Money for Nothing: MTV, professionalism and supreme silliness

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Be in my video

Darling, every night

Everyone in cable-land

Will say you're out of sight

You can show your legs

While you're getting in the car, then

I will look repulsive

While I mangle my guitar

Frank Zappa, 'Be In My Video'

Once upon a time, in the dimming days of 'New Wave'1, something weird happened. It was known as the mid-eighties. Along with it came an odd reverberation of the old studio system of film-making where the popularity of a song and a singer might depend for a brief fifteen minutes or fifteen million dollars upon a few seconds of sound accompanied film. What was even stranger was that it was the remains of the movie studios and record companies that had suffered the most from the advent of television in the early fifties that reaped the benefits from the eruption of cable TV as the musical and cultural cathedral of cool. The iconic images of popular and unpopular music flipped from the static art of the record jacket to the tiny screen. And, like the old days of the Hollywood system, if it weren't for the massive technological resources and almost unlimited money2 of the monolithic mega-corporations, the pioneers of the music video revolution, however talented or visionary would have gotten nowhere near the toys needed to make their wonderful little curiosities. It is also a signal fact that the worm turns in many ways. Many of the memorable and innovative music video directors were already photography, television and film veterans, while others who once drew our eyes to the screen with 90 second mini-dramas to the tune of a passing fancy band are now so well-known for their TV and film work that even their fans would be surprised to know that they once set up a 3/4 inch Sony Beta recorder and an audio cassette machine in an empty aircraft hanger and rode around on a piano dolley clutching a forty pound video camera while a quartet of over-tanned guys in bad clothing choices and oddly teased long hair lip-synced and postured to a playback of their greatest hit.

Take the Jungle Music back to the Jungle!

Unlike the old days with the Fleischer-style 'follow the bouncing ball' sing-a-long short films that could be reseen as often as the patron could afford to visit the cinema or the theatre manager chose to show it, cable television took the concept even further and played the music and the moving images sometimes daily or3 hourly right into the victim's home. Thus, those who were actually trying to avoid the detritus and cacophany of the cultural wasteland that post-Dark Side Of The Moon popular music had become, found that the icons of industry were eventually forced into their consciousness sheerly through osmosis4. Where once-upon-a-time the parent only had to suffer or ignore a once-in-awhile intrusion of rock or pop on television, as in the Beatles on Ed Sullivan or David Bowie on the Dinah Shore Show, or, even stranger, Yawn and Joke-o spending a week co-hosting the Mike Douglas Show, heavy rotation meant that even if your family didn't have a nascent video tape recorder umbilicaled into the glass teat5 then you were likely to visually and aurally trip over it in the appliance section or even the lingerie department of your local mall outlet. This researcher first saw the John Landis/Micheal Jackson production of 'Thriller' in a children's clothing department in a mall in Austin. He didn't have cable at the time.

And the hits just keep on coming!

As Ed Morrow and others became famous for doing nothing more than narrating a war that they didn't participate in, or Fox News, CNN and Nightline became useful during the so-called 'Hostage Crisis' at the beginning of the Raygun years, the broadcast and cable Video Jockeys became famous just for sitting in a studio and taping a few minutes of intros for the videos that were in heavy rotation. The old-fashioned Disc Jockeys, before the days of nationally syndicated taped programming, used to have to sit in their individual cities, in their tiny booths, sweating out the four to eight hour shifts of the late-night hours, engaging in reverential or mocking shpiels about the three minute long forty-fives they were flopping onto creaky turntables like stale pancakes in a greasy diner in hell...
While regionally-based Album-Oriented Rock had pretty much taken over FM in the late seventies, with the longer and more obscure cuts getting as much or more airplay than than the supposed hits, the advent of MTV and the eventual proponderance of short illustrated musical clips heralded the emergence of satellite radio superstations that fed three minute singles into the air in heavy rotation with the aid of computers and sequential tapes, later replaced with computer-guided digital media. Whereas the original radio broadcast shows, most of which were live, or taped for rebroadcast within a few days, were only a few hours long, the superstations provided twenty-four hours or more, including ads tailored to the appropriate market, thus making it possible for a radio station to be completely automated with only a tech or two to keep it running and to change the tapes. Thus, while in the bad old days the record company fellows had to engage in payola or coke-ola with each local radio personality, the time had come when they only had to deal with one office, or buy a share in the station. The FCC would have a problem with that, but what they couldn't find out, they couldn't make a big deal out of.

Everything old is new again

It seems that some of the recent trend toward thirties and forties music in singers and movie producers comes from their reaction to the fact that there was once a world before the 'Music Video'. Many of the famous clips from the Eighties involved tributes or rip-offs of classic films or actor's performances. It also wasn't very long before genuine actors of star stature were making appearances in videos by large and small alike. It also seems odd that there is a retro movement that looks back upon the 'music' and the accompanying culture of the mid-80s with pseudo-nostalgia, though it is almost a fait accompli since most of the people involved are in their early forties and fifties and too many of the cultural artifacts from that time are still available.6 Sadly, we now can run down to the library, the video store or the nearest jumble sale and learn more completely about 1985 than we can about 1159 B.C.

Why is there Air Guitar?

Another odd thing about the music video revolution was that while the previous spurts in music TV, notably the showcase programs like Hullaballoo and Bandstand, had prompted viewers to notice the instruments and clothing that the performers owned and seek out such things for their own, often from pawnshops and parents, the 80s spurt coincided with a new level of teen affluence that reached heights never seen before or since. Bands like Def Leppard had professional level equipment from their very formation, unlike kids who had spent years struggling with used and inferior instruments while they learned their craft in the sixties and seventies. Guitar and keyboard manufacturers rushed to poop out cheap copies78
of their top-of-the-line products in order to meet the demands of children who didn't even know they wanted to play an instrument the week before. Vintage instruments, on the other hand, rose to enormous heights of value once again, in a reprise of the Bloomfield, Holly, Page and Clapton 'what's he playing this week?' fads of the
sixties.9 As part of the 80s nostalgia wave, even the instruments are being revered or reintroduced. The most peculiar examples are the Eddie Van Halen-approved Charvel factory versions of guitars and body paintings that Edward slapped together with odd bits of parts bin detritus and bicycle paint during his early performing and recording days. The fact that any dedicated shmuck could duplicate the original EVH designs with a few bucks, a screwdriver, a wood chisel and a spray can is ignored with the blurb that says,"In 1978, Eddie Van Halen revolutionized the art of rock guitar. Not only was his playing style unique, so was his guitar. Uncompromising in his values, Eddie refused to replicate his original striped designs until they could be done on a guitar worthy of his legacy", which is utter horse pucky because Eddie, at the height of his video popularity, had no trouble approving of Kramer copies of his 'unique' design, going to the extent of actually playing one for years.

Hey, ya'll! Watch this!

In another backwards glance to the old days, namely the experimental use of sixteen millimeter film clips10 on a back-projection system to create a film jukebox in the forties, video jukeboxes popped up in the mid-eighties, never doing much more than serving as curiosities, since the whole point of leaving the house was to get away from the noise and the visual impact of the telly. One of the first songs to actually make a buck off this oddity instead of heavy rotation on My MTV was the Scorpions' 'Rock You Like A Hurricane'. The strange thing was that sometimes the appearance of a band or the image of a clip was enough to get the viewer or listener to be curious about their album or other work. ZZ Top with their super-iconic and irreverent nods to Robert Johnson-era stereotypes such as cars, guitars, girls, girls and girls11 blended an odd mixture of Devo-like technological looping with old-fashioned electric blues12 to create a new genre in video silliness and a new and lucrative step in their career.

A nod's as good as a wink to a blind python

The elements for parody, self-parody and even winking self-revential in-jokes within the videos were present even in the early days. Mike Nesmith's early experiments in music video taping in the late seventies, which led to his invention of 'Pop Clips' which birthed MTV, and culminated in the video album 'Elephant Parts'13, were crude yet playful. The Pet Shop Boys video 'Opportunity', using early High Definition technology courtesy of director and producer Zbigniew Rybczynski14 beat the innovative concept into the ground so thoroughly within two and half minutes that no one was able to use it successfully again. The song and video mentioned in the title of this entry is the largest case in point. 'Money For Nothing' not only had Sting plaintively wailing 'I want my MTV' during the intro15 but the video clip's lyrics summarized a blue collar appliance store worker's attitude toward the people in the clip, while providing examples of other clips. In another realm, the clip also featured Mark Knopfler's tribute16 to the reigning king of repetitive distorted guitar riffs, Billy Gibbons, to the point of almost but not quite duplicating the signature Les Paul tone of 'Sharp Dressed Man' and 'Gimme All Your Lovin', among others, which is doubley strange since Knopfler played mostly with his fingers and Billy Gibbons allegedly used an American 25 cent piece or a Mexican peso coin. In another example of MTV incestousness, ZZ Top themselves had no trouble engaging in DEVO tribute activities during their tiny bit parts in their own videos. 'TV Dinners' is a grand example of that.

The little 'fellow's got his own jet airplane

'Money For Nothing' actually features several layers of in-jokes and parodies. Sting's intro is sung to the tune of the Police hit 'Don't Stand So Close To Me', which references 'that book by Nabokov', the controversial 'Lolita'. The literary references continue with the fact that 'Money For Nothing' was previously the title of a P.G. Wodehouse novel in the nineteen twenties. No mention will be made of the fact that Sting17 and Knopfler18 were once school teachers.
Sting and Knopfler shared writing credits for the lyrics, which were later heavily censored because of the supposedly insensitive nature of the words that Knopfler says were direct reporterly quotes of the yob in the appliance store. In fact, the entire second verse is omitted on certain greatest hits versions and an instrumental inserted. Oddly, when the song was performed by Sting and Knopfler for Live Aid at Wembley Stadium, there was no problem with the lyrics. The self-parody was taken to another level when Knopfler contributed the guitar part to Weird Al Yankovic's parodic version, 'Money For Nothing/Beverly Hillbillies' in his 1989 movie 'UHF'. The ultimate silliness of 'Money For Nothing', the single and the video is that it won piles of awards, including the 1986 MTV Video Award for Best Video Of The Year, and made Dire Straits international stars.19 It was also the first video to be broadcast on MTV Europe in 1987!

Don't look, Ethel!

Shpeaking of icons and history, also winning at the 1986 MTV Video Awards, under the bizarre yet apropo category of Best Male Video, was a clip of several black muslin draped ladies who seemed to be aware of the possibilities of makeup and feetware but not underware. They were clutching rock band instruments and dancing or swaying in a manner that can only charitably described as a satirical impersonation of a drunk WASP20 female would-be stripper. Standing in front of them was a short fellow clutching an old-fashioned Shure cage-type microphone and looking a lot like a used car salesman. The song was called 'Addicted To Love' and the singer was 'Robert Palmer' and the 'video' went on to titillate and infuriate a good portion of the world and led to two other similar treatments of Palmer's subsequent hits, 'I Didn't Mean To Turn You On'21 and 'Simply Irresistible'.
The vision for ‘Addicted To Love’ sprang from the life of Terence Donovan. Palmer’s costume is a copy of Donovan’s, who spent decades wearing identical funereal suits of black with white button-down shirts , and the chic yet sleazy models are an animated parody of his innovative yet mannered fashion and glamour photography in the pages of dozens of magazines during the 1960s. Donavan was a large and intense fellow, a Judo practitioner and a Buddhist who neither smoked nor drank nor allowed any of his work to be used to promote tobacco or alcohol. When he committed suicide in 1996 due to a depressive reaction to an eczema medication, his loss was widely mourned. To prove that the apples don't fall too far from the Newton, one of Donavan's children is a TV presenter and another is a rock musician.

The man with the cigar

The film-editing gear and direct to video technology that made modern illustrated and animated music singles possible was closely coupled with advances in computer-generated-image, or CGI, accouttrements. Many of the clips that made history with their innovative images involved prototype computer appliances or programmes, and equipment that was developed for industrial or aerospace applications that found itself useful in a new way. In many cases the cost of the video's production outstripped that of the album that the song came from. This absurdity was added to by recording companies that went on to make entire video 'albums'. Warner Brothers' Reprise Video division poured millions into video production, as did the Columbia recording group's CBS/FOX video department. It is not known how much they actually recouped, but they left us a vast archive of memorable and infamous preformances on tape and film, which has been mined incessantly by such entities as VH1.
Yet, one of the prevailing truths is that it was cheaper to make an illustrated music clip than it was to mount even the shortest of tours. A successful music clip aired on broadcast or cable could presell a concert tour for an unknown band. Entire careers could be jumpstarted made from a single. As part of the cyclic incestous nature of films and ‘videos’, movies soon began to be made in the ‘video’ style and soundtrack albums occasionally sold better than movie tickets. Lisa Loeb went from being an unknown with a tiny following and no record contract to having a demo played in the background of the Gen X movie “Reality Bites”, that was then slapped on the soundtrack album and hit the top ten still without a recording contract. Within months that was alleviated and the song that came from the movie was filmed as a ‘video’ that was directed by the little punk that was responsible for her song being in the movie in the first place, the inestimable (no joke!) Jude Law.

Adam 12, Adam 12, be advised, flamingo in a stolen Ferrari with a gun lip-synching to a Del Shannon song

A strange police drama called ‘Miami Vice’ was soon called ‘MTV Cops’ because in addition to some rather uneven writing, wooden performances from some marginal actors and stunning photography that seemed to be a mixture of GQ ad outtakes and a Chamber of Commerce puff piece, it featured a pop star and a pop song in almost every episode. It also paradoxically recalled the old ‘Peter Gunn’ detective fantasy show of the late fifties in that each episode had music specifically created for it by a single composer who also played every instrument required for the tracks, a wunderkind who never ceases to amaze called Jan Hammer. This led to a series of sountrack albums for the television show, which also harkened back to the fifties and sixties. The ‘Peter Gunn’ music was done by Henry Mancini, of ‘Pink Panther’ fame. The retro trend was accentuated by a show called 'Crime Story', starring Dennis Farina, which dealt with Treasury Department activities in the early sixties in Chicago and used the songs of that era for a soundtrack and the actors and performers of that period for cameos and bit parts. In later seasons the show moved to Las Vegas, with the concomitant use of locations, personalities and music associated with that locale.

1and the early days of the New Wave of Britich Metal, about which more, never2and, it is only rumoured, drugs...3In an odd concept known as Heavy Rotation4Or having a teenager in the immediate family 5and a happy birthday to Harlan Ellison, whose association with television and music goes a long, long way back, chilluns6There is no lack of grave diggers to mine the archives, repackage the remains and sell them in newer formats7Many of which were shipped in from Pacific Rim factories were the labour was paid pennies a day. Ibanez made it's own high class copies that were so good they threatened Gibson who sued and won.8Those Ibanez copies are now worth more than the 'real' instruments that Gibson was making at the time!9The Ventures, Monkees, Beatles and Shadows versions of various instruments and amps will be ignored wholeheartedly at this time.10Oddly trademarked as 'Soundies'11and two hardboiled eggs!12Jimi Hendrix had said on the Johnny Carson show that Billy Gibbons was his favorite young guitarist13Which won the first video album Grammy14Don't worry, even they couldn't pronounce it properly!15He also harmonized on the vocal lead16Or rip-off, depending upon your viewpoint17It is forgotten what his real name was and it really ain't relevant!18If that's a pseudonym, keep it to yourself!19Something they'd spent SIX albums trying to do!20White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, a stereotype, admittedly, since Black French Catholic girls have also been known to dance badly while soused21You may giggle now

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