It’s a while since we’ve put up a post that elicited as much reader hostility as our recent piece about much-loved music videos that aren’t, um, quite as good as we remember them being. In particular, our suggestion that David Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes” and Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” look kinda dated these days went down like a lead balloon, with several commenters daring us to tell the world what videos we do think have held up over the years. We’re always up for a challenge, so we’ve gone back through our videotape collection to pick out ten clips that use technology and/or ideas that might be called obsolete, but still look pretty great to our eyes. Your comments are, as ever, read with interest. But be nice.
Peter Gabriel — “Sledgehammer” (1986)
In the era of Pixar and huge-budget animation, the idea of stop motion animation crafted frame-by-frame on tape seems almost laughably primitive. Of course, people still use the technique today — Michel Gondry has deployed it to great effect, and it also features in Wolf Parade’s “Modern World,” one of our favorite videos of recent years. But even so, it’s easier these days — at least, if nothing else, you have digital editing technology. No such luck for Nick Park (of Wallace and Gromit fame), who made this video. The creation of “Sledgehammer” was incredibly torturous — at one point, Gabriel apparently lay under a sheet of glass for 16 hours while Park carefully shot single frame after single frame. But while the techniques belong to yesteryear, the video is just as mind-blowing in 2011 as it was in 1986 (especially the dancing chickens!).
A-Ha — “Take on Me” (1984)
As with “Sledgehammer,” these days this would all be done digitally, and would probably be fairly straightforward for any filmmaker with the requisite knowledge. But back in 1984, making this video involved a painstaking process called rotoscoping, whereby the animated sequences were traced over to create the animation. However, tedious as it must have been, the technique gives the video an enduring charm — like, say, Star Wars, where the models of the original trilogy look way better than the CGI of the second, the use of analog technology and one’s own hands creates a degree of realism that digital equivalents still struggle to match.
Bob Dylan — “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (1965)
One camera. One take. One simple idea. Ten years before “Bohemian Rhapsody.” And still far more effective.
Michael Jackson — “Black or White” (1990)
Specifically, the last two minutes of what’s otherwise a laughably overblown epic that embodies everything that was wrong with MTV in the ’90s. But! But! The face-morphing technique used for the outro of “Black or White” was pretty jaw-dropping in 1990, taking an idea first used in Godley and Creme’s 1985 video for “Cry” (which does look a little ropey these days) and polishing it to appear entirely realistic. Like the liquid metal idea used in Terminator 2 at about the same time, face morphing soon started cropping up everywhere, and these days, while the technique has long since lost its power to amaze — we’re used to seeing far more remarkable things on screen — the outro to this video remains both visually impressive and conceptually interesting. And, of course, somewhat touching, given Jackson’s long, strange metamorphosis and his tragic death.
Prince — “Sign o’ the Times” (1987)
A simple idea: overlaying live footage of Prince performing the song with large captions of its lyrics, in what’d later become the style of a zillion home-made YouTube videos. But as ever, it’s often the simple concepts that work the best — the implication here was that for all Prince’s status as one of the pre-eminent stars of the ’80s, in this case, it was the song’s message that was paramount.
The Kinks — “Dead End Street” (1966)
One of the first videos to pursue the idea of telling a story instead of simply depicting the band playing the song, “Dead End Street” wasn’t exactly well-received at the time — the BBC banned it for being in “poor taste.” Since then, however, its influence has grown — Oasis, predictably, lifted its idea for their 2005 video “The Importance of Being Idle” — and nearly half a century after it was recorded, the clip looks like it could have been shot yesterday.
Talking Heads — “Once in a Lifetime”
This was the inclusion we pondered over most. The green-screen technology that places David Byrne against a backdrop of himself and various other images certainly looks pretty pokey today — you can even see a halo around him if you look carefully. But for all that the technology clearly looks dated, the video still works because of Byrne himself — for us, the sheer strangeness of his performance is so compelling that it keeps this video relevant. (Perversely, it’s the complete opposite effect to that ridiculous earthmover in “Ashes to Ashes,” which now looks so silly that it ruins the entire video.) Fun fact: the choreographer responsible for Byrne’s weird “dance” moves was Toni Basil of “Mickey” fame.
Genesis — “Land of Confusion” (1986)
Much as it pained us to put a song we adore (David Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes”) onto our list of videos that really aren’t all that good, it’s even more galling to put bloody Genesis onto this list. But there’s no denying that the Spitting Image-style puppets in this video are awesome — the whole thing is beautifully executed, tying into the anti-Thatcher ‘n’ Reagan sentiments of the song and featuring some pretty impressive puppetry. That Phil Collins doll is fucking terrifying, though.
The Replacements — “Bastard of Young” (1985)
As if there weren’t enough lashings of hilarity in the fact that a huge “fuck you” to the idea of music videos became one of the most iconic videos ever, consider the fact that the Replacements’ old record company has been pulling copies of this off YouTube because of copyright infringement. Oh, irony. Why you have to be so ironic?
Aphex Twin — “Come to Daddy” (1997)
It wouldn’t matter if we were watching this in the year 2476, when televisions were laughable antiques and everyone had some sort of futuristic holovision in their house — this would still scare the shit out of us. (Also, the highest-rated YouTube comment on this video is possibly the best YouTube comment ever.)