We all love watching music videos, but did you know which was the first music video to air on MTV ? Or who made the first CGI animated video, or which artist’s video helped pave the way for Black artists to gain international stardom? Here are a few music videos that we think revolutionized the music industry, inspiring further creative expression and allowing all musicians to gain success from their art.
Bohemian Rhapsody—Queen (rel. 1975, dir. Bruce Gowers)
Nowadays, everyone knows this iconic song as an epic, six-minute stylistic mashup of a capella harmonies, dramatic piano playing, opera-style vocals, and truly rocking guitar solos. But not everyone realizes that the “Bohemian Rhapsody” rock music video was largely responsible for its initial popularity, or how it forever changed the way that bands marketed their music to the world.
In the 1960s and early ‘70s, most artists looking to promote their singles or albums would appear live on a television chart show, such as the BBC’s Top of the Pops. However, many famous bands (including the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and David Bowie) would also make some type of music video (known as ‘pop promos’), for two main reasons:
- They could have artistic control of the visuals accompanying their music (instead of having to play their song accompanied by the shows’ live dancers), and
- They could promote their music on TV even if they were unable to make the chart show performance date.
It was for this second reason, in addition to the operetta section of “Bohemian Rhapsody” being way too hard to lip-synch live, that Queen decided to make a promotional video to air on Top of the Pops. The video features some early special effects such as a honeycomb lens effect with multiple images of the band, and contains the now-iconic intro shot of the four band members’ faces in a diamond shape, matching the cover of their second album, Queen II. The video showcased “Bohemian Rhapsody” so well that the song shot to #1 in the UK charts just a week after it aired (and stayed at #1 for nine straight weeks).
Many people credit “Bohemian Rhapsody” with ushering in the age of rock music videos (and eventually, MTV) as the primary way for record labels and bands to promote their singles. According to the British Guardian, videos were now a “mandatory tool in music marketing” and essential for any band that wanted to reach national and international stardom.
Bonus! Check out School of Rock students performing Queen's “Bohemian Rhapsody” below.
Video Killed the Radio Star—The Buggles (rel. 1979, dir. Russell Mulcahy)
The video to this catchy, synth-laden New Wave pop song is widely known as the first music video ever to air on MTV. Indeed, MTV marked its debut at 12:01 am (American EST) on August 1, 1981, by playing this video, and it is still by far the most well-known song by the Buggles.
The music video is visually cool even by today’s standards. It features multiple late ‘70s keyboards (with synth player Geoffrey Downes often playing two at the same time, and a cameo by German electronic artist Hans Zimmer, who went on to become an award-winning film composer), a woman “from the future” wearing a silver jumpsuit and being shot through tubes, and an exploding TV, which apparently angered some audiences by being “too violent.” Check out the video if you haven’t seen it!
The lyrics to the song, based in part on themes from dystopian author J.G. Ballard, are quite apt: the rise of MTV and music video-driven song marketing really did mark a sudden and dramatic shift in how and which bands achieved success and stardom in the modern era. Suddenly, image mattered as much as sound, and international acts (such as British bands Roxy Music, Culture Club, and, of course, the Buggles) as well as newer, more up-and-coming artists, were shot into the spotlight ahead of older, more ‘classic’ American bands favored by radio stations. Overall, the song talks about the inevitable displacement of old technology by new technology and the complex emotions that inspire but it does so in a catchy, jangly song that incorporates all kinds of new technology (mostly synthesizers) and made the Buggles, temporarily at least, into video stars.
Money for Nothing—Dire Straits (rel. 1985, dir. Steve Barron)
The first thing you’ll notice in this video, which won Video of the Year at the 1985 MTV Music Video Awards ceremony, is the animated MTV logo appearing on a TV screen. The video goes on to show a CGI-animated character watching rock music videos starring real live people, including Dire Straits. The overall effect suggests that what’s happening on TV, specifically in music videos, is more ‘real’ than what’s happening in daily life; that, coupled with the opening line “I want my MTV” (sung by then-Police frontman Sting), makes the video (and the song) seem like an advertisement for MTV and music videos in general.
Ironically, neither Dire Straits’ frontman, Mark Knopfler, nor the narrators of “Money for Nothing” (supposedly based on a conversation from two men Knopfler had heard talking one day), were fans of rock music videos at all. If you listen to the original lyrics (which contain some offensive words, again supposedly lifted from a real-life conversation), the song’s narrators do not understand why guitarists and musicians parading around onstage and in music videos earn so much more money than they get for their manual labor jobs moving fridges and installing microwaves. The lyrics contain an interesting mixture of envy and scorn directed at rock stars, underlined by Sting’s obsessive “I want my MTV” line, which opens and closes the song. As in “Video Killed the Radio Star,” the message here is that like it or not, rock music videos in the 1980s were an essential component of rock music and determined which bands would become the most commercially successful.
Despite Knopfler’s distaste for rock music videos (director Steve Barron had to convince him over dinner in Budapest to make the video), the “Money for Nothing” video was considered groundbreaking for its early use of computer-generated animation, and won two awards from MTV that year, beating out Barron’s other animated video, “Take On Me.” Because the CGI animation technology was so new, it took Barron and his animator, Ian Pearson, three and a half weeks of constant work to get the video done on time.
Thriller—Michael Jackson (rel. 1983, dir. John Landis)
Still considered one of the greatest rock music videos ever made, Michael Jackson’s music video for “Thriller” broke down all kinds of barriers upon its release and granted music videos the freedom to become serious works of art. It also contributed to Jackson’s stature as a global pop icon and helped make his album Thriller the best-selling album of all time.
Jackson recruited John Landis, who had directed the 1981 comedy-horror film An American Werewolf in London, to direct and co-write the video for “Thriller,” which is actually a 14-minute short film starring Jackson and Ola Ray as his girlfriend. The music video begins with a couple (played by Jackson and Ray) having a romantic evening in the woods that goes terribly wrong when Jackson’s character turns into a werewolf-like creature and attacks his girlfriend.
It turns out this scene is part of a movie as the video cuts to a packed theater watching the scene unfold on the big screen. Jackson and Ray portray another couple in the theater audience, with Jackson enjoying the scares of the film and Ray walking out due to the terror. MJ follows her out and starts singing “Thriller” as they walk through the city streets at night. When they pass a cemetery, zombies start crawling out of the graves and Michael starts dancing with them, eventually turning into a zombie himself. Ray’s character gets chased into an old haunted house and as she is cornered, the scene cuts again and it was a nightmare all along. Or was it?
The “Thriller” video is significant for many reasons: it was the first mini-movie music video ever made; it broke down many racial barriers at the time, since its two stars were Black; and it was a masterpiece of marketing. Jackson’s manager had encouraged him to make a video for “Thriller” after the album’s ranking had started to fall from the top of the Billboard charts. With this in mind, Jackson and Landis conceived an epic video with a larger-than-usual budget, and also created a making-of documentary to sell to TV networks, which led to that format becoming popular and widely used.
With or Without You—U2 (rel. 1987, dirs. Meiert Avis and Matt Mahurin)
The video of this enduring hit by U2 is shot in black-and-white and is notable for its mesmerizing beauty and subtle use of visual effects. The band appears to be playing and singing half in shadow and almost in slow motion, with occasional edits of a woman’s body moving slowly, also in black and white. The overall effect is artistic and meshes perfectly with the lulling rhythm of the song, without trying too hard to tell a story or do anything flashy. The camera work and the effects take center stage in this video, enhancing our experience of the song’s emotion without distracting us from it.
U2’s guitarist, The Edge, said this about his guitar solo on the song: “I think of notes as being expensive. You don’t just throw them around. The end of ‘With or Without You’ could have been so much bigger, so much more of a climax, but there’s this power to it which I think is even more potent because it’s held back.”
Bakerman—Laid Back (rel. 1990, dir. Lars von Trier)
Directed by the soon-to-be-famous (and controversial) Danish film director Lars von Trier, this incredible music video shows the duo and several members of their backing band skydiving from a small plane while carrying (in various shots): their instruments, a loaf of bread, a small oven, and a drum kit held by two people while hit with sticks by another person (to name a few). One repeated shot shows the guitarist lip-synching the words to the song while seemingly flying through the air.
The visuals are amazing, and the band looks like they’re having so much fun making this music video. It was nominated for the MTV Europe International Viewer’s Choice Award, and we highly recommend you check it out!
Gimme All Your Lovin’—ZZ Top (rel. 1983, dir. Tim Newman)
This entertaining video was the first in a trilogy of three ZZ Top rock music videos featuring the ‘Eliminator’ trio: three beautiful, take-charge women who arrive in a flashy red car and empower/embolden the working class protagonist (in this video, a gas station attendant) to break free from ‘the Man’ (in this video, his grouchy old boss), while the three members of ZZ Top cheer them on. In addition to being visually spectacular and including some special effects that make the band and the car appear almost mystical, this video was revolutionary in its boldness: the three members of ZZ Top were older, not-very-fashionable men with long beards, basically the opposite of the younger, up-and-coming stars so often featured on MTV. Instead of avoiding making rock music videos or changing their image, however, the band presented themselves exactly as they were, aging rockers who light-heartedly aligned themselves with outsiders, rebels, and the underdog. In doing so, and by starring powerful women in their videos during an age when that was (unfortunately) rare, ZZ Top gained the respect and following of many younger, female fans.
Subterranean Homesick Blues—Bob Dylan (rel. 1967, dir. D.A. Pennebaker)
Considered one of the first (and greatest) rock music videos, the “Subterranean Homesick Blues” promotional clip was originally shot as the trailer for the Don’t Look Back documentary about Bob Dylan’s 1965 tour of the UK. The video shows Dylan standing in front of the Savoy Hotel in London, holding up large cue cards with select words or phrases from his song as it plays. Strikingly, many of the words, like “when” or “those,” are commonplace and don’t reveal the meaning of the lines, instead forcing the viewers to pay more attention to the relentless onslaught of poetic lyrics. Occasionally, a phrase on the cue card doesn’t quite match the song: one says “Watch out!” when Dylan sings “Look out, kid, it’s something you did;” another makes a joke about Dylan’s accent by replacing “parking meters” with “pawking metahs.” At one point Dylan holds up a card with a phrase that doesn’t appear in the song: the positive message “Dig yourself.”
The video, like most of Bob Dylan’s music in the mid-’60s and beyond, is creative and iconic and also appears more straightforward and accessible than it actually is. The clip was shot in one take, with Allen Ginsburg and Bob Neuwirth chatting almost off-camera in the alley behind Dylan, who looks both defiant and nonchalant as he tosses the lyrics aside after they appear in the song. The overall effect is of a low-budget yet stylish video, with the blend of humor, crypticness, and depth of meaning that characterizes “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” and makes it one of Bob Dylan’s most popular and influential songs.
Billie Jean—Michael Jackson (rel. 1983, dir. Steve Barron)
“Billie Jean” was the first video Michael Jackson used to promote his Thriller album and it helped establish him as a major star and iconic pop figure. It was also revolutionary for being the first MTV video to feature a black artist, and for breaking down racist barriers that persisted even within the groundbreaking new channel.
In the video, Jackson is followed by a photographer as he casually walks along city streets. The paparazzo attempts to photograph Jackson on film but Jackson does not materialize in the developed picture. Jackson arrives at a hotel and makes his way to Billie Jean’s hotel room, still trailed by the paparazzo. As Jackson disappears under the covers of the bed, the paparazzo is apprehended by the police for spying on Billie Jean.
MTV initially refused to air the video, claiming that music by Black artists wasn’t “rock” enough for their channel. They changed their minds after CBS Records executive Walter Yetnikoff threatened to expose their overt racism and pull all of his labels’ rock music videos off the air. Of course, the song became an instant success, the album Thriller became the best-selling of all time, and MTV now lists the “Billie Jean” video as one of the greatest of all time. But it took Jackson’s groundbreaking skills as an artist, along with Steve Barron’s now-classic video, to open the door for future Black artists and musicians to gain commercial success and international stardom.
TAKE ON ME—A-HA (REL. 1985, DIR. STEVE BARRON)
As you may have noticed by now, director Steve Barron was the creative force behind many of the most revolutionary rock music videos of the 1980s, and in “Take on Me” he used a striking form of animation to elevate the song to a pop classic.
In 1984, a-ha was a relatively unknown Norwegian pop group whose original version of the song “Take on Me” sold only 300 copies in England on its release. They then made a simple video of the band performing in front of a blue screen, but this did little to improve the song’s popularity.
However, Jeff Ayeroff, a Warner Brothers executive at the time, had so much faith in the song’s potential that he recruited Barron (who had already had tremendous success with the video for “Billie Jean,” among others) to create a new video for the song. Barron went all out for this video, using a time-intensive animation technique called rotoscoping to tell a love story between a live woman in a cafe (Bunty Bailey) and the hero of the comic book she is reading (a-ha’s lead singer, Morten Harket). She is pulled into the comic book, and Harket sings to her from the side of a mirror that makes them look either like live people or comic book drawings, depending on the angle. They are then chased through the comic book by villains, who first smash the mirror, trapping Bailey in the comic book until Morten rips a hole in the paper and sends her back to the real-world cafe.
The video is visually arresting even to modern viewers, thanks in large part to Barron’s use of rotoscoping, which involves filming live-action sequences and then tracing over them directly onto the film. This painstaking process took Barron’s animators 16 weeks and a budget equivalent to $400,000 (in today’s dollars) to complete, which seems like an extraordinary leap of faith for an unknown band whose song had so far failed to become a hit. But it paid off: after the video’s release, “Take on Me” hit the top of the Billboard charts, and the video received eight MTV Music Awards, including Most Experimental Video, Best Direction, and Best Special Effects.
Californication—Red Hot Chili Peppers (rel. 1999, dirs. Jonathan Dayton/Valerie Faris)
Last but not least, a music video that takes the form of an open-world, third-person-perspective video game that was actually ahead of its time! The four members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers are the game players, and each of them goes through a series of adventures set in different parts of California: the drummer Chad Smith snowboards on top of a moving train, for example, while bassist Flea rescues a bear from a hunter and escapes through a mining tunnel, leapfrogging to the top of a tall pine tree for safety.
This video is awesome and succeeds on many levels. For one thing, it looks spectacular and for another, the players keep running into characters and situations as they are mentioned in the lyrics throughout the song. The Red Hot Chili Peppers were happy with the video because it reflected the pro-environmental, anti-artificiality ideals of the song and, of course, because it is really fun to watch.
From a gaming perspective, this music video is significant because it anticipated future gaming features that hadn’t actually come out yet, predating Grand Theft Auto and other games where players move through a detailed cityscape and interact realistically with other characters. Very recently, in March 2022, developer Miquel Orteza made a video game based on the “Californication” music video; it has seven different levels inspired by various settings from the video. This is one example of how different forms of art and technology are always influencing each other, and how older, revolutionary rock music videos are still relevant today.
About the Author
Amanda Eve Sloane is a multi-instrumentalist and songwriter, both as a soloist and with her current music project Sloane Bayley. She is a vocal teacher and keyboard + piano teacher at School of Rock Portland and has directed shows at School of Rock since 2017.