10 Excellent Pre-MTV Music Videos


To commemorate the space shuttle Atlantis’s return from its final mission, Boing Boing posted the music video for David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” It’s a great and weird clip, featuring Bowie as a retro-futurist, silver-clad astronaut gyrating through space. And he’s also ground control, which you can tell because he’s wearing a red baseball cap that says “GC.” Then there are some girls with big hair, who don’t appear to be astronauts. Anyway, it got us thinking about how much we love stumbling upon music videos from the days before MTV, when the medium was new and unpolished. Ten of our favorites, including everyone from the Beatles and the Stones to ’60s French pop and Devo, are after the jump.

David Bowie — “Life on Mars?” (1973)

“Space Oddity” (which was directed by Mick Rock and accompanied the song’s 1972 US re-release) was hardly David Bowie’s only pre-MTV foray into music videos. Always an early adopter, he made several elaborate video promos for singles in the ’70s, all of which are collected on his 2002 DVD anthology Best of Bowie . Our favorite is Rock’s simple clip for Hunky Dory track “Life on Mars?”, an attractively overexposed video portrait of Bowie in a powder-blue suit with ample eyeshadow to match. We dare you to stare deep into those mismatched eyes and not fall in love.

France Gall — “Laisse Tombe les Filles” (1964)

The US and UK may have been at the forefront of global pop music throughout the ’60s, but it was France that pioneered the music video. The advent of the Scopitone video jukebox resulted in clips for popular songs by French superstars including Serge Gainsbourg and Jacques Brel. We’re big fans of this video for France Gall’s 1964 hit “Laisse tomber les filles” (literally, “Leave the girls alone”), which finds Gall teaching a class of teenagers about the dangers of being a heartbreaker. Quentin Tarantino fans will recognize April March’s 1995 English-language cover, “Chick Habit,” from its delightfully appropriate inclusion in Death Proof.

Rick Derringer — “Hang On Sloopy” (1975)

We were reintroduced to The McCoys’ wonderful 1965 #1 hit “Hang On Sloopy” when BuzzFeed posted it last summer and wondered, “Who the heck is the fox dancing in the video?” Indeed, the bra-less wonder has some mesmerizing moves, even for those of us who aren’t predisposed to enjoy all videos that involve jiggling boobs. People on the internet have been trying to figure out who she is for years, and guesses range from ’70s porn star Marilyn Chambers to McCoys frontman Rick Derringer’s wife. Unfortunately, it turns out that the clip was actually created for a fairly terrible cover perpetrated by Derringer himself ten years later. If you’re like us and would prefer to watch it with the original song, synchronization issues be damned, you can do that here.

The Beatles — “Strawberry Fields Forever” (1967)

By the time they shot this video, The Beatles were old pros at pairing their songs with images — their first, hit-packed feature film A Hard Day’s Night came out in 1964. From the mid-’60s on, they made a ton of promo videos, largely to support the release of new singles in countries they wouldn’t be visiting. So, there are a lot of Beatles clips to choose from, but we went with “Strawberry Fields Forever,” purely because it is a precise visual evocation of everything that the song suggests, shot in psychedelic color and featuring lots of jerky camera movements, colored filters, trippy fades, and disconcerting close-ups. In other words, Animal Collective isn’t really doing anything we haven’t seen before.

Sweet — “Teenage Rampage” (1974)

British bubblegum glam quartet Sweet released this clip to accompany their youth-rebellion anthem “Teenage Rampage.” As far as promo videos go, it’s pretty standard, look-at-us-in-the-studio stuff. The pleasures are to be found in the details — frontman Brian Connolly’s facial expressions oscillating between kissy, pin-up vamping and faux-feral rage, his leather-jacketed band mates’ noticeably lower energy level. Is it weird to say we wouldn’t mind having Connolly’s shirt… or hair?

Bob Dylan — “Subterranean Homesick Blue” (1966)

The video for “Subterranean Homesick Blues” has a storied history. Shot in 1966, it opens D.A. Pennebaker’s classic Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back and features Dylan in an alley holding up cue cards with key lyrics (and some phrases that aren’t in the song at all) written on them. And yes, in case you’re wondering, that is Allen Ginsberg in the background. According to Pennebaker, the clip was Dylan’s own idea. Watch the filmmaker talk with cultural critic Greil Marcus about the filming of the scene here.

The Rolling Stones — “We Love You” (1967)

Like their rivals the Beatles, the Rolling Stones made a whole lot of videos throughout the ’60s. The most interesting, without a doubt, is this 1967 clip for “We Love You.” Directed by Peter Whitehead and boldly poking fun at the Mick Jagger and Keith Richards’s recent drug arrest, it opens with a newspaper bearing the headline, “Drugs: Brian Jones Gets Nine Months” and proceeds to re-enact Oscar Wilde’s 1895 sodomy trial. Jagger plays Wilde, Richards — in what appears to be a wig made out of newspaper — is the judge, and Marianne Faithfull is there, too. We have to imagine, based on how blitzed he looks in the few shots where he does appear, that Jones couldn’t keep it together for long enough to figure in the courtroom scene.

Devo — “Jocko Homo” (1976)

Devo made some of the most interesting pre-MTV use of music videos, working in the mid-’70s with fellow Kent State art student Chuck Statler on what would become “The Truth about De-Evolution,” a low-budget short film containing videos for their songs “Jocko Homo” and “Secret Agent Man.” The surreal movie, which introduces the band’s dystopic aesthetic of “de-evolution” won first prize at the Ann Arbor Film Festival and was a fixture at early Devo performances. Statler has since been called “the godfather of music videos” and worked with everyone from Elvis Costello to the Moldy Peaches.

The Animals — “The House of the Rising Sun” (1964)

One of the earliest music videos on this list, The Animals’ “The House of the Rising Sun” is also fairly unintentionally bizarre. To us, the song, with its mysterious origins and world-weary lyrics, has always been synonymous with a certain brand of masculine toughness. And yet, here are Eric Burdon and co., performing it in gray suits with and yellow shirts at a studio set that looks like it might have been borrowed from Lawrence Welk. Why are they playing all in a line like that? Why are they creeping towards us? What is really going on here?

The Buggles — “Video Killed the Radio Star” (1979)

“Video Killed the Radio Star” is known for being the first video played on MTV, casting a tongue-in-cheek shadow over 30 years of programming that’s ranged from revolutionary to Jersey Shore. It was not, however, created to air on the network. The clip was made the same year the single was released, in 1979, by Russell Mulcahy, who worked on a pioneering Australian program called Sounds in the mid-’70s and stumbled into a highly successful career as a music-video director. If only MTV had stayed this weird and wonderful…