Series of articles on Rock & Pop Video Clips - 1985-87
 


The Written Word:
Writing & The Australian Context

published in Waves No.74, Melbourne, 1985

Over the past three years, three major ways of looking at Rock & Pop (R&P) video clips (VCs) have developed: (i) the 'modern cynical' approach - this is your average post-NME/sub-Rolling Stone method of stringing wild opinions together to form a mess of metaphors that poetically convey the writer’s feelings toward the clips yet say nothing about what is actually happening in them; (ii) the 'pseudo factual' approach - whereby bountiful and unsubstantiated references are made to Big Concepts Eke technology, MTV, industry, marketing, MTV, corporations, unions, MTV, media control and other assorted demographic phenomonae, neurotically rationalizing all aspects of the industry; and (iii) the 'academic slumming' approach - all this requires is that you either learn or teach at an institution, know practically hardly anything about R&P music music, and put semiotic and psychoanalytic theory to incredibly absurd use. (Note: a fourth approach exists which needs no introduction, that of the 'regurgitated press release'.)

The one thing that all three approaches have in common, though, is that their writers never appear to ever enjoy VCs. I cannot get enough of them. They are an endless supply in terms of their presentation of image, evocation of style, reworking of cinematic history, development of narrative, invention of realism, and statement of purpose. The music might 'say it all'(a purist notion which - in these times of authenticity and revivalism - is pretty hip) but the clips say things the music does not. The point is that VCs are like monsters with their own will and life-force, saying things their creators (be they bands, directors or set designers) had neither conceived nor envisaged. It's a fairly old story, actually. You might have heard it before - it's called 'culture'.

But like any aspects of culture, the most comprehensive way of detailing them is to indicate not only what is evident and apparent but also what is implied and related. Let's take an example (and believe me, there are many): Russell Mulchay's clip for Ultravox's Reap The Wild Wind. One would start by describing the 'material synopsis' of the clip - its cinematography, production design, storyboard, editing rhythm, etc. Then what should be noted is not only the image of Ultravox (as related to their history prior to the clip - electronic/glam rock, new romanticism, teenmarketing via Midge Ure, mode of stylization in performance, etc.) but also how the clip relates to the cinema (most obviously The Battle Of Britain with monolithic effects courtesy of Kubrick-like cinematography and Speilberg-like lightning, plus imagery straight off the covers of Biggles books - though how all this relates to Cecil B. Demille’s 1941 movie of the same title I'm not quite sure).

Questions could then be asked like: have Ultravox - a predominantly 'non-guitar' band - transplanted phallic preoccupations back into their music via this gloriously macho/mateship clip? Is their ‘monumentalist’ style a peculiar British form of repressed fascism? Does this clip in anyway relate to the (then) current social myth of heroes? And most importantly, do these issues bear any relation to the music itself? This critical approach can be performed with any VC. (If you don't believe me - dare me with any clip you wish to pick!)

The global condition of critical writing on VCs is fairly undernourished so there is nothing gained in criticising its Australain context. However it is worth outlining the Australian events which have a local context for the. production and critism of R&P VCs.

The first 'major' event 1 can recall was the 2 day Music Video Program presented by Metro television and 2JJJ-FM in Sydney in June 1984. 1 was surprised by the incredible turnout for all the sessions, though the sessions themselves left a lot to be desired, unless you were into industry morale and percentage ratios. I was on a panel titled ‘Artists Viewpoint' with Jonathon Coleman, Ignatius Jones, Grace Knight, Damien Lovelock, Gary Morris and Tony Starn. It was a case of the voice of experience ("when we make a clip" etc.) speaking louder than any further critical insight which might have arisen. I attempted to outline issues of image manufacture and manipulation (with particular reference to the Doors clip for Gloria, compiled by their record company) but I don't think many people were interested in such things.

Over the two days there was an incredible amount of discussion about MTV - but to my alarm most of those discussing it had only read a Rolling Stone article from December 1983: hardly anyone had seen it. Having slept in many people's loungerooms across America in the winter of '83, I became addicted to it. My perception of MTV, no wonder, differed from many people's second-hand assumptions of it. Another surprising facet of the seminar was that hardly anyone had bothered watching the 2nd Annual American Video Awards, hosted by Casey Kasem and televised only a week earlier. If they had, I don't think one would have had to suffer the vague and misguided directions of some of the sessions. As misinformed as many people were about the history, state and potential of VC's, I thanked God there was only one Phil Tripp. He carried the tone of religious fanatic turned conspiracy theorist turned VC crusader! (Perhaps he was Glenn A. Baker - "rock historian" - in disguise?)

Prior to this seminar, it should have been pointed out that Metro Tevision had hosed two Video Weekends (one in 1982 and one in 1983), each of which featured a section on VC's made in Australia. And yes, I guess I should mention that the Countdown Awards introduced video catagories around the same time. I guess they had to replace their noneventful category of 'Best Album Cover' with something. Throughout 1984 and into 1985 various film schools and video centres around Australia picked up on he growing interest in VC production and instigated in-house forums and workshops. Some independant Australian VC's have been included in touring video exhibitions overseas (organised by Time Based Arts, Amsterdam; UK projects, Newcastle; etc.) and quite large R&P VC events have been held at the ICA and Everyman Cinema, London and at The Kitchen, New York. (Note: I have not included here industry conventions in New York, St. Tropez, Los Angeles, etc.)

Dozens of books and one-off magazines on R&P VC's have hit Australian newstands, but the pick of the bunch had to be Rock Video, a ‘video’ revival of the old Rock Scene, put out by Danny Fields, Richard and Lisa Robinson et al. The first issue came out in May 1984 and up to the 10th issue was readily available in Australia until some people in Sydney (a city not renowned for its originality) decided to do an '0z' version and bought the rights to the name. The Oz version was about as uninteresting as Sounds - which is probably why they got Donnie Sutherland ("Donnie") to write revealing and scintillating articles like 'his' Top Ten VC's. The American Rock Video covered the full spectrum of VC's - not only Cindy Lauper, Huey Lewis and The News, Eurythm ics and U2, but also groups like Test Department, Art Of Noise and Pulsallama and video artists like John & Kit Sanborn, Dara Birnbaum and Hisao Shinagawa. The Australian Rock Video unfortunately reads like a PR catalogue for Oz dinosaws. Can you really believe they did an artile on the making of the Little River Band's ‘Playing To Win’? I mean, LRB!?

'Oz Rock' is generally caught up in the contradiction of yearning for a normal identity whilst aspiring to an international image. Is there really such a lack of both artistic talent (clip-makers) and critical talent (rock and film writers) in Australia that a magazine about R&P VC's worldwide could not be produced without blueprinting an existing overseas version? The editorializing effect of Australian Rock Video works toward the lowest common denominator, equating Australian dinosaurs with those overseas. The message: Rose Tattoo are every bit as good as Twisted Sister; INXS are every bit as good as Huey Lewis and The News; etc. Is that really what we need?

The American Rock Video sometimes utilized the 'regurgitated press-release' approach but it did (does) contain information about VCs unobtainable anywhere else. The 'modern cynical' approach equates well with the half baked egocentric writing of a lot of Rock journalism in Australia - which means it's nothing new anyway - and the 'pseudo factual' approach can be readily found in the Oz industry's entertainment bugle, Encore. Fortunately, it is only available by subscription. But the meatiest one for me to write about is the 'critical slumming' approach which. I encountered most forcibly at a forum panel this month on the representation of women in R&P VCs. The session both amused and angered me - more so than any other VC session I had either attended or been involved in. In my opinion, inaccuracy and disinformation were rife at that session - which I shall attempt to counter-balance in the next article when we look at the same topic: the representation of women in R&P VCs.