laura-branigan-old-disco-self-control-video

The most weird-ass music videos of the ‘80s

Mumzie at CFN-RFC, rocking a 'do she borrowed from the Thompson Twins.

When I was a kid, I was luckier than I imagined. For one, I lived in Germany’s mystical Black Forest. For most of the 10 years that we spent there, my mother worked at CFN-RFC, the TV and radio network for Canadian Forces families stationed in Lahr. Each day after school, I would take the bus to my mother’s office and spend the rest of her shift chatting up producers, directors and announcers. Thankfully, they were a tolerant bunch.

Then the ‘80s exploded. The cause? Music videos and their by-product, video shows. To name just a few, there was Good Rockin’ Tonite with the venerable Terry David Mulligan, Video Hits with Samantha Taylor, and Friday Night Videos. It was an exciting cultural phenomenon, which directly led to many high school girls mimicking Madonna’s “Like a virgin” look for the first half of 1985. Back at CFN-RFC, everyone played “who’s got the wackiest rock star haircut.” Whenever she could, my mother would tape videos on a VHS cassette and bring them home so we could watch them at our leisure. We thought of them as case studies.

Music videos weren’t novel. They’d been around for over 10 years. Only now, they were more stylized, going beyond concert footage and grey backdrops. Some videos told a story and felt more like short films. This period was so experimental, it’s a shame Andy Warhol didn’t live to see the ‘80s to the end. Then again, some of the work was so experimental, it might as well have been made in his Factory. Here are some of the more bizarre videos of the Michael Douglas decade.

Loverboy – Billy Ocean

Starting with an unidentified humanoid creature riding horseback along the Durdle Door coastline, it’s not hard to recognize this video’s absurdity. It’s got it all: a pointless floating pyramid, required “artist singing” scenes set on Mars, and ridiculous alien costumes that beg the question, why didn’t George Lucas sue? If anything really irks me about this piece, it’s that the protagonist – let’s call him Sheephead Guy – walks into a bar, eyes a female whatchamacallit from (presumably) another species, and promptly abducts her. The song justifies this by repeating, “I wanna be your loverboy.” Problem is, I’m not altogether convinced she feels the same. The lyrics don’t advocate barbaric behaviour, but the video seems to promote club-to-the-head courtship. I can appreciate an assertive man, but this is chest-banging, and not the Céline kind. Odd how during a decade that venerated progress and the future, this video romanticizes the Stone Age.

Self Control – Laura Branigan

Somewhat surprisingly (or maybe not), this video was directed by William Friedkin, who also directed The Exorcist. In all, I get the song’s broad strokes: Miz Branigan’s wilderness is unleashed at night, and it kind of scares her. What I don’t understand is how the video proposes to get there. It has a few too many symbolic levels, or at least, just enough to alienate even the cleverest of English majors (ahem). What’s with the masked dude, the city streets covered in flattened garbage bags and that frickin’ doll? The video isn’t exactly all over the place, but it also doesn’t really know where it is. It probably doesn’t help that the original cut was deemed too controversial, so parts were edited out for MTV. There’s a scene that’s clearly supposed to infer an orgy, and another bit where the masked dude looks like he’s about to perform cunninglingus. But none of that explains why dude is wearing a mask.

Gonna Get Close to You – Dalbello

I can’t tell which is stranger: the singer or her video. The song is about stalking, but the video makes me wonder, what for? No one will argue the androgyny of both main characters, yet I can’t help but feel that the lady is barking up the wrong tree. That the man can’t reciprocate Dalbello’s feelings has less to do with the fact that he wears a dress and more to do with the fact that he’s a little nutty. Then again, stalking isn’t a perfect science. If you can get past Lisa Dalbello’s zany hairstyle, the video is beautifully shot and the song is a piece of pop ingenuity. The whole production is peculiar and smart all at once. I’m not sure what the bag of red shoes stands for, but I like Dalbello’s “still life” pad with the grand piano on its side, and I almost wish there was more of the man’s 1950s housewife fantasy.

Big in Japan – Alphaville

I need to mention the awful lip-synching so we can get it out of the way. The lip-synching is just awful: there. Let’s move on to the singer’s incongruous facial expressions in relation to the lyrics: done. Next, short of actually filming in Japan, they lazily conjure up a cliché Japanese symbol: geishas. Then there’s the flag-holding ceremony. Yup: a ceremony. And they, like, hold flags and stuff. I would have included this muddled mess in a blog on the worst videos of the ‘80s, but “Big in Japan” is too outlandish to omit from this entry. Because the band is German I want to believe the video is influenced by early expressionist cinema, but that would be giving it too much credit. The thing was obviously filmed in some warehouse over a weekend, and quite possibly on a whim. That doesn’t make it a lesser piece, just dubiously improvised, a tad sloppy and utterly flaky.

The Wild Boys – Duran Duran

You can’t talk about ‘80s music videos without at least name-dropping Duran Duran. They really sexified the medium and pioneered the “costly production value” trend. Still, even Duran Duran weren’t immune to offbeat eccentricity, and at the time, nothing left people aghast quite like the “Wild Boys” video. We just didn’t know what to make of it. The video was directed by Russell Mulcahy, who also did Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” a point that provides a bit of insight. Wikipedia does a decent job of getting into the video’s whys and wherefores, so I’ll just focus on its bonus “weird” points. #1: For primitive “wild” boys, they managed to develop rather sophisticated methods of torture. #2: If they’re so wild, why did they even bother with loincloths? #3: Is the robotic Patrick Stewart bust their leader? If so, there’s your answer. #4: As if it weren’t freakish enough, there’s also a waterborne worm-monster. Wild, huh? I’d bring up the video’s generally disjointed narrative, but given everything else, it’s a moot point.

4 thoughts on “The most weird-ass music videos of the ‘80s

  1. The 80′s also marked a big boom in computer generated music. Thanks to the Commodore 64, it became possible for the home user to start creating musical effects of their own. I still remember programming “peeks” and “pokes”.

    Livvy Jams: True that. Thanks for reminding us…

  2. The Dalbello video is something I’ve only seen fairly recently — I think it may be more of a Canadian thing. However, I *do* remember the Queensryche cover of “Gonna Get Close To You.” For years, I had no idea it was a cover version. The video, unfortunately, isn’t nearly as nutty as Dalbello’s. However, it gets bonus creepy points for positing Geoff Tate as a believable stalker, albeit one with unfortunate wardrobe and hairstyle tendencies (until a last-minute goofball vampire “plot” twist makes the whole thing seem sillier than it should), but it lacks that crazy vibe that Dalbello’s has. A pretty faithful cover, though, and the engineering work from Skinny Puppy’s cEvin Key lends it a more industrial-pop edge than metal.

    Livvy Jams: I remember the Queensryche version too. It’s notable that even in their video, they riff on the idea of a stalker.

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