Music Video History: Music Videos in the pre-MTV era

One of my earliest exposures to old music was my dad going through his VHS tape collection and showing me some old MTV music videos that he recorded onto the tapes. By the time I was watching those tapes, MTV wasn’t living up to its name and you’d see more reality shows than content that’s actually about music on MTV, but I found out through TV Guide that MTV played music videos in the morning so I would get up early to watch music videos, although these were of newer songs. Now you won’t catch me getting up early. I’ve noticed though while travelling that MTV in Europe played way more music videos than American MTV.

Over the holidays, my husband and I were playing a music trivia game and I saw something that was obviously incorrect: a claim that Queen made the first music video in 1975, for “Bohemian Rhapsody”. It doesn’t take a genius to debunk this one if you know a few basic things about music history. Queen, as much as I love them, didn’t make the first music video, but it’s still a great video and referenced everywhere. No doubt it had cultural impact, but it’s important to set the record straight on music video history.

A post about music video history is one I’ve been wanting to write for a while now, so let’s get started and talk about music videos. First, I’ll go over the history of MTV and why music videos were made in the first place, and then we’ll have a look at music videos from the pre-MTV era. If a deep dive into music videos is what you’ve been wanting, then keep on reading!

The history of MTV

In the US, there were two channels for music videos: MTV, which stands for Music Television and VH1, which stands for Video Hits 1. MTV started first, launching on midnight, 1 August 1981 (hey! I share a birthday with MTV, except I’m 13 years younger) and VH1 launched on 1 January 1985, and their goal was to be the lighter, poppier throwback counterpart to MTV to appeal to boomers, while MTV’s target audience was generation x and they played what was hip and new, originally with an album oriented rock format, before transitioning to Top 40 – think new wave, hard rock, and synth pop.

What was typical of MTV programming in the 80s? Playing music videos 24/7. In between, you’d have introductions and promos presented by VJs, short for video jockeys, who were young and relatable to the audience, like what Cathy McGowan and Michael Aldred were to the youth who watched Ready Steady Go! in the 60s.

Some music videos were bits from movies. The first movie to do that was Flashdance, released in 1983. The promoters came up with the idea of taking clips from the movie and making them into music videos to promote it on MTV.

You might have seen a viral video of David Bowie criticising MTV for not playing music videos by black musicians in an interview with VJ Mark Goodman. He noted in this interview that when black musicians were played, they would be relegated to the wee hours when no one was up. Mark Goodman defended his employer and said the reason for lack of black artists’ music was that it didn’t fit into what they wanted to play. Once in a while in the early years of MTV, they would play a Michael Jackson video, but he struggled to get equal airplay even though he was the King of Pop! It took the president of CBS Records threatening to take away MTV’s rights to play music videos from artists signed to their label for them to air Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”. Crazy to think that MTV would turn down playing Michael Jackson music videos, which were basically feature films! Even though Rick James’ “Superfreak” was popular, MTV wouldn’t play the video because it didn’t “fit into” the AOR format. Eventually though MTV copped on and when rap became popular and mainstream in the late 80s and early 90s, they had rap shows and would often play rap music videos.

MTV started branching out in the mid-late 80s and started the VMAs, the famous Spring Break show, formatted music shows like the Headbangers Ball, Yo! MTV Raps, and MTV Unplugged. By the 90s, the network began its move away from music by airing cartoons, comedy shows, and reality shows. Between 1995 and 2000, MTV showed over ⅓ less music videos than before and by the late 2000s, only 3 hours of music videos.

Not everyone loves MTV though. Many people criticise MTV for turning rock and roll more sanitised and corporate. You can see this complaint referenced in School of Rock where Dewey rants about “The Man”. MTV is The Man:

“There used to be a way to stick it to The Man. It was called rock and roll. But guess what? Oh no! The Man ruined that too with a little thing called MTV!”

Music Video History:

Illustrated Song

Making videos set to music is nothing new. Videos didn’t always have sound (dialogue) and what would they play in the background while the movie played? Music! One of the earliest uses of image to promote music was in the Victorian Era when sheet music producers Edward B. Marks and Joe Stern hired George Thomas to make a video using a magic lantern to project a series of stills on a screen to promote their song “The Little Lost Child”, an illustrated song – the grandfather of the music video.

Musical shorts: Vitaphone, Screen Songs, and Soundies:

Back in the old days, when you went to the movies, you didn’t just see ads, trailers, and then the movie. There were newsreels and musical shorts too. The newsreel died in the 60s thanks to wide adoption of television sets. You’d also see musical shorts in the cinema too, with dancers and musicians performing.

Warner Bros’ Vitaphone was one of the most popular formats with it being one of the last major analogue sound on disc systems. The music was played on a record separate to the film and if you really liked the music, you could get copies on vinyl for yourself! Neat! It wasn’t just used for music videos, but also for early talkies like The Jazz Singer, released in 1927.

Paramount had Screen Songs, animated cartoons by animator Max Fleischer, that encouraged audience singalongs with words appearing on the screen and a bouncing ball.

Disney had Silly Symphonies, which were the precursor to the 1940 masterpiece Fantasia, an anthology film with animations set to classical music conducted to Leopold Stokowski and performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra. One of the most famous Silly Symphonies was The Skeleton Dance, which you may have seen gifs of around Halloween.

Outside the cinema, you could watch Soundies on a movie jukebox called the Panoram, introduced in the 40s. Thanks to the Soundies, performances of black musicians were preserved on film since black musicians didn’t often perform in Hollywood movies. Musicians even made music videos on a similar later format called the Scopitone as late as the 60s. It was popular among French musicians.

Interestingly enough, the musician who coined the term “music video” was J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson. He said in one of his last ever interviews that he was hoping to make music videos that would be played on video jukeboxes and he was hoping to start a company that made those.

Other short films and musical films

One of the most famous early musical films was blues singer Bessie Smith in St Louis Blues, a 15 minute long film that has her performing the song of the same name. It was her only film appearance.

Cab Calloway also made a lot of short musical films. Some of these music videos had Betty Boop in them.

Fast forward to the 50s and 60s, and you can find a few musical films that inspired MTV era music videos. Notably, “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend”, which inspired Madonna’s “Material Girl” and West Side Story, the choreography in that movie inspired a few Michael Jackson music videos, like “Thriller” and “Bad”. Compare and contrast!

Pre MTV music videos

Not an exhaustive list of pre-MTV era music videos, but what we’re going to do in this section is highlight significant music videos from this time period and we’ll do this by era. From my observations, most of the earliest adopters of music videos were French and British musicians.

Early Music videos (pre 1964)

The first true music videos as we know them as a format were from the 50s. One possible contender for first music video is Tony Bennett who made a music video in 1956 for “Stranger in Paradise”. He was filmed walking around the Serpentine in Hyde Park. The music video was sent to TV stations in the UK and US to be played on shows like American Bandstand. Unfortunately, I can’t find this music video on YouTube. It’s possible that TV stations didn’t keep the film of it because storage was expensive. Explains why there’s not much footage of Oh Boy! and Ready Steady Go.

Another contender is from Czechoslovakia, made in 1958 for a song called “Dáme si do bytu”. It’s safe to say this is a music video and the only differences between this and something made in the 80s: style of music, clothes, simplicity of video editing, and video quality. We’ve come a long way technology wise, but still, this is a music video.

Before The Beatles, Elvis Presley was in a bunch of music videos and movies. He wasn’t just music, there was a whole image and marketing behind him. Before going into the army, he made 4 movies: Love Me TenderLoving YouJailhouse Rock, and King Creole. Once he returned, he kept making movies throughout the 60s. However, he felt like as time went on, the movies were just cash grabs. He also wanted to act in more dramatic roles, but never had the chance to. In the movies, he would perform songs and in a way, these were music videos of sorts and would be used to promote the songs and movies. One of the most famous of course, is “Jailhouse Rock”, which was released in 1957, which was before the Czechoslovak video above. May not have been intended to be a standalone video, but it easily could be clipped out and used as a music video.

Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet actor Ozzie Nelson wanted to promote his son, Ricky’s music so he had the idea to make a standalone video for the song “Travellin’ Man”.

In 1963, Kenneth Anger directed the experimental gay/biker/occult film, Scorpio Rising, which some say is the first drama film with a rock and roll soundtrack. There is no dialogue, just music, with 13 songs in the soundtrack. He would often use pop/rock music in his films, making him one of the biggest influences on music video directors of the MTV era. Some say he’s the father of music videos. As well, his movies touched on then taboo topics like homosexuality and the occult. He describes himself as one of the first openly gay filmmakers in America. Mick Jagger worked on his film, Invocation of My Demon Brother and Jimmy Page briefly appeared in his film, Lucifer Rising. He was originally supposed to do the soundtrack, but in the end, it went to Bobby Beausoleil after an argument between Anger and Page. (NSFW warning for Scorpio Rising)

The Beatles, film, and music videos

The Beatles weren’t just influential musically, they were a band that branched out into music videos and feature films and all of the members were in movies on their own. They deserve their own section, no question about it. Sure, Elvis made movies before The Beatles, but The Beatles took it a step further and inspired their contemporaries to star in and make movies of their own. For example: Gerry and the Pacemakers made Ferry Cross The Mersey in 1965, The Standells and Chocolate Watchband performed in Riot on Sunset Strip in 1967, The Monkees made Head in 1968, The Who made Tommy in 1975, David Bowie starred in The Man Who Fell to Earth in 1976, Pink Floyd made The Wall in 1982.

Every classic rock fan should watch A Hard Day’s NightHelp!, and Yellow Submarine. You can skip Magical Mystery Tour and Let It Be, if you’re not a die hard fan or a completionist. AHDN was groundbreaking, a financial success, well-loved by critics, and nominated for two Oscars. That movie was the reason The Monkees and Ferry Cross The Mersey were made, to cash in. Everyone tried to look like and sound like The Beatles. In a way, A Hard Day’s Night was a comedy film with some music videos in it. Just what I like! Below, you can see the music scenes from the film:

A whole blog post could be made about The Beatles’ music videos, but if you want to see a later music video, one of their best known is the one for “Strawberry Fields Forever”, which was part of the film Magical Mystery Tour.

The rest of the British Invasion Era

Music videos seemed to be popular among British Invasion acts and one of the earliest to make them were The Moody Blues, who made a music video for “Go Now” in 1964. The high contrast style of this music video where you see the faces of the musicians on a black background might have inspired the music video for “Bohemian Rhapsody”, which came out 11 years later.

The Moody Blues’ other well known music video was for “Nights in White Satin”, filmed in Paris and in colour!

The Kinks were early adopters of the music video. Their most famous music video of the 60s was the one they did for “Dead End Street”, which was actually banned on TV, no – not for crossdressing, but actually because of the depiction of poverty. What makes this video special in particular was it had a whole Dickensian concept and story and they wanted to do something different instead of making a video lip syncing like every other band seemed to.

Oasis took inspiration from “Dead End Street” when they made “The Importance of Being Idle” – in black and white, similar clothing, old school aesthetic, similar shots, and of course the coffins. The difference here is the higher budget and better camera quality.

Most of the band’s music videos, didn’t have them in it. If you want a lighter, cheerful video, you can look at the ones for “Starstruck” and “Apeman”.

The Who were another band that made a bunch of music videos over the length of their career, but two that I want to highlight that weren’t straight performing are the music videos for “Happy Jack” and “Call Me Lightning”, made in 1967. Very silly and fun with some retro, film noir and silent film influences. Like The Kinks, The Who went for something with more of a story, which is way more of a true MTV era music video. The “Call Me Lightning” video seems to allude to how Keith Moon joined the band, with a bang!

One of the first music videos from the 60s i remember watching was the one for Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimme Some Lovin'” where they go around on escalators in some department store and lip sync to the song:

Not exactly a typical music video, but here’s a promo video for The Pretty Things’ Get The Picture? They appeared in a movie called What’s Good For The Goose as The Electric Banana.

Peter Whitehead directed The Rolling Stones’ 1967 music video for “We Love You”. Most of the music video is studio footage with a re-enactment of the trial of Oscar Wilde spliced in.

The Rolling Stones made the Rock and Roll Circus, a concert film with a bunch of other bands, in 1968, but it wasn’t released for decades because The Who upstaged them. Here’s their performance of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” from it:

In 1967, Procol Harum made a music video for “A Whiter Shade of Pale”, just as beautiful as the song. I love the outfits in this one. Check out Piccadilly Circus in the 60s! This music video was made for the Scopitone music video jukebox.

Pink Floyd were an early adopter of music videos in the Syd Barrett era. Below, you can see their videos for “Arnold Layne”, where they run around with a mannequin, and “See Emily Play”, David Gilmour is in this video. Pink Floyd also made the concert film Live At Pompeii in 1972 and of course The Wall in 1982both of which you can say contain music videos.

The Small Faces made music videos too. I like the one they made for “Lazy Sunday”. Love the psychedelic kaleidoscope lens look.

Status Quo even made a couple music videos in their psychedelic era. Here’s one for “Ice in the Sun”:

Manfred Mann made a music video for their 1968 #1 hit “The Mighty Quinn”. The dance thing they do is cheesy though.

The American side of things

American musicians didn’t make as many music videos during this time, but a lot of people credit Bob Dylan for making one of the first rock music videos and it’s a simple, but iconic one with Bob Dylan standing in an alley in London, holding cards with bits of the lyrics written on them and flipping them as the song plays. D.A. Pennebaker directed it and it was the opening segment of his documentary on Bob Dylan, Don’t Look Back. One of the most influential music videos, inspiring copies by INXS, Bloodhound Gang, and Weird Al.

Roy Orbison’s first music video was for “Oh Pretty Woman” in 1964 and it was shown on Top of the Pops.

The Monkees’ TV show often had musical segments in it that were music videos of sorts and those clips could easily be played that way in a retro music videos segment. Here’s the one for “Daydream Believer”:

Another famous music video from the 60s is Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made For Walkin'”

The Flirtations made a music video for “Nothing But a Heartache”. It was filmed at Tintern Abbey in Wales.

French pop stars and music videos

French pop stars of the 60s were very big into making music videos probably because that’s where the Scopitone was made.

Françoise Hardy made a bunch of music videos, but here’s one of the older ones, from 1962 for “Tous Les Garçons et Les Filles”, made for Scopitone and filmed at some sort of carnival/fun fair. One of the songs I related most to when I was young and single:

Serge Gainsbourg made music videos with Brigitte Bardot and Jane Birkin and later on even directed the video for “Tes Yeux Noirs” for Indochine.

The music video for France Gall’s “Laisse tomber les filles” is a classic and was made in 1964, long before MTV, telling the story of the song, basically telling this womaniser to leave the girls alone or his heart will be broken too.

Johnny Hallyday, the French Elvis, made music videos too. Here’s one for his 1966 hit, “Noir C’est Noir” (a French translation of Los Bravos’ “Black is Black”).

Jacques Dutronc made lots of music videos in the 60s. Here’s “Mini, Mini, Mini” with Françoise Hardy. They got married in 1981.

1969-1979: Prog, Glam, Disco, Punk, Power Pop

Once again not an exhaustive list, but think of this as a guide and a representation of what music videos were made in that decade.

David Bowie made music videos as early as 1969 with “Space Oddity” being one of his best known ones with him playing both Ground Control and Major Tom. The first music video made for this song was in the documentary Love You Till Tuesday, made in 1969, but wasn’t released until 1984. Shows you that Bowie was always ahead of the curve. A second music video for Space Oddity, directed by Mick Rock, was made in 1972 during the Aladdin Sane sessions, but I like the original better because it tells the story of the song better.

Another early music video is Mungo Jerry’s “In The Summertime” – a simple lip sync, but memorable:

Badfinger made a couple of music videos for “Day After Day” and “No Matter What”.

Yes made quite a few music videos in the early 70s and I find them so silly. “Everydays” is one of my favourites, along with “No Opportunity Necessary, No Experience Needed”. The video for “Everydays” was filmed in Bruges and I love how they’re hiding behind trees and acting silly and you see one of the band members dabbing. Similar humour to AHDN.

ABBA made lots of music videos, mostly lipsyncs. I really like the costumes in their “Waterloo” music video:

As mentioned at the beginning of this blog post, Queen made a few music videos. The most famous pre-MTV one being for “Bohemian Rhapsody”, but here’s one for “I’m In Love With My Car”, not just a straight performance one, but with some vintage clips of cars racing:

Another famous 70s music video is The Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive”. Making walking through derelict buildings look badass since 1977. It was actually filmed on MGM’s backlot, same lot as Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was shot on. Sets used for The Three MusketeersYoung FrankensteinThe Bandwagon, and That’s Entertainment can be seen in the video.

Australian TV shows like Countdown and Sounds were the predecessors to MTV and they would show music videos. One of the most famous ones was for AC/DC’s “It’s A Long Way to the Top if You Wanna Rock and Roll”. These TV shows popularised the music video even more.

Kate Bush isn’t just a great singer, she can also dance, and that’s what makes her music videos so amazing. I also love that hazy/foggy quality to her music videos. One of her most famous ones is the one for “Wuthering Heights”, that iconic red dress. People have done flash mobs inspired by this video. Sure, she may not have toured, but her music videos are incredible!

The Clash’s “I Fought The Law”:

A bit pop art, a bit mod, the music video for The Jam’s “Going Underground”

And finally one last example of a music video from the 70s, Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart”:

Concert Films

On top of music videos, concert films were made in the 60s and 70s. Some examples include The TAMI Show, Big TNT Show, Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus (officially released in the 90s), Woodstock, Pink Floyd’s Live at Pompeii, Wattstax, Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains The Same, The Band’s The Last Waltz, and David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars.

Why MTV? What came before?

Let’s go back to the beginning of the blog post and talk about why MTV was created in the first place and why bands make music videos. Basically, think of how you promote an album: you release singles from the album, you tour, you do TV and radio appearances, and you buy ad space in magazines and billboards. Not everyone can see a band on tour because of money or geographical reasons and TV appearances aren’t always feasible because the bands are on a tight schedule: record, promote, tour, rinse and repeat… So what can bands do to appear on music shows, but not have to be physically present in the studio? Make a promotional video that can be shown in between musicians miming performances.

What were the precursors to MTV? In the 50s, there were shows like American Bandstand in the US and Oh Boy! in the UK. In the 60s, you had Hullabaloo and Shindig in the US and Ready Steady Go and Top of the Pops in the UK. In the 70s, you had The Midnight Special and Soul Train in the US and The Old Grey Whistle Test in the UK. Obviously since most of the musicians I’m talking about are American or British, that’s why I’m mentioning shows from those two countries, but other countries around the world followed suit and had similar shows. The Dutch had TopPop. The Germans had Beat-Club. These music shows were a great marketing tool to advertise bands and musicians and get people singing their songs, buying the records, and going to their concerts.

On these music variety shows, you wouldn’t just have bands performing and that’s it, even though that’s much of what we watch from these shows nowadays. In between you’d have dancers performing: like Top of the Pops had Pan’s People who would do choreographed dances to hit songs if the band couldn’t appear. In the early 60s, bands really didn’t make promotional videos, but the practice became more common as time went by and you’d see videos like that on music programmes. Sometimes on music TV shows you’d have quick Q&As with musicians and skits/sketches. And of course you’d have the hosts introducing the bands in between.

As stated above, the real predecessors of MTV, more than shows like Top of the Pops and American Bandstand, were Australian shows like Countdown and Sounds, New Zealand’s Radio With Pictures, and American shows like The Now Explosion and Pop Clips (which was created by Mike Nesmith of The Monkees). The reason New Zealand pioneered music videos with RadPix, was that it’s far away and musicians rarely tour down under and often they might only go to Australia and not New Zealand. It’s a 3 hour flight from the east coast of Australia to play to a much smaller market, so it was very out of the way for Americans and Europeans. So instead of a Top of the Pops miming show, why not a show dedicated to music videos? In fact, that’s where Mike Nesmith got the idea for Pop Clips, he was watching TV on his downtime while touring New Zealand in 1976.

There was so much profit to be made from these promotional clips that record labels and musicians would send for free to these TV networks to play them on the air. It was a no brainer that a network dedicated to this had to be launched. Less worrying about logistics and scheduling, lower budget, it’s entertaining, an all around win on the business side of broadcasting! Music fans were exposed to music they wouldn’t have otherwise heard on the radio, so they bought more albums from different musicians. As well, music became more than just the sound but also an image and lifestyle to be marketed, for the better or worse…. Video really did kill the radio star, and MTV said as much themselves when on 1 August 1981 they broadcasted The Buggles’ “Video Killed The Radio Star” nationwide, the first music video ever broadcasted on the network.

If you’ve ever heard how boomers talk about TV back in their day, they’ll say something like there were only 3 channels in my day, you guys are so lucky to have 99+ channels. In the late 70s, cable TV was introduced and you saw an explosion in specialty TV channels: HBO for movies (1972, and in fact the first of its kind premium cable tv network), Nickelodeon for the kids (1979), ESPN for sports (1979), and finally MTV (1981). Cable TV meant endless possibilities and it really took off in the 80s and 90s. Many millennials grew up on cable TV and it was a big part of growing up: seeing so many TV shows. Add the internet on top of that, and the world was your oyster!

And now we have fibre broadband gigabit internet (whatever it’s called) – not just dialup, even more possibilities than ever before. But the problem is that everyone’s starting their own streaming service. People are making their own content and it looks and sounds professional too, providing an alternative to mainstream media and allowing more voices to be heard than ever before. Podcasts are the new radio programmes. YouTubers are like TV series. Bloggers are the new magazines. If you want that music video fix, you know you can turn to YouTube. What a time to be alive!

Shoutout to my friend Patrick for supporting the blog!

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