Here at MostlyFilm, we like to ROCK. And since the Reading and Leeds festivals are happening this weekend, we’re opportunistically jumping on the musical bandwagon (is that a thing? – ed) to share with you some of our favourite obscure music videos. So turn off your email, turn up the sound and enjoy.
Flowered Up – Weekender
I can think of smarter music videos than Flowered Up’s eighteen-minute masterpiece Weekender. I can think of funnier videos, and better-made videos, and videos for better songs. But I can’t think of a truer music video, because if you were the right age at the right time, this short film reflected your life right back at you, and it wasn’t a pretty sight.
We thought we knew everything when we were sixteen. Danger was a sensation we chased; bad things happened to other people but not to us, the chosen ones, the golden few who understood what was really important. School was a distraction, parents a painful necessity which we’d rather do without. We had Saturday jobs, and worked in shitty shops, and bunked off lessons to go and sit in the park or in someone’s bedroom and smoke weed. Sometimes we smoked weed while we were at school, to numb the boredom. And at the weekend, we’d count our Saturday-job money, touch up our red- and purple-streaked hair, add a strategic extra rip or two to our tights and head out to a shitty club, where we would dabble with a range of shitty drugs, and come home early on Sunday morning hating everything, but especially our parents. It was amazing. And this video takes those weekends, it knows those weekends, and it shows them as they were: beautifully ugly; unrecognisably familiar; terrifyingly reassuring.
These days most of my peers from that time have mortgages and jobs and children (I don’t, currently, have any of those, though I have had at least two of them in previous lives, but that’s by the by), but stick this video on at top volume and a generation will weep for a lost youth. I realise that if you weren’t there, you won’t be able to see why this video means so much to me. But that’s the whole problem, man: you just don’t understand.
Talk Talk – I Don’t Believe In You
You could argue that Talk Talk’s Spirit Of Eden isn’t the best album of the 1980s but frankly you’d be wrong. It’s a testament to its enduring appeal that most people don’t realise that it was released just months after the first Bros album and before Kylie and Jason’s Especially For You. It’s an album out of time and will always remain so.
Spirit Of Eden appeared in September 1988, to utter bewilderment from fans and media alike and as a result barely scraped the UK top 20; so to bolster the LP it was decided that a video was needed. In November the band and their long-time collaborator Tim Pope attempted to capture the most commercial track on the album: I Don’t Believe In You. Talk Talk had just come out of litigation with their label and Mark Hollis has been quoted as saying of the video “I really feel that was a massive mistake. I thought just by sitting there and listening and really thinking about what it was about, I could get that in my eyes. But you cannot do it. It just feels stupid. It was depressing and I wish I’d never done it. That’s what happens when you compromise.”
But I Don’t Believe In You stands as the last visual statement from a band who never seemed at ease with making videos but often produced some brilliantly eccentric work (for example, the second take of Dum Dum Girl, Living In Another World and Life’s What You Make It).
There was one more Talk Talk album, Laughing Stock, which was a Hollis solo album in all but name, then an actual solo album, but since 1998 there’s only been 93 seconds of new music from Hollis (Arb Section One from the Boss soundtrack). But with Kate Bush’s first shows in 35 years now imminent there are men of a certain age in pubs up and down the country wondering ‘what if?’ about Mark Hollis and Talk Talk.
Spirit Of Eden on Spotify (though you really should buy it.)
Red Box – For America
This is the video that propelled me towards sophistication. Watch it before you read on. Without a sense of how sophisticated those three minutes and fifty seconds are, you’ll never really know how sophisticated I became.
My Mum loved this song when it came out in October of 1986. We bought her the single and I think we recorded the video off the telly for her as well. Well, The Chart Show started in April 1986, so the timeline works, so let’s say this is all true.
There’s so much in the video for an eight year-old boy to love. A cowboy plays the drums. There will be cheerleaders, boxing gloves and people falling over. You can learn a marching, arms swinging ‘dance’ that‘s easy enough for you and your sister to do in the living room. There’s a gigantic stars-and-stripes top-hat. And, maybe best of all, when they sing naa-naa-na-naa-na-naa-naa, the singer actually does the thumb-on-nose, waggly fingers at the camera – and once you know it’s coming, you can do it right back at him.
But everything changed when I asked my Dad why that man liked America so much. He told me that, although it sounded like the singer liked America, the song was actually about how America wasn’t as great as Americans thought it was. Or wait, hold on, maybe Dad said that about Born in the USA? Nah, I’d be too young to get that in 1984 and, besides, this is a better introduction to irony. Because next time I watched For America, knowing that this thing was happening, this thing where people said one thing but meant the opposite, that delirious parade of American iconography didn’t seem fun anymore. It seemed like it all meant something. I tried to figure out what, I’ve never been the same since.
New Order – The Perfect Kiss
Spank The Monkey
There are so many reasons why this shouldn’t work. For a start, while certain bands would thrive under the scrutiny of a live performance video, we’re talking about New Order, an outfit responsible for some of the most ramshackle nights I’ve ever seen on a professional stage. There’s also the sheer perversity involved in taking a group that tends to keep their faces off their packaging, and filming them entirely in close- up. Even the frisson of a live performance is removed when half of the band is doing nothing more than triggering pre-programmed samples.
And yet… it’s kind of perfect.
Jonathan Demme directed the video for Perfect Kiss shortly after his Talking Heads live movie Stop Making Sense. The latter had a hugely charismatic frontman to work with: the former, to be honest, didn’t. So Demme decided to make a short film that looked as beautiful as possible. Using Jean Cocteau’s cinematographer Henri Alekan (and dragging him out of retirement specifically for the job), he had each member of the band lit as magnificently as possible, and then stood back and let them play.
The sheer stripped-down nature of the visuals contrasts wonderfully with the increasing busyness of the music. And as with any other piece of minimalist art, repeated viewing brings out unexpected details. Stephen Morris’ tiny grin as the song powers into its climax: Peter Hook breaking the fourth wall simply because, well, he’s Peter Hook: even the jolting realisation that there’s only one shot in the whole ten minutes where more than one band member is in the frame. As the young people say nowadays, this was my jam twenty-nine years ago. In a way, it still is.
Björk – Human Behaviour
It’s difficult for me to hear the words “great music video” without seeing that bear. Loping through a forest, feet floating above the ground like a lucid dream.
Before Human Behaviour, Björk was almost entirely unknown; a singer in oddball Icelandic indie band The Sugarcubes, often upstaged by Einar the group’s shouty man. It took a few more singles before she was a household name (sadly as a byword for vocal kookiness but whatever), but Human Behaviour was enough for me. I loved every aspect.
In retrospect, fucking duh. Let’s just assume that I had a dozen posters of Björk in my bedroom (because it was 1993 and of course I did) and concentrate on the superb video. It’s an early Michel Gondry, before Hollywood found him, and he was the perfect fit for Björk’s eerie, throbbing, densely-textured song. The video (and song) manages to be warm and comforting while threading horror and unease into every frame. One can watch it and feel as fuzzily happy as it’s possible to be, if one doesn’t concentrate on the details.
The lipsync is slightly off. Feet don’t touch the ground. Scale is messed up. Björk herself is a strange presence; sometimes a victim of circumstance, sometimes slyly aggressive and predatory. Beautiful, yes, all of it is, but there’s some distance between us and that beauty. As approachable as a fairy tale, and we all know how those draw us in with princesses, bears and gingerbread houses. As beautiful and compelling as a flame to a moth. There’s definitely, definitely, definitely no logic to Human Behaviour.
Pulp – Babies/This is Hardcore
Babies is not the greatest video in the world, but it introduces you to a band and tells you all that you need to know about what they are about. Artsy and knowing. Folksy poetic lyrics set to upbeat poppy tunes. Sheffield/working class links. 1970s vibe. Distinctly British sensibility. Cherubic, charismatic front man with a penchant for making a feature of his long legs and skinny frame. A band of supporting characters, all with their own ‘brand’ going on. The sharp almost Sparks haircut of the lead guitarist. The shy retiring pretty key boardist. The complete 90’s-ness of the bass player and the contrasting normality of the drummer. The first time I saw this video I fell in love with Jarvis Cocker and Pulp. Listening to Sheffield Sex City just confirmed I was quite right to do so.
I’m cheating here, as we are meant to pick one video and I am picking two, but please indulge me. This is Hardcore is, in my opinion, Pulp at their best. I know everyone loved Common People, but Hardcore is dark. Pulp are always dark, it’s just that they don’t necessarily sound it. With Hardcore the piano adds menace. The string and wind section just enhance it. The video, which you may have seen but I suspect you have forgotten, always reminds me of Babies. Its several years and some serious commercial success later and they are returning to a theme, the film pastiche. Babies is a pastiche of a promo video, Hardcore is a pastiche of every Technicolor detective movie with a femme fatale you can think of. There’s some Hitchcock, there’s some Mitchum, heck there’s even a smidgen of Gentlemen Prefer Blonds and Busby Berkeley in there for good measure. And here’s Jarvis; a little older, a little sleeker but really no different. His face remains cherubic, his moves awkward like a drunken Dean Martin staggering without his martini glass along a line of scantily clad Vegas show girls and you cannot take your eyes off him, any more than you could in Babies.
Where Babies looks, and likely was, produced on a shoe string with mates, Hardcore is polished, refined, the money. Babies was a band striving for success, Hardcore always feels like a band set to implode – whether that is with thanks to hindsight or not it’s difficult not to listen to the lyrics and not hear a new cynicism creep in, one that has nothing to do with the class system or British life for the unmoneyed.
Pulp, with and without commercial success, always gave good video. And I am still a little bit in love with Jarvis; just don’t tell my husband-to-be.
The Replacements – Bastards of Young
I hate pop videos. HATE them. I grew up around the time when they were being acclaimed as works of art by the kind of people who would also say, wide-eyed, “The ads are better than the programmes these days, you see!”
I remember Undercover of the Night, directed by Julien Temple in his popcorn Alex Cox phase, getting an actual TV premiere with the kind of fuss you’d reserve for, I dunno, a new X-Men movie or something these days.
I remember Vienna by Ultravox being called ‘the pinnacle of the art’. I remember Wild Boys by Duran Duran. You can see what I’m getting at.
That’s why Bastards of Young by The Replacements is the greatest video of all time.
Watch it. Go ahead. It’s right there. Turn it up and watch it. It’s not long. Afterwards, most of the other videos on this page will look a bit stupid.
This video pulls the rug out from under the idea of standing there miming, wearing a costume, in front of a green screen or on a yacht. Oh, you’re being ironic and self-mocking? Don’t you realise how stupid you look? I’m talking to you, Flaming Lips, Arcade Fire, the rest of you. You think you’re better than Duran Duran? Well, you’re not. You can put on silly animal costumes as much as you want. You’re still standing there flapping your lips to playback.
This video has no director. It has no cinematographer. Some guy in the band, or one of their friends, puts a camera down facing a speaker. Somebody else puts on the record. The record plays, there’s an auto-zoom out to include some grotty surroundings (turntable on milk crate, tatty couch). When an anonymous guy walks in, all that’s visible are his ripped-knee jeans off the first Ramones album cover. He sits down and smokes. This feels like more of an event than, say, Mick Jagger dressing up as a Colombian pimp and machine-gunning Bill Wyman. And the ending!
No music video ever made comes close to this. It’s cathartic and contemptuous, self-hating and self-mythologising all at once.
The Hungarian director Béla Tarr changed his style of filmmaking radically around 1985, moving from Cassavetes-style realism to a gruelling yet transcendent use of negative space and long takes. I can only assume a chance viewing of this video on a samizdat VHS tape in some friend’s basement was the catalyst. His masterpiece, The Turin Horse, is virtually a remake of Bastards of Young, but with a dying horse instead of a record player. I love it, but I have watched this more often.