Rock, Pop & The Drop

Pop Imagery & Nuclear Issues in Rock Video Clips

published in Waves No.76, Melbourne, 1986
The Polics - Synchronicity II (1983); David Bowie - Let's Dance (1983)

I thought that acompilation titled so “Songs From The Protest Era” (complete with a DC-styled comic cover of hippies carrying banners) was pretty silly. It was released around '83/'84 and what with shows like “Family Ties” and films like “The Big Chill”, that 'era' had obviously ripened into nostalgia. Then out comes it's eighties equivalent: “Rock Against The Drop”. Incredible. No nostalgia here - this is Urgent Messages For Sale. Who would ever have thought that 'causes' would reach such a stage whereby commercial enterprises (i.e. record companies) could silently assume the identity of a political action group?

The television ad for this record did everything but say, "the proceeds of this record go to" etc., which leaves me to wonder: how are we to distinguish between an ad for this record (put out by a company that will release anything in lumps of twenty) and an ad for a certified political cause? Our money for the record - economically speaking - can be rendered indistinguishable from our contribution to a 'cause' due to (i) both relying on us substantiating our emotional-cum-political response with the old quick dip into the pocket; and (ii) the equatable ineffectiveness of what strategic power the collected money has. This observation is neither pessimistic nor nihilistic, but rather a statement of similarities.

One can extend this problematic lack of difference whenein politics are virtually evaporated. Take two rock performers who have extended their performance field, their arena of communication: Peter Garrett (Midnight Oil) and Paul Jones (Manfred Mann). One took on politics ('85) and one took on acting ('67) – and that is precisely where the differences dissolve and the similarities spread, for as undeniably committed as Peter Garrett is, his reception and consumption by his audience run the risk of marking him as tragic a figure as Paul Jones' rock star character in Peter Watkin's over-politicized “Privilege” ('67). I make this comparison by way of proposing that the overlapping between Rock and Politics has generally always been in their theatrics: the lead figure, the stage, the spectacle, the audience. The force and power is to be found in that framework of production - and not in their desire, intention or influence.

As the audience, our overlapping space in this conflation of Rock and Politics is in the realm of gesture, identification and catharsis. I mean, a raised clenched fist is a raised clenched fist whether we do it for Radio Birdman, Iron Maiden, Midnight Oil or Queen. In the ever-politicized climate of today (when Youth is being recognized as some sort of universal lobby group and even the most schmaltzy songs carry not messages but social ultimatums) the going thing is a political reaction. That is why a record like “Rock Against The Drop” is commercially viable: the times aren't a-changing but demographic surveys certainly are. To an extent this also explains why the latest Army ads on television have dropped their pastiches of Apocalypse Now (that's old-style now) in favour of music directly cloned from U2. No song in particular, just their sound --that great quasipolitical /anti-military/neo-youth feeling we know so well. Gesture, identification, catharsis. The Army, is/isn't the Army is/isn't U2. After a while the differences become blurred - something that the advertising agencies know only too well.

And so to the world of video clips. A thousand-and-one art directors proudly stand back to admire their version of a nuclear wasteland/ a post-apocalyptic scenario / a New Wave arniageddon / a Hard Rock holocaust. How exhilirating it must feel to combine Art and Politics.

The VC for The Police's “Synchronicity II” has a certain obliqueness in it's favour. Each member is on top of a monstrously large pile of disused and derelict equipment and instruments related to their role in the group. Wearing chic tattered leather, grimy faces and gale-blown hair, the image is strangely poetic, evoking the notion of an overconsumption of music being responsible for Rock's Royalty, sitting atop their garbage thrones oblivious to a world in decay. The Models' VC for “God Bless America” is only good if you haven't seen “Synchronicily II”. They fossick around a garage dump like nightclub urchins, framed atop mountains of metal and inside squashed sedans. They even finish up the clip by, sending up Joe Rosenthal's famous photo of the taking of Iwo Jima - a parody that itself is strictly sixties. The song's message feigns a suitably sarcastic tone, but its naivity in playing with all that is supposedly connatated by 'America' makes its cynicism cave in on itself.

Perhaps the most oblique and deliberately obscure (read: deeply poetic) VC is David Bowie's controversial “Let's Dance”. But let's face it - throw in footage of an atomic explosion and any turkey will think you've got a serious statement to make. Mix it with images of aborigines and you're laughing. Bowie must be laughing (smugly or nervously?) at the reactions to his somewhat tiresome Burroughs- style manipulation of overtly political imagery (aborigines, society, class, industry, leisure, etc.). The nouveau neo-real Bowie is just as much of a stylised facade as Ziggy Stardust and it's highly likely, that if we didn't have the “Let’s Dance” VC as it is we would probably regard the album as being just another quirky introspective Pop poem by a self-consciously stylised 'chameleon of Rock'.

Ultravox - Dancing With Tears In My Eyes (1984); Africa Bambaata and John Lydon - Time Zone: World Destruction (1984)

However, Bowie, The Police and even The Models come off a bit better when compared to some of the grossly naive fusions of nuclear statements with Pop imagery. The Ultravox VC for “Dancing With Tears In My Eyes” is what I guess you'd call political romanticism at its worst. Once again, Ultravox take blunt and blatant cues from the cinema, in particular the 1961 anti-atomic British film “The Day The Earth Caught Fire” as well as a nod in the direction of “The Day After” ('83). Whilst the former film has considerable and lasting impact, the latter is a good example of trash hypo-docu-dramas which shake the world for three months only to then evaporate from people's memories. In “Dancing With Tears In My Eyes” poor Midge goes home to be with his wife when they drop the big one. The whole scenario is about as romantic as an ad for Lady Scott toilet paper. And if you thought Ultravox were deluded, check out John Paul Young's VC for “Wargames”: nuclear wastelands, mutants playing video games and J.P.Y. emoting in a tattered jet pilot suit. “Wargames” loses out both ways - it's either totally insincere or totally dumb.

Some VCs appear to be comparatively more sincere and committed in their intentions - although it does not follow that they are any more effective or successful in putting their message across. Midnight Oil are a good example of this. Musically, their songs carry an incredible power and intensity, but their visuals have never matched their sound - a mismatch that can be fatal. “The Power & The Passion” lyrically might be a series of blunt cliches devoid of any irony, but it sure is a powerhouse of a Rock song. In the clip, an attempt has been made to capture the Oil's live energy, and although it hardly perfects this, it comes off better than their performance in screen-printed overalls in “Read A bout It”. The animated segments (which reportedly cost a small fortune required by the animator of The Wall) present the nuclear issue most directly with people pushing a panel-van who are then turned to stone by The Blast, but such a scene is too isolated to carry meaning for the clip as a whole. “Armistice Day” is another Midnight Oil VC which fails through its inability to fuse image with music. The sixties are once again heralded, this time in the almost classical form of superimposing war footage on shots of the band playing live. An interesting textual desire arises from this, as it is almost as if the band want to fully experience the reality of which they speak, to cover themselves (metaphorically and materially) with the horror, the pain, the misery. Essentially, the “Armistice Day” VC testifies to the pros and cons of Midnight Oil's blind passion.

Africa Bambaata and John Lydon's “Time Zone: World Destruction” is so intense it ends up being a theatrical facade. Everyone knows Lydon's snarling stare too well for it to project its original potency, and images of him smearing blood on a television screen is a shallow and impotent attack on the media. Bam is equally absurd with his satirical neo-political posturing in the guise of some sort of black Liberace. Such politico-posing (also to be found in the likes of Killing Joke and Spy Vs Spy) is severely outmoded by twenty years worth of films that attack/send-up/ enact the politician and his platform. (Fortunately, Lydon has returned with a punch with the VC to “Rise”: this time, when he says “Anger is an energy" you can believe him.) Still, Bambaata and Lydon's statement is refreshingly extreme when compared to the prissy finger-wagging of The Hooters' VC to “All You Zombies”, and the immature warnings brought out by The Expression's mixture of Spandau Ballet and Redgum (!) to produce “I Always Close My Eyes”. The same can be said of The Divinyls’ VC to “The Good Die Young”: a great song, but its urban/sci-fi/fantasy setting is a bit too convoluted to make a coherent statement other than sensationalizing the horror of radio-active burns.

Of course Mad Max serves as a major influence oil nearly all post-apocalypse scenarios produced in the eighties. Rose Tattoo's “We Can't Be Beaten” continues their desire to write penultimate rebel anthems, and this one shows just how desperate they are. Recalling the Carltonesque counter-cultwe commune of Mad Max II, The Tatts are surrounded by a demographic horde as obviously organized as the 'ordinary people' in the Jackson's “The Triumph”. The latter, though, is skilfully manipulative whereas “We Can't Be Beaten” is irritatingly weak. The Angel's VC for “Underground” plays upon the similarities Doc Neeson's face shares with Mel Gibson's by writing him into a scenario of the loner borrowed straight out of the first Mad Max movie. Doc leaves the outside world after The Drop and mourns his lost wife. Dwelling in the underground (in the umpteenth visual debt to Cocteau's “Orphee”, 1950) he attempts to cut a grim stoic figure like Max Rockatowsky. Actually, The Angels' “Underground” doesn't say much either way about nuclear issues and amounts to not much more than an uncaring pastiche of a popular film. The image of politics as opposed to political imagery.

Well I've ripped into twelve Vcs - but there are another seven which 1 would strongly defend. Whereas midnight Oil's “Armistice Day” and Bambaata/Lydon's “Time Zone” use war footage to thrust their message Vietnam-style 'into our loungerooms' other VCs have used wartime propoganda footage to work against itself (a tack cleverly utilized in “The Atomic Café”, ‘82). Instrumental New York band The Raybeats had a VC to a song (the title escapes me) which featured nothing but collaged found-footage of various media myths and cliches from the Atomic Fifties and the Cold War Sixties. Even though their manipulation of this footage presented no direct statement, it did carry a built-in satirical effect. Donald Fagen's VC for “A New Frontier” recreates this type of footage in an appropriately retro/new wave style recalling the neo-Cubist animation of the Disney and Warner Brothers studios during the early fifties. In “A New Frontier”, a strictly-nerd couple retire to their quaint suburban fall-out shelter (every home should have one!) for a little romantic dalliance. The clip might be set in the fifties or the ultra-hip eighties, but the point is made that ignorance of the after-effects of nuclear destruction is widespread and hasn't changed much over the past thirty years.

Donald Fagen - A New Frontier (1982); Devo - It's A Beautiful World (1981)

Giving credit where credit is due, the originators of this type of satirical manipulation of old film material has to be Devo. (See their 1978 film “The Men Who Make The Music”.) It is no surprise then that their VC to “It's A Beautiful World” shows maturity and clarity in what amount to an acute and perceptive handling of what Devo have loosely termed ‘mutant devo imagery': supposedly conventional images of what normal people view to be normal representations of themselves. To highlight this whole process of image manufacture, Devo's Boogie Boy stands behind a strange apparatus that projects ‘images of the world' onto his screen. The resultant collage is a heady trip through social normality underscored by cynicism. The end image of an atomic explosion stands as a complex coda to the problem of a society that is by nature self-destructive. In such a presentation (thematically continued on from all their videos) Devo show that restraint and accuracy allow them to control their images where others have fallen prey to their own excesses.

Considerably influenced by Devo's pioneering style, the Mental As Anything VCs have sustained their own individual slant on this type of image manipulation by infusing it with a wacky carefree sense of humour. “Apocalypso” (which incidentally was the title of a Monochrome Set single back in 1980) is perhaps their most pointed video, but their cornball animation and pixilation (resembling a cinematic extension of John Stalin's seminal postcards) prevent the clip from preaching its morality tale. Both Devo and Mental As Anything share a similar working method by speaking with their imagery as opposed to talking through it.

In comparison, though, I would have to say that Devo have a greater degree of sophistication and potency in their clips, whilst the Mental As Anything VCs often seem more concerned with the gag than the guts of what they're addressing. This perhaps explains why Devo have always appropriated the language(s) of advertising (particularly by large American corporations) whilst advertising has approplated Mental As Anything (see the Big M giant kangaroo ad and the ‘New Wave’ introduction to “Simon Townsend's Wonderworld”). Advertising, of course,has picked up everyone and everything from Madness to Speilberg to Sade to Monty Python - but the only thing advertising could appropriate from Devo is its own reflection. Perhaps the political edge for today is not whether or not you can be co-opted, but whether or not you can be appropiated.

This is not to imply that the Mentals are all fun and Devo are merely analytical, because Devo have produced the funniest VC I've ever seen - which also happens to be one of their most vicious anti-nuclear statements. Their clip to (the name escapes me) sets the band up as waste-disposal men working in a nuclear fusion plant out in the Arizona desert. They all wear blue overalls and their skin is a glowirig bright orange! But they carry on with their work, manhandling nuclear-waste tins, lighting up smokes, cracking vulgar jokes. Their banter is classic fifties Joe Average talk: reactionary, meatheaded and exceedingly short-sighted. None of them seem to be bothered by their radioactive glow - what the heck! It’s a living. The message in this clip needs no further clarification.

Humour - no wonder - can be the special key in balancing irony with commentary so as to reach an audience and not preach to it. Even Angry Anderson (of Rose Tattoo) draws some attention to this possibility in a VC prologue where he does a takeoff of big bald Brando in “Apocalypse Now”. The Strangler's rarely seen VC for “Nuclear Device” (reportedly filmed - and banned - in Queensland) features them dressed up like reject Chips Raffertys playing instruments and getting blown up. As aggravating as it is to have Great White Artists like David Bowie, Jean-Michel Jarre, Werner Herzog and Dusan Makaveiev concern themselves with our cultural problems, there is something fairly accurate in The Stranglers portraying us as dumb colonials ignorantly living our lives down in ‘Australium’.

I guess I'm being a bit of a devil's advocate here as I'm sure there are mamy people of the view that any anti- nuclear statement should be welcomed. But as I illustrated in the introduction to this article, the representational mode employed in organizing any political statement has to seriously question its own mechanics, machinations and multiple meanings. Some VCs are totally ignorant of how their imagery can backfire on them, rendering their intended messages embarrassing and useless. Other clips are aware of such pitfalls and employ various means to temporarily subvert, halt or delay the semantic short-circuits which inevitably flare up in the presentation of any political viewpoint.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that a VC is no subcultural/ghetto-ized/in-scene form of communication. Set in line with television, advertising, film and video, it can no longer rely on the mythical communicative bonds it once shared with it audiencies at a subcultural level. A VC can be as powerful as a film or as bankrupt as an ad (or vice versa). And worthy global statements on nuclear issues can not rely on their sympathies alone. Nor can they presume that their lyric content is some sort of pure and cutting poetic form, because one would probably not make the nuclear connections in half the songs cited if there were no accompanying visuals. It follows that if it's the clip that predominantly carries such a message, then it is the clip that should have the most attention paid to it.

There's nothing wrong with linking current political concerns to the previous 'protest' era of the sixties (although “Songs Of The Protest Era” does it so dumbly!) but a contemporary visual vernacular has to be developed to prevent the statements from being perceived as nothing more than nostalgic rhetoric. The image of a nuclear blast as a nostalgic figure - how ironic can you get?

Text © Philip Brophy 1986. Images © respective copyright holders