put you and the band in a plain white room.”
“Any other visuals?”
“Nope, just panning and cutting from band member to band member as you all sing and play riffs. Can you make sure the girls do that Belinda Carlisle dance throughout?”
“No problem there, but shouldn’t we have something else in this video?”
“All right, all right. We’ll paint the building and the surrounding area red, like it’s the red dot on a ‘You Are Here’ map.”
“Cool. So we’ll need a crane and a helicopter.”
“Right. Money well spent.”
(Believe it or not, I think this is an underrated band. And I thought the dark-haired one was really cute.)
After the Fire, Der Kommissar — Is the point of this video supposed to be that all these people are enjoying one last party until the Kommissar shows up? What’s the point of running the video backwards, as if the woman is taking off her makeup with some sort of magic reverse applicator? Why does VH1 Classic call this band “After 7”? Why didn’t Falco do the English version of his own song? Why does Wikipedia claim these guys are a Christian band? How did these guys have the lack of foresight to muddle through some poorly received prog-rock, only to break up before this song hit the charts? No idea, but the tarantula and the makeup lady gave MTV two of its early iconic images.
Thompson Twins, Doctor Doctor — Any video with some tympani playing is OK by me, though I’d quibble with her form. (Not as much as I would with Jimmy Chamberlin’s in that Smashing Pumpkin video in which he is playing with one stick in the middle and one to the side. If you actually do that on tympani, it’s like playing two different instruments. I say this fully aware of the fact that Chamberlin is one of the all-time great drummers.) This is one of the Twins’ most interesting songs, with riff fragments and percussion all bouncing off each other to form the sort of dramatic backdrop Depeche Mode never quite managed. And you rarely see
closeups of keyboard playing any more.
(VH1 Classic now switches to “Rock Fest.” I’ll do a few more.)
Rolling Stones, It’s Only Rock and Roll — Why are these guys all in sailor suits? Where are they supposed to be? Why does this video end with the band being consumed by bubbles? (News flash: “Tragedy struck the music world today, as all five Rolling Stones perished in a root beer accident.”)
Cream, White Room (live at Royal Albert Hall, 2005) — It’s a straight live video. Funny thing — years ago, MTV used to play another version of this song from the same venue, one that stuck in my head so firmly that I downloaded it years later when they invented iTunes. Frankly, that version is better. It’s Clapton solo, with Greg Phillinganes on subtle keyboards, Nathan East nimbly expanding the bass line and Steve Ferrone just laying the sheer smack down on drums. Clapton sings the verses, and Phillinganes takes over the falsetto chorus.
I’ve never bought into the Ginger Baker cult, so Cream is already one step behind here. Jack Bruce is pretty good on the fretless bass, so that’s a wash. The sad thing is that Clapton himself is restrained. His solo starts strong … then just stops.
Aerosmith, Toys in the Attic — As long as I’m committing rock and roll heresy by touting Steve Ferrone over Ginger Baker, I’ll say this — R.E.M.’s version of this song is better. Especially when compared to this live version in which every band member but the stalwart Tom Hamilton (get well soon, buddy) looks like he’s about to pass out.
(I’ll wait through some ads to make it an even dozen. Not to be confused with EBN OZN, whose take on relationships I am still deconstructing after all these years. The point seems to be that we shouldn’t take clear communication for granted, but all I’m seeing is a guy whining that a woman — far out of his league, if you’ve seen the video — didn’t give it up on the first “date.”)
Queen, The Show Must Go On — I’ll skip this, actually, since I’m not sure when the video was shot and whether it’s meant as a farewell to Freddie. It certainly seems that way.
Stevie Nicks, Talk to Me — On “Rock Fest”? It’s from the album Rock a Little, which I’m pretty sure the great Musician critic J.D. “SHT” Considine panned with the three words “Rocks very little.” It’s been said many times before that Fleetwood Mac were far more than the sum of their parts, that the creative and romantic tension spurred great songwriting, that Lindsey Buckingham’s greatest strength was adding an edge to Nicks’ and Christine McVie’s works, etc. I think Nicks did some OK solo work, but this one … yeesh, I’m not I’m even watching this.
(I can’t close on that one. Let’s try one more.)
The Who, Pinball Wizard — It’s live from the Isle of Wight, using all the dramatic camera angles that directors were trying in the ’70s to add some visual appeal. Here’s a side view of Pete Townshend swaying back and forth. Here’s Keith Moon silhouetted against a spotlight. John Entwistle is surely there somewhere in that odd pose he always struck, bass way up against his chest, but I don’t think he was in a single frame.
That’s a good place to stop because it reminds of a topic I’ll be tackling soon. Proposed: Tommy does not stand the test of time. The story is too weak, and it forces some of the clumsiest lyrics Townshend ever wrote. Yes, the riffs are there. But they would still be there when Townshend rediscovered his lyricist chops on their actual masterwork — Who’s Next.
(It’s too bad I stopped there, because three videos later, we have the odd mix of voyeurism and Andy Warhol that is The Cars’ Hello Again.)