When MTV first went on the air in 1981, it was considered a niche product that nobody would be interested in. Why would anybody sit down and spend time watching people play music when they could just listen to it as they always had? Besides, how were they going to get videos to put on the air?
The record companies never liked the idea. They felt playing music for free on TV would ruin the record’s sales figures. (Unlike radio, of course, which aired the music for free…. and increased sales?) Many cable companies wouldn’t even carry it.
In fact, MTV wasn’t even available in New York for the first year – the VJs often joked that they would have to go out to New Jersey if they wanted to see themselves.
Once they hit their stride, of course, MTV set the world ablaze. Every band in the industry wanted their music to be played and every label was willing to dish out serious bucks to start making music videos that people would remember.
Unknown MTV is a chance to look back at some of the videos that graced the airwaves this week in MTV’s history. For starters, we’re going to take a look at 1985. However, I’m not going to look at the most popular videos that week. Anybody can do that. As much fun as it would be to discuss Phil Collins‘ “One More Night” or David Lee Roth‘s “California Girls”, I want to talk about the lesser-known videos that made their debut during this time.
One of the greatest things about early MTV was the total randomness of the programming. There weren’t yet shows dedicated to heavy metal or R&B, so everything was just thrown together. You might see Wham‘s “Careless Whisper” followed by “Turn Up the Radio” by Autograph or something by B.B. King.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at a blend of videos from this week in 1985:
High in High School – Madam X
Madam X may not be a name familiar to many people, as they never found huge success, but this video is a perfect snapshot of the era.
They may be best known for two things: The band was formed by sisters Roxy & Maxine Petrucci. Roxy later moved on to play drums in the classic lineup for Vixen (“Edge of a Broken Heart”).
They also brought in an unknown Canadian singer in ’86 & ’87 and received some recognition during this time for their outlandish stage shows. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to keep the band together and they dissolved in ’88.
That singer was Sebastian Bach and the following year, he found a new home helping Skid Row become a household name with the release of their self-titled debut which went 5x platinum.
But back to this video. Like many from that era, the video begins with a cult-like group chant, shouting the title of the song. Then we meet our hero.
In the three and a half minutes of the song, we don’t learn his name. However, he is of a shorter stature and he looks a bit like Peter Dinklage, so let’s call him Tyrion.
Tyrion is immediately shown to be an outcast, but we never know why. Is he truly “high in high school”? We never see him pick up a joint or notice any white powder around his nose. Was he huffing glue in the locker room? Maybe, but without any context, we have to assume no.
Enter the teacher, dressed as conservatively as possible. Based on my knowledge of 80’s music videos, this means she’ll be stripping down to a bikini by video’s end.
Like so many of us during our high school days, Tyrion seems to imagine school as a prison (or the school is actually a Transformer) and his teacher is now a sexy guitarist.
He opens his desk and discovers a magic portal to…. cheesy 80’s concert footage of Madam X.
Check out the fur on the bassist. He looks like Rum Tum Tugger from the Broadway version of Cats.
Both Sexy Teacher(TM) and the students (now wearing prison garb), accuse Tyrion of being high.
I think this may have been the power of suggestion, because only after they accuse him does he finally look under the influence.
And this is where the video just gets weird.
For no logical reason whatsoever, Sexy Teacher(TM) brings a tiny leopard onto her desk. In a flash of 80’s negative effects, said leopard is transformed into drummer Roxy Petrucci, who leaps from the desk. Is she going to attack Tyrion? Nope, she never appears again.
How did she get past the prison bars?
Tyrion turns and sees that his classmates are now wearing giant shapes on their heads. Cones, spheres, pyramids. One thing in the back right looks like a white protractor. Does this mean they’re in geometry class?
It must be a Catholic High School because Sexy Teacher(TM)’s response to Tyrion’s behavior is to grab his ear. As a Catholic School survivor, that was just one of many tactics I saw employed.
The jokes on you, though, Sexy Teacher(TM)! Tyrion apparently has rubber ears.
And she stretched it so far, she somehow pulled it through the portal and into her music video. Yet he remained.
Unexpectedly, Sexy Teacher(TM) does not strip to a bikini. Instead, we see her clad in black leather and high heels gyrating her way through the mandatory guitar solo.
I have zero idea what’s happening next. The freaky shape people open their desks and find disembodied heads inside. Are they the souls of those who couldn’t make it through high school drug-free?
Holy crap! In a twist Nancy Reagan would not have approved, I think this video just took a “Say YES to Drugs” stance. Stay clean and end up with a protractor on your head, perhaps spending all eternity in the bowels of a classroom desk? Or get high and hang with the Rum Tum Tugger and his scantily clad friends below sea level.
You can probably guess what Tyrion chose.
Leaping onto the desk, he rips his jacket off and exposes a Madam X T-Shirt!
In an action moment straight out of The Matrix, Tyrion leaps through the crowd of Protractor People and escapes down the Portal.
I knew there would be a bikini in here somewhere.
Our cautionary tale ends happily as Tyrion escapes the brutality of High School and joins the band as their new hype man.
So, remember kids. Madam X says, “Do drugs”!
By the way, it should come as no surprise to rock fans that the genius behind this video, Marcello Epstein, was also responsible for Motley Crue‘s post-apocalyptic “Looks That Kill”.
I need to slow it way down after that. Let’s examine something much more low-key.
Gratitude – Danny Elfman
Wait a minute. Danny Elfman? The Oingo Boingo guy? That’s not low-key.
I’m just kidding. I love Danny Elfman. I wasn’t a huge fan of Oingo Boingo at the time, but I’ve learned to appreciate them more as I’ve followed his tremendous success in motion pictures.
For anyone living under a rock for the last two decades, Elfman has created a huge second career since retiring Oingo Boingo in 1995. Tim Burton & Paul Reubens (Pee Wee Herman) were fans of his band’s work and invited Elfman to write the score for their first feature film, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.
Despite having no formal training, Elfman put together a demo that impressed them and he soon fell in love with the form. Since then, he’s written music for over 100 films of all genres, including Edward Scissorhands, Good Will Hunting, Men in Black, Charlotte’s Web & Batman. In addition to scoring, he also returned to the microphone and sang as Jack Skellington in Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas.
The Gratitude video is taken from the album “So-Lo”. The album was recorded during a band hiatus and gave Elfman a chance to experiment with different songwriting styles. Elfman has suggested in interviews that the band had considered breaking up at this time and he was looking ahead to his next step.
This video is all over the map. I have no idea what the through line is, so I’m just gonna highlight it.
We start with Elfman at his most sinister.
He jumps into the role of a preacher.
And a faith healer.
He consults a fortune teller and sees his own visage in the crystal ball.
He then seduces her.
Or does he? Has she been taken away by the devil? Or is she actually the devil? Stop using French Impressionism in my music videos! I can’t make any sense of it!
Now it’s time for a poker party with the devil. Be careful, Danny. He may see you cheating!
Our last video featured a sexy vixen in black leather doing a guitar solo. This time we get to look at one of the creepiest backdrops ever.
Uh oh. Looks like Danny’s gone and gotten himself in a heap of trouble.
Isn’t it a bit of overkill to have someone in the stocks AND in a cell? Shouldn’t one of those be sufficient?
Guess the prison is somewhere South of the Border. The guards show up and haul Danny away. This can’t be good.
Holy crap – the electric chair? What did he do? Was it because of the poker game? Is The Devil behind this?
I am so confused…
“Before we fry you, would you please sign this? ‘To my Darling Isabel’. My kid is gonna love this!!”
What. The. Hell. Just. Happened?
I dug the music. It’s actually a catchy tune. But what’s up with that video? As I mentioned, I’ve grown to appreciate their music, but I don’t know that I will ever fully understand it.
Square Rooms – Al Corley
Thank God this is next. This is simply a performance video. No story. No special effects. No random executions. After the last two, this will be like a much needed saltine cracker.
Fans of late night dramas in the 80’s may recognize Al Corley as the original actor to play Steven Carrington on Dynasty. He was let go after his second season for public complaints regarding his character’s “ever-shifting sexual preferences”.
He was also quoted as saying Steven Carrington “doesn’t have any fun… He doesn’t laugh; he has no humor”. After seeing this music video, his character may not have been that far from reality.
Don’t get me wrong. The song is a perfectly fine example of British Invasion style new-wave. But his performance is… well…. take a look.
It’s not fair to call it wooden, because at least trees sway a bit. But the beginning is certainly not animated or lively. That’s all he does for the first minute of the video. Standing in front of drums, you’d think he would play them. I actually thought for a moment we were being faked out like in Weird Al’s “You Don’t Love Me Anymore”.
Once the song hit it’s groove, though, so did Corley.
Repeat that for two and a half minutes and the video is done.
Also, check out the dude playing keyboard on the right. First of all, he looks like a Muppet. His upper body is completely still and only his arms are moving. He like the Swedish Chef.
Secondly, watch his hands very closely. He is obviously using his whole hand (although he looks like he’s playing bongos more than keyboard).
Yet when we get a close-up, he’s only using one finger of one hand. That’s just lazy editing. Continuity, people!!
And then, back to a Muppet.
And that’s really it. After the magic portal and the protractor people, this was a nice break. Maybe next time, we just need to find something fun.
Also, is it just me or does this remind anyone else of Sprockets?
Second Nature – Dan Hartman
This is just what I needed to close this out. Something lighthearted and just a bit goofy.
Even if he never released another single, Dan Hartman would be an iconic 80’s vocalist for “I Can Dream About You”. That single from Streets of Fire was all over the airwaves in 1984 and even reached number 6 on Billboard’s Top 100.
He struggled with major labels to get another album produced, but during his court battles, he continued to release singles and write music for other artists. One of those singles is the subject of our final video.
Second Nature starts off so simple, you can probably envision the script.
FADE IN – A busy city intersection. People milling about. A newsstand owner organizes the day’s papers. Someone chats in a phone booth. (Remember those?) Dan Hartman sits in the open 3rd floor window strumming his guitar.
CLOSE ON A truck full of watermelons. CLOSE ON a truck full of chickens. They approach the same intersection from different directions. Three young ladies jaywalk. One drops her purse. The trucks steer to avoid her.
The result? Poultry a’la melon.
That’s the only setup we need. The streets are filled with hundreds of shattered watermelons and dozens of frantic chickens. That’s a recipe for disaster on most days. But, on this day, the neighborhood had a secret weapon. His name? Dan Hartman.
Armed only with his boom box, he rushes down to the scene and convinces everyone that they should learn to embrace the new melon/chicken calamity. Through the power of his song, poultry farmers and fruit farmers learn that music can make anything better.
But his arrival is only the beginning. Bystanders from all walks of life race to the crash site hoping to see broken bodies, but instead get wrapped up in the sultry sounds of Mr. Hartman’s tune.
Who would be excited to see such pandemonium?
How about generic rockers?
Or Wall Street types?
Nuns? Why not?
An entire bus full of cheerleaders and football players? Heck, yeah!
The casting call for this must have been outstanding.
Casting Agent: What type of people do you need?
Director: All of them! Short, tall, old, young, chubby, jocks, Latinos, punks. Just open the filing cabinet and call them all!
I know this sounds like an exaggeration, but it’s not. You have to watch this. The insanity just keeps escalating.
The cops show up. A marching band joins the fray. There’s a man dancing with an Afghan Hound.
Our hero even takes the time to serenade a chicken who’s been traumatized by the situation.
Instead of a guitar solo, we get a sax solo from a nurse in an red evening gown. Why? Who cares? It’s AWESOME!!
Maybe this is the answer to World Peace. This should be the new theme song for all United Nations sessions. It’s already a proven remedy for conflict resolution. In only four minutes, characters from every part of the city have joined together to celebrate the joy that is Dan Hartman.
The party continues as the video ends. Is it corny? Absolutely. But will it bring a smile to your face? Probably.
This tune only made it to to No. 39 on Billboard’s Hot 100. And I honestly don’t remember ever seeing this video, so I doubt it was in heavy rotation.
Such a wasted opportunity.
By the way, before Streets of Fire made him a household name, many people already knew Hartman’s voice. He was the lead singer of The Edgar Winter Group, famous for singing “Free Ride”.
Sadly, Hartman died on March 22, 1994 from an AIDS-related brain tumor.
Trust me, if you haven’t already, check out the Second Nature video. Your day will instantly get better.
“The jokes on you, though, Sexy Teacher(TM)! Tyrion apparently has rubber ears.“