The other day, in this year of love in the time of corona, I re-watched a favorite film of my daughter and I, Atomic Blonde (2017). Besides the Cold War intrigue and stellar action pieces, set when the Berlin War came down — coincidentally when I married my bride — its ’80s-era soundtrack was as killer as Lorraine Broughton. It certainly had me recalling what I was listening to then. Moreover, to what I was watching like everyone else during that decade of big hair and shoulder pads:
This musical short film can be traced back to the 1920s, with the medium producing material through to the 1940s. It regained prominence beginning in the 1980s, but I’ll contend this latter version of it was influenced by a certain scene from a film in 1964. A Hard Day’s Night, the same movie that changed my outlook toward film and music when I was 10 years old. The scene is linked here. No surprise The Beatles, as subjects of the film, were lensed appealingly and in a distinctive manner.
Paraphrasing Tim’s Cover Story article of the scene, the black and white film sequence featured a number of jump cuts, aerial and long-range shots blended with extreme close-ups, to say nothing of sped-up and slow-motion action. All timed to match the rapid-fire beat of Can’t Buy Me Love, care of hand-held, and set cameras. Many of the techniques director Richard Lester deployed would impact downstream movies, specifically comedies and spy thrillers, and of course, pop music.
Every one of these approaches would be used in the music videos that came thereafter.
With the ’60s lifting my appreciation for film and music as a kid, to my retreat into those same arts to simply get me through the ’70s, little wonder this era’s signature music videos would drive my compulsory viewing in what was their initial heyday. As is my penchant for such things, I began to compile a list, which ranged to some ridiculous length. So naturally, I had to cut it down to my favorite number. And come up with some criteria for what qualified to be on it.
Merely liking a song wouldn’t do. No, the released music video not only had to be thematic, but justly cinematic in its approach. Rendering the tune for the artist, its concept, and locking it all into this listener-viewer’s head. When I look back on it, the videotaped performance had to be coequal to the published number that made the then analog airwaves. Gelled together in the unique way some music videos can capture the imagination. Tied to the hip; married, but in a good way. Not like some1.
Oh, and I’ll limit this to one per artist2.
Honorable mentions: Well, there are always going to be tough decisions in a roll call like this, resulting in those left by the wayside. Have to draw the line somewhere. So, in no particular order, the merits of the following just couldn’t fit into those skinny jeans and leggings of the time. And yeah, I know I’ll get grief for the more than a few here.
- Under Pressure – Queen
- Love is a Battlefield – Pat Benatar
- Owner of a Lonely Heart – Yes
- Rio – Duran Duran
- Billie Jean – Michael Jackson
- Thriller – Michael Jackson
- When Doves Cry – Prince
- Raspberry Beret – Prince
- Purple Rain – Prince
- Alone – Heart
- Genius of Love – Tom Tom Club
- La Bamba – Los Lobos
- Jump – Van Halen
- Only the Lonely – The Motels
- Everyone Wants to Rule the World – Tears for Fears
- Want to Dance with Somebody – Whitney Houston
- Express Yourself– Madonna
- Rhythm Nation – Janet Jackson
- Simply Irresistible – Robert Palmer
- Got My Mind Set on You – George Harrison
- Run to You – Bryan Adams
Released: May 1983
Songwriter: Stevie Nicks
Video Directed by: Jeffrey Hornaday
Stand Back – for me, the music video comes down to the special nature that is Stevie Nicks. Her distinctive voice, a penchant for writing poetic lyrics, and capturing that oh so confident stage persona. This, the second attempt3 of the song, relied solely on that plus the accouterments. Her bohemian stylings and famous fondness for shawls and twirling about, along with being backlit beautifully. Making it a promotional gem of a video.
Released: November 1985
Songwriters: Michael Rutherford, B.A. Robertson
Video Directed by: Jim Yukich
Silent Running – This one haunts me, primarily because the Mike + The Mechanics’ tune casts a story4 of a family broken with the absence of a father. In my case, dad didn’t travel light-years away, out in space somewhere, and trying to warn of impending disaster. Yet, its framing of father and son somehow reconciling in the mist of a sci-fi setting remains wistful. Even if the special effects have not aged well, the video’s look was cutting edge back then, and its endpoint is memorably heartbreaking.
Released: March 1984
Songwriter: Alan Parsons, Eric Woolfson
Video Directed by: D.J. Webster
Don’t Answer Me – As a comics fan since the ’60s, think I was naturally drawn to Mike Kaluta’s artwork that mimicked the style as it rendered Alan Parsons Project catchy song5 to the screen. Animated in the style of Dick Tracy, the lead character “Nick” saves the dame and day. The band dressed in 1930s cocktail lounge outfits performing the song in a still drawing toward the end. Ultimately, I believe the video influential that decade, and particularly this year with the music video that’ll top this list.
Released: February 1986
Songwriter: Robert Palmer
Video Directed by: Terence Donovan
Addicted to Love – Likely one of the most iconic of the era and the ’80s music video most here will recognize. Robert Palmer singing the shortened version6 of the song off his Riptide album, backed by a band of female models7 whose pale skin, heavy makeup and red lipstick, along with a sultry mannequin-like expression, heightened my attention, quickened my pulse, and raised my…ah…curiosity (that’s what I meant to say) something fierce. No doubt, I wasn’t the only one having blood rushing somewhere8.
Released: June 1983
Songwriter: Robert Hazard
Video Directed by: Edd Griles
Girls Just Want to Have Fun – I think there’s a case to be made that this Cyndi Lauper song and video was the antithesis of Robert Palmer’s. It’s not trying to be outwardly seductive nor centered around male fantasy. Nobody here is “model” caliber, but it clearly presents an enlightening tale of female empowerment through a snappy tune and quirky storytelling that’s frankly memorable. It still warms my heart and was instantly recalled years later when first told I’d be a father to a daughter.
Released: June 1985
Songwriter: Mark Knopfler, Sting
Video Directed by: Steve Barron
Money for Nothing – This would be another of the quintessential videos of the ’80s. From the lead in “I want my MTV” lyric and drum intro, to the leading edge computer animation and video graphics that opened the eyes. Then to have Mark Knopfler emulate ZZ Top’s guitar sound that filled and focused the ears with one of the best music build ups, ever, what’s not to love9? A chart-topper, Grammy award winner, along with being the Video of the Year at the 3rd MTV Video Music Awards that year.
Released: February 1983
Video Directed by: Bryan Greenberg
Little Red Corvette – Am fully aware Prince’s other music videos are judged higher (see honorable mentions), but this one made me sit up and recognize the out-in-out magnetic presence and song writing talent of the Purple one. This his second vid to play on MTV, and only a captured staged performance at that, but it was mesmerizing to watch. No need of computer enhancement or neon graphics to tantalize. Body movements and automobile sexual metaphors made that clear enough.
Released: July 1983
Songwriter: Billy Gibbons, Dusty Hill, Frank Beard
Video Directed by: Tim Newman
Sharp Dressed Man – Another of most recognizable, ZZ Top’s guitar sounds, male fantasy, and attitude are clear and sharply cut onscreen. Besides the tricked out 1933 Ford Coupe Hot rod, beautiful models, and musical encouragement toward romantic adventure, what really drew me was its tale involving a young woman of color (actress Galyn Görg10). One of the 1980’s first music videos that depicted a budding relationship featuring an interracial couple onscreen. What was taboo now groundbreaking.
Released: July 1986
Songwriter: Steve Tyler, Joe Perry
Video Directed by: John Small
Walk This Way – This will be the only song cover on this list, but it’s a dozy. Peter Patrick said it best: “…symbolically placed a rock band and Run-D.M.C. in a musical duel in neighboring studios before Steven Tyler literally breaks through the wall that separates them. The video then segues to the bands’ joint performance on stage. The highly popular video was the first hip hop hybrid video ever played in heavy rotation on MTV and is regarded as a classic of the medium.” ‘Nuf said11.
Released: May 1987
Songwriter: Suzanne Vega
Video Directed by: Michael Patterson, Candace Reckinger
Luka – The last haunting music video on the list would be this by Suzanne Vega. Don’t know any other songs based on bringing child abuse to the light, but as the artist says, “I had to think of how to write about a subject that no-one talks about.” The black and white imagery that spotlights a young boy12 running though the streets and living in a second floor NYC apartment is contrasted against an arresting melody and palpable lyrics meant to pin this malady to the chest of anyone who listened. As it did me.
Released: August 1989
Songwriter: Madonna, Patrick Leonard
Video Directed by: Herb Ritts
Cherish – Had to choose at least one music video for the one of the most impactful music artists of this (and the next) decade that made her mark particularly via this medium13. This remains my favorite of Madonna’s during this portion for its joyful quality, playfully photographed across a scenic monochromatic beach landscape. Few others could pull off singing and writhing amongst the waves that featured beautiful merfolk contorting and splashing equally. Okay, Prince could do it, but still. 😉
Released: February 1983
Songwriter: Michael Jackson
Video Directed by: Bob Giraldi
Beat It– And if the above was potently representative of the era and artists, then the King of Pop’s contributions through music video has to be spotlighted in no uncertain terms. If I restrict Thriller (and I have), then this was the one I placed on loop for its staging and storytelling. To say nothing of Michael Jackson’s unmistakable verve transmitted to those watching through their TV sets, bringing about an elevation to the music form that only a few could ever match. In my mind, only one ever beat this out during the ’80s.
Released: October 1984
Songwriter: Magne Furuholmen, Morten Harket, Pål Waaktaar
Video Directed by: Steve Barron
Take On Me – This one has got it all: an intriguing storyline that immediately involves you with its beguiling characters. Its use of a comic book visual style, one that reaches out into the real world; incorporating the use of animation rotoscoping techniques with then cutting edge graphics. And all set to the infectious tune that still elicits emotion to a great many today. A touchstone music video that’s been referenced and parodied in the decades since, its Steve Barron’s greatest14 — which is saying something since he also did MJ’s Billie Jean, Madonna’s Burning Up, and my #8 pick, among others. It still warms my heart by its conclusion15, and there’s no beating that.
If you’re interested, click here to see similar for the 1990s.
- Love the work of The Pointer Sisters during this time, but always thought the music videos produced for their hits weren’t on par story-wise, unfortunately. ↩
- Have always thought musical videos as short stories. And if that’s the case, Michael Jackson’s Thriller was more like a novella. Even if it’s the best of the era, as many do, it falls out of my top set by length and going beyond that of a typical musical short. ↩
- The first, which was never aired and is referred to as the “Scarlett Version”, was a lavish production directed by Brian Grant and features Nicks in a Gone with the Wind type scenario. Upon seeing the completed video, Nicks rejected it as, according to Grant, she felt she looked fat.” ~ Wikipedia ↩
- The song’s video features a few clips from the film Choke Canyon, but is primarily based on the completely unrelated story on which the song’s lyrics are based. Billy Drago makes a cameo appearance in the video.” ~ Wikipedia ↩
- The music video was filmed at the Broadcast Arts animation studio, with Kaluta acting as lead designer and animator from a script by D.J. Webster. The video took 23 days to film, using a 40-man animation team, and combined traditional cel animation (in the rendering of the figures), stop-motion animation (for the majority of the movements), and even claymation. The final cost topped $50,000.” ~ Wikipedia ↩
- One of the last 45 RPM singles, in a decade fast moving to CDs and away from vinyl, to receive a million-selling Gold certification. ↩
- The five models in the video are Julie Pankhurst (keyboard), Patty Kelly (guitar), Mak Gilchrist (bass guitar), Julia Bolino (guitar), and Kathy Davies (drums).” ↩
- The stylings of this music video so successful, producers would recycle the concept for “I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On” (also from Riptide), “Simply Irresistible” and the animated “Change His Ways” (both from Robert Palmer’s Heavy Nova). To say nothing of the parodies that followed. ↩
- Well… “The lyrics for the song have been criticised as being homophobic.” ~ Wikipedia ↩
- Galyn Görg, memorably pictured in the post’s lead image, past away early this summer. May she rest in peace. ↩
- “This is a rap version of an Aerosmith song from 1975. According to the February 2006 Q magazine, Run-D.M.C. stumbled across this song during a search for breakbeats to use during DJ sets in the early ’80s. They didn’t know who Aerosmith were and thought the band was called Toys In The Attic because that was the album title. Rick Rubin, who was producing Raising Hell, was a huge fan of Aerosmith and suggested to Jam Master Jay that he call Perry to ask if he and Tyler would play on their cover version.” ~ Songfacts ↩
- “The part of Luka was played by actor Jason Cerbone, who was chosen after the directors auditioned more than 90 children for the part.” ~ Wikipedia ↩
- Given the number of music videos she did, Madonna’s film ventures never translated well to the big screen — Desperately Seeking Susan and Evita being her best efforts, IMHO. ↩
- This music video is actually the second one released for the song. As Vulture’s Jen Chaney covered, “By 1985, “Take on Me” had already been released as a single and a more standard music video, neither of which captured public imagination.” ↩
- The story’s conclusion of the comic book hero attempting to breakthrough his two-dimensional confines to join his love in the real world was patterned after a climactic scene in the 1980 film Altered States. ↩